My recent trip to Myanmar was preceded by a strange, almost surreal moment.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s long incarcerated democracy leader, was in Connecticut last month, speaking at Yale. I was watching her live online while packing to depart for her country. We were switching global positions, something unimaginable even just a few months before. Despite decades of worldwide support, endless appeals, countless editorials, the Nobel Peace Prize, and even a song from U2, there were serious doubts Suu Kyi would ever taste freedom again, and I just couldn’t bring myself to visit Myanmar unless she did.
And there she was, chatting openly with law students and professors about ducking repeated police pursuits and unexplained detainments. I was on my way, and now, so is President Obama. His visit must be a surreal milestone for Myanmar, which sees America as both a promised land but also the global superpower that has choked it off for decades. The doors to Myanmar are not just cracking open. They are swinging wide almost overnight. Rapid changes are outdating guidebooks updated within the last year. Even the president may be surprised at what he finds there.
Despite being one of the most oppressive and closed countries, people have been visiting Myanmar, just not many of them, and almost no one from the US. During my visit three weeks ago, I did not encounter a single American. The travelers mostly hailed from Spain, Turkey and Japan, but already the numbers are surprising. Many pro-democracy advocates have mixed feelings about the influx of visitors, believing it’s too soon, considering the lack of infrastructure and the dollars tourists send into the coffers of the authorities. These are issues each traveler needs to carefully consider, but if you love seeing countries before they change, you need to go now.
Our initial travel briefing, and even the new Lonely Planet Guide, warned that our cell phones might be confiscated upon arrival. No one touched our phones, but it would be a useless gesture. There are no networks for my U.S. IPhone or the Blackberries and various other smart phones belonging to my traveling companions from Hong Kong. I took out my phone just for the camera and calculator. Surprisingly, no one gave us any trouble for taking pictures at places potentially deemed off limits, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and the offices of the National Democracy League. The closest my phone got to being confiscated was when I was grabbed by some aggressive monkeys on a pilgrimage to Mt. Popa. (I am not making this up) The animals have learned to steal from visitors in return for food. This isn’t to say there are no cell phones in Myanmar. The country has already joined the rest of the world in making the cell phone the almighty status symbol, but the scale there is exaggerated. In relative terms, it’s like owning a Bentley. While the per capita income remains under $500 a year, the cost of buying a cell phone and black market SIM card is around 3 thousand US dollars. (Again, I am not making this up) “So who has one?” I asked. “Generals and their relatives,” was the answer.
Given the widespread censorship in Myanmar, we were stunned to find a few wi-fi hotspots. Perhaps Myanmar is acknowledging that this is one tide of progress that just can’t be held back. Granted, I never actually saw a local with a laptop, and the wi-fi was limited to the two high-end hotels in the capital exclusive to international visitors. Keep in mind, the internet is very much like the country’s electricity: unpredictable, unreliable, and frequently down.
As expected, geo-political and economic isolation have turned Myanmar into a time-capsule. Like Cuba, the cars are dated, but there is an added twist. After the British departed, driving was switched back to the right hand side of the road. However, the majority of old and used cars still have their steering wheels on the right side as well. Right side driving with right-sided drivers makes for gripping passenger seat travel. If you think London traffic is disorienting for Americans, up the anxiety ten-fold. Rule number one for visitors: Don’t drive. There is no getting used to it. Second rule: watch where you walk. The crumbled sidewalks barely cover the crude network of sewers, and it is quite possible to fall in.
President Obama and his entourage may be the only men in pants. Except for military uniforms, pants have not arrived here. The country is also devoid of the pop cultural references and fads that have pervaded and homogenized pretty much the rest of the world. Given the oppressively hot weather that descends on Myanmar much of the year, the long, elegantly wrapped skirts called longyi make sense. Women also wear long skirts, but theirs are straight and not wrapped. The only other country I’ve seen with such uniform adherence to a native dress is Bhutan, but it’s just a matter of time before all this changes.
There is a big irony the America traveler encounters immediately. The U.S. has long shunned Myanmar with tough economic sanctions. There is no official trade and no sight of a western bank, but Myanmar’s economy runs on the U.S. dollar. It is quite possible to visit without ever changing a single dollar to the local Kyat currency. Think about it. No Americans in sight, but all transactions are being done in American dollars, save for the smallest purchases from remote street peddlers.
But there is a catch. Those dollars must be crisp, clean, unmarked and without a single crease. The recent redesigns have complicated matters. For a while, the locals refused to accept the newer bills with enlarged presidential images believing them to be counterfeit. Now, even the best hotels and shops refuse to accept bills printed before 2008, with the smaller images. Since credit cards, ATMs and banks are non-existent, you are forced to bring a lot of cash. I raised a few eyebrows at my local bank, first for the amount I was withdrawing, and then for my repeated returns to the teller windows to exchange bills for not being crisp enough. I scrawled a reminder in my notes that it’s impossible to bring too many wet naps or one-dollar bills. The first order of business for Myanmar needs to be a banking system.
There is a custom all visitors, including President Obama, must anticipate and absolutely follow. One is required to go barefoot within the confines of any sacred Buddhist site. This is not limited to the interiors of the temples. When circling the many acres of Yangon’s magnificant Shwedagon Paya, or climbing the 777 steps of Mt. Popa, you must do so barefoot. This was of particular discomfort for my traveling companions, perhaps more emotional than physical. At Mt. Popa, it means stepping in or around monkey poop. For the temples of Bagan, it requires scaling rocky surfaces with no protection, leaving one’s feet filthy and sore. See note above about never having too many wetnaps. If you wear socks or skirts above the knee you will be stopped by the authorities cum temple guards.
Sadly, there is no way to avoid having your dollars enrich the oppressive government. Despite reforms and vows to crack down on corruption, we were told that the ruling military has its hands in pretty much everything, and every transaction results in a kickback. The airlines, hotels, “official” shops and restaurants all have ties to the so-called cronies. Experts advise visitors to buy as little as possible from as many places as possible, thereby creating the best odds of actually helping the local people. I ventured to the dirtiest street markets to buy slippers next to the fish heads. My sensitive companions took this a step further. We hired a private guide and requested a visit to his local village school where we distributed notebooks and pens. We concentrated on dispensing gifts in remote areas to offset the government kickbacks we knew we could not control. This is no solution to poverty and even poses the risk of creating unhealthy expectations in the future, but we felt compelled to carry out our own micro “wealth redistribution” on this trip.
There are many warnings about inadvertently putting locals at risk by asking too many personal questions. I took this one seriously and acted at all times as if I were being followed. It’s hard not to recognize the disparity created by the government. Ostentatious mansions border dirt-poor areas. It’s widely known who lives in those grand houses and why. It’s vitally important to remember the things visitors, including President Obama, will never see, including hundreds of prisoners of conscience, forced labor facilities and the ethnic violence raging in the farther reaches of the country. All this is widely documented. Even this week, there was yet another attack in the Kachin region that resulted in more lives lost, but things appear to be changing for the better. News that more than 400 political prisoners are being released in advance of President Obama’s visit is a start.
The President will only be in Myanmar for about six hours, not even spending the night there. I feel sorry for him. It is a long way to travel to miss out on such beauty.
The golden monuments and temples shimmer with incredible beauty and the handiwork of devotees who have patiently pressed gold leaf on all the figures. We were most impressed with the people. They were lovely, generous and patient with us. We saw no begging and what we offered the children was immediately shared with their siblings and friends. This is why my companions have such optimism for the country’s development and future. There is a dignity and patience in the populace, which I attribute to their surviving decades of fear, hopelessness and isolation. This visit by President Obama, the first by any U.S. President, is a strong sign that the world is ready to welcome back a country it has long shunned. It is also a sign that Myanmar is ready to stop isolating itself. It will be fascinating to see where the country goes from here.