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Don’t judge a country by its government: Burma, now

Forced labour. Aung San Suu Kyi’s imprisonment. Starvation. Corruption. Military rule. The Junta. This was all I knew about Burma (officially named Myanmar now, but I’ve always preferred pre-Junta names), yet I’d learned none of this first hand. It all came from conversations with travellers, magazines, online, and simple osmosis.

Pagan, BurmaWhen Burma pulled itself out of isolation and opened its doors to the world with the “Visit Myamar” campaign in 1996, I was just 13. Too young to care about or even understand the fact that Rangoon’s airport and Burma’s tourist infrastructure was built with forced labour, that people were kicked out of their homes to make room for tourists, and that Burma’s imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi stemmed from the Junta’s fear of her power to bring change. Still, these issues stuck in my memory and as I grew older and began to understand them, joining the Burma boycott was only natural.

It didn’t matter to me that Burma was undoubtedly one of the most exciting places I could visit, I just couldn’t stand the idea of a cent of my money going to support the Junta. But, every time I began planning a trip, a little voice inside would pipe up. “What’s Burma really like? Are people friendly? How do they cope with the Junta? Do they feel oppressed? What’s there to see? What’s there to do? Shouldn’t I find out?”

I’ve always been able to mute this little drown out this little voice with arguments about supporting the Junta until one day I had a realisation: I live in Hong Kong, a part of China, and I’ve travelled and lived all over China. There is no crime that I can use to justify boycotting Burma that China isn’t guilty of as well, often on a larger scale. With that, I decided to stop judging Burma based on second hand information. I would go, I would explore, and see it for myself.

Weeks later, as the plane touched down at Rangoon National Airport, I began to wonder if I’d made the right choice and my real first meeting with a local in the heart of Rangoon didn’t fill me with hope.

It was a young boy, draped in a Burmese monk’s classic red robes. His shaven head perched atop a pencil thin neck, more like a mannequin head balanced on a pin than a person. He begged loudly for money and I was horrified. Burma’s monks are famous for their resolve, the way they fight adversity with serenity, but here in front of me was a young monk loudly and unashamedly begging for money as if he hadn’t eaten in a week. Only when he began to leave, cursing me as he went, did I realise that he was probably a fraud.

Rangoon is home to the glistening golden Shwedagon Paya, Burma’s most sacred temple and a place every Burmese dreams of visiting once in their lifetime. As I gazed up at its enormous gold covered domes, I couldn’t help but wonder. How many people in this impoverished nation could be fed for the price of all that gold? How many could be sent to school? How many could be helped? Out in the lobby, photos of the Junta’s top generals visiting the temple. A reminder that no matter how devout a person and how peaceful their religion, some people will always do what suits them best at the expense of others.

Much more memorable than the temple itself, was a conversation I had within it. I’d taken shelter from rain and was joined by a young man who couldn’t be more than 22. His English was close to flawless and we chatted about life in Burma, but he wouldn’t be drawn into a conversation about the Junta. He was a student of English at the University of Yangon, with dreams of seeing the world as a part of Burma’s navy. Like many people I found, he was just excited to hear about the world outside.

Away from the Paya, Rangoon’s streets are lined with crumbling colonial buildings, decades of paint peeling away, turning the city into a patchwork of colour. Tourists this far from Schwedagon Paya aren’t common, so I am greeted with smiles, waves, and curious looks wherever I wander.

Every side street is a playground for young and old alike. I came across groups of women dressed in traditional Burmese gowns sitting on the street side chattering. Elsewhere, a group of middle-aged men squatted over a chalk game board on the pavement, playing what looked like a variant of chequers with old bottle caps. Later, I passed a group of young men playing Chinlone, their sarongs tied up tight like nappies or held in their hands to free their movement. As night fell, I came across a huge group of kids hanging out on the street. They were fascinated by my camera and demanded I take their photo. Some pulled macho faces, other pulled a V-sign, and a few just grinned happily at the camera.

Days later, I was on a horse and cart, riding towards the temples of Bagan. Before they were forcibly ejected in the 90s, the area of Old Bagan was home to a small village but after deciding to allow tourism, the government moved villagers to what was then a peanut field, now known as New Bagan. There is nothing left of the original village now, only the majestic temples it was once built around, and a few modern, government run five star hotels.

I saw plenty of the enormous, ornate temples on Bagan’s tourist trail, but I was drawn to a remote one, far from the trail. Dhammayangi Pahto, known by the locals as the ‘bad luck temple’, which supposedly had holes the size of arms in its masonry. The story goes that during construction, when workers got arms caught in the stonework, they were cut off and work continued around them. Perhaps out of morbid fascination, I wanted to see these holes.

What greeted me after a long dusty ride was an eight-foot fence and a closed, rusty gate. This temple, it seems, was closed to tourists. As I turned to leave there was a whistle. A boy appeared on the other side of the gate, smiling and pointing at a key. He opened the gate, gestured at me not to climb the temple then walked away.

Inside, I ran my fingers gently across frescoes thousands of years old, and stroked ancient stonework worn smooth by the rain, but I found no sign of the armholes I had been searching for. Looking up at the temple peak after my fruitless search, I discovered something much better. The setting sun had turned the sky a thousand shades of red and rolling in from the east was a lightning storm. The temple stood neatly in between, as if it was protecting the other temples from the rain. Maybe this temple isn’t such bad luck after all.

Throughout my tour of Burma, the experiences that stood out are the ones I sought out for myself, off the tourist trail, and the conversations I had with friendly locals. Burma’s major tourist sites, places like Inle lake, U Bein Bridge, and Mrauk U are world class destinations in their own right but to visit them and them alone is to miss out on what makes Burma so fascinating.

The real charm of Burma’s is how easy it is to go off the beaten track, and how friendly the people can be. Walk a few minutes away from a major tourist site in any direction and you’ll find yourself surrounded by people who’ve never seen a tourist. You’ll find sights, stores and stalls that most visitors never see, and experiences you won’t forget and when you’re tired of walking, visit a local restaurant, sit next to someone and start a conversation. They’ll be happy to talk and might even send you on your next adventure.

Beauty. Friendliness. Serenity. History. Excitement. On the plane back home, these were the features of Burma that I remembered, and there’s so much more to see and learn. I’d realised that my old ideas about Burma were completely unfair, because at the end of the day, you can’t judge a country on the actions of its government, or on the news published in the media. You need to see it for yourself and make your own decisions.

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