Until recently Burma was a no-holds-barred military dictatorship. It's still a bit early to start hanging out the bunting, and I wouldn't want to downplay the terrible problems that still exist, but there have been some significant changes in recent years. The internet is no longer censored (meaning that, for the first time, Burmese people can access sites like the BBC and YouTube), sim cards are starting to be affordable (meaning that many people have mobile phones for the first time), and the country now has ATMs (since this year). And Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest a coupla years ago and is now leader of the opposition in the New-and-Improved government. It's no small matter that we saw photos of her, and posters in support of the National League for Democracy party that she leads, openly displayed in countless homes, shops, restaurants and hotels and sometimes on people's T-shirts. We even saw a market stall in Yangon selling T-shirts and bags emblazoned with her image and the words "our natural leader," or something similar. From the few conversations about politics we've had, it seems at least some people are cautiously optimistic.
However, just to be on the safe side, I decided not to write this blog entry from inside the country, hence my silence until now. (We flew back to Bangkok two days ago and, one night bus and a boat trip later, we arrived in Laos this morning.)
After spending five very sweaty days in Bangkok arranging visas and eating mango, we flew into Yangon, the former Burmese capital. We sat on incredibly tiny plastic chairs in the teashops that dot every street corner and drank tea that was sweetened into oblivion with evaporated milk. We saw some lovely local art, most of it frustratingly innocuous ("monks and markets" as one review I read put it), but some that dared to hint about Burma's political situation. A local 19-year-old took a group of four of us foreigners to a nightclub whose dancefloor was bafflingly occupied by a beauty contest that consisted of mardy-looking young ladies in identical dresses walking across the room. Then we danced surrounded by an alarming number of security guards. It was weird.
We took an overnight bus to Nuang Shwe - a town near one of the country's biggest tourist pulls, Inle Lake. We were unpleasantly surprised by how much of the town has already been colonized by tourism (lots of hotels and western restaurants) but we spent a happy couple of days cycling past paddy fields to smaller villages with bamboo houses. We also took a couple of trips on the lake to see houses and even schools on stilts in the water, and floating islands of seaweed on which farmers grow tomatoes, tending them from wooden canoes. We also saw the unusual method of rowing (standing up and using one leg to push the heavy wooden oar away from you). These kind of traditions - coupled with the fact that many people wear long, skirt-like lungyis and that many wear a kind of whitish natural paint called thanaka on their faces as a natural sunscreen - are the real deal and have survived in large part because of Burma's relative isolation. (Isolated except for the apparently international language of football, that is: Of Naung Shwe's eight monasteries, seven support Man U and one supports Chelsea.) On one of our cycling sojourns we met a lovely family who invited us in for a cuppa. Their eight-year-old daughter had an eternal smile and was so excited to play with our camera.
The monsoon season seemed to start in the middle of our three-day trek from Naung Shwe to another town, Kalaw. Our two guides led us through farmland, with a backdrop of stunning, bright red earth against luminous green trees. We passed through ethnic-minority villages, many of whose inhabitants still wear traditional tribal dress and still speak their tribal languages and little or no Burmese. We slept in private homes in villages along the way where local children kept running up to give us fistfuls of flowers and then bouncing away, laughing hysterically.
Kalaw was one of our favourite places in Burma. There we encountered a one-man whirlwind called Tommy Aung, a local councillor for the National League for Democracy, who set up an NGO called the Rural Development Society to build libraries, schools and water infrastructure in the area - the Shan region, which contains many isolated, ethnic-minority villages. We met him in the society's office where he spoke very rapidly about being in prison for his political activities, about going into Burma's conflict zones and coming back with a bunch of new foster children, and about a recent hostage negotiation that he led. And then he left, leaving us with a million questions.
We took a day hike to see some of the Rural Development Society's projects in nearby villages, and our guide had a lot of interesting stuff to say about his country. He was living in Thailand when he heard about Burma's supposedly great change from dictatorship to democracy. He came back to his country to find that very little had changed on the ground. As a Muslim in a largely Buddhist country that's seeing terrible ethnic violence right now, he had criticism for the very deep discrimination against Muslims in Burma - a prejudice that he said pervades all levels of society, prevents Muslims from holding high-powered jobs and from having any representation in parliament. He also criticised Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to speak out about the ethnic conflict. It was depressing to hear that, despite some optimism that Burma is finally beginning to repair itself from the crimes of a military junta, the deep ethnic rifts will take many generations to bridge.
From Kalaw we took a bus to Bagan - a dusty riverside town whose entire area is swamped by more than 4,000 crumbling temples and stupas that we spent a few days cycling around in complete awe - such a special sight. It's possible to scramble up some of the bigger structures for a great view over this surreal, unearthly landscape with ornately shaped temples bursting out from the sand and fields every direction you look. It's fair to say we also spent a sizable amount of time in Weatherspoon's - a restaurant set up by a very charming, smiley Burmese guy who spent a year-and-a-half in Bristol training to be a hot-air balloon pilot. The food here, and elsewhere in the country, was unusual and delicious. Burmese salads, featuring such delights as tomatoes with peanuts or pickled tea leaves, were a revelation.
The final stop on our Burmese tour was Mandalay - home of a palace that was renovated in the 1990s using forced labour (as were some of the country's swanky tourist resorts). We took a half-day trip to a little town called Amarapura, which has a very long and very rickety teakwood bridge, and we also saw a performance by a family of comedians, the Moustache Brothers - two of whom performed six years' hard labour for mocking the regime in the '90s. Their performance today, carried out in the family's home in Mandalay, is a kind of informal campaign on behalf of other political prisoners (some 2,000 have been released in recent years but apparently 300 still remain locked up).
Even though we stayed firmly on what is gradually becoming Burma's well-tramped tourist trail, the three weeks we spent in the country were thought-provoking, challenging and inspiring.