As the sun rises on Burma, the dust and smoke from wood fires of the night before still linger in the air. Through the hazy smog, what is seen is a land longing to look to the future. A land longing for a future. A bright one.
From its glacial Himalayan mountains, to its dense lush jungle, to its stunning coral reefs, to it’s dry plains of ancient civilisations, Myanmar, as it is now known, is full of surprises.
My husband and I have traversed extensively in SE Asia. And by traversed, I mean truly traversed. We have spent time in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and now Myanmar. We travel by train and by local bus, moto and songthaew. Journeys are rough. Journeys are difficult. Journeys are long and bumpy. Journeys can be shared with chickens and pigs. And snails. Eels. And hundreds of people. No room to move. But we feel this is the only way to truly see a country; to get off the highways and out of the airports. To get away from the “farang” and head deep into the truth of a country. It’s life and its people. We strap on our backpacks and hit the road.
They do say the joy is in the journey right?!
Well, Myanmar is proving a little more elusive a beast. As independent travellers Myanmar is not easy. Travel in Myanmar is full of “cant take anymore” tears.
Some people book tours, stay in lovely colonial hotels and have a fantastic experience. Travel agents and guides are found. Flights are booked around the country. Hotels have hair dryers.
As an independent traveller, regions are closed to you, guest houses are minimal, beds scarce, and travel information hard work to find and travel even harder. Why, you ask? It can’t be that hard?
The reason is the Junta. The Burmese people live under severe oppression. Human rights are non existent. Torture is commonplace. Free speech is only a dream.
The Myanmar people have not known freedom for a long time. When the British colonised in 1826, they found a land with very unique and different ethnic clans. It was not an easy colonisation on either side. Bitter fighting and an unceremonious partnership. During WWII, the Japanese were initially welcomed into the country by the people as an ally against the British. Upon recognising the brutality of the Japanese, it was realised the English were the better ruler and success prevailed! In 1948, Burma was given its independence and became Myanmar. Almost immediately by default, Myanmar launched toward a military government. Since 1958, the Burmese have lived under a military dictatorship that rules with an iron fist and that held Aung San Suu Kyi, a people’s elected leader, under house arrest for a total of 13 years. Finally there is hope with a newly quasi-style government.
This is a country wanting to open to the world but is so scared at the same time. There are so many secrets hidden deep within that the authorities do not want the “west” to know. That is why independent travel is so hard. It is nearly impossible to get off the “beaten” track. There is civil unrest, ongoing fighting, daily torture and areas closed to foreigners for no reason at all.
The easier road is so tempting. The lure of relaxed looking tourists being driven around is oh so tempting! European package tourists step on and off clean buses in immaculate clothes, seeing the best of the country’s sights. The sad underlying truth of these tourists is that virtually not a cent of their money (US dollars mind you!) will end up in the hands of the people that need it most, the local people. The Junta have a hand in every pie. Businesses with strong government links own and/ or manage the big hotels. They run the package tours. They own/ or control the airlines. So effectively, tourists are unknowingly funding the atrocities of the Junta. By travelling your own road, by staying small, by eating local, by travelling slowly, by spreading your money around and by supporting the sellers on the street you are maximising the money going to the local population. By volunteering in schools or finding a family and buying them what they need, you can take it one step further.
With our windswept hair, our simple clothes respecting the culture, our “thannakka” coated cheeks and our dusty feet covered with the sands of Bagan, hubby and I are heading deep into the cultures of those that we meet. We are hearing their stories. We are seeing their worlds. We are learning of their world. We are getting an insight into their religion and beliefs. We are testing out their language. This is the gift we will take away.
We struggled long and hard in whether it was ethically right to travel to Myanmar. As we “bounce” through the countryside slowly, we are happy in the fact that we are touching the lives of a few of these beautiful Burmese people, albeit nowhere near as much as they are touching ours. They truly are such a beautiful race. So poor, yet so rich in life. So scared, yet they speak so openly and honestly. So oppressed, yet so many are educated and speak impeccable English.
This truly is a land of contrast.
As the sun sets over the great Ayeyarwaddy River tonight and the smoke and dust haze returns, lets pray that tomorrow brings in it’s wake, another little sweet scent toward freedom for Myanmar.
NB This post was written ten days before it was posted. It could not be posted until we crossed the Myanmar border into Thailand for fear of government persecution to those whose internet service I could have used.