2000s Archive

Back on the Map

Originally Published August 2002
Things have loosened up in Myanmar, the beautiful country run by an ugly regime. Is it time to end the tourism boycott?

The monsoon season had just officially ended when I arrived in the country formerly known as Burma, but everyone was waiting for a last, cleansing rain to usher in the cool weather. Waiting is a permanent state of being in Myanmar; the place is a party where the guests never show. In downtown Yangon (you may remember it as Rangoon), a verdant capital city of parks, lakes, and crumbling colonial mansions, hotel doormen in starched uniforms stand idle, hopefully eyeing passersby, while bored chambermaids dust and then dust again the always empty rooms. Up north, at Mandalay's sparkling new airport, the international arrivals screens are eerily blank, the customs booths unmanned.

There's a reason for the dearth of tourists in this beautiful country—a reason that kept me away for years. An old Asia hand, I'd long heard stories of Burma's wonders, but also of its oppressive military regime. And of the tourism boycott called by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the acclaimed prodemocracy leader, who had been under house arrest. But then came the good news that the generals had released Suu Kyi, a certain overture to reconciliation. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in detention, although the government has now promised to release them soon. Even so, I decided that it was time for my long-delayed visit.

Glossy tourist brochures tout Myanmar as "the land that time forgot." It's really the land the world forgot. Finally freed from long British rule after World War II, this Southeast Asian country, rich in resources and culture, was taken over in 1962 by a military junta that closed its borders for three decades while misgoverning it into destitution. When the country finally emerged from isolation, the government's well-documented human rights abuses and brutal squelching of a prodemocracy movement provoked the United States and other nations into imposing economic sanctions, which stopped short of banning travel to Myanmar.

Although the country is tightly controlled by the generals, I rarely saw soldiers, or even policemen, during my weeks of travel, and I felt completely at ease with the Myanmar people, who are disarmingly hospitable. Most everyone I met spoke with candor about their lives. And even in fleeting encounters, the truth sometimes revealed itself unexpectedly. At Mount Popa, the cloud-ringed home to Myanmar's powerful nats, or guardian spirits (including a brother-and-sister team named Mr. Handsome and Golden Face), a pretty young woman smiled at me as she strolled by on the arm of her boyfriend. Her face was decorated with the yellowish white powder, ground from thanakha tree bark, that's worn by women, and some men, as a sunscreen and astringent. "You have a beautiful country," I called out. "I don't think so," she replied, smile intact, and kept moving.

As a waiter told me—his only customer—that same afternoon, "tourism is politics, food is politics, everything here is politics." Even religion. Buddhism is so strong in Myanmar that the generals contribute generously to maintain the temples and monasteries, hoping to win the support of the monks and, in turn, the people. It was sunset when I visited Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's holiest Buddhist site. The sky was streaked with pink, the grounds crowded with families and young couples on dates, all barefoot, as is the custom. Eight hairs from Buddha's head are enshrined here. When the hairs were uncased, legend has it, they emitted celestial rays that cured the crippled and caused trees in the faraway Himalayas to flower.

Sacred but not solemn, Shwedagon is an exuberant jumble of colorful shrines and glittery monuments on top of a high hill in Yangon. As I looked around, a young monk approached, explaining that he came here daily to practice his English on tourists (English learned from CNN broadcasts; his monastery has satellite television). "But please forgive me, for I am feeling rather topsy-turvy this evening," he said. "That's fine," I told him. I, too, was feeling topsy-turvy.

It was a feeling that never left me during my weeks in Myanmar, a feeling that must be any sane person's response to the disturbing juxtapositions of extravagant beauty and poverty, of the country's gentle Buddhist people and violent political history—contradictions of charm and woe that imbue every moment here with irony.

In Yangon, I was introduced to Ma Thanegi, a journalist and artist who wears gold rings on every finger of her left hand and has a passion for food. Ma Thanegi was a wealth of local, often bizarre, gossip that she loved sharing over bowls of soup noodles—the fermented fish-sauce-spiked mohinga at breakfast, or, at lunch, the ubiquitous curried chicken, ohn noh khauk swe.

Ma Thanegi told me of the Myanmar Air flight rerouted near Mandalay to avoid the path of a levitating monk. And of her friend's driver, who, told by a fortune-teller that he would have two marriages (the Myanmar people are obsessed with fortune-tellers and astrologers), wedded a duck to get the first one out of the way. After a week, he had the marriage annulled and the duck killed and cooked. "It was scrumptious," Ma Thanegi assured me.

But it was others who told me that Ma Thanegi had been an aide to Aung San Suu Kyi and had been imprisoned for three years for her politics. Today, like virtually everyone I met in Myanmar, she is of two minds about the prodemocracy leader: While staunchly supporting Suu Kyi's stand on human rights, she opposes sanctions and welcomes tourism. "Our people need jobs, or they'll starve to death while waiting for democracy," she says.

Ma Thanegi invited me to lunch at her old school chum Ruby's house. In Myanmar, ei wut kyay, or "fulfilling one's duty toward guests," is one way to gain merit points, redeemable in the Buddhist reincarnation cycle. Ruby, a cherubic mother of three, must be aiming for sainthood in her next life, for her modern house has enough chairs and sofas to accommodate a Greyhound busload of guests. The small, tidy kitchen boasts two stoves and a portable gas range.

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