A new day in Myanmar
As we know, there’s been a democratic election in Myanmar. But when we went there in 2008, the only travel material I could locate was a dog-eared guide from the local library, much of which was given over to an earnest debate on the ethical issue of whether or not to visit
Our decision to go was really a foregone conclusion. When war cemeteries were created at the end of World War II, it must have seemed logical to put one at either end of the infamous Burma-Thai Railway. But after politics closed down Burma, only a trickle of the very determined made it through to the heartbreakingly isolated Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery. It took almost 70 years before the first family and friends stood at the gravesite of the Australian soldier for whom my husband is named, his father’s boyhood mate who didn’t make it home.
In historical context it wasn’t that long ago that we went. The Strand Hotel in Yangon had been restored to its full colonial grandeur and there weren’t the rats running along the bar that one earlier traveller had noted. But at night there was practically no electric light; the city was all black velvet with pinpricks of illumination. Postage stamps came without adhesive and transport was war-era Bedford trucks. We’d been warned not to take in any news journals or to talk with any of the locals about anything political; we would leave the country unscathed but they could end up in a prison work camp. I’d planned a naive gesture of support for Aung San Suu Kyi: I’d throw a garland of flowers over the wall of her garden. Soldiers blocked entry to her street, however.
During our stay, Cyclone Nargis swept across the flat rice bowl of the Ayeyarwady delta lands, causing uncounted deaths and devastation; it ripped apart buildings in Yangon. Next day I noticed that the government propaganda billboard spelling out the “People’s Desire’’ — to oppose and crush all internal and external destructive elements — had been shattered by the gusts. I don’t imagine it has been re-erected in modern Myanmar. Send your 400-word contribution to Follow the Reader: email@example.com. Columnists receive a copy of Flavours of Queensland (Smudge Publishing, $80), an illustrated volume of restaurants, bars, cafes and farmers’ markets from across the state, complete with recipes. More: smudgeeats.com.au.