This article was first published on Passion Passport as an interview in 2015.
What brought you to Burma?
Initially, it was as simple as I wanted to visit Bagan. Then I cancelled my trip. Upon research, I found so many questions of a political, moral and financial nature I didn’t feel right visiting. This eventually led me on a journey of trying to discover a country I had crossed off from making a judgement call outside of its four walls.
When I finally landed on the tarmac of the airport, with three days in Yangon to start my trip, it was now intrigue and a passion to understand more about the nation from the locals, to see first hand what the media portrayed and to push the boundaries of my solo travel beyond their comfort zone. I still came to visit a destination, but I knew the journey was going to be more important before it had even started
What were your expectations going into the trip, and how were those matched or subverted?
By the time I had arrived to Myanmar I think it was fair to say I had tried to remove any expectations at all from my mind. Contrasting reports from various media forms along with my own self doubt of the validness of visiting had left me in a position that I wasn’t comfortable any more making assumptions.
Any doubt however was cancelled out quickly and my overall experience impressed more than I had expected. The one thing that did surprise me and went against my expectations was quite how crowded and ‘touristy’ many areas of the main four destinations I visited were. The sheer volume of tourism and infrastructure that was already in place along with accommodation options truly was a surprise to myself.
Describe the climate and the energy of the nation?
Genuine warmth beamed off everyone I met. From over excited check in assistants who would greet you like an old family member to inquisitive looks as you wondered past a stool on a side street that turned into conversation. There seemed a real sense of pride, of achievement and most excitingly a future being re-written in the air.
The underlying fact that so much of the country is ‘off limits’ and I was, in reality, visiting the tourist core however means trying to summarize on behalf of the nation and those still living in true poverty (or worse) would be a statement I am more than under qualified to make.
Describe the best moment of the trip?
The word breathtaking is such a cliche I never thought I would find a use for it. However since flying through the sunrise over Bagan it has rolled off my tongue constantly. As the sun rose over the Pagan Kingdom and the mist lifted around the landscape littered with pagodas I could literally feel the history and awe of the area hit me as warmly as the sunbeams which were slowly making their way into the world. It was, quite simply, breathtaking.
The true highlight of the trip however were the people. Hospitality, smiles, genuine care and warmth radiated off all whom I met. Everyone found a way to return my conversation, from silent nodding sat on the steps of a local bar to the lady who chatted with me for hours on a stool in a night market. These were the first moments in two months I put my camera away. I may not have any photos of those people or conversations but I can say with no doubt their images will be as strong in my mind in the future as the landscape photography which sits on my hard drive.
Walk us through the most challenging moment of the experience–emotionally, mentally, physically, and/or spiritually.
With a glass of champagne in hand and the most beautiful sunrise so fresh at the forefront of my mind it came as a shock to be suddenly faced with the most emotionally challenging moment of my trip. Coco.
He tried to approach us. Quietly and with no hard sell. I could see the poverty divide, literally, as a small fence got erected around us (us being the people with enough money to drink champagne at 9am in the morning in a workers field after our Hot Air Ballon ride had touched down). I realised the price I had paid for this incredible moment wasn’t in-fact that of the ticket. It was that of a moral level that money couldn’t define. For no one else acknowledged Coco other than to look away or rebuff his beautiful and frankly cheaply priced pieces.
‘They came. So many people come but they don’t buy, they don’t speak. They don’t even ask my name. You are different’ he said slowly rolling up my new exquisite sand painting he clung on to before turning and walking away. As I returned my attention to the group around me I questioned that, no, I wasn’t too different. I think it was the first moment I really understood the impact of how we travel. To find the balance of both our moral management whilst being able to experience all the places we do want to. Months on I am still trying to decipher if it’s even possible.
The political climate was only recently calmed after decades of military rule. What can you tell us about the current political climate?
People openly talked about the subject. It was rare I had to be the first to raise it. From field workers, to waitresses and bus drivers. The taboo of discussing politics certainly seems to have lifted. Which, in itself, I concluded was a sign of improvement.
For all my interactions however I don’t feel I witnessed or came away with much more of a better understanding than when I arrived. The reality of the fact that so much of the country remains essentially off limits highlights the fact that the journey may have started, but this is one country that needs to arrive at the destination as quickly as possible. A fear of upcoming elections changing the ‘good’ that so many people feel currently was muttered more than once.
But with images and news of certain ‘ethnic cleansing’ still appearing online its hard to grasp the full picture. One of the things I found so bizarre on my trip is the financial and political state of the country seemed to not be even remotely understood by many fellow travellers I met.
‘We can smile now’ one young lady, sporting a shiny pair of Reebok trainers below her traditional dress, told me waiting at a bus stop. I suppose on ground level, for the people of which it matters, the residents of this country, that the current political climate is the best they have ever known in their lives.
Travel+Leisure recently anointed Burma a “Destination of the Year.” Based on your experience, what kind of problems and benefits would an influx of tourism pose for the nation?
I hate to say it, but I feel it has started. Large tour busses ferry people around Government owned hotels and the sights. The ‘fear’ many people had of travelling this unknown land pushing them towards these types of travel, for which I was surprised to say I felt safer in the four main destinations of Burma than anywhere else in SEAsia I have visited. The key for me is to remember it is a developing country, where so much can change so quickly a guidebook is out of date before it is even printed. I was pretty shocked to see so many young backpackers clinging onto their books. Walking down roads I could tell you which bars and restaurants were listed by the congregated clientele. My personal worry is to see the wealth and benefits that tourism can bring not be spread out evenly. The benefits however that it can bring are two-fold, as long as we, the tourist, remember how we can deliver them.
What was your takeaway from this experience?
So much. More than any other country I have visited. I took away one of the most inspiring moments of my life watching the sunrise over Bagan as well as a feeling of warmth from the human race it is rare to feel these days. But the highlight for me was the thought process it evoked after the visit. All of my fears that had come from various sources were so dumb founded on the ground I felt crazy for ever believing in them. I started to re-evaluate travel, how I travel and how every visitor can play an impact on a developing nation. The smiles and hospitality of the locals though will long remain in my heart above anything else. It is for them I urge any people with doubts about visiting Burma to reconsider.
If you are after a more in-depth Myanmar travel guide check out Wills post for a few off the more ‘off the beaten path’ ideas.