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Big Trip Blog Bigtripblog is a multimedia travel experience capturing the adventures of Kevin and Valerie during their one year trip around the world.

The People You Meet Along the Way

MYANMAR | Thursday, 7 June 2007 | Views [3854]

Whether or not you should travel to Myanmar (or Burma) is still debated. If you are unaware of the situation there, basically the government is harsh and repressive, and the leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, has called for an international tourist boycott of the country, fearing tourist dollars will empower the current regime. She is currently under house arrest in Yangon.

Because traveling to Burma is something of a weighty decision, we made a difficult promise to ourselves before setting foot there: to shed 9 months worth of thick traveler’s skin. This is the stuff that you get from traveling to places like Egypt and India, the wariness of dealing with locals who, in those places, seem to only ever want to get at the contents of your wallet.

Conversing without a catch

By the advice of some other travelers who had been to Burma, we elected to be open to any and all to approach us while in this troubled country. We had heard that some people just wanted to practice their English; others looking for contact with the West (or Outside in general); and some looking to discuss politics. Because of the severity of the situation, we figured these kinds of interactions were crucial to getting the most out of a slightly controversial trip, and they were worth the potential risk of talking to the wrong types of people who often approach you while backpacking in Asia.

The Student

“Hi, where are you from?” asked the young looking, well-kept guy that appeared from behind me as we walked through a crowded street market in downtown Yangon.

A short conversation later, and Val and I had agreed to meet the young student (name withheld for privacy concerns) the next day to help him practice his English conversation, and for him to show us around town a little.

We met him in front of Sule Paya, the center of town, and on the way to the city’s main market, he immediately started telling us about the people’s dire situation. He told us about how he was studying business, and that his older brother (whom he lived with) was paying for his education. In short, he was the main hope of his family; bright and motivated, they were all sacrificing so that he could get an education, hopefully find a good job in either Bangkok or Singapore, and send enough money back home to support the family.

His English was amazing, and he was incredibly polite, and more interestingly for us, very forthcoming about the political situation in Myanmar. When we asked if he was worried that he’d get in trouble for talking to us, he assured us that as long as we spoke in English, everything would be fine.

While showing us around some of the main sites in Yangon, he told us about the restrictions on the internet, the censorship of the press, and the tens of thousands of starving people in Myanmar. “They know it, but they don’t care,” he said a few times, shaking his head. He was referring to how the military junta could spend money on whatever they wanted, yet somehow neglect to feed hungry people, even in Yangon.

He also gave us tips on how to avoid giving the government money, some of which weren’t in our guidebooks or on the internet. He gave us a list of acceptable bus companies and encouraged us to change money on the black market.

Probably the most shocking thing we learned from our friend was that he had at one time been forced to live on the streets with his older brother. His older brother, he told us, had been very good to him. He was past the age at which most Burmese men marry, but could not afford to support both his younger brother and a wife. So until he graduated and hopefully went overseas looking for work, he could not find a wife. His eyes almost filled with tears as he explained how good his older brother had been to him.

At one point, when his brother lost his job, they lived on the streets. They spent a whole week with nothing to eat, and weren’t sure what would happen to them. Finally, his older brother got a job in construction, and now they live together in a small apartment.

It was an eye-opening experience talking to our young (20) friend, who has more drive than anyone I knew growing up. When we left him we sincerely wished him well, and thanked him for telling us so much about his country.

Jack London and some Lychee

While waiting at a travel agent’s office at the main shopping area in Yangon alone, I was approached by a kindly looking old man. He wore clothes that should have been replaced years ago, looked a little too thin, and carried two large plastic bags, worn from repeated use. One was full of clothes or rags; it was difficult to tell. The other held books, sharing space with a pile of lychees.

“Hello,” he said with a warm grin. I greeted him back. He asked where I was from, and so I told him. An even warmer grin spread across his face. “I love America,” he said as he leaned forward. “It is like a kind of paradise.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” I said, not sure quite how to react.

“Oh, no. It is paradise. I love America. I love their ideas, the things they do,” he said, clearly undeterred by my hesitancy to accept such glowing, forgiving praise.

“Well, we don’t always do the right thing, but I think we try,” I said, making a compromise more with myself than with him. It was obvious at this point he didn’t care whether or not I recognized the complexity of the actions of the United States. He would not be deterred.

“How do you like my country,” he asked, hopeful and cautious.

“Oh,” I said, “It is beautiful here. I wish I could see more. And the people are so friendly.”

He continued smiling, obviously happy with my reply. I was expecting him to want to talk about the situation with the government, the international community, etc. Instead, he started talking about Jack London.

“I’ve read all of his books,” he said, quite proudly. “I study English and read his books.” As he said this he reached into one of his old plastic bags and pulled out an ancient copy of “Sea Wolf,” written by none other than Jack London. He went into a long, and incredibly difficult to understand explanation of why he liked him so much. He asked me if I was alone, and I said my “wife” (sometimes just easier) was back at the hotel.

“Ah, you have a better half?” he asked, clearly pleased. Then he reached into his bag and pulled out several handfulls of lychee, insisting I take them. I tried to refuse, but he was persistent, so I politely accepted his gift, promising to share them with my “wife.”

The Junta

The government of Myanmar is an authoritarian military dictatorship, often referred to as the junta. They are in complete control of the country. There is no freedom of speech or press, and they actively attempt to block the majority of internet sites, particularly news and communications, especially email.

While we were in the country, they announced that Aung Su Kyi was to be held under house arrest for another year. Many of her supporters, and probably most of the country, had hoped she would be released at the end of her most recent term. We had to hear about this from a fellow traveler; it would never appear in any of the country’s newspapers, all of which are heavily censored. We found a few copies of “The New Light of Myanmar,” which is the official government-run English newspaper. It consists mainly of positive stories about the government and the generals, and absolutely nothing about the opposition or anything that would make them look bad.

We were out of Yangon at the time, but our student friend told us that there were several demonstrations when people heard the news (on the BBC, since the in-country news outlets are all state run and wouldn’t announce something like that). Many people were arrested, even those attending a peaceful ceremony at a major pagoda, where people merely prayed for the release of Ang Suu Kyi. He even told us that locals were under a curfew for the next several days, although foreigners wouldn’t be affected.

Our student friend also said he is very careful who he talks to when he is in public, like at a bus stop. He said the government has hired spies who walk around the city center in plain clothes, trying to pick up the mood on the street or get wind of important events. For this reason he rarely speaks to strangers.

He also said that many people in the country pay very little attention to the actions of the government. This, he thinks, is because they are so poor they are simply trying to survive and take care of themselves, and don’t want to get involved in politics. He admitted that he was very careful to avoid political situations or conversations (except with foreigners in English) for fear of being arrested or getting into trouble of any kind.

More information about the state of affairs in Myanmar is available from multiple sources on the internet. If you are interested, please take a look.

Tags: People

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