Book de­tails ‘the price of progress’ in Myan­mar

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse - RJ VOGT rj.vogt@mm­times.com

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.

Photo: Sup­plied

David Bock­ino.

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