What Matters in Myanmar
How to describe Myanmar? Beautiful but tragic. Friendly but dangerous. A place stuck in time, happily and not so happily. This is a long post, but I hope you find it worth reading….
Following my energising trip to Koh Chang, Thailand, I headed back to Bangkok, inspired by my realisation that a lone traveller on the road makes friends easily. And even my bus trip back to Bangkok would involve a nice little crossing of paths leading to new friendships. Had my bus not broken down only to be swapped for another bus en-route, I may never have spent time with the smiling four German girls, but they made for some great company once back in Bangkok, and almost convinced me to follow them on some Thailand island-hopping. Almost….
Instead, I nervously boarded my Bangkok airport bus, with the next destination to be Yangon, Myanmar. My nerves would be allayed. As a dear friend always says, "The happy go lucky". And I’d like to think that it was my pleasant disposition that found me chatting to US ex-pat, Michael, in the passport check at Bangkok airport, himself a Yangon resident for three years. After chatting over a coke, I was armed with all the info I needed to feel confident about Yangon.
I buddied-up with some Americans I found at my gate pre-flight and boarded. The nerves returned again at the Myanmar passport check. It was nothing in particular that made me nervous, just the stigma of this country, and my expectation that I would stand out like a sore thumb, have my journal, camera, or phone confiscated, or be singled-out for some “routine questioning”. None of that eventuated and instead I would find myself soon collecting my baggage with a large group of laughing, chatty Western tourists, some of which would come to be my constant companions for nearly my entire time in Myanmar.
My initial impressions of Myanmar would come to be an accurate judgment of what I saw for the rest of my time there. The place has a charm to it, and the people have beautiful hearts and strong souls. You don’t have to look far to find some untouched beauty, but nor do you have to look far to find evidence of the oppressive military regime that runs everyone’s lives there. Myanmar would be a land of contrasts.
And so it would come to be that a friendly, worldly Danish girl named Mette; a super-nice and chilled German guy named Daniel; a charismatic and funny Canadian named Ian; a head-strong and confident Indonesian girl named Elizabeth; and the “hairy Aussie” (that would be me) would spend the next week or two together on the road in Myanmar. Add to the crew the lovely British couple of Hollie and Allaric, and the energetic duo of Amy (UK) and Dylan (South Africa) and you have yourself one hell of a good bunch of people to travel with.
We would drink Myanmar tea in neighbourhoods that had rarely (if ever) seen a foreigner, see beautiful Buddhist Pagodas at sunrise and sunset, rent rusted pushbikes in the hottest and dustiest places, get lost - and found - and lost again, tour Burmese primary schools/dressmaking shops/cigar houses, endure excruciatingly bumpy and winding bus rides through some of the worst built roads on this planet, speed around cities and country roads in the back of utes, arrive at midnight to hostels with not quite enough beds, float on gorgeous lakes, succeed (and fail…) at trekking, and sadly have to say goodbye as one after the other departed our little international crew.
What I want to share with you are the things that travellers don’t often put on a postcard or share in a photo; what I was fortunate enough to be told by the absolutely gorgeous people of Myanmar. And why these things break my heart. Why do I want to tell you? Because those beautiful people asked me to. It was the first thing they asked for. The ONLY thing they asked for. Because maybe it will help them in some little way.
Perhaps I was lucky. Perhaps I looked trustworthy. Perhaps I unknowingly welcomed conversation in some way. In any case, due to the tightly controlled movements of foreigners in Myanmar, the only true insight into how life works there is to have a local open-up and talk honestly with you about their life.
Whether it was the statesman-like Joe, running his Bagan-based restaurant with pride and purpose, visibly fed-up with the way his country works and almost pessimistic about its chances for change; or Kenzo, the friendly and smiling ox cart taxi driver in Bagan with some sad truths to share; or Win San, the intelligent, articulate physics graduate driving a Mandalay taxi for a living; or countless other lovely people I would come to chat with over my time in Myanmar; they all face the same reality of life in Myanmar with a painful submissiveness. As Kenzo put it to me, “Our people are hurting, we have great pain. But we are peaceful. We are quiet. We keep it inside.”
And it seems that there is not much else they can hope to do. The Junta have Myanmar in such a fierce lock-down that it seems almost an impossible dream to even entertain thoughts of an uprising, let alone begin the formative stages of actually mobilising one. And it broke my heart with every solemn and heartfelt handshake goodbye that ended with the following dialogue, “One day soon it will change. Maybe. This is why you should be here. You come and you hear our stories. You go home and make noise for us. Help us?”
Joe had not seen other parts of the country that we were busily chatting about in his restaurant. He wasn’t allowed to travel outside of his area because of his ethnic background (there are dozens of ethnicities with Myanmar - and the Junta have bad relationships with almost all of them). He had helped get a local boy of above-average intelligence and a passion for learning out of Myanmar when some travelling Australian diplomats had been fortunate enough to dine at his restaurant. He knew that the 15-year-old boy from his local neighbourhood would never be able to cultivate any sort of talent or passions in his country, and so he had worked with Australian authorities to have the boy sponsored for a scholarship in Australia. He had said to me, “Much better to have him live the life he should, than to live his life here.” You can find Joe’s restaurant opposite the New Heaven guesthouse in Nyaung-U near Bagan.
Kenzo’s conversation with me pulled at my heart strings most. Whilst waiting outside a cafe for my travel buds, he had called me over to his ox cart, for no other reason than to chat with me. With whispered words and knowing glances he had revealed to me the saddest truths about the situation faced by the people of Myanmar. They want change. They need it desperately. They are taxed beyond their ability to sustain themselves (I would find out later where most of these taxes go). But all they can say is, “one day”. They are bound by their loving, peaceful nature to keep their pains inside and dare not complain. And there seems to be almost as much fear of what would happen if change came about as if there were no change at all. Myanmar is a union of complex traditions, ethnicities, cultures and beliefs. As Katherine (a US ex-pat working on environmentally-focused theatrical projects in South East Asia) would tell me over breakfast just this morning, the Junta is as much responsible for oppressing the people of Myanmar as it is for keeping the union of Myanmar itself in-tact (albeit through the tool of oppression). This was not the first I had heard of this dilemma - as Kenzo had said to me, “We all need change, but we are all different. There are many, many peoples here that do not agree. How could we ever fight together for change?”. I did not know how to console Kenzo regarding this realisation, and he knew that I couldn’t. With a cheerful grin he finished by saying, “No matter. What matters is you come here and I talk to you. What matters is you listen and you understand. And send your friends. Tell them to talk to Kenzo the ox cart driver who lives next to the pier in Nyaung-U near Bagan.”
Perhaps most articulate of all was Win San - our Mandalay taxi driver that we spent a whole day being guided by. I was fortunate enough to have my turn in the front seat for the longest part of the day’s journey. Win San was a 28-year-old physics graduate scraping together a living for his family by driving a “leased” taxi. He was intelligent, articulate, and had received good grades at University. He was constantly applying for jobs, and in every interview his chance for employment ran-out when the interviewer got to the question: “So what does your father do?”. Win San’s family was not rich. His father was not a government or military man. It mattered not that he was the best candidate for some of these jobs, it mattered how it would “look” if a poor boy without government pedigree was employed in such a position of prestige. Win San would also explain the reason behind the money he was constantly handing over at Junta checkpoints throughout our day. It was all for taxes. But in Mandalay, no one would ever see their taxes being used. It was all going to the China-sponsored pet project of the Junta, the “new” capital of Naypyidaw - a sickeningly extravagant city designed to house government, military and well-to-do families that we would later glimpse from a heavily patrolled bus route between Lake Inlay and Yangon. The new capital is viewed by many locals to be similar in offense to the changing of the flag that occurred in 2010, with instructions from the Junta to publicly burn the old flag - a flag laced with meaning and significance to the people of Myanmar. Like Joe, Kenzo, and others, Win San would say, “Maybe one day. But please, bring your people here. They can’t hide everything from you. Go home and tell people about us.”You can enlist Win San’s services in Mandalay via his email address.
And hide everything the Junta could not.
On bus tours we would see first-hand the iron-fisted controls of checkpoints between “zones”. On one particular bus route (our last - from Lake Inlay to Yangon) we would be stopped and asked for our passports. The locals would have to show their identity cards. Having to break one of my own rules, I allowed my passport to be taken off the bus without me. My passport would thankfully be returned, but while waiting I witnessed a distinctly-uniformed man with a big “Immigration” badge on his arm board our bus and lead a local girl up the main aisle to the front. At a quiet secondary checkpoint a few kilometres later, in the middle of the night, this lone young girl would be led from the bus and we would not see her again.
Then there was that quiet night at our accommodation in Nyang-Shue (near Lake Inlay). Whilst Amy, Dylan and myself played cards on the balcony around midnight, a convoy of three or four scooters arrived with seven Junta on-board. We watched anxiously for ten minutes or so whilst a discussion took place in Burmese. We would learn from our hosts the next day that these men had requested the details of all guests as part of a manhunt for some Burmese resistance fighters. They would also take a “tax” from the guesthouse owners for every foreigner currently listed as staying there. This happened five nights in a row. The Min Ga Lar Inn in Nyaung-Shwe was the best place we stayed in all of Myanmar and is sadly not listed in most guidebooks - contact them via email to book.
And honestly, this was nothing compared to what we had heard goes on outside of the “tourist allowed” areas. The plight of those that can have no contact with foreigners is far worse than those we were lucky enough to meet.
I know not what the solution is. I do not know how that solution will come about. But what I do know is what the people themselves asked me to do. To share their stories and their struggles, and to invite more to do the same.
Look hard enough in Myanmar, and you’ll find evidence of the oppression of the Junta almost everywhere. And that’s the important thing. The most important thing right now is to go. To see the place and hear the people. To realise that the struggle of the people of Myanmar is a daily one, and not just something that happens every few months when they are lucky enough to make international news. The more people that go, the harder it is for injustices to be swept under carpets. The more people that lend a kind ear to a friendly local, the more their stories will be shared.
Perhaps the solution will come in time. Right now, the best thing I can do to honour those lovely people I met is to invite you to go. This is your invitation, the one that the people asked me to extend. Go there. Go without fear. Go with an open mind. And listen.
Myanmar will reward you with an experience unlike any other. Underneath it all it is truly a beautiful place full of beautiful people.