The Color of AuthorityStory and photos by Dennis Argenzia and Grace Cayosa
What is the name of the country bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand? Burma? Or Myanmar?
Lately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been doing a very public tap dance around these deceptively simple but politically charged questions. That’s because one of these names has become synonymous with human rights, freedom of speech and democracy (hint: it rhymes with urma) while the other was adopted by the brutal, “I Love Beating Monks” military junta that seized power in 1962 and drove this Southeast Asian country into political isolation and crippling poverty.
So, let’s just call it “Burma.”
For many seasoned Asia travelers, Burma was the last “non-Westernized paradise” in a region increasingly burdened by interpretations of American fast food and images of Tom Cruise. Those who visited Burma prior to 2010 gush about the friendly monks, cheap prices, stunning pagodas, cheap prices, pristine landscapes, cheap prices, women with powdered bark face paint and, oh yeah, cheap prices.
Unfortunately for the Burmese people, this affordability and apparent cultural purity came at the high price of political and personal freedom, so when discussing travel to Burma, it can be difficult to separate tourism from politics, especially if you consider yourself socially conscious. Therefore, we won’t even pretend to try.
Package people have access to gorgeous exclusive beaches, five-star hotels, fine(-ish) cuisine and comfortable transport that includes plenty of domestic flights. Their travel moments are planned for them. And every single kyat they spend goes straight into the pockets of the (corrupt) government.
Cut to everyone else: These are folks staying in budget guesthouses, eating street food or at local restaurants and taking hilariously dilapidated buses that double as grain transport. Many of these people are going out of their way to put money directly into local Burmese wallets, even if it means avoiding the more convenient but government-owned train or the tourist sites with entrance fees that end up lining some government coffer.
However, even the non-package people, with their open itineraries, will discover one important fact about wandering around Burma: you really can’t.
Now, we’re not being naïve; no one should expect to walk into a military-controlled border zone and not face intense scrutiny or expedited deportation. We’re talking about traveling between tourist spots. Main roads that would appear to provide the shortest distance between Interesting Tourist Point A to Interesting Tourist Point B are frequently off-limits to tourists. Try to ply these roads and you will face 1) refusal from bus/taxi drivers and guesthouse managers, and 2) the stern countenance of a policeman who will try to guide you out of “unsafe” areas, where “unsafe” means “near ruby mines or heroin processing plants.” Hence, a map of your Burma travels might look more like a star than a circle, and it’s this configuration that makes a short visit impossible, and 30 days not long enough.
Suggested points on your Burma travel star should include the hub city of Yangon/Rangoon (for the breathtaking golden Shwedagon Paya), Mandalay (home of the satirical comedy trio, the Moustache Brothers, who are currently under house arrest for pissing off the junta), Bagan (whose many many many pagodas and temples are best explored by horse-drawn buggy), Inle Lake (for a relaxing ride in a foot-paddled boat) and the town of Kalaw (for trekking).
Other useful tips: bring plenty of flawless $50 or $100 bills for currency exchange since there are no ATMs, and book accommodation at least a couple of days in advance because current demand is quickly outstripping supply.
For green, don’t come to Burma expecting Burmese Kush. While Burma is firmly positioned within the Golden Triangle, it is unclear what strain is growing in the hills. Equally unclear is the punishment for simple possession (punishment for cultivation is allegedly 5 to 10 years, with a maximum prison sentence of “undetermined length of time”). What is known is that availability (it is), sources (drivers, local families along trekking routes, etc.) and quality (acceptable) match that of Thailand.
As we finish typing this article, economic sanctions have been lifted by the U.S. and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi is free to travel the globe. With these changes come an uncertain political climate for Burma, paired with the certainty of increased tourism and Westernization. So see it now—before the giant golden arches arrive.