The time to go is now
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.
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