Last week’s events in Myanmar are deeply disturbing. It leads me to question my visit there a few years ago with Mr. Mike. We had a great experience, met some interesting people, and thought we were helping locals become employed in the tourist infrastructure. But now, I wonder if our visit did anything but help the ruling junta?
Here is some information from the Washington Post: The leader of the democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, has made headlines, after winning a Nobel prize, held under house arrest, then leading the agonizingly slow move to a more democratic government. The latest, rather disturbing news, is that she has let the military junta have their way with ethnic minorities. Many were either killed or forced to flee to Bangladesh, of all places. You can google her, or Myanmar, or Burma, or Rangoon (Yangon).
The politics of a region or country tend to play a big part of our visits. For years, we avoided military dictatorships, places like Venezuela, Bolivia, parts of Africa, and even SE Asia.
We started in Rangoon, or as locals prefer, Yangon, the capital. We had an excellent, English speaking guide who not only gave us an insider’s tour of Yangon, but answered a plethora of questions about life in Myanmar from us. Mostly, we saw people enjoying their leisure time, as restaurants in places such as Chinatown were bustling into the wee hours of the night. The revelry would remind anyone of Bangkok, Hanoi or Singapore. We enjoyed the atmosphere immensely.
We stayed at the nicest hotel in Yangon, drank our fair share of cold beer, and enjoyed some really tasty local cuisine. And although the locals were nice, there were certain questions they would not answer. And they had even more questions about life in America.
Yet, despite uncensored books being sold on the streets, the heavily armed military was everywhere. It feels and acts like a Third World country despite the new found democracy and freedom of speech. Mike and I did not encounter any problems, fortunately.
Maybe because we were Americans, they viewed us differently. People were friendly, spoke enough English, and we always felt safe. Apparently, we only saw the surface. Perhaps out in the countryside, we would get a better glimpse of life here. We spent most of the afternoon on a nearby island with mostly local people, very few tourists. Again, everyone appeared happy, though living conditions were challenging, to say the least.
On the road to Mandalay, things changed a little. The famous Moustache Brothers (google them) perform nightly in a comedic dance, satire, and musical farce. Two of the three brothers served about seven years hard labor in prison for their antics. They are allowed to perform only for tourists, and remain under house arrest! Yet the show goes on nightly. So, for about $10, we got a glimpse into national politics through comedic satire, bad music and dance, and some history.
But we saw fewer armed military out here. The pace of life outside Yangon was slower, peaceful, yet guarded. We were only allowed to go to many sites, always under the watchful eye of guards or military. Even the religious shrines and temples were heavily guarded. The only exception was a huge monastery that I visited, with about a thousand monks in training. Even in its simplicity, it was an amazing sight, lining up for lunch in long rows. For myself, I had a difficult time trying to connect the stifling military dictatorship with the heavy dose of religion.
The highlight of the trip was Inle Lake, home of the one-legged rowers. The lake is a conglomeration of several communities, who live on and around the lake. The local market operates daily, moving to a different village each day of the week. Farmers bring their produce, craftspeople bring their wares, tourists like us buy a few things, and marvel at their way of life. Yes, we stayed in very nice cabins above the water, visited a cigar factory, several schools, silk weavers, and opium dens (not really).
Most of the other tourists we met were also just as curious as we were, about the military dictatorship, and the move to democracy. Again, we were only allowed to see and visit certain places. Many signs were posted about limited photography! Everyone was on a tour, nobody seemed to be traveling solo or independent.
Now, with the teetering democracy and military junta is delicate balance. what happens next for this country?