2011
06.15

When I think back on my time in Burma, it is the encounters with the people that I remember most.  The country is rich in history and culture, full of magnificent temples and natural beauty, but it all pales in comparison with the people.  For as long as I have known about the country, I have heard that its citizens are among the friendliest in Asia.  Though it does not do justice to the people of Burma just to call them “friendly”, for that word should be reserved for waitresses that greet you with a smile or hotels that wish you well upon departure.  What makes Burma unique is that one arrives as a friend and leaves feeling like family.

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I have been blessed to meet friendly people all over the world, from the villages of Fiji to the mountain peaks of Peru.  Those individuals have had a profound effect on my life and shown me the true meaning of boundless hospitality.  From them I have learned that a person’s value is not measured by money or power, but by the kindness that one can show to another, especially when our lives seem worlds apart.  20110606_Burma_1306They have taught me that there is no limit to a stranger’s hospitality and that respect need not be earned, but should be given unconditionally.  Though in the case of Burma, it was not just a few individuals who I will remember, but an entire population.

The irony is that while Burma may be one of the world’s friendliest nations, its government is among the most harsh and oppressive.  For centuries, the Burmese people have been ruled with an iron fist and today they remain in the powerful grip of a military regime guilty of extensive human rights violations, from forced labor to human trafficking and the systematic abuse of minorities verging on ethnic cleansing.  Policies instituted in 1962 under the “Burmese Way to Socialism” have kept the people in a five-decade dark age during which time Burma has made little to no progress and become one of the least developed countries in the world.  Universities have spent much of the past 20 years closed and those who do attend school must adhere to courses and curriculum approved by the military regime.  Censorship of the media is widespread, from news fabrications to internet restrictions, in an effort to shield the Burmese people from international news sources and media.  For this reason, most of its citizens know little of life outside their country and they are desperate to connect with anyone who can shed a light into a world which most have never been truly allowed to live.

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While most of us exist in countries which support our right to free speech and assembly, the Burmese people live in fear of a government which has wrongfully imprisoned thousands of political prisoners and taken the lives of those who do protest, including Buddhist monks.

20110621_Burma_5216The vast majority of Burmese citizens will not speak out against their government, either in public or private, for fear that they will suffer the same miserable fate as so many others.  For this reason, tourists should under no circumstances attempt to engage citizens in conversations discussing politics or anything that may be misconstrued by a casual listener.  To do so, quite literally, threatens the life of any person who might be assumed a dissenter and puts them in grave danger.  This is a country rife with spies who are eager to gain favor with a notorious government which has made thousands of people “disappear” who have stood up against them.

That being said, the Burmese people are eager to learn about the world outside their borders and, as a tourist, I believe it is your responsibility to share your life with them.  Decades of isolation have had a terrible impact on the people of Burma and only through the lives of foreigners are most able to grasp just how desperate their situation has become.  Many citizens have lived so long in isolation that they have little perspective as to the rights they have been denied or the poverty in which they exist.  As a predominantly Buddhist country, the people accept their suffering with little complaint and bear their burdens with a heavy heart and a smile on their face in belief that a life well lived will bring them greater blessings in the next.  It is this combination of acceptance and hopefulness which has sustained them through incredible hardships and tragedy and created the paradox of a country with some of the world’s friendliest people living under a veil of tyranny and evil.

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Further contributing to the isolation of Burma is a 15-year tourism boycott which has long been supported by refugee and human-rights groups.  The idea behind the boycott is that tourism legitimizes the government and contributes to its financial resources.  For this reason, 20110606_Burma_1064many tourists avoid visiting Burma and some have even gone so far as to boycott Lonely Planet for publishing a Burma guidebook.  So while neighboring Thailand receives 10 million annual visitors, Burma sees only a few hundred thousand visitors each year, ten times less than even Laos.

In 2010, the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi reversed their stance on the boycott and began encouraging tourists to visit the country.  “We want people to come to Burma, not to help the junta, but to help the people by understanding the situation: political, economic, moral- everything,” said Mr. Win Tin, founder of the NLD.  “For the outside world to see, to know our situation, that can help our cause a lot.”  However, he also warned against large-scale package tourism which contributes directly to the regime through tourists who stay in expensive joint-venture hotels.  “To have a very big cruise ship with hundreds of tourists coming in- that’s a lot of money for the regime, and so we don’t like such big business.”  Therefore, the NLD and human rights groups, such as Burma Campaign UK and the Free Burma Campaign are now solely calling for a boycott of package tours which bring significant revenue to the regime.

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By traveling independently to Burma and following a few simple guidelines, tourists can minimize the money received by the regime and provide much-needed income to the Burmese people.  First of all, avoid government-run hotels and stay in cheap family-run A mother and child at the temples at Bagan in the country of Burma (Myanmar)guesthouses instead.  Use local buses, which are nearly all independent, and avoid government-run transportation: Myanmar Airways, Myanmar Travel &Tours, IWT ferries, and Myanmar Railways.  Buy handicrafts directly from artisans and don’t make all your purchases (food, beer, guides, taxi) at one source.  Most importantly, educate yourself about Burma and talk to the local people.  As one pro-tourism resident said, “Don’t come in with your camera and only take pictures.  We don’t need that kind of tourist.  Talk to those who want to talk.  Let them know of the conditions of your life.”*

In contrast to revenue generated from petroleum exploration, timber sales, and even heroin, tourism remains a tiny earner for the military regime.  In 2006, tourism brought in $164 million, possibly 12% of which went to the government, while natural-gas exports netted $2.16 billion.  Despite sanctions from the U.S., European Union, and Canada, countries such as India and China continue to do business with Burma and generate considerable income for the regime through the sale of oil, gas, minerals, and timber.  The money generated from tourism is small change for the regime, but not for taxi drivers, guesthouse owners, and souvenir vendors who rely on tourists for their limited income.

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By traveling responsibly in Burma, we were able to spend over 85% of our money in the private sector.  Though a small percentage invariably went to the government, it was a small price to pay considering our money was often the only income that someone made in a day.  In the city 20110607_Burma_2765-Editof Mandalay, we were faced with a line of taxi drivers waiting in the shade along a sun-baked road each time we left our hotel.  They leaned against their cars from the early morning hours until the sun had set, hoping that a tourist might select them from the dozens that waited.  Competition was fierce and the tourists were few so most were lucky if they even made a dollar a day.  So many times I heard their propositions and pleas that when the time finally came, I knew just who I would choose.  A friendly fellow with a gracious smile and a dozen long whiskers on his face, he could barely contain his smile when I hired him for the day.  In his limited English, he detailed the route that we would take, from the monastery at Amarapura to Inwa and Sagaing before ending the day at U Bein’s Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world.  He shuttled us from one destination to the next and after ten hours of 20110606_Burma_624working, he had made 15 dollars, a considerable sum for the day.

When we returned to Mandalay a week later and needed a driver, I was happy to hire him again.  He was humble and gracious, though his smile betrayed the relief he tried to hide.  When I found him in the shade the following day waiting for a would-be passenger, I struck up a conversation and inquired about his family.  He gleamed with pride when he spoke of his two grown boys who had both found work at a company that bottles water.  His youngest daughter, still living at home, hoped to attend college and pursue her studies, he told me with a sheepish grin.  I could see his pride had faded and hoped I might change the conversation so instead I asked about his wife.  She stays at home, he told me, to take care of his blind mother who requires full-time care.  In a country with health care that ranks among the worst in the world and provides nothing for college education, I knew what a burden this must be.  With a wife unable to work, he was forced to provide for his entire family and still save money for his daughter’s education.  For three dollars a day, he rents his taxi and with some luck he might make 15 or 20 dollars a day.  Yet, day after day I saw him standing outside without even a chance of a fare.  He hoped to buy his own taxi one day, he told me, but it would cost him several thousand dollars.  Until then, he would keep paying three dollars and standing in the shade, hoping he might find enough work to make a little profit each day.  I asked him how much he needed for his daughter’s education and he laughed off the question, but I could see the tears welling in his eyes.  I gave him a pat on the back and tried to lighten the mood, but the hopelessness of his situation was more than either of us was ready to discuss.  I returned to the hotel and we both were relieved, knowing that nobody would have to see our tears.

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It was our taxi driver who brought us to Maha Ganayon Kyaung, a monastic school in Amarapura where tourists come to watch thousands of monks as they gather for lunch.  There he introduced us to one of the most memorable people I have met in all my travels.  A tall, lean monk 20110620_Burma_4716-Editwrapped in saffron robes and head shaven clean stepped forward and inquired in near-perfect English if he may ask me a question.  I expected the usual curiosity of where I was from so I was taken back when he asked, “What is the meaning of ‘silly-billy’?”  As quickly as I could muster an answer, he responded with another grammatical inquiry, as if the list of questions had long been prepared in his head.  I tried to explain the meaning of “out of the frying pan” and other phrases that he had heard in movies, but could not locate in his English dictionary.  When his questions had been answered to the best of my ability, he pulled his loose robes tight against his slender body and asked, “Now what you 20110621_Burma_5316-Editwould like to ask me?”

Shein** was unlike any person I have ever met.  Though only 20 years old, he possessed a knowledge and curiosity of the world far beyond his age.  He was a student of the English language and aspired to be a teacher, spending his life at the monastery where he could educate other monks in both English and Buddhist scripture.  He was intelligent and humble, constantly asking questions and apologizing for his inadequacy of speaking a language that, in my eyes, he had already mastered.  His English was not that of broken sentences and words picked up from tourists and popular movies, as one so often hears in Asia.  Instead, Shein spoke in fluid and proper sentences with such confidence and depth that often I felt our roles had been reversed and the teacher had become the student.  He bothered not with questions of a trivial nature, but immediately dove straight into philosophical inquiries that even I struggled to answer.  We had met only a half hour before, but already he wanted to know “What makes you happy?” and “What is your goal in life?”  The eyes that fixed upon mine and studied my answers were not one of an average person, but someone so exceptional that I knew one encounter would not be sufficient to fulfill our mutual curiosities.

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Young Burmese boys at a temple in Burma wearing traditional thanaka paste

A week later when we returned to Mandalay, I sought out our trusted taxi driver and asked him if he would take us to find Shein.  I had promised him I would return and spend the afternoon together so that we might talk, as he was eager to practice and improve his English.  I bought some English textbooks and a copy of Orwell’s Burmese Days and together Rachel and I returned to the monastery.  We only knew his name, but among the 1,500 monks, he was an easy one to find.  We were pointed from one building to the next until he emerged, gracefully clutching his robes against his shoulder as he strode purposefully toward us.  He showed no surprise or elation at our return, but instead a strong desire to begin our conversation.  While the other monks looked on curiously, he led us to an empty beach and asked us to sit, wasting no time in asking the questions that surely had been circling his mind all week.

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Hours passed, one after the next, as we sat outside the monastery engrossed in conversation.  Rachel provided the list of states and capitals that Shein had requested and he questioned us about U.S. geography.  We discussed spirituality and religion and he explained the finer 20110611_Burma_3190-Editpoints of Buddhism.  He laughed when I described our perception of monks and reminded us that many monks eat meat and not all enjoy meditation.  We talked about politics in America and our conversation soon drifted to Burma.  He asked that we not talk about the government outside of the monastery and explained that even with its sacred walls exist “spies” who would report dissenters.  But with no one around it was safe to speak, he told us, and then relayed the story of the man who taught him English.  An elder monk had long been his mentor and, as a strong critic of the regime, he had spoken openly in defiance of the government.  It had been several years now since he mysteriously 20110611_Burma_3577disappeared, but Shein believed that he was in a “safe place”.  I shuttered at the thought of what might really have become of him, but dared not push the conversation further.

With the sun falling low in the sky, we carried our discussion to the U Bein Bridge.  Over 200 years old and stretching 1.2km (0.75mi) with 1,060 posts, the longest teak bridge in the world connects Amarapura to a small Taungthaman village.  Monks and villagers stroll to and fro while fisherman ply the waters and carry tourists on sunset cruises.  We joined the crowds along the bridge and found a bench on which to sit and admire the setting sun. Our discussion drifted to America and I found myself telling our friend about life within my home country.  We talked about a land of limitless opportunity where people are free to speak their mind and pursue their dreams.  We spoke of the rights guaranteed by law and a government which provides for its citizens.  I voiced both criticism and praise for a country which at times I have both loved and loathed.  Yet, I was reminded just how lucky I am to call America home when Shein remarked that, “Living in your country sounds like a dream.”

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Time and time again I was reminded by the Burmese people that their dreams are not extravagant, yet they remain just out of reach.  They dream not of riches or power, but the freedom to be a part of the world that they have so long been denied.  They are a simple people, more friendly and gracious than any I have ever met.  They welcome foreigners with a hospitality that so far I have found unmatched in the world, yet visitors are so few that many have never even seen a white face in person.  I will never forget the teenage boy on a bus to Bagan who told me, “You are the first foreigner I have ever met.  This is like a dream come true for me.”  Or the son of a restaurant owner who spoke the same words only a few days later while a smile covered his face from ear-to-ear.  Never have I experienced anything like walking the streets of Burma where people called “Hello!” to us from passing cars and smiles greeted us everywhere we went.  Words simply cannot do justice to encounters that happened countless times a day and no number of stories could explain the feeling of an entire country welcoming you with open arms and glowing smiles.  So, if you want to experience what it is like to travel in one of the world’s friendliest countries where just by visiting you can make someone’s dreams come true, then get off the beaten path and head to Burma, Southeast Asia’s true “Land of Smiles”.

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*  Cited from Lonely Planet

** Name changed to protect his identity

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