​Travels in a shifting land – Thoughts on Myanmar

I’ve been in Myanmar for almost a week, now. And there is so much of note, so many experiences – of all the senses – I struggle to put them into a clear narrative. Everything comes in a comparison, seems to remind me of something seen somewhere in Asia but then it shifts somehow and manages to look entirely new.
Mostly, what is striking, is that this country is changing faster than any country I’ve been to. It might have looked completely differently 3 years ago. I’ve been travelling with a guide book from 2011, the year when the country first started to re-open itself, had its first “democratic” (still, very suspicious) elections, and the power of the military junta started to decrease. Then, in 2015, another election year, this time a lot more democratic, brought Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to power, a non-military president, and an frenzy of investors, openings and globalizations.
Still, it is fascinating to read our guidebook (not for any useful practical information, save the one saying it is dangerous to walk in yangon at night, not because of thieves, but because you might accidentally fall into a sewage hole, (a friend already verified this in practice), but as an old photography of what it was, a mere 5 years ago: no freedom of the press, no sim-cards (for burmese people or tourists), no wifi, a government so corrupt you had to take every measure to “travel responsively”, that is, try and give the smallest amount of money to the government (avoiding organized tours, government-owned entreprises, etc…), very few tourists, I’ll stop the enumeration now. 

We half expected something a bit more opened, but we were astonished, arriving in Yangon, which shocks, at first sight, with the density of its traffic (it takes now two hours to reach the public bus station from the centre, it took 15 minutes in 2005), the size of its advertising billboards, the amounts of construction sites promising luxury residences or supermarkets, the small stalls at the market selling Iphones. And every hotel providing reliable internet. 

In many ways, then, it looks like a metropolis of the South, a bit of Bangkok, a bit of Ho Chi Minh City. But it is also unique. The smells of the food stalls (small “burmese pancakes”, “samusa thoke” – bits of samosas in a type of dahl), the remaining old colonial buildings, covered in dirt and conquered by vegetation, the chant of the muezzin in one mosque followed by buddhist prayers in a pagoda across the corner. A crossroad of India, Thailand, China and more, but also something particular.

From Yangon, we left for the Inle lake, in the Shan region – it is one of the mandatory tourist stops – on a luxury night bus (at least it looks very luxurious to me, compared to Nepalese public buses for example, they even gave us a free pastry (?some kind of artificial baba-au-rhum with undetermined jelly on top, but still, free food is always good food!) and arrived at dusk in  the small town bordering the lake, with mist rising from the paddy fields and swamps surrounding the lake. Back to the country side after three days in the frenesy of the city. And the countryside here is indeed glorious, with the bright green of the rice fields and banana trees, the calm waters of the lake, the small fishing villages and floating gardens (they grow tomatoes on the lake, which still looks like magic to me), and the Stupas and pagodas, all gold, lost in the hills above the lake. Here as well, hostels are coming out of the grounds faster than you can count them, some have an upper floor under construction but the reception is already open, and the traffic of motorboats on the lake is increasing. But you can escape it all on an old chinese bicycle, rented for a thousand khyats (1 USD) and go get lost amongst the hills, disturbed only by a passing stray dog, a few water buffalos placidly checking the intrudor out, and children on their way to school who always wave hello and smile. 

And you could be nostalgic of all this change, all this growing. But first, you have absolutely no right to be. This land, or any other, does not exist for the benefit of tourist on the look out for authenticity. And while there are a lot of drawbacks to globalization there is also an increased access to information that comes, as always, with internet and phone. And, aside from all of this, there is a peculiar beauty in witnessing a metamorphosis on the making. I am happy to be there, and now, that’s as much as I can say.


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