The time to go is now

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - AN­DREW R. C. MAR­SHALL

RE­CENTLY I had din­ner in Yan­gon with an Amer­i­can ex­pa­tri­ate who ar­rived at an up­scale restau­rant with a flash­light strapped to her head. Her ac­ces­sory made sense only af­ter we had left the restau­rant, which was brightly lit with the aid of gen­er­a­tors, to find Yan­gon, a city of about six mil­lion res­i­dents, in near-to­tal dark­ness. The only place still il­lu­mi­nated was the Sh­wedagon Pagoda, Myan­mar’s most revered Bud­dhist mon­u­ment. It hov­ered mag­i­cally over the in­vis­i­ble city like a gi­ant golden space­ship.

For the 17 years I’ve known it, Yan­gon (for­merly Ran­goon) has suf­fered from power out­ages, but ev­ery­thing else in Burma feels like it’s chang­ing. For nearly half a cen­tury, the coun­try was an iso­lated mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship. To­day it has a re­form-minded, semi-civil­ian government that has re­leased hun­dreds of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, in­clud­ing global democ­racy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and thrown open its doors to for­eign vis­i­tors. The change has been so rapid that I’ve spent the past 18 months do­ing two things — re­port­ing from Myan­mar and pinch­ing my­self.

In April last year, I stood a few me­tres be­hind Suu Kyi as she ad­dressed cheer­ing sup­port­ers out­side the Yan­gon head­quar­ters of her Na­tional League for Democ­racy party, which had just won 43 seats in free and fair by-elec­tions. Just five years be­fore, in nearby streets I had watched sol­diers shoot at monks and beat peo­ple who dared chal­lenge the junta’s iron-fisted rule. That ill-fated protest — the so-called Saf­fron Rev­o­lu­tion — now felt as if it be­longed to an­other cen­tury.

The mil­i­tary seized power in 1962 and set about trans­form­ing one of Asia’s most promis­ing na­tions into a land of poverty and fear. I first vis­ited Myan­mar in the mid-1990s, and soon loved the coun­try as much as I loathed the gen­er­als who ruled it.

Even then, there was a nar­row but de­servedly well­beaten tourist trail — the old colo­nial cap­i­tal of Yan­gon; the tem­ple-stud­ded plains of Ba­gan; the be­witch­ing Inle Lake on the Shan Plateau; and the royal city of Man­dalay (royal, that is, un­til the in­vad­ing Brits carted away the last king to In­dia). But Myan­mar is a rel­a­tively large coun­try, equal to the com­bined area of Eng­land and France, and it re­wards the ad­ven­tur­ous soul.

In the past, tak­ing the road less trav­elled was com­pli­cated by an Or­wellian sur­veil­lance sys­tem. Few pro­vin­cial ho­tels and guest­houses ad­mit­ted for­eign­ers, and those that did were closely mon­i­tored by the au­thor­i­ties. Th­ese pre­cau­tions re­flected the para­noia and xeno­pho­bia of Myan­mar’s rulers. ‘‘When you open the win­dows for fresh air, flies some­times get in,’’ warned one gen­eral af­ter his coun­try be­gan cau­tiously wel­com­ing tourists in the 90s. Those ‘‘flies’’ in­cluded hu­man rights mon­i­tors and for­eign jour­nal­ists.

Daz­zled by the coun­try’s hu­man di­ver­sity (it is home to dozens of eth­nic mi­nori­ties), I set out to ex­plore its tourist-free high­lands. I was guided by the 19th-cen­tury writ­ings of Bri­tish colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tor Ge­orge Scott. That the coun­try he de­scribed was still recog­nis­able was a mea­sure of how lit­tle moder­nity had touched it. Ap­proach Bangkok by air and you pass over hous­ing es­tates and fac­tory roofs. With Yan­gon it is glint­ing golden stu­pas and vil­lages ma­rooned amid rice­fields.

The Burmese peo­ple I met were so warm and hos­pitable that it was easy to for­get they lived in a dic­ta­tor­ship. (The Saf­fron Rev­o­lu­tion in 2007 was the first and last time I saw sol­diers on the streets.) Some­times the only re­minder was the junta’s mouth­piece, the New Light of Myan­mar news­pa­per, which railed against ‘‘in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal de­struc­tive el­e­ments’’ and ran car­toons de­pict­ing Suu Kyi as a tooth­less crone backed by schem­ing for­eign­ers.

Democ­racy ac­tivists called it the New Lies of Myan­mar. Scat­tered jar­ringly amid its hate­filled pages were proverbs urg­ing read­ers to give blood or im­prove the en­vi­ron­ment. ‘‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago,’’ read one. ‘‘The sec­ond-best time is now.’’

Fast-for­ward a decade and no­body is talk­ing about flies and win­dows any more. Myan­mar re­ceived more than a mil­lion for­eign vis­i­tors last year, with in­come from tourism in­creas­ing by 67 per cent com­pared with the pre­vi­ous year, ac­cord­ing to government statis­tics.

Even the New Light of Myan­mar,

in a re­cent ar­ti­cle, ex­tended a ‘‘hearty wel­come’’ to for­eign­ers.

Yan­gon, al­ways a fre­netic city by day, now feels su­per-charged. Streets that once boasted few cars are of­ten grid­locked.

‘‘Trans­for­ma­tion is un­der way,’’ reads a sign out­side one down­town ho­tel. It means ‘‘ren­o­va­tion’’, but the hy­per­bole is un­der­stand­able — the bet­ter ho­tels now charge hun­dreds of dol­lars a night for a room, and even grot­tier lodg­ings can be fully booked. I ad­vise ex­plor­ing the rest of this un­spoiled coun­try soon. I love the old river­side towns, which are sus­tained not by tourism but by cen­turies of trade car­ried along the great wa­ter­ways. Monywa, on the Chind­win River, is one such gem. It is a three-hour drive west of Man­dalay through a mag­i­cal land­scape crowded with tem­ples.

An­other is Mawlamyine (for­merly Moul­mein), also rarely vis­ited. Closer to Yan­gon, it’s a day-long jour­ney there on one of the coun­try’s fes­tively di­lap­i­dated trains. In both places you feel the rhythms of a dif­fer­ent cen­tury, when rivers, not roads, con­nected Myan­mar’s towns and vil­lages to each other and to the greater world.

Guide­books once ad­vised their read­ers on how to visit Myan­mar with­out en­rich­ing its dic­ta­tors. Those dic­ta­tors have gone, or at least re­tired, but it’s still hard to tour the coun­try with­out en­rich­ing the ‘‘cronies’’, or ty­coons who got rich from their cosy links to the former junta.

Take Air Ba­gan, for ex­am­ple, one of whose planes crashed on Christ­mas Day while tak­ing tourists to the pic­turesque Lake Inle. Two peo­ple were killed and 11 in­jured. It is owned by Tay Za who, thanks to his lu­cra­tive re­la­tion­ship with former dic­ta­tor Than Shwe, once pro­claimed him­self the na­tion’s ‘‘first bil­lion­aire’’.

A sec­ond air­line, Air KBZ, is owned by a reclu­sive ty­coon, Aung Ko Win, who owes his for­tune to gem trad­ing and the pa­tron­age of an­other re­tired se­nior gen­eral. One of Air KBZ’s planes also crashed last year, at Thandwe, the tourist gate­way for Nga­pali Beach in west­ern Myan­mar. This time there were no deaths or in­juries, but the in­ci­dent raised fur­ther con­cerns about how Myan­mar’s ge­ri­atric air­craft will cope with boom­ing vis­i­tor num­bers.

An­other con­cern for many trav­ellers will be the poor qual­ity of Myan­mar’s med­i­cal ser­vices. A West­ern diplo­mat told me how her teenage son came off his moun­tain bike on a beach and all the ill-equipped lo­cal clinic could do was rub Tiger Balm on his aching shoul­der, which, it turned out, was bro­ken in four or five places.

Other facts un­set­tle me about re­form-era Myan­mar, which I nowvisit reg­u­larly as a re­porter for Reuters. The avowedly re­formist government still keeps hun­dreds of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in its jails and is show­ing signs of claw­ing back its ci­ti­zens’ hard- won free­doms of ex­pres­sion and as­sem­bly.

But not even Suu Kyi, who for years asked tourists to boy­cott her coun­try, be­lieves we should stay away un­til Myan­mar is a per­fect democ­racy. With so much chang­ing, this is just as well. The best time to visit Myan­mar was 20 years ago. The sec­ond-best time is now. An­drew R.C. Mar­shall is the au­thor of The Trouser Peo­ple: Burma in the Shadow of the Em­pire, and spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent, Thai­land and In­dochina, for Reuters.




Sh­wedagon P


Fe­male monks on a walk in Yan­gon, top, and a child among Suu Kyi sup­port­ers await­ing the politi­cian’s re­turn from an overseas trip last year


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