Reflections on a long weekend in Burma

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My partner and I adore traveling. During the five years we have been together, we have ventured to a total of 13 countries—and we are already plotting future dream destinations (even though, for the time being, the reality of our long-blown travel budget tells us otherwise!). Some of our most memorable journeys have been to Southeast Asia: Gorging on street food in Bangkok’s famed Khaosan Road in Thailand; observing an atmospheric and deeply spiritual sunset ceremony at a Hindu temple on Bali Island in Indonesia; and relaxing along the beach—as well as learning about war’s ongoing consequences—in the coastal cities of Vietnam (just for a taster).

When my partner announced that she seriously wanted to visit Bagan in Burma, however—famed for its landscape with thousands of temples fanned out in all directions—I have to admit that I was at first thrown off guard. Wasn’t this the country that had freshly emerged from decades of brutal dictatorship? Hadn’t there been a travel boycott in place until merely a few years ago in order to avoid enriching said dictatorship, which would mean that the situation on the ground was still likely quite raw and sensitive?

My ethical antenna was going crazy, but after doing some reading, I determined that although there would certainly be drawbacks in traveling to the country, there could also be benefits. Not least of these might be the opportunity to be a part of its internationalization, however insignificantly, through interactions with people who had effectively been cut off from the world for decades— and then in turn sharing my impressions with others (e.g., this blog post). Obviously, spending a mere four days in a country with such a complex history would never qualify me to speak as anything other than a visiting outsider reporting on surface-level impressions—although I suppose this could also be said with regard to any country, no?

At any rate: Onward to the actual trip. 🙂 We arrived in Yangon at around 3:45 PM on a Friday afternoon after a seven-hour flight from Tokyo, and by the time we checked in to our hotel and set out sightseeing, it was early evening and we were pretty exhausted—which was also exacerbated by the temperature jump from around 18 to 40 degrees Celsius. Yikes! Just about the only thing we had energy to do was walk around to find something to eat, and we were ecstatic when we arrived to a restaurant recommended in our Lonely Planet guidebook and saw some kind of mouth-watering dough being cooked up right out front. Woe be us, however, when we were told that the restaurant was closed, and no, the goods were not for sale.

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Want some bread? Too bad!!

The next couple of restaurants we tried were similarly closed, and with our hunger levels peaking just as fast as our stamina was fading, we hopped in a taxi and simply asked the driver to take us to a restaurant with good Myanma food. (Yes, I’m using Myanmar in addition to Burma…here is a pretty good explanation of the really complicated naming issue). We were surprised at how good many peoples’ English was—including most of our taxi drivers—given the extent to which the country’s education system had apparently suffered during military rule. At any rate, this driver was our new hero because he understood exactly what we wanted, and ferried us immediately to a restaurant that was precisely what our tired bodies and hungry tummies were looking for.

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Coconut rice, and lots o’ spice!!! Mmmm….

The next morning, we set out for the one full day that we had to explore the city. We were staying very near the Yangon River, just by the port, and decided to first head up to the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is an extremely important place both religiously and politically (famous speeches have been given there by Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, as well as by her father, Aung San). While walking there, we noticed that there were water stations set alongside the road for people to take a drink from a communal cup—a brilliant idea given the scorching temperatures.

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Communal water station

Speaking of water, we had in fact arrived just after the end of Thingyan—the Burmese New Year Water Festival—a four-day Buddhist holiday in mid-April that includes lots of general partying, as well as a tradition whereby people douse each other with copious amounts of water. In addition to missing the festival altogether, our unfortunate timing also explained why the restaurants had been closed the previous evening. In fact, we found out only after arriving that many establishments actually closed up shop for 7-10 days just after the festival. Oh well!

The gold-encrusted pagoda was stunning, with numerous monks and other visitors praying and meditating, and worshippers lovingly dousing Buddha statues with water and giving them offerings of jasmine flower garlands. Simply beautiful. There were different praying areas with signs indicating a specific day of the week, where people go to worship in the particular section that represents the day they were born. (I had a random idea that I was born on a Tuesday, which later turned out to be correct….whew!)

IMG_5181                   IMG_5094IMG_5178                                                 Shwedagon Pagoda

 

We decided next to go up toward the University of Yangon and Inya Lake area of the city by taking the local train (an experience we had found to be thrilling beyond all expectation a couple of years prior when visiting Mumbai). This of course involved buying a ticket, which turned out to be somewhat of a production as the employee in the train station window took an exaggerated amount of time filling out paperwork, asking us to write down our names and passport numbers, and generally just being ultra-bureaucratic about the whole thing.

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The coveted train ticket…

I eventually turned to the man standing in line behind us and slightly bowed while clasping my hands together by way of apology, in response to which he darted his eyes toward the station attendant and then rolled them with a clear look of disgust. No translation necessary to convey the sentiment there! The man was out of the employee’s line of vision, and I found myself wondering: Was this a taste (albeit an innocuous one) of the average person’s hidden contempt toward government workers? Or just a universal sign of impatience? Hard to say.

Similarly, when we finally boarded the train—which was filled with people of all ages, along with huge cargo sacks and roving vendors—we saw an older man clutching beads in the midst of fervent prayer, and it looked at one point as if he were in tears. Was this someone whose family had been negatively and irreversibly impacted by the military junta? Or simply someone in the midst of deep worship? Again, I’ll never know.

In any case, we got off at the wrong stop, which actually turned out to be fantastic, since it enabled us to take a relaxed walk to the university down a road lined with homes and schools, mom-and-pop type stalls selling all sorts of miscellaneous goods, and street food vendors from whom we satiated ourselves with deep-fried samosas, corn cakes and other spicy treats.

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Lots o’ naughty treats!!

We arrived around 30 or 40 minutes later to Inya Lake, whose periphery was filled with the universal scene of young couples cuddling. 🙂 Since we realized that the university would likely be closed for the New Year holiday, we decided to just go ahead and take a taxi that would get us closer to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. Our guidebook said that it could possibly be unsafe for taxi drivers if we asked them to take us there, so we made some vague request to be dropped off at a nearby intersection. When we were nearby, though, our driver casually pointed out, “See that house over there? That’s Aung San Suu Kyi’s.” I guess times have indeed changed!

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Banks of Inya Lake

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Front gate of Aung San Suu Kyi’s home, where she was under house arrest for around 15 years…

Speaking of Aung San Suu Kyi, I have been reading numerous criticisms of her recently by folks who reject her attempts to look at both sides of the Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Burma rather than unequivocally condemn the violence against the Rohingya (Muslim) minority. I can definitely get behind that argument, but at the same time, I am also tempted to step back and see her stance as coming from a deeper place, such as Vietnamese spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh’s acknowledgement of the suffering among everyone in war, regardless of which “side” they were on. This may just be wishful thinking, insofar as Aung San Suu Kyi herself admits that her roots are in politics rather than human rights activism, although I suppose time will tell on this one.

In any case, after heading next to our domestic airline office to sort out the tickets for our super early flight to Bagan the next morning, we walked through some more of the city’s bustling streets, had dinner at a chilled out little restaurant featuring Myanma food with tables set up outside, and then headed back to catch some z’s before we had to wake up at 4AM.

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Yangon street food market

Fast forwarding to the next day, we checked in to our hotel in Bagan by 8AM, and after a meal and a nap, we set off to begin exploring the temples in the Old Bagan district via bicycles that we rented from our hotel. We were actually warned against it since the temps were again pushing 40 degrees, but hey, what’s a little sweat!? (Or, as I like to periodically, point out, “I grew up in a desert; I can handle it.”) 😉

Bagan’s temples were immensely gorgeous and peaceful, with an atmosphere that was somewhat reminiscent of its two sister cities–Siam Reap, Cambodia (the site of Angkor Wat) and Luang Prabang, Laos, both of which we had absolutely loved–although the architecture here was of course entirely different. Almost every temple that we visited had four entrances with four different large Buddhas seated in different postures that were facing each of the cardinal directions—some with a fifth Buddha, said to represent a future era—which were unlike any temples I had ever seen elsewhere.

IMG_5212IMG_5309We went inside seven or eight different ones, and at one point while I was sitting and waiting for my partner, a friendly woman struck up a conversation with me, and then offered to take me to her nearby stall to give my face a fresh coat of thanaka (a paste made from bark similar to sandalwood, which people here apply to their face as a skin protector and cosmetic). It was unexpected, but she was so sincere when she offered that I just went with it. It was a sweet little interaction, and my partner and I both ended up buying a couple of longyis (the national dress of skirt-like cloths) from her stand as souvenirs.

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Making the thanaka paste

Later that day, as we were coming out of a little cafe where we had stopped for a late afternoon snack and thinking about where to go next, a young guy approached us on his motorcycle and offered to guide us to one of the best sunset viewing spots. Since he was so persuasive (and we had no idea where to go), we followed him on our bikes to a temple, and climbed up to the top to settle in for the evening view.

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Our friendly guide, a university student of politics…but let’s just say he preferred to talk to us about what most 22 year-old guys want to talk about. Mm-hmm, that’s right.

Bagan at any time of day is stunning, but I have a hard time finding words to describe what it was like to watch the sun set over a landscape dotted with what seems like millions of temples. In actuality there are now around 2,000, but in its heyday more than 1000 years ago, there were apparently more than 10,000. Totally unbelievable.

We headed out again on our bikes the next day to New Bagan for some more temple exploration, and lunch in a very atmospheric cafe overlooking the river. While walking around afterward, we saw what seemed to be a local festival, with folks dancing to what sounded like a gamelan ensemble–although due to the language barrier (and cultural ignorance), it was hard to know exactly what was going on.

A family motioned at one point that they wanted to take a photo of me together with their young daughter, and later, a man who came over to talk to me and said he was a junior high school teacher seemed like he wanted to go deeper than the social pleasantries we exchanged—although language again prevented this. Was there more to it, though? Knowing the history whereby communicating with foreigners was something that could at one time land people into trouble with authorities here, I wondered: Were there political topics lurking underneath the words of those who tried communicating with me? Or was that all literally just inside my own head?

With this question—among others—naturally still unanswered, it was time for us to head back to our hotel to prepare for our flight back to Japan. It had been a whirlwind trip, but I was definitely glad we had done it. We had managed to get in lots of sightseeing and yet still relax, chat with local folks, enjoy delicious meals, and feel as if we were making some kind of contribution–however miniscule–to the country’s (hopefully) emerging democratic economy by trying to patronize local businesses as much as possible.

Or had we? What if the money we spent just ended up right inside the pockets of military-connected government cronies? I will say one thing for sure: If we had seriously been committed to completely responsible tourism, we would have spent far more time doing our pre-travel research on places to stay and other logistics. As it were, however, it was basically a last-minute trip that we did not meticulously research in advance, and after we arrived, I suspected that the hotels we ended up staying at in both Yangon and Bagan (which we had reserved online) were likely affiliated with the government in some way.

It truly is hard to know…but I will also say this: The possibility of enriching corrupt and morally dubious regimes is most certainly not restricted to this country. Obviously this is sensitive territory I am broaching, since a military dictatorship that has disrespected the rule of law so egregiously—and apparently continues to do so regarding media freedoms, in addition to other issues—is blatantly unacceptable, end of story. But what about other places where my partner and I have recently traveled, where the corruption seems just as disturbing?

In other words, even if our tourist money didn’t end up in the hands of despots, couldn’t it also be said that our being there was not contributing toward a deepening of democracy, but rather toward the erosion of the country’s existing spiritual and cultural fabric by encouraging the advance of soulless capitalism, which is already so apparent in places like Vietnam?

And as my partner and I also discussed, what about our own countries—hers, Brazil, to which tourists are now flocking for the World Cup, which she points out is still very much influenced by its own military dictatorship that officially ended almost 15 years ago? And how about my own country, which loves to chest-thump itself as the worldwide democracy numero uno—wait, did someone say “endless overseas warmongering and homeland prison state”?!

I guess what I am trying to say is that while trying to be sensitive to the reality of visiting a country at such a delicate period in its history, I also want to acknowledge that it is easy to fall into a patronizing “us vs. them” dynamic which actually masks the fact that there are plenty of other locales where inequalities also rule—including our own.

Alright, I am not sure whether anyone is still reading or not by this point (!), but if you’ve made it this far, I thank you! I will end by saying that a friend of mine does amazing work with an organization called Mekong Watch that helps bring accountability to Japanese-funded development projects in Burma…please do check out the very interesting blog that she maintains if you are interested.

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This street art seemed to have special significance in Yangon…

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