Welcome to one of the few countries in the world with real military dictatorship. The generals have been ruling Burma since over 50 years, shooting down peacefully demonstrating students, monks and imprisoning thousands of opposition members. Welcome to one of the poorest places in the world, where nearly half of the kids grow up in hunger and without going to school.
That’s what I had in mind before I was embraced with hot humidity when I stepped off the plane in Yangon (Rangoon), where a smiling lady of the border police was patiently waiting until I found all my documents. Nobody with guns here? No army guys? The modern, glinting airport building was clean, totally clean. It did not look too different from the one I was at in Warsaw where this trip began 24 hours ago. So what’s going on here.
This photo workshop trip to Burma (with Wyprawy z Reporterem) was a present from Anna – partly because she won a competition with a trip as a prize for one of her reportage, partly because I always wanted to take part in a good photography workshop and most of all because she simply seems to love me. Thank you Anna and welcome to my first organized journey ever: 5 Poles and me with 6 cameras on the roads of Myanmar.
When you travel with Poles, two bottles of Myanmar rum and coke are an indispensable part of your travellers luggage. Cheers. There’s always a good reason to drink: Good morning – cheers. After lunch to kill unwanted bacteria – cheers, in the evening – no reason needed. Cheers. My Polish companions are masters of pills and medicines. Their pills and shots made us resistant to any sickness.
Travelling in a group was a strange experience, but one should maybe try it, to realise that it’s not for you. Especially while taking pictures I need some calmness and time to observe, talk and build trust. Being in a horde of six photographers jumping on a person to hunt for a perfect picture was awkward for me. How would the “hunted” feel? I like the Family Without Borders approach much more – friendship and trust through the kids. People in Burma are actually (still) very open for taking pictures. Once you talk to them they are always happy, very calm and sometimes even proud of having their picture taken.
From the airport in Yangon to down-town, I felt like I was going through a big and calm city with four-lane roads, clean parks, modern cars, white taxis, colourful buses, hotels with big black limousines, huge golden Buddhist temples with pagodas, some skyscrapers, street vendors, rickshaw drivers, small supermarkets, roundabouts, grey houses and small lakes. Poverty and military presence are hiding as long as you just quickly drive by. There was not even one police car on the way. And there are no motorcycles in Yangon. On the 1st of December 2009 it was announced that in two weeks every motorcycle in the city will be confiscated, if it’s still driving on the road. People say it’s because a government official was hurt by a motorcycle.
The paved road stops just a hundred meters before the guest house we are staying in. It’s a friendly three floor house run by locals with some tables on the wide pavement. At breakfast time there is a big pot standing on in front of the hotel with food for the Buddhist monks. They walk around in little processions with robes of dark red or pink (for the girls and the little ones) in the mornings. Everybody is giving something, even those which look hungry themselves.
It’s also the first time I see a tourist in this city. There are not many yet – also because of the very limited tourist infrastructure. Nearly all the hotels are booked out. We met Matt, who is a Myanmar tourist guide since many years, and he could not book 20 beds in Yangoon for his group half a year in advance. The problem is – mister Ko In Saw later explained me – that by law you are not allowed to open something like a small hostel. To get a license for a place where foreigners can sleep, you need at least 20 rooms and good contact to the right people or money for bribing them. Foreigners are not allowed sleep at the locals and the also cannot open any business. That’s why for a cheep bed – if you get one – you mostly pay at least 20 Dollars or more. In other Asian countries you find the same for five Dollars, in Berlin for fifteen. Quite some money in one of the poorest countries in the world, where in many places people don’t have money at all but just things to barter.
At the same time the junta gains from this limited offer and the strict rules, because very often they are the only ones, who have to money to build such big guest houses, who have the right friends to gain a license. It’s in fact not easy not to support the Generals, while being a tourist in Burma.
That’s one of reasons why the junta strongly promotes the tourism sector and that’s why in the past the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Price laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (it really took me a while to learn this name – maybe that’s why people tend to call her just “The Lady”) asked to boycott tourism. Recently she’s in favour for a “responsible tourism” in Myanmar, supporting small local businesses and undermining the isolation of the people.
In fact being a tourist in Burma feels like a Truman Show: the army is fighting in regions, where tourist have no and international organisations only limited access to. You see pnly what you are supposed to see and when you reach the end of the city you meet suddenly a police officer who is telling you, that you can’t go further. That’s the end of your Burma.
Our first book is out!
We have published our first book (for now just in Polish:) about our Central America Trip.
See, read and order here »
Can you, please, write something more how the workshops went? I’m awfully interested in that :)
Maria, check them out! http://www.wyprawyzreporterem.pl/
Thanks for sharing. Must have been an adventure in ! Cannot wait to visit this amazing country again. With everything going on in Thailand I think more people will travel to Myanmar in 2014. Found an article with more information on Myanmar’s rich history and culture: http://www.travelindochina.com/blog-articles/welcome-to-burma/ – may be useful to fellow South East Asia travellers.