I’m about to head back to Burma for the third time.
You might ask ‘WHY? If you’ve been there twice, do you really need to go back AGAIN?’
The answer is yes. Yes I do. Because I LOVE this country.
I first visited Burma in 2008. I’d been told by an acquaintance that it was a fantastic place, but I really didn’t know much about it, except that there were reasons I shouldn’t go. Not reasons of safety, or money, or enjoyment, but political and human rights reasons that I didn’t quite fully understand at the time.
I went anyway.
Some people would have questioned that decision, and with good reason, because at the time the nation’s democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was under house arrest, not allowed to take her position as head of state, and had requested that tourists NOT visit in order to not give the military dictatorship any more money.
I wasn’t sure I should go, but I guess it was all a bit of a mystery and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I got my 28 day visa and booked a three week trip from Bangkok, thinking that if I didn’t like it, at least I wasn’t committing myself to TOO long, and if I did like it, I could always change my ticket and stay longer.
Right away, I knew this would be a special trip. I met a new friend in the check-in line at the airport, and immediately upon our early morning arrival in Yangon we were welcomed with breakfast and smiles all around.
That was only the beginning. Everywhere we went, the people were smiling, saying Hello, welcoming us to their country, and nobody wanted anything from us. No one was pulling us into their shops, trying to convince us to buy cheesy souvenirs. No one was pestering us to buy postcards or whining that we’d bought from someone else but not them. No pressure whatsoever.
People were eager to help us, to guide us and make our stay easy and enjoyable. On my last night in Yangon, I was on a dark street alone, looking for a taxi back to my hotel, when I saw a group of teenage boys approaching. My natural apprehension at this situation, borne of my upbringing and native country, was put to rest when they asked what I was doing there, helped me find a taxi, made sure the driver knew where to go, and sent me on my way with huge smiles. I left the country full of love for it and its people.
Not to mention the amazing sights. A three day trek through the countryside, waking up in a monastery to the sound of novice monks chanting, the floating pagodas and gardens and fishermen on Inle Lake, the spectacular temples in Bagan, U Bein bridge and the ancient cities outside of Mandalay, and even the bespectacled Buddha in Pyay. It was all fantastic.
In the evenings, I’d sometimes spend an hour or two desperately trying to get onto the internet to change my flight, so I could stay the full length of my visa. It never happened. I’d stare at the computer screen, watching the little wheel churn away while my page just never loaded. The internet just didn’t quite exist there yet.
It was only five months or so after the ‘Saffron Revolution’, mass protests by monks and civilians about the government’s sudden withdrawal of fuel subsidies. The military junta cracked down on the protesters, and opened fire in the streets, killing hundreds or possibly even thousands of people (it’s never been determined exactly how many). They raided monasteries, beating and killing the monks. Thousands of people were arrested. Tourists stopped visiting.
I heard stories, things like ‘Tourism is down to 10% of what it was before’ — ‘Before what?” —- ‘Just…before.’ People didn’t want to talk about it, they couldn’t talk about it for fear of arrest and persecution of their entire family. I was warned several times to not say anything at all about the government while I was in the country, not only for my own safety but that of whomever I was speaking to.
When tourism develops, and people’s livelihoods and families and very survival begin to depend on it, and the industry then drops to ten percent of its former size, the people start to suffer.
I did my best to make sure that I gave as little money as possible to the government. I spread my tourist dollar as much as I could, but it’s impossible to buy something from everyone, and they’d look at me with those desperate eyes, and my heart would break.
People thanked us for being there, at a time when most tourists had been scared off and the world was turning its back. I was glad I went, despite all the reasons not to.
Now, Burma’s tourism industry has more than recovered from that calamity. In 2011 change began, with a new government, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as well as many other political prisoners, and general opening up of the country. While political change is slow, tourists are now flooding into Burma, so many that there aren’t enough hotels for all of them in the high season. It’s the new ‘trendy’ place to go on the Southeast Asian circuit.
The thing is, most of these tourists are headed for the ‘Big Four’ – Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake. The same main places that I visited back in 2008, when they were quiet and peaceful and not flooded with tourists. I’m so glad I did. I wish I’d gotten back to Bangkok, gotten another visa, and gone right back again.
I went again, last year. To Yangon, of course, as the main entry point, but then South to Mawlamyine, Hpa-An, and Bago. There were tourists there, but far less than there were in those main tourist areas, and I was reminded once again, immediately, of why I loved the country so much the first time.
I heard rumours, of nastiness in the ‘Big Four’. Of a few hotel owners and souvenir sellers and boat drivers starting to get greedy and pushy, as they so often are in other touristy countries. I saw it myself, when I was approached by kids in Yangon, asking me to buy postcards. They weren’t too pushy or whiny, but five years previously they hadn’t been there at all.
The country had changed, but not completely. The streets in Yangon seemed busier than I remembered, but development is slow. People carried mobile phones, which were sold in shops next to cassette tapes playing Burmese covers of Western pop songs. Internet cafes had sprung up everywhere, and the connections actually loaded. I saw a book in a grocery store on ‘How to use Facebook’. I was able to buy, in a small bookshop in downtown Yangon, books about the government’s human rights violations and recent political changes, which would never have been available in 2008. People were actually willing to mention the government and not cower in fear, although they were still somewhat reserved about what they would actually say.
Now, as a result of more ‘opening up’, there are new places to go. Some of them are places that I could have gone to before, but only with time, money, and difficulty spent getting permits. Some of them are places that I could not have gone at all.
So I’m going back, before those tourists heading for the big four realize that there’s a lot more to this country, that it’s worth so much more than a one or two week trip. Before all of Burma becomes another Thailand, where travel is easy but also sanitized and sometimes soulless. I want to get to Mrauk U before it becomes like Angkor Wat, before the kids selling postcards speak near perfect English and can name the capital city of any country you throw at them.
Tomorrow, I’m going back to Burma for the third time, and I can’t wait.
Do you have a country or place you go back to again and again? Where is it? Why do you keep going back?