Book details ‘the price of progress’ in Myanmar
DAVID Bockino first visited Myanmar in 2005 on a one-hour, carefully coordinated “tourist” tour of Tachileik in Shan State. He describes unremarkable photo ops and run-down buildings, quoting travel writer Paul Theroux in saying that “nothing happens in Burma, but then nothing is expected to happen”.
A lot has changed in the 11 years since, and the author and professor from Elon University in the United States returned to Myanmar in 2015 to document the transformation in a Kindle Single release, Greetings from Myanmar: Exploring the Price of Progress in One of the Last Countries Earth to Open for Business, which has since become the secondbest-selling Myanmar travel guide on Amazon. He spoke with The Myanmar Times to discuss his trip and the book it produced.
What drew you to Myanmar as a traveller? Two things. The first was when Myanmar started popping up on so many travel-related “Best Of” lists. In 2014, for example, the European Council of Tourism and Trade named the country the “World’s Best Tourist Destination”. A year later, a popular US travel magazine named the country its “Destination of the Year”. I thought this was remarkable – when I first visited Myanmar over 10 years ago, visiting the country was still seen as a travelling badge of honour, a peek behind the curtain of an isolated, frozen-in-time country, like getting a glimpse of North Korea or Cuba. Sure, people did it, especially backpackers, but it was one of those off-the-beatenpath destinations, one you could brag about to your friends back home. The transition from that to “Destination of the Year” seemed incredible and I wanted to learn more.
The second reason was the relative lack of knowledge about the country, especially in the West. There are tons of books about China, plenty of discussion on India – but the conversation surrounding Myanmar was/is significantly less. And so when the team at Kindle Singles gave me the opportunity to introduce Myanmar to a new audience during a time of great political and economic transition, I jumped at it.
What do you find “the price of progress” to be, and who do you think is paying it? This is a complicated question and readers will notice that I come to very few conclusions. That was intentional – I don’t think many of the issues associated with Myanmar’s rapid growth are black and white. I’ll give you one example. Bagan, rightly so, has quickly become of the world’s great archaeological destinations. A quick perusal of online reviews describes it as “mesmerising”, “unforgettable” and “magical”. This type of chatter brings more people, and more people means more money will be spent on hotels, restaurants, souvenirs, etc. That’s good for the Myanmar economy. But on the other side of the aisle are the archaeologists and historians (who are, admittedly, mostly Western) who claim that Bagan’s restoration – which clearly was an impetus to increased visitors – was conducted with little regard for historical preservation or accuracy. One scholar has called the site an “incongruous spectacle of faux antique temples”, another says that Bagan “verges on Disneyfication”. So is Bagan’s rise in popularity, which itself was a result of accelerated renovation, good or bad? That’s for the reader to decide.
What stood out to you most about travelling in Myanmar? That’s easy: the stories of the people I spoke to. For my Single, I tried to follow the blueprint of the author Rory MacLean in his book Under the Dragon, by using conversations with individual Burmese to highlight larger themes and concepts. My most memorable conversation in Bagan, for instance, was with a painter who had worked at one of the smaller temples for nearly 13 years. A few years ago, he was lucky to sell one or two paintings a day. But these days, during the high season at least, he might be able to sell four or five. That means an extra K8000 or K10,000 a day, which translates to a few extra days off a month. And he couldn’t care less what the temples looked like, whether the renovations were historically accurate. He just wanted more time to spend with his young son.
I spent nearly three weeks travelling around Myanmar talking to people like this painter. I went to some of the more popular tourist destinations such as Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay, as well as some of the less popular ones, such as Meiktila and Loikaw. In the end, my hope is that people learn a thing or two about the country and read Greetings from Myanmar not in isolation but as a starting point to explore what I feel is a truly fascinating place.
What were some of your favourite moments from your trip? Bagan is obviously an amazing place and riding my electric scooter through the temples at 5am without a single person in sight will be an experience I won’t soon forget. But my favourite part of Myanmar was something I experienced everywhere I went – the teashops. To me, nothing is better than sitting on the side of a road for an hour or two – in Loikaw or Pyin Oo Lwin or Yangon or Taungyyi – sipping hot milk tea and eating noodles. I could do it every day. And I pretty much did.
What did you read before coming to Myanmar? Many of the usual suspects – The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U, Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin, From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe. But I’ll give one lesser known recommendation – Archibald Colquhoun’s Burma and the Burmans: Or, “The Best Unopened Market in the World”, a short book written back in the late 19th century. It’s a very compelling read that, in some ways, could have been written in the past five years.
By the way, the Single does include a bibliography of some of the works I used to compile the piece – so if someone finishes Greetings from Myanmar and wants to learn more about the country, that’s probably a good place to start.
A lot of people talk about Myanmar in terms of a “window closing”. “Get here before it all changes,” they say. How long do you think Myanmar will retain its “frontier” appeal before becoming just another Thailand or Cambodia? That’s an interesting question, especially as it relates to the tourism side. Many of the articles I read touting Myanmar as the “Destination of the Year” explicitly recommended visiting the country “before everyone else goes”. It’s a counter-intuitive idea, one that supposedly plays into our collective fascination of travelling “off the beaten path”. Personally, I think it’s all a bit silly. Will Myanmar be any less interesting as a destination in five or 10 years when there are 5 million international visitors instead of 2 or 3?
How about this for some perspective: I recently returned from my first trip to Japan, a country that’s nearly half the size of Myanmar but received over four times as many visitors in 2014. I loved every second of it, especially Tokyo, which by most measures seems to be the most visited and crowded city in the country. I’d go back tomorrow if I could. And so to me, the appeal of visiting Myanmar – a country with stunning natural beauty, generous people and rich cultural traditions – won’t go away any time soon.