ONE to WATCH
Simon Reeve travels to Burma to witness first-hand the impact of a brutal military operation that saw hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims driven from their homes. Barbara George finds out more WHY DID NOW FEEL LIKE THE RIGHT TIME TO MAKE THIS SERIES?
In the last couple of years, Burma (also called Myanmar) has properly started to open up to travellers. I felt it would be a fascinating time to visit a country that was going through a process of huge change. We were planning and talking about these journeys before the Rohingya catastrophe began to develop properly last summer, and then, when that happened, we felt it was even more important to try and go there, travel around and try to work out what on earth is going on. We’ve tried to show other aspects of life in Burma as well, and explore other ethnic areas of the country where similar situations have also been happening.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE SEEING THE ROHINGYA CRISIS FIRST-HAND?
Nothing can ever really prepare you for the overwhelming emotions you feel when you are hearing the stories of people who have suffered, and when you are seeing, with your own eyes, immense human dramas and tragedies playing out. I felt really, deeply moved — and upset and angry as well — by what I was seeing. We weren’t able to go into the Rohingya areas within Burma, so instead we travelled into Bangladesh and then doubled back, right up to the Burmese border and visited what is now the largest refugee camp in the world. There is sadness there, tragedy, cheeky children playing football — there is humour amongst the darkness as well. There is all human life.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT ANY DIFFICULT MOMENTS YOU EXPERIENCED?
We came across this young guy, a Rohingya man, who had gone back across the border to try and check on his farm inside Burma. He had been caught by the Burmese military, very badly beaten up and threatened with his life. He had his skull fractured and crawled back across the border — I had to treat him and bandage up his head, which was bleeding heavily, and then take him to a field hospital. It was completely surreal, and very upsetting.
HOW SCARY WAS THIS TRIP COMPARED WITH OTHERS YOU’VE EMBARKED UPON?
There were certain moments of real fear and terror. In the second programme, we cross into the eastern part of Burma — we are sort of smuggled across the border and had to run through the jungle at night to evade army patrols. That was definitely a lump in the stomach sort of moment. As was going on patrol with the Shan State Army. They were very quick to tell us that they never know when they’re going to have contact with the enemy.
HOW LONG ARE YOU USUALLY AWAY FILMING?
I tend to try and do three-week trips maximum because I have a seven-year-old son who I am slightly obsessed with and very keen to return home to, so I can take him to Beavers and football.
DOES HE HAVE THE SAME ADVENTUROUS STREAK AS YOU?
I hope not! I’m certainly trying to discourage it. I want him to do interesting and exciting things in life, and I have promised him a big present if he breaks a leg, or if he breaks anything, because that will mean he is taking exciting risks. But my plan is to tether him to me later in life, so he can’t go off jollying around the world. I will just bribe and blackmail him to stay at home, I think.
DOES BEING A DAD CHANGE THE WAY YOU WORK?
I don’t do crazily long trips anymore because my first responsibility is to be a dad. And, although we are talking about the dangerous moments in an adventure I’ve had, generally we try and reduce the risks as much as possible. We’re not bonkers — we wear seat belts and think about what we are doing and try and make sure we all come home safely.
DO YOU HOPE YOUR SHOWS INSPIRE VIEWERS TO TAKE MORE OF AN INTEREST IN THE WORLD AROUND THEM?
Definitely. There is a risk that we’ve all evolved into thinking holidays should be about sitting by a pool. Getting out of a resort, and getting off the beaten track, pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, is where the strongest memories and the most emotions and experiences lie. Take chances — don’t just go for the club sandwich and get out and do stuff that your granny or grandchildren wouldn’t necessarily approve of. This is a safe and hospitable world, despite what the media will sometimes tell us. There has never been a better time to get out and explore.
TREACHEROUS TRIP: Simon Reeve in Burma