My gosh, I went to Myanmar. I still can’t get over that simple fact – let alone all the details of what it was really like.
Like I actually set foot in…spent a period of time in…a country that the Canadian government’s tourist advisory website has an alert against. “Do not visit this country.”
A country the whole world was talking about – and that has virtually closed itself off to the rest of the world.
I was actually there.
Why in the world was I there? Why did we go here? I heard this question over and over.
As an individual, I can’t possibly answer the question of why we were there, and why it’s a question of why we should or shouldn’t go. The politics and realities of this whole situation are globally complex.
But I can ponder a little about what it was for ME to go..to be there…to see. Maybe a little like why I wanted to witness what Pattaya was about. (Okay, that’s way too simplistic, and I shouldn’t draw a parallel between Pattaya and Myanmar…but you get the point). It was the intrigue of truly witnessing with my own eyes what the world is about first-hand. Not to the extend that a front-line journalist does (I mean tourists only see so much)…but still to be there and see what it’s really about.
Certainly, you have to put the back-of-mind dilemma into perspective as well: that by going here, where is our tourism money going? Are we doing any good being here? Our guide (no doubt government-authorized) of course was very excited about our ship being in Myanmar…and the chance to show the world what Myanmar is really like.
And so yes, we did definitely see what Myanmar and its people are like. So we benefitted in terms of our own understanding of Myanmar…and also saw some of the world’s most breathtakingly beautiful sights. Maybe that will benefit Myanmar: through us sharing our stories and having a clearer understanding of the country. But…did we really do any good by being there? I’m not certain. A lot of our money for being there went to the government. So aside from witnessing…maybe there wasn’t much gain to the country.
But, as for myself, I definitely gained a stronger understanding of the world. And maybe even came closer to answering the question I posed at the end of my previous entry: asking if I only get a commercialized Western view of Asia…or is it truly that our world isn’t that different after all.
After seeing Myanmar, I’m inclined to believe that it’s largely the later…that our world truly is smaller than I would have ever thought, and that the common thread running through us all is a lot tighter than the differences between our cultures/politics/languages/customs.
I mean, here I was in a country under a brutal dictatorship. A country virtually closed off from the rest of the world (you can’t use a credit card anywhere in the country because of the US embargo). A country incredibly poor. A country where the farm machinery is farm animals (by way of life, not by religious belief like the Amish). A country where they get hydro every three days in most areas, according to our tour guide (driving away from the city of Yangon at night, it was surprising to see that a city of 5 million people was quite dark from the distance…not at all lit up like the orange glow of a big city).
So, with all that, you’d think that it would be vastly different. Another world.
And yet I saw kids playing in playgrounds. People waiting at bus stops.
In Yangon, people going about shopping, driving, working (though unemployment is very high so many people are just milling about).
So…the farmers and city people really, honestly, aren’t that different from anyone back home. Way of life and quality of life and customs might be different, sure. But not as different as I had been led to presume.
So, that was surprising, I suppose…to see people just going about their lives in a country ruled by a brutal military dictatorship. I mean, there were even monks walking down the streets in Yangon.
But then you have to recall an important fact. When they took power, the government relocated the capital to an isolated city away from Yangon. There, they do their business and expand their military might in even further isolation from the rest of the world and from the majority of the country’s people.
Where the majority of people are going about their lives, they don’t see the government, police, or military. In fact, I found it surprising how invisible the government was.
But that’s part of what’s scary about it. They’re invisible, but very much in control…as they terrifyingly reminded the people of Myanmar and the world when they came in and quashed opposition protests in September. And then left again. Invisible…but there.
So, the every day people of Myanmar aren’t that different…and that’s what was so fascinating to see. And the country itself… on the every day level, not all that different.
But still – hanging over the every day – is that threat that it’s definitely not the beautiful quality of peaceful life that we get to enjoy in our privileged countries. So…that’s different. But not the every day people.
Also, I didn’t venture into any of the areas of violence like where there are rebels…or to the borders where there is conflict. Actually, the only way to peacefully get into the country directly…by ship like we did, or by plane. And yes there are flights into Myanmar. Just noticeably fewer flights than a comparable city of 5 million people would have.
Also noticeable about Yangon was the fact that for a city of 5 million people, there are very few tall buildings. This is not a developed country with tall buildings of commerce in the largest city. Rather it’s a lot of people living there…but very little wealth.
The lack of tall buildings allows an unhindered view far and wide of the gleaming gold spire…the Shwedegon Pagoda. Probably one of the very most impressive structures in the world, and a very important religious site for Buddhists. Talk about ultimate contrast. Here in a a very poor city and country is a colossal tower of gold. And a symbol of peace and prayer in a country where dissent isn’t allowed. I simply cannot write more about it than the pictures can do it justice.
Other things I had the opportunity to see… The immense Reclining Buddha. The white elephant of the Royal Barge restaurant/hall/lake/park, that the former Socialist government built for a huge cost with money they were given when Burma became independent. The largest and busiest market in Yangon, complete with its families and young children selling their wares. The market was fascinating and a little sad (especially the children), and a very immersive experience.
And then we left Yangon as the sun set. I observed a few more interesting things. First, all of the vehicles (even busses) are right-hand-driver vehicles from various asian countries that drive on the left side of the road. But, in defiance of the socialist government they overthrew, the current government makes everyone drive on the right side of the road…with right-hand-driver cars! So, on busses, the passengers get on and off on the left side…into opposing traffic.
Driving is absolutely insane in Myanmar as well. Not “crazy but it somehow works” like in Vietnam. Our motor coach driver actually made pedestrians jump off the road so that he could pass a LOGGING TRUCK (piled high with teak logs, no less) on a windy two-lane bumpy road. I feared for my life.
Despite getting really great flavor of Myanmar and witnessing what the everyday people are experiencing…I must say that traveling as a tourist in a motor coach made me feel more like a foreigner than ever before. I mean, we actually had a police escort to give us traffic priority. On the hour-long ride into the city, people EVERYWHERE stopped to look or wave at us. This is very much a place removed from tourism. Driving through the countryside in an air conditioned motor coach, while pictures of farmhouses made of sticks and thatch whizzed by, made me feel entirely like an outsider.
But, I still left truly feeling like I had seen a great sample of East Asia meets developing country, meets India (where we’ll be next).
And, in the ultimate (I swear I’m not making this up) case of pathetic fallacy…as we were driving through the pitch-black countryside of rural Myanmar back to our ship, the sky lit up with intense lightning. Indeed, a very dramatic finish to a dramatic look into a very dramatic country.