28 Days in Burma

As we flew closer to Yangon, we could see a green rice paddies glimmering in the sun, like a fertile mirror. Here we were, no turning back now, our Myanmar adventure had begun.

I first thought of visiting the country when Laxman announced, almost a year earlier, that he was now ready to go and see what was going on there. I thought I wouldn’t mind going along, accompany him on a first time adventure for both of us. He had postponed his visit for two decades because of the political situation in Myanmar. Till my first trip to India the year before, I’d never really thought of where I’d like to go, and I certainly hadn’t thought of myself as someone who’d go anywhere ‘dodgy’. All I’d heard of Burma was about Aung San Su Si on house arrest and 1940′s soldiers building railways in jungles, but suddenly the names of Mandalay and Rangoon sparkled with poetic wonder in my mind.

Our friend Charlotte had been a tour guide on several organised trip to the country, and spoke of it and of its beautiful people with warmth and enthusiasm.

I started reading up on Burma, her history, also contemporary real stories, and talking about it. Some of my friends had seen documentaries about the tourist infrastructure being built on slave labour, the Burmese had called for a boycott themselves and the regime brutally repressed the people. But now on the internet, some other Burmese were decrying the boycott as more harmful than tourism, saying that there is no worse fate for the people of Myanmar than isolation. It seemed the leader herself started to hint at discrimination.
What was really going on?

In the middle of my research, the September 07 monks’ rebellion started. Now, with some background information, our visit looked quite unlikely. Laxman continued to gather practical information, and I kept on following the news and reading background info till January, when I really needed to make a decision – I was leaving by the end of the month…

Reading the latest forum posts from people who had just returned, I made my mind. They were saying that we must go, tourism had dropped to almost zero, and the budding independent tourist industry was decimated. Isolation was painfully severe to ordinary Burmese, and used by the regime to control people further.

The important thing, insisted the travel book and individual travellers with a conscience, was to avoid putting money in the pocket of the government, and use as far as possible local, private and independent services. Put money directly in people’s hands.

So, sharing this information, we still both wanted to go.
I took off with the intention to get to Bangkok first, and see there if I’d get a visa there.

We got a visa without any hassle or trouble. There were only another 7 or 8 tourists applying, and it all went very quickly. At the embassy, the guys behind the window, presumably ‘baddies’ in league with the regime, looked like ordinary family men trying to earn their living. So it was going to be a lot more complex than the new Rambo film, just coming out these days and much talked about, made out….

As the old, near empty plane prepared to land, I let my thoughts wander – what were we going to find down there?