Let me first apologize for neglecting GSW for so many weeks. Suffice it to say that the last six weeks have brought many ups and downs in both my personal and professional life along with a lot of weekend travel and visitors from America and Canada. So much has transpired, it’s hard to know where to start.
I survived a four day visit to Myanmar. It’s a lot like Vegas – you don’t really need more than four days – you start itching to get out and back to some semblance of normalcy. Most of my stay was spent in Keng Tung, a small city in Shan State about five hours north of Tacheleik. Am I glad I went? Yes, I think so. I’ve been to a place most people never venture into. Do I feel like I understand Myanmar any better? Maybe. I now know what it is like to travel in a country ruled by a military regime and I hope I am more grateful for my freedom than I was before. Is it a place I will return to? Probably not. Let’s be honest. At the end of the day, I can’t stand knowing that my hard-earned dollars have helped support an atrocious government. I also don’t like my movement being restricted, being followed, and having my every move reported and monitored. Not my style. You can take the girl out of America, but you can never take America out of the girl.
Upon arrival to immigration, we were immediately assigned a guide. I boldly requested a lady guide – one look at the male options left me disappointed at best. Lo and behold, my request was granted and thankfully so. After thirty minutes of questioning, photocopying of documents and arrangements, we were off with our lady guide to the bus station. Five hours later we arrived to the very sleepy town of Keng Tung – definitely not a number one tourist destination and underwhelming at first glance. One thing is for sure, no one prepared me for the beauty that is Myanmar. The five hour bus ride was breathtaking. Mountainous, green, layered with terraced rice patties, a sky almost as big as Montana and clouds for days. What a truly gorgeous landscape.
The Burmese government assigns guides to foreign travelers entering Myanmar via Tacheleik. It was our responsibility to pay 1,000 baht ($33.33 USD) per day for our guide along with paying for her hotel and transportation. $33 dollars doesn’t sound like much to most Americans but around here that’s 30 meals, three bus tickets to Chiang Mai and a third of my monthly rent. Therein lies the irony – Myanmar is one of the poorest and least developed nations on the planet yet it is incredibly expensive for Westerners to travel there. An incentive not to go I suppose. For the purposes of this blog, our guide – and everyone else who helped us along the journey – shall remain nameless. After hearing about some tourists who begged their guide to take them to the opium fields and then posted video online only to find out later that their guide was killed by the Burmese government for showing tourists a place the government doesn’t want anyone to see, I have decided I will keep the anonymity as a precaution. Our guide was delightful – a sophisticated, educated Shan woman who wasn’t afraid at times to be really honest with me about the political situation.
After settling into our hotel which was reminiscent of the hotel in the Shining, we noticed police and other government officials in the lobby listening in on our conversations and quietly watching us from afar. I was watching them watch us and it was all very surreal. Our guide was forced to report our movement several times a day and we were told each day where we could and couldn’t go. When I asked why we couldn’t go a certain place, the answer I received was uniformly, “For security purposes.” Who’s security exactly?
Our first full day in Myanmar was spent trekking through the amazing mountain side of Shan State – three of us, our lady guide and a local guide who could speak Akha and Burmese. We visited two Akha hill tribe villages that day and delivered blankets, hygiene products, medical supplies and soccer balls which made the children go wild. We were definitely off the beaten path in a very remote area that modern time has not yet touched. The hill tribes people were inviting and friendly – many with very curious looks on their faces. Communication was nearly impossible but sometimes you just don’t need words. They seemed appreciated of the supplies and we were mesmerized by their culture and way of life. The villages were very simple – bamboo huts, pigs and chickens, fields of rice and a few motorbikes. Akha people are small in stature yet incredibly agile and strong. It was nothing for them to haul 40 kgs of rice on their backs up incredibly steep mountain trails. The trekking was an all day event and everyone was pretty tired by the end of the day but it was well worth every minute.
The next day we hired an incredible tuk tuk driver who quickly became a friend and fixer. We set out to see the market, Buddhist temples, and a Catholic church that incidentally housed an orphanage. We had intended to visit an orphanage and somehow we just ended up at one. We met with the children and delivered educational materials, clothes and hygiene projects. The boys were shy at first but then we started playing soccer and nothing else mattered. It was a playful afternoon and one I won’t soon forget. The father of the church said something to us that afternoon that I will never forget.
- Father: Do you know what we call Myanmar these days?
- Us: Um, the Union of Myanmar?
- Father: No, we call it the Democratic Union of Myanmar formerly known as Burma.
- Us: Really?
- Father: Yes, D-U-M-B.
- Us: Ha!
One thing is for certain, the citizens of any nation are not their government. And the best part of visiting Myanmar was meeting the incredible people we met along the way. Our lady guide, our incredible tuk tuk driver, the hill tribes people, the boys of the orphanage, the comedic priest, the Indian man who made us breakfast each morning and the man running World Vision – an NGO we visited on our last day. Sure Myanmar is not as exciting as other destinations in Southeast Asia. Tourism is nil and the country is a mess but that’s not why we went there. We went there to help the local people, to hear what they had to say, to show them that there are people out here who are aware of what’s going on and who give a shit. We went there to help on some small level. To take ourselves out of our comfort zone, to understand the communities we work with and to share the experience with others.
Where the nation of Myanmar goes from here is unknown. The people we met are resilient and hopeful even after 50 years of oppression and conflict. They are waiting for democracy. They are hoping for true leadership. They believe in and support Aung San Suu Kyi. They say things are getting better – that the government is opening up, censoring less, allowing for outside media coverage, releasing 230 political dissidents, talking with pro-democratic leaders, and suspending the highly controversial Chinese-funded dam. It’s hard to know for sure if the regime can or will change and if they deserve any morsel of trust whatsoever. Actions will speak louder than words as Myanmar moves into the future.