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To Burma or Not?

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If you go to Burma, you are supporting a repressive regime.

If you go to Burma and support the locals, you’re helping in the mission to make it free.

Take your pick.

Deciding on whether to travel to Burma or not was like this. Flipping a coin was the best way since there would be repercussions on either side of the fence. I flip-flopped from guilt to excitement within five minutes into the backpacker debate.

I entered the backpacker debate unknowingly. Whenever I sat with a fellow traveler I met in Vientiane, the Thai islands, Calcutta, or an Asian traveler’s depot, it never failed. Whoever I met, no matter how fascinating they were to talk to, within minutes the debate landed on whether to travel to Burma or not. To Burma or not became the elephant in the thatch hut. Every traveler had an opinion, and of the ones I encountered, I would be an evil supporter of Burma’s military junta if I decided to go.

Yet at the seventh month into my ten-month solo journey, my parents drafted their own month-long Asian adventure and chose Burma as one of the countries to visit. The coin had been tossed for me and I was along for their ride. As an adventure traveler, I was a junkie for being the sole white person on a bus or in a market. In Vietnam, I had loved the food and towns, but felt herded like cattle with enforced buy-in tours. In Thailand, I warmed to the culture and people, but felt I needed more of a challenge than paved highways. In Burma, we would travel back in time fifty years to colonial times, where ox-carts transported locals and barefoot monks lined dirt roads asking for alms. In Burma, I entered a world all of its own.

In August 2000, when we flew around Burma for an eight-day tour, there were no McDonald’s or Starbucks, and while I preferred the speed of ox-carts and bare feet to chauffeured buses with guides, our guide, a local named Kyaw Soe (pron: Cho-soe), bridged the gap for me from adventure traveler to cultural observer.

Kyaw Soe made a point to take us to a family in a hut near Bagan to watch how they grounded tanaka, the locals’ natural sunblock. He spoke to us in whispers about how the junta operated, careful not to reveal too much of his opinions toward them for fear of punishment. Kyaw Soe was candid, but watchful, and explained his plight in terms of his actions. “I go to the American Embassy to pick up Newsweek sent from my friend in America. They make sure to tear out any advertisements or news they don’t want me to see.” Kyaw Soe could only use the internet as email through his employer, Abercrombie & Kent, and when we traveled outside the cities, he made sure I connected with school kids to photograph their unforgettable smiles.

Kyaw Soe spoke of the bloody riots of September 8, 1988, when Aung San Suu Kyi was voted in for president and then denied her office to be put on house arrest. He listened while my parents and I scoffed at the propaganda that littered the pages of The New Light of Myanmar, yet he ended and greeted each day with that spectacular Burmese kindness, which inspired me to study a meditation practice from a teacher in Burma that I continue to practice today. Kyaw Soe remained equanimous with his people’s lack of freedom, and while the poverty and forced manual labor continued, I was hard pressed to believe that the average American was happier in their freedom than the local Burmese I met on the street. The dichotomy of my observation was hard to sit with in the high-end hotels that we frequented; knowing that every dollar spent went into the government’s pocket and nowhere near those who needed it the most. But while Kyaw Soe whisked us from one handcraft village to pound gold leaf, to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon to teach me about Burmese astrology, his focus to educate us on the miracles of his culture was far more important than what we may or may not have thought of his government or his plight.  

Kyaw Soe is where I learned that there were always going to be injustices in the world, and that the best in life was to become educated, something that may never have happened had we not flipped the coin and landed on Burma months before.

Umbrella Reflections at Inle (Lake), Burma, photo courtesy of the author.




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