I’ve spoken to a few people about our trip to Burma over the last few weeks. I think we must both make it sound like hard going, which in many ways it was...although I don’t think Justin’s illness, our (in hindsite) short timescale and lack of dollars helped! The distances are massive and we only saw a small number of touristy places in the middle of the country. No wonder Aung San Suu Kyi needed a break after the punishing travel schedule she set herself for pre-elections campaigning.
But, following the recent by-election and ongoing, albeit small, changes we would strongly recommend a visit. The breathtaking views as I walked out of a small dark archway and saw hundreds of temples stretching out in every direction as far as the eye could see across the Bagan plain will be one of my favorite memories from this trip. As will sitting in a boat silently watching the silhouetted Inle Lake fishermen prepare their nets as the sunset behind them, turning the sky and water beautiful shades of orange, pink and red.
More importantly though it was the people that we met along the way. We felt very privileged to have had the opportunity to visit the country at what feels like a monumental moment. The guidebooks and websites will tell you that people don’t talk in Burma, not to ask questions or to expect answers.
We found a very different Burma. A country where people appeared by your side out of no-where to whisper their support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party as well as their dreams of a better life for their children and grandchildren. A country where political posters were tentatively appearing in shops for the first time, with proud owners speaking of their hopes for a more prosperous business in a more democratic and open country. A country where the market-stall holders were openly selling anything they possibly could with a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi on!
We also met people willing to speak about what it was like to live in Burma. We met a forty-year-old man whose words will stay with us forever. He spoke about his life under the military junta, finishing his story with the words: “On the outside we are smiling” and at this point crawled into a ball with his hands over his head and his wide eyes peering out (whilst his friend tried to shush him and kept saying he would be arrested and taken away) “but inside we are scared and crying.” We both choked back tears. This man had lived a life we would never be able to understand. It certainly made us realise how much we take for granted.
Many of the news stories surrounding the elections have focused on the single lone figure of Aung San Suu Kyi – “The country’s only hope.” as one fellow traveller put it. She is certainly one of the most amazing women in the history of politics. You should read one of her autobiographies if you haven't already – truly inspiring, an unconditional commitment to her country and people – or listen to the podcasts from last years Reith Lectures.
However, she is not alone. Just look at the political prisoners recently released or still in prison. The grassroots campaign groups. The Burmese rap and rock musicians. The democracy campaigners. The business owners. The average person on the street. To say Aung San Suu Kyi is alone undermines the impact of a little hope, the importance of an idea and the power of people ready for a change for the better. We were so happy to read stories about the by-elections, flawed as they were, particularly as we know how much it will mean to some of the individuals, families and businesses we met along our travels. Visit Burma…and travel responsibly!
In the words of Rudyard Kipling…“Welcome to Burma. It is quite like any place you have been before.”