Mission to Burma


“Sorry, Mom and Dad, I won’t be able to talk to you today. I’ve just arrived in Burma (no, not Bermuda, Bur-MA) and finding a reliable connection has been a bit difficult. I s’pose this is to be expected when visiting a country with an apparent militant government which seems intent on regulating the Internet with heavy censorship laws and even heavier prison sentences. Hey Dad, did you know that Burma is said to be the most corrupt country in the world? But don’t worry! Other than this weird allergic reaction to a blanket I bought off the street yesterday, and that whole thing about getting locked out of my guesthouse last night because I missed the city-wide curfew, I’m totally safe and happy. Merry Christmas!”

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Although hammering off an email to my parents on Christmas morning was not the most difficult of tasks (I opted for exaggerated descriptors to ensure that, even in my absence, I remained the epicenter of holiday conversations), writing about Burma on a more travel-related platform has proven to be quite difficult.

Even with close to 20 tabs open on my desktop, almost all relating to the current political situation in Burma, the backspace key has still seen more action than your high school’s prom queen.

As I read about the country’s momentary decision to ban Skype in 2011, and the fact that all citizens still require government permission to even purchase a modem for household use, this Microsoft Word document remains just as empty as ol’ Ms. Homecoming’s reusable water bottle of Bacardi Rum and Coke Zero mix. Evidently, the task of even trying to describe a current Burma has pushed me to the literary limits of uncreative analogies about an 18-year-old stained in satin sashes and aspartame.

I’ll prevail. I think.

Avoiding the easy route of sweeping descriptors about a militant government selectively censoring local news yet flooding wooden newsstands with the latest standings of the English Premier League, Burma remains a country intent on tackling your ethical motivations to even visit in the first place.

Now I’m not saying that Burma wants to guilt trip you all the way to that family-owned guesthouse in Bagan. Theoretically, it really isn’t a difficult place to visit.

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A handful of trips to the Burmese embassy. A detailed itinerary of locations, activities, and hotel contact numbers. Three connecting flights. One miserable night in the beast of Qingdao, China. A decent arrival in Mandalay, Burma. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ve even forgotten about the fact that you just paid $30 to sleep in a Chinese hotel with a thermostat calibrated to the point in which liquids freeze to solids.

But again, that’s all in theory.

Even if Qingdao “International” Airport could have been avoided, travelling to Burma was still a bit complicated. There were things to consider beyond the country’s outdated censorship laws, the poverty situation of over one-third of the population, and the not nearly as important or even all that relevant OHMYGODIT’SBLOODYCOLDINCHINA.

The matters were more related to the profitable margin of the Burmese government.

But even more specifically; my role as a contributing member.

Even if I feverishly stuck to the responsible traveller’s Code of Ethics, there would still be financial gains for a regime accused of human rights violations like child soldiers and human trafficking. A military junta would bank on my entrance fees, visa fees, and every other governmental hidden fee, to then fund any of the above mentioned practices. (Sure, my money may have been spent on more supportive efforts like education or healthcare within the country. But with almost 50% of the country’s budget dedicated to the efforts of the military, I’m guessing that those odds are probably not in my favour.)

This is what I mean.

You just don’t come across that same sort of critical (and internalizing) examination from travellers spending their winter vacation in picture-perfect Paris. These are the sort of extremes considered as one paces around the departures gate and wonders if maybe, with a fourth layer of socks, Qingdao would be a bit less insufferable.

Perhaps more egotistical than my attempts to ruin my family’s Christmas with worry, it is unfair for me to assume that my decision to go to Burma even made any sort of blip on the Burmese government’s electrocardiogram of profit.

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Even though Burma recognizes the income potential of a developing tourism industry, it still pockets more money from industries like oil and natural gas. Overall, the country’s earnings from tourists are still rather insignificant. Compared to the 14 million tourists whom visited Thailand last year, Burma saw less than 350,000 visitors. So government fees at some attractions are only passively enforced. And the Mandalay Airport is still just an empty steel warehouse of swept-aside sawdust and “Sorry for the Inconvenience” bathrooms. But even this will soon change.

Although Burma probably won’t be hacking into the lucrative market of sleeveless beer shirts typical of other Southeast Asian countries, there is still a quickened pace of development here. Locals are choosing to entrepreneur trekking companies instead of more traditional means of income. Copycat restaurants are popping up next to their guidebook-recommended competitors. Vendors are using witty English phrases to sway you into buying that third Burmese scarf which you never even really wanted in the first place.

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By the time this article is published, I am convinced that the streets in a city like Mandalay will look drastically different from one month prior. Within the former capital, construction sites served as navigational route markers. Visual reminders like “turn left at that colonial-style hotel being built” or “walk past that string of ATMs and the LED-lit Mastercard sign” were used to guide us to unmarked teahouses and fruit stands with avocados the size of overweight newborns.

It all becomes quite the reflective process when an independent traveller contemplates a trip to Burma They consider the impact that the country can have on them. They consider the potential impact that they can have on the country. They conclude that the experiential lessons from a country like Burma will hopefully make them more mindful of well, everything really. They go because again, it’s too freaking cold in China in December. When they conclude that the pros outweigh the cons, they visit Burma.

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Author: Sarah Kloke

Sarah is a columnist for Vagabundo Magazine. She brags a lot about meeting a dude in the Philippines with 11 fingers. She keeps a steady routine of travel, write, brush teeth, repeat, and will continue to do so until she runs out of stories. Or countries. Whichever comes first, really. Sarah has been making different parts of Asia her temporary and not-quite permanent home for the past three years. She also writes at http://wheresmytoothbrush.com/

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Mission to Burma