Touring in a Troubled Paradise – Myanmar, Asia

“Why go to a country with such a repressive
government?” asked our friends when they heard of our plans to visit Myanmar
(formerly Burma). “We’re not going to
legitimize the government or lend support to it; in fact, we plan to avoid supporting
the government in any way possible” was our response to curious friends, and to
manage our guilt about visiting a country where a travel boycott has been
encouraged since 1996. We decided that the Southeast Asian treasure
was too good to bypass. We vowed to be
responsible with our tourist dollars, keep our eyes and ears open, meet the
Burmese people, and learn as much as possible about life in the ancient culture.

Our travels to other
SE Asian destinations have been fascinating and rewarding. The culture, sites, warm weather, and
delicious food have made for truly wonderful vacations. We were prepared to enjoy Myanmar just as
much as the others; but were unprepared to enjoy it as much as we did!

The 14 states and divisions of Burma

The 14 states and divisions of Burma

Myanmar has been off many tourists’ radar
because of human rights violations and tourist boycotts encouraged by the
Burmese Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi . She remains under house arrest, a heroine to
her fellow citizens and people all over the world. Meanwhile, the Burmese
people go about their daily lives adhering to strong Buddhists beliefs and
practices while living under a regime that robs them of dignity and basic
rights. Those who speak out against the current military government are jailed
or killed with no recourse from family and friends. Forced relocations, arbitrary arrests, and
severe restrictions on media and movement are facts of life.

Despite repressive
conditions, the proud and resilient people carry on as best they can. They welcomed us enthusiastically with
greetings and smiles and thanked us for coming to their country. Some risked
talking to us about their government (often in whispers) while others simply
wanted to know about ours and expressed delight when we said we were from the
U.S. Most voiced support for Obama
believing he offers them hope. The
subjugated people of Myanmar fear isolation and believe anything that opens the
doors to more contact, especially tourism, is an opportunity for change. Unfortunately, the few Americans who venture
to Myanmar typically travel in tour groups maximizing the tourist dollars that
go straight to the government while minimizing contact with the Burmese

Forget the catchy phrases
or clichés when it comes to Myanmar. Contradictions abound in this country of
56 million sandwiched between India and Bangladesh to the west and China and
Thailand to the east. It is here where
the government tried to legitimize itself as a tourist destination while using
forced labor to build the tourist infrastructure. It is a country where tourists can feel
extraordinarily safe from crime while locals are always at risk of being
brutalized by police. Bikes and
backpacks can be left unattended with confidence that nothing will be taken,
not because the government will punish such acts harshly (they will), but
because such acts directly impact karma, the spiritual currency by
which the people live.

This is a country
where the government controls everything, yet people pray and practice their
beliefs openly in peaceful gatherings in temples that thrive throughout the
country. Myanmar has at least 8 main
tribal groups (and many more subgroups) with distinct languages, culture, and
dress. People from the various
groups can be seen buying and selling side by side at markets filled with fresh
fish and produce. This ethnic diversity
enhances the experiences available to the tourist. There appears to be a general tolerance of
differences in language and dress. Tourists benefit from this tolerance. People were open, gentle and curious, and our
differences seemed to inspire wonder and humor rather than distance.

The callous
government has its handprint on everything. Consequently, services for the
people (education, medical care, transportation, public welfare) are wholly
inadequate or nonexistent. Despite
this, the devout and resourceful people of Myanmar engender a sense of order
and reverence for each other and their past.
They actively practice their belief of gaining spiritual merit by
assisting others. Young boys (and girls to a lesser extent) go into the
monasteries to learn self discipline, order, and the Buddhists practices of
right living. They are free to leave
when they want and most do. Those who
stay become practicing monks who number close to 500,000, cherished members of
society, dependent on the goodness of their neighbors for food in
exchange for their lives of example and sacrifice to the community. When the
government beat and jailed peacefully protesting monks recently, this sacred
order was disturbed. People frequently
referenced this beating of defenseless monks to illustrate the government’s widening
brutality. Fear permeates the country,
and although government agents are
often invisible to tourists, the people know from their own experiences that
they lurk behind every corner ready to pounce.

In Myanmar, there is
a saying that each tourist is like a star in the sky bringing light and
hope. Even with the government’s
attempts to limit tourists’ access to its citizens, we had ample opportunities
to engage with the friendly and helpful people as they sought us out. The government controls where 
tourists can visit hoping to expose visitors only to those places that are under
its complete influence. But the
Burmese people want tourists to see and experience more of their ancient
country, and they do their best to encourage it.

We avoided
buying things from government shops. Instead we focused on small shops run by hard-working
locals. We imagined that finding English-speaking
people would be difficult, but to our surprise, it was rarely a problem. Many older Burmese learned English from the
missionary schools they attended long ago; they welcome opportunities to
practice. And almost all students are busy
learning English in schools or teaching themselves. Practicing with a real English speaker is a
rare and wonderful opportunity. They
actually like Americans, expressing their fondness as they ask questions about
our culture and current affairs. As we
walked the village streets we were welcomed as celebrities. Children smiled and presented a single picked
flower; adults often gave us a mandarin orange, welcoming gestures that warmed
our hearts.

One of the greatest
things about visiting Myanmar is the chance to experience a place that has
changed so slowly and had so little influence from the Western world. Sanctions and isolation provide a mixed
blessing; the cultural practices are intact and have not been overwhelmed by
ours. For the month that we traveled
around the country, we never saw a Coke/Pepsi sign, there were no Starbucks, and
we were spared from hearing American pop blaring on radios, so common in other
parts of the world. Myanmar lacks the
frantic feel of some other SE Asian countries that are so eager to take on
Western ways of being and consuming. The
pace is slower, there are fewer cars, less industry, and the country was
cleaner and less hectic in general.



Myanmar is like an
undiscovered gem. The ancient sites
rival those of Angkor Wat, Cambodia. The rolling countryside, hillside tribal villages,
huge rivers and lakes, mountain ranges that butt up against the Himalayas, and
hundred of miles of white-sand beaches give the tourist a lot of natural beauty
to explore. The sites are not always
easy to access, but always worth the effort. The ancient temples of Bagan rise from the
vast plain and provide spectacular and inspiring vistas. Riding a rented bicycle among the untouched
treasures of antiquity is a feast for the senses.

Many of the dark interiors of temples contain
fascinating 11th century murals depicting stories from Buddha’s
life. The Ayeryarwady River cuts a deep
swath through several important cities, and the shores of the wide river buzz
with activity. Locals beckon tourists
into their homes and shops. Boat trips are possible from one city to another,
providing opportunities to slow the pace and experience river life while
interacting with locals. The markets are brimming full of colorful produce and

Inle Lake is hauntingly
beautiful, and a boat trip around the immense area provides an up-close look at
village life as it has existed for centuries.
The larger cities of Yangon and Mandalay are vibrant, interesting,
enjoyable and safe. Accomodations at
local guesthouses are readily available without reservations. Friendly families run the spotlessly clean
and inexpensive dwellings where Burmese family life and traditional food can be
experienced. The food was delicious,
abundant and fresh, with a nice mixture of Asian noodles, rice dishes and

Despite their lives
of deprivation and violations of basic rights with little hope for change in
the near future, Burmese speak in awe about the freedoms and
opportunities of the West and bless our good fortune with no sense of
envy. Myanmar is a beautiful country
with the friendliest, most generous, and kind people we have come across in all
our travels. Their heroine, Aung San Suu
Kyi, discourages tourists from visiting for fear that tourist dollars with prop
up the corrupt government and offer implicit support. Her stance is understandable, but it is
outdated and no longer serves the people.

The government of Myanmar has simply
turned to China for support, a willing partner with its own dismal record of
human rights violations. People we met
urged us to tell fellow Americans to visit. It’s safe and fascinating, and the people will
welcome and help every step of the way. Visit
(but do so independently) and see for yourself.
Speak to the people (with discretion, of course) and offer them hope that
the world has not forgotten them, that we care how they are being treated by
the military regime that has controlled them for decades.

The Buddhist culture of Myanmar teaches
tolerance, acceptance, patience and impermanence, a beautiful belief system that
permeates the country. It is what
inspires the people to cooperate, share, be calm and present. But some say that it is these beliefs that have
been partially responsible for the shameless government remaining in power all
these years while the people continue to suffer under its leadership. Tolerance alone rarely leads to needed
changes, as we know too well, aggressive and impulsive action is not the
answer. We have so much to learn from
each other. We can only do so when we
keep the doors open…

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