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Bali, 15 March 2010. Burma, Myanmar, is shrouded in controversy. It is run by a military dictatorship that has banned motocycles from the city, put an end to plastic bags and discourages smoking by banning cigarette advertising.
According to the people, and there are many of them, the government is something of a joke. An unpleasant joke, but a joke all the same. It does rather take you back as people joke about the excessive spending, the abject lack of care for the people and its dire human rights abuses. During my travels many people talked about the government, and trust me I didn’t have to initiate the conversation. I was in Burma to realize a long held dream; I had no political agenda and was not waving any flags. I just wanted to see this place before the elections of this year, which could bring Myanmar to another roadblock on its shaky way to open and fair government.
Given the recent developments I feel concerned that my companion and I may have had one of the last
Local Produce from Kalaw
Market opportunities to see this wonderful land and meet its people before the curtain falls again. Last year tourism numbers were up with the majority of visitors coming from France and Germany, closely followed by Italians and Chinese. Many people return year after year to visit their favourite places.
The magical plains of Bagan, the rural villages of Shan State, the amazing beaches of Nagpali and the tribal area of Nagaland. Family guesthouses offer home-style accommodation and for the most part, even in Yangon, the presence of the military was understated and unobvious. On only one occasion did we even encounter anything close to feeling observed. We had wandered off into the dock area searching for the old colonial hotel The Strand. We were courteously redirected by the police who repeated the same phrase “Do not be afraid I speak English”, but actually spoke no more than that.
In contrast, the people of Myanmar speak excellent English, everyone, and I mean everyone, is conversant and knowledgeable. The standard “Where do you come from” is met with interest and your origins will provoke a second response, even as knowledgeable as “Well they are doing very well in the Premier League”.
Chilies at Paw Kae Village
Football, as elsewhere is the conversation starter, and even South Africa has upped its status by hosting the World Cup. My companion, so used to “South Africa, where’s that?” was pleasantly surprised at the response her country of origin drew after so long in the wilderness. With Indonesian TV beamed in on satellite many also knew where I live, Jakarta.
We found we were able to contribute to the local economy way over the small amount we paid in fees to the government, and to be honest the places where we were meant to pay didn’t seem that strict about getting our money. We paid a camera fee and an entry fee, and according to the Lonely Planet an independent traveler can put 80% of their money into the private sector.
The Burmese love to read and we found that buying books was a great way to help; pass any bookstore, see someone reading a book, give the money to the storekeeper and buy a stranger a book.
Buying local goods too, the things that people themselves use, rather than made for tourist gee gaws was also very easy to do. The Burmese themselves are natty in style and their daily use bags and scarves are amazingly bright and attractive. Fabrics too are great, anything from the cotton-checkered cloth worn by men and women to the embroidered brightly woven shawls can be found, made in Myanmar. The markets are also full of imports from China, India and Indonesia but the best buys are local.
Astoundingly I bought a phone chip for my mobile and was able to place calls overseas although I couldn’t send text messages. Internet cafes popped up in the strangest of places and everywhere outside of Yangon seemed to have good connections. Admittedly there were tricks to getting onto FaceBook and some of the major mail servers but in each café there was someone to show you just how to navigate ‘under the radar’ with a proxy server. Equally wonderful we walked everywhere without a moment of fear. We ate from street stalls, we rode bicycles and we ventured out into the most glorious streets from dawn to dusk from Yangon to Mandalay to be greeted every moment by an inspiring sight or a friendly smile.
After three weeks of trekking, ballooning, bicycling and some very odd bathrooms I was in the departure hall of Yangon airport, and the world had become officious, the clerk was refusing to take one of my remaining ten-dollar bill as departure tax, saying it was too old. Given the state of the Myanmar money I was a little taken aback but before I could say anything a friendly hand swept in front of mine, proffered a fresh note and took mine in exchange. That’s the Myanmar way.
Finally through the gate and sadly awaiting the calling of my flight I struck up conversation with a young American who asked me in all sincerity “Did you talk to local people?” and when I replying in the affirmative he said he had not for fear of getting them in trouble with their government.
This saddened me, and this is why I write this. There are places on earth with bad governments but the governments aren’t the people. The people of Myanmar are among the warmest, most generous and gracious I have met and while there are many reasons not to go to Myanmar, there are 52 million reasons to go, and these are the people of Myanmar.