Welcome to Myanmar
May 05, 2004
Thailand has been swamped with tourists for years; 6 million visitors a year. The influx of tourists and money has changed Thailand tremendously. There are now 7-11s on every corner. Only the rare adventurous tourist went into Laos or Cambodia a few years ago. But SE Asia is changing unbelievably quickly, and now both of these countries are filled with tourists. 7-11s and Pizza Hut will be there soon.
Myanmar is, as of yet, still relatively untouched by tourism and western influence. But that won't last long. In 2 years, when I return to SE Asia, the tourist hordes will probably already be there. That's why I decided to go to Myanmar now.
Myanmar (previously known as Burma) seemed like my kind of place; not boring. It is led by an oppressive dictatorship. The leader of the Democratic party is under house arrest. The army battles drug lords and rebels along all of Myanmar's borders. It is the poorest country in SE Asia.
I had some fears though. I was afraid that as a journalist (a quick google search reveals me as a wanna-be journalist) I wouldn't be able to get a visa. I was also afraid is that they would confiscate my laptop on arrival. Both of these fears proved groundless.
I got the visa through a travel agency without problem. I knew that few tourists come to Myanmar, but the contrast against Thailand was striking. I arrived in Bangkok in a 747 with hundreds of other people. The plane that took me to Myanmar held 60 people, but most of them continued on to Bhutan or India. Only 7 tourists disembarked in Yangon.
From a military dictatorship, I expected an unpleasant and heavily-armed greeting at the airport. We got the opposite. The greeting was friendly, casual and relaxed. I stayed a bit suspicious though. I'm in the realm of a military dictatorship most often described as evil, paranoid and oppressive. Something is going to happen.
I dot every 'i' and cross every 't' on the immigrations forms. Then I nervously tell the immigration officer that I'm carrying a laptop. He doesn't even blink. He just shows me where to put it on the customs form. So much for that fear.
Suddenly one of the immigration officers shouts out, "What you eat?" My mind shifts into gear. I knew something was going to happen! What are these agents of evil up to? I'm thinking over the situation, when he shouts again "What you eat?"
I'm puzzling over the fact that food consumption is a bizarre thing about which to interrogate tourists when, with a huge bellowing laugh, the immigration officer yells out "You so tall!" We weren't being interrogated. There's no problem. The 5' tall immigration officer was just amused and shocked by the 6'2" backpacker in line behind me.
It seems that Myanmar is not going to be what I expected. It seems that Myanmar is not going to neatly fit in line with everything implied by "oppressive military dictatorship".
During that first week, I continued to be surprised. The country is run by a military dictatorship, but there were no soldiers on the streets and the police don't carry guns. It's one of the poorest countries in the world, but Yangon at least seems to be prospering. The government is repressive but allows religious diversity - scattered around the city are Buddhist pagodas, Hindu temples, Christian churches, Muslim mosques and even a Jewish synagogue.
The only hint that I got during that first week that there were problems were the so called "People's Goals" which were displayed prominently in the government produced newspaper:
1. Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.
2. Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation.
3. Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State.
4. Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.
Well, they let tourists in mostly to get ForEx but also to use them in order to create the impression in the West that Myanmar is a nice, friendly place o Earth. And thats exactly what they succeeded in, in your case. I have also been there and made similar experiences - but I also saw that locals have differentls-coloured ID cards, so that even illiterate army and police at remote checkpoints can identify the ethnic group they belong to! And accordingly, they are seperated and being searched. Burmese get usually no trouble while most other ethnic groups do. I got had a few personal infos from peopl who discretely trie to approach me to tell me their horror-stories. Kidnappings, forced labor, etc. Have you seen this british documentary on Myanmar? It shows the side of the country that tourists never get to see. The moat at Mandalay and the road to the airport there, for instance, were built by political prosoners and slave labor workers in chains!! So please keep your eyes and ears open when you travel and dont ever believe you have seen all. You will never, as a foreigner, be able to understand such a country completely. But trying to be open is a good start.
- May 14, 2004
I passed 4 months and half in Yunnan and I enjoyed it so much that even all your descriptions of Myanmar makes me not "so much" dream even if the pictures you send are nice; do you know that China if the "most freedom contry" in the world; of course it was such a surprise because I was not so "hot" to go in Yunnan. I took 1 700 pictures and I would open a web site so than you can profit of this part of China.