There are certain precautions that one takes as a solo female traveler. For example, when strangers first approach me, I’m usually a little skeptical. So when a Woody Allen doppelgänger, standing across the baggage carousel at the Yangon airport, looked at my passport and said “Hey, I’m American too,” I smiled, nodded, and wordlessly collected my backpack and went on my merry way.
The following morning, at the Bogyoke Aung San Market, I was seeking out money changers and heard a voice call out in English,“Hey, didn’t I see you at the airport yesterday?” Partially because he looked like Woody Allen and partially because he was one of only a handful of tourists I saw the entire time I was in Myanmar, I put some of my skepticism aside.
As it turns out, he volunteers for a sustainable development organization that works in the remote villages of Myanmar called the Shanta Foundation. Specifically, he has started several pig farms as a means of economic development for the villagers. And, he helped me find the elusive money changers.
Like many who consider themselves responsible travelers, the decision to visit Myanmar was not a straightforward one. Under the repressive regime of a military junta, the international community has boycotted Myanmar, with encouragement from opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. But Suu Kyi, who was recently released from house arrest that began in 1989, was interviewed on January 4th of this year and had a different message for tourists. After reading the following, I booked my tickets to Yangon.
Interviewer: Previously, you have been opposed to foreign tourists visiting Burma. However, you appear to have softened this stance over the last few years. How do you feel now about foreign tourists visiting the country? Can tourists do anything to benefit the move towards democracy?
ASSK: I think the NLD [National League for Democracy, the main opposition party] came to that decision about six to seven months ago. We are not in favour of group tourists, but we don’t mind if individuals come to Burma. Foreign tourists could benefit Burma if they go about [their travels] in the right way, by using facilities that help ordinary people and avoiding facilities that have close links to the government.
“This is Burma,” wrote Kipling, “and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.” How true that is. Interestingly, everyone wears skirts – men, women, children – long, kilt-like skirts. Getting off the plane in Yangon (the former capital because 5 years ago the military general’s astrologer allegedly recommended that he move the capital to a different city) was like stepping into a time warp. Myanmar, almost entirely cutoff from the rest of the world, remains a place without McDonalds, without ATMs, and even without the ability to process credit cards. Upon the advice of friends, I brought crisp, clean, new US Dollars, which were inspected for creases, tears, and dirt. One can pretty much only change money from USD to the Myanmar Kyat on the black market, where each $1 fetches about 870 Kyat – as opposed to the government’s official rate of 6.5 kyat per dollar.
Although Yangon remains the cultural and commercial capital of Myanmar, it is clear that the government’s attention is elsewhere – the infrastructure is crumbling. Streets are paved only in the middle, sidewalks stop, giving way to open sewers. It is the people, warm and good-natured, in spite of their situations, who make Myanmar a gem, rather than the sites. I saw almost no other tourists my entire trip in Myanmar, even at the Shwedagon Pagoda, a gleaming temple that is one of the most important Buddhist sites in Southeast Asia. As one of only a handful of Westerners in town, children giggled as I came down the streets and people paused with curiosity; though each time I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with people, they shared their enthusiasm that the world hadn’t forgotten them, that tourists were interested in learning about what was going on – about their culture and history. Part of me wanted to stay longer and explore more – let’s face it, after I heard about the jumping cat monastery on Inle Lake, that’s all that I wanted to see. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HddmMGMk1z4&feature=related
But in the end, I was meant to head back to Thailand, and flew out of Yangon a few hours before the earthquake hit.
Hi friends — thanks to everyone for the thoughts and emails — just wanted to confirm that I flew out of Myanmar a few hours before the earthquake and am safe and sound in Thailand!
March travel plans are nearly finished:
- End of February – arrive in Israel to attend my cousin’s wedding on March 1st
- March 3 /4 – fly to/arrive in Bangkok, Thailand
- March 5 – Hanoi, Vietnam
- March 6-8 – trekking through the hill villages of Sapa, Vietnam (Cat Cat, Ta Van, Cua May, Su Pan)
- March 9 – Halong Bay, Vietnam
- March 10-11 – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
- March 12-13 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- March 14-16 – Sieam Reap/Angkor Wat, Cambodia
- March 17 – Battambang, Cambodia
- March 18 – Bangkok, Thailand
- March 19-20 – Chiang Mai, Thailand
- March 21-23 – Yangon, Burma
- March 24-27 – meet up with a childhood friend, location TBD