Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a country famous for all the wrong reasons. Repressive military junta? Check. Bloody history of ethnic turmoil? Check. Violent suppression of political dissidents? Take a minute to Google ‘Saffron Revolution’ and see what pops up.
Knowing all of this, why would any reasonable traveller choose Myanmar for their next holiday? The answer, according to most guidebooks, is that the Burmese are a remarkably friendly and good-natured people despite their decades of suffering. However, in my experience most guidebooks are outdated at best and wildly inaccurate at worst.
So I decided to go see for myself.
Often compared to Angkor Wat by people who call any island with some sand and a coconut tree the ‘Hawaii of _____’, Bagan is famous for its ancient temples. From mammoth pyramids to tiny stupas, the endless sprawl of temples provides a perfect backdrop for breathtaking photography. Colourful hot air balloons drift serenely over the Martian landscape — endless stretches of parched reddish soil, dusty patches of scraggly brush trees, swirling clouds of golden sand along the banks of the Irrawaddy River. It really is a photographer’s dream.
As long as you can keep the obnoxious jerks around you out of your shot, that is.
Behind every great sunrise photo there is a photographer, and behind that photographer is a swarm of tourists who would happily shove him off a five-storey temple if it meant more room for selfies. As the crowds pushed higher and higher, jostling for precious tripod-space, I was swept away to the very edge.
There I stood shoulder to shoulder with a tiny Burmese woman in large bug-lensed sunglasses, our toes hanging over the reddish-orange bricks.
She shrugged her shoulders sympathetically as she pulled a pack of cigarettes from her pocket and offered me one. “Want a smoke? Looks like you could use one.” I shook my head as politely as I could — call it western naïveté, but smoking on top of a temple seemed blasphemous to me.
She sensed my hesitance. “It’s cool man, relax,” she said, blowing out a puff of silvery-grey smoke. “This is just a pile of old rocks. I’m Suu, by the way.” She drew lazily on her cigarette, flicking ash onto the old Chinese ladies below us. I was fascinated — this rule-breaking tobacco fiend was infinitely more interesting than the panorama before me. I asked her what she was doing in Bagan.
“Tour guide, of course,” she said, launching into a familiar script, “and before you ask — my English is good because I lived in Singapore. I watch a lot of American TV shows too… you ever see Homeland? I love CIA stuff.” I stared at her in slack-jawed amazement.
We kept talking, long after the sun had risen above the temple fields and the Chinese tourists had departed for shadier climes. Our conversation ranged from Nobel laureate and western media darling Aung San Suu Kyi (“attention-grabbing poseur”) to the hottest K-pop stars (“G-Dragon, for sure”). When it was time to go, I asked her if there was anything she’d like foreigners to know about the Burmese people.
She looked at the ground for a moment and replied, “We’re real people. Not good-hearted, not simple — we’re real.”
Kalaw is a colonial-era hill station in the central Shan State. A cool and mountainous place, it was settled by Indian and Nepali railroad workers after their British overlords decided that was cheaper than sending them home. Today most foreign visitors stop there only briefly en route to Inle Lake, a much more popular tourist destination. Aside from a central market and a handful of Nepali restaurants, there isn’t much to do in Kalaw.
Especially when you arrive at 4am.
When I stepped off the bus, I was stunned by the frigid air. In southern Myanmar I had never stopped sweating, yet here I might have been in the Himalayas. To make matters worse, the town seemed completely deserted. Rows of small wooden houses lined the rutted main road, windows dim and silent; even the roosters were quiet.
Frantically I rubbed my hands together and glared at my travel buddy, a Russian-Israeli by the name of Pasha. “What are we supposed to do for the next four hours?” I hissed through chattering teeth.
We hefted our bags and trudged down the road, each building emptier than the one before. We were walking through a Wild West ghost town after the gold dried up. Until we came across the teahouse.
Huddled beneath a shabby tin roof sat a small cluster of plastic chairs and tables, where old Burmese men in fur-lined parkas sipped hot milk-tea and munched on deep-fried sticks of dough. Their eyes were glued to a gigantic plasma screen TV, upon which Chelsea was beating the living hell out of Liverpool.
A sturdy man with thick black hair and Indian features rose to greet us. A Bluetooth headset blinked in his ear. “Please, sit!” he boomed, “We have WiFi! My name is Mr. Samir. Do you like football?” He handed me a steaming cup of tea.
I turned to Pasha, my mouth agape, but he had already produced several electronic devices and was pestering Mr. Samir for the password. “High speed, dude!” Pasha exclaimed excitedly. Mr. Samir’s broad dark face beamed at the compliment. He was the proud proprietor of a technological oasis in the middle of a blacked-out desert.
“Please sit… drink… eat… watch football with us. Here it is safe and warm. You can wait for the hiking later. Now we are relaxing.”
So we sat together until dawn, sipping tea and nibbling fried dough, checking Facebook and chain smoking. We asked Mr. Samir no questions, because the important stuff was already clear. His tea was hot. His chairs were comfortable. His heart was kind.
And he had WiFi.
Hpa An, a tiny town in Myanmar’s southeastern Kayin State, is famous for its cave temples. I use the word ‘famous’ liberally — few foreign tourists make the bumpy, crowded journey by night bus from Yangon. Only a few guesthouses are even licensed to allow non-Burmese.
Some of the cave temples feature communal swimming holes — fed by streams of cool, greenish water that trickle down from the mountains and provide a welcome respite from the oppressive Burmese heat. The desk clerk at my guesthouse recommended I stop at one for an afternoon dip to catch an authentic glimpse of local life. It wasn’t a hard sell.
When I arrived at the little grotto, I was welcomed by a frenzy of activity — old ladies handwashed their brightly-coloured longyis while unruly teenage boys performed backflips into the shallow water. Tattooed monks in their saffron robes were chain smoking and checking out the girls. The air was filled with happily chattering voices and the smell of roasted corn.
It was really an idyllic scene until the man started screaming.
From across the pool, I saw a small, thin figure being carried towards the water like a trussed pig, yelling piteously at the men who held his arms and legs. He had a small, neat beard and an unmistakable look of panic in his eyes. His cries grew more urgent and pathetic as they neared the pool and I gritted my teeth, not wishing to intervene but horrified by the bullying before my eyes. Clearly the man was mentally and physically disabled. He began to sob as he was dropped into the water, his legs sinking limply as he tried in vain to keep his head above the surface. The two other men grabbed him by the shoulders and forced him down into the muddy pool, deaf to his anguished protests.
I clenched my fists and looked around to see if anyone was going to help this man before he was drowned in broad daylight. Nobody stirred. It was soon obvious why.
When the man’s head reemerged from the water, his eyes shone with joy rather than fear. He waved his arms happily back and forth as he laid on his back while the two ‘tormentors’ pushed him in lazy figure eights. Some teenagers offered their inner tubes, and soon the thin bearded man was surrounded by a group of Burmese old and young, all of whom were laughing and playfully splashing water. Eventually one of the men hoisted him onto his back, like a father carries his child, and he staggered out of the pool. They sat together at the water’s edge as he ruffled the thin bearded man’s hair and dried his damp face, avoiding his mirthful swipes with patient good humour.
There are no social services for poor rural Burmese, no bureaucratic safety net for those unable to harvest rice or build houses or repair machinery. Life is difficult enough for the sharp-minded and able-bodied. One might expect the handicapped to be doomed to a Hobbesian existence at best — nasty, brutish and short.
Yet I couldn’t help but notice the neatness of the man’s beard, or the rows of straight white teeth when he smiled. Somebody was taking care of him. I sat and watched while his two protectors rubbed his stick-like limbs with soap and combed his hair with unmistakable tenderness. They dressed him in clean dry clothes and held a bottle of water to his lips, like two burly mothers tending to an enormous newborn. The thin bearded man turned his head back and forth between them, flashing his brilliant smile and eyes full of gratitude, and I thought that maybe just this once the guidebooks got it right.