By LUCIE DURCOVÃ Friday, June 24, 2011
When we left for Burma, our friends were shaking their heads uncomprehendingly, our parents were angry, and we had been “officially” labeled “insane”. I couldnâ€™t imagine what it would be like in a country where a military junta (now a â€œgovernmentâ€) was in charge.
We were afraid the locals would not be willing to talk to us out of fear that it would cause them problems. In the beginning, they seemed not only very reserved, but sometimes hostile. No warm smiles from ear to ear of the kind we had experienced the year before in Vietnam. However, over time we determined the locals were just being careful. Once they recognized that we were willing to communicate with them openly and listen to their stories, they became unbelievably friendly, accepting us among them, helping us and taking care of us.
To speak with Burmese people, travel with them, sleep in the same place with them and spend all of our time with them was the best experience I have ever had as a traveler. In no other country have I ever felt so â€œat homeâ€ among local people.
However, a person who travels to Burma must primarily want to speak with the people. You have to travel so as to be in maximum contact with them.
We decided not to use airplanes to travel around Burma. We didnâ€™t want to give money to the government and we also wanted to be with local people as much as possible, to use the same kind of transportation they do. I think we tried absolutely everything. Bicycles, trains, buses, motorcycles, minibuses, boats and many other strange modes of transport of various sizes and speeds, such as a wooden bus from 1942 that drove at the speed of a slow walk. Buying tickets was always a great adventure and a bit of a game of nerves, because we always had to pay more than the locals did. There was nothing to be done about it, thatâ€™s just how it works there.
Our craziest experience was our trip by train from Mandalay to Bhamo. We spent 16 hours on wooden benches in an overcrowded train that was as hot as an oven and jiggled like a real British pudding. New Yearâ€™s celebrations were coming up, and because I was seated by the window the entire time, I was drenched with water at every station. It wasnâ€™t until later that someone explained it was related to the year-end water festival.
The most beautiful experience was sailing on the river Irrawaddy, also known as Ayeyarwaddy, from Katha to Mandalay. We slept on deck with the locals for four dollars (unfortunately paid to a state company). We werenâ€™t trying to save money, but we wanted to be with people. The deck was unbelievably overcrowded, but the Burmese made a place for us to sleep and helped us put up a windscreen. One family loaned us a needle, another thread, another a flashlight, while a fourth covered us with a blanket, because we didnâ€™t have many warm clothes with us. Others were concerned whether we were hungry. We were a very exotic sight on the boat. Wherever we went, even though there was not much room, we were followed by curious Burmese. They could not understand in the least why tourists like us werenâ€™t sleeping in our own berths, but on deck on the bare ground like they were. We had unbelievable fun even though we could not understand one anotherâ€™s language. Language wasnâ€™t necessary.
Never ask, â€œWhen will we get there?â€
The trip on the Irrawaddy was originally to have taken two days, and we were to have spent one night on deck. However, on our second day there were no indications that we were really going to make it to our goal. The boat sailed slowly, sometimes making long stops, and according to the map we were not much closer to Mandalay. I asked the locals when we would get there. They just calmly shrugged their shoulders and said: â€œMaybe today, maybe tomorrow, weâ€™ll get there when we get thereâ€¦and donâ€™t ask again. That question brings bad luck in Burma.â€ Because I am an impatient European, I kept asking around until one Burmese told me the captain had just decided we wouldnâ€™t reach Mandalay until the next day. From this I learned the following: In Burma, never ask, â€œWhen will we get there?â€
In Mandalay we asked a rickshaw driver why men in Burma wear the Longyi, what itâ€™s good for. He laughed and said: â€œIn a Longyi you can make children quickly and then immediately run away.â€
To be sincere, we did not like Burmese cuisine. The food was always swimming in oil and tasted exactly the same whether it was fish, beef or vegetables.
We only ate at street stands, because we wanted to support the ordinary Burmese who work with their entire families in those stands from morning until late evening. We were glad when we managed to find some Thai food – or any cuisine other than Burmese – but the sweet sticky rice and all the sweets we bought on the street were just excellent.
We also canâ€™t forget our first-ever lobster, cooked for us by a woman from the Karen tribe. This overworked, serious lady sat down next to us on Chaung Tha Beach, where we had spent a day and a half at the end of our travels. She said she would like to cook us lobster and shrimp at her small shop on the edge of the village. On the one hand there was an excellent spread awaiting us at the simple wooden stand, but on the other hand the entire situation was quite a contrast, as her entire family watched us eat from around the corner of the shop.
Even though we did our best to enter into a friendly, open conversation with the lady, she kept repeating that she was Karen, which in and of itself means she lives the difficult life of a member of a persecuted ethnicity, and she did not want to discuss details. The sad atmosphere changed a bit after we paid the not insignificant bill, and we truly sincerely wished the family all the best.
Burmese children are the dearest we have ever encountered in our travels. Bold, curious, merry, we could not help but respond in kind to their completely infectious laughter. It was as if someone opened a bag of giggles and couldnâ€™t close it again. Every time we rode up to some obscure village on our rented bikes or motorcycles, we prompted general astonishmentâ€”a silence like the grave and scrutiny from people who could not believe their eyes. However, the Burmese children were always among the first to run up to us. By the time we made it to the end of the village, we always had about 15 little urchins jumping around us. They got the greatest pleasure out of seeing themselves on the camera displays and constantly asked us to take more pictures. Each new photo was accompanied by explosions of laughter, which gradually brought the whole village out.
We did not encounter only happy, playful children, however. It was shocking for us to see a small group of three barefoot, dirt-covered tots, whose combined ages were probably 10, stumbling across our paths at midnight in Mandalay. Even when we didnâ€™t want to give children money, in some situations we just could not hold back. Unfortunately, throughout all of Burma we saw many children living on the street or in garbage dumps, making a living by sorting through waste and collecting tin cans or plastic.
Under the supervision of the regime
During our trip along the Irrawaddy, we had excellent fun on the upper deck of the ship with Burmese people sailing from Kachin region. The women sat around me and with the help of one who knew a little English, we were able to understand one another and to have a brilliant time, while the men admired the size of my boyfriendâ€™s boots. Into this atmosphere full of laughter, when one Burmese had pulled on the size 11 boot and was doing his best to walk around, a man came up and began shouting at us all. After his performance, which sounded like a series of orders, everyone immediately disappeared and would not come near us again until the end of the trip. Instead, they just winked at us conspiratorially.
Elsewhere it happened that a boy warned us, as we were exiting a bus, to be wary of a man waiting on the street. We then determined he had been following us for some time. The locals helped us with this, warning usâ€”for example in Moulmein (Mawlamyine) in the southâ€”when an underclothes police officer who had been following us was coming close.
We were surprised at how willing the Burmese were to discuss their political situation, how avid they were for news from â€œoutsideâ€, and how unafraid they were to talk about Aung San Suu Kyi. When discussing her, the rule of not saying her name was always followed. She was spoken of as â€œthe ladyâ€.
We soon determined in Burma that we had to be careful about what we discussed with whom. If someone spoke fluent English and claimed to work for an American firm in Burma, that was a signal to us not to discuss anything more. Sometimes a diligent police officer (or whatever they were) would reveal himself by tossing out the name of our guest house at the start of an innocent conversation, or by very zealously asking what we had seen, where exactly we had been, etc.
In the town of Katha we lodged at a guest house, where we unfortunately learned too lateâ€”after our passports had been taken to the police stationâ€”that the owner was a captain in the Burmese Army!!! He was very well informed about our country and had a good laugh at the expense of democracy in the Czech Republic.
Sometimes we unfortunately did not see below the surface of things until it was too late.
Encounter with the Army
Encounters with the Army in Burma are naturally daily events. We came closest to the dreaded Burmese Army presence in the north, in Hsipaw, where fighting broke out between the Shan and the Army right when we were there. We saw a train full of soldiers traveling into Hsipaw daily and military transport vehicles pulling cannon and delivering weapons. We wanted to take a three-day trek into the mountains, but the locals did not recommend it because of the ongoing fighting just a few dozen kilometers away. During one bus trip, we passed by a military cordon with cannon and machine guns traveling in the lane next to us for several kilometers, and the concern and fear on board, where we were the only foreigners, were palpable. The soldiers spotted us immediately in the bus full of Burmese. To ride for 20 minutes next to a soldier with his finger on the trigger of his machine gun is not pleasant in the least.
We also experienced quite a few military checkpoints on the highways. The Burmese always had to get off the bus, while we had to stay inside and have our passports taken from us. Once the regime had thoroughly checked up on us, the bus could continue. We underwent the most checks on the trip to Moulmein. During that journey we passed by military checkpoints, entrenchments, guarded bridges and gun-ports. It was clear that region was being patrolled more than the others.
The author traveled in Burma March-April 2011. The article originally appeared on the Czech-based website www.ecoburma.com, which promotes responsible tourism to Burma. Text was translated from Czech language.