I had always longed to visit Burma. I left the Army in 1990 with specific instructions that Burma was a country not to be visited and was on par with the USSR and North Korea as restricted states.
Burma is bordered by India and Bangladesh to its west, Thailand and Laos to its east, and China to its north and north-east. It has an incredible history at times traumatic and fraught with the world longest civil war and instability. The ruling military junta changed its name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 – just one year earlier there had been a popular uprising by thousands of ochre-robed monks, children, university students, housewives, doctors and people from all walks of life who demonstrated against the military regime. Sadly and brutally it ended in the execution and deaths of thousands of innocent protesters including an attack and killing of unarmed doctors and nurses by the military who were caring for the already injured at Rangoon General Hospital.
During the crisis Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a national icon. In 1990 after the military arranged an election her political party, the National League for Democracy won 80% of the seats in government. However, the Burmese military continued to suppress everything and everyone, ignoring Aung San Suu Kyi’s election landslide and placed her under house arrest until 2010 and under pressure from worldwide public denunciation Burma held elections again. The NLD boycotted the 2010 elections but in the 2015 elections Aung San Suu Kyi and her National league for Democracy gained a super-majority of over 86% of seats.
She had spent much of her time between 1989 and 2010 in some form of detention because of her efforts to bring democracy to then military-ruled Burma. This made her an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression. In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the life of this remarkable mother & politician is portrayed in the film The Lady (2011).
Burma is a country rich in jade, gems, oil and natural gas and other mineral resources. It has a virtually untouched pristine jungle abundant with rare and endangered wildlife including the sunda pangolin the dugong, the dusky langur and wildlife as diverse as elephants, rhinoceros, buffalo, boar and tigers and leopards.
Burma is the world’s second largest producer of illicit opium after Afghanistan. Some 90% of Burma’s poppy fields are in the south of Shan State. Although it is illegal to grow opium poppies, they are cultivated openly in areas controlled by armed insurgent groups. The area known as the Golden Triangle is one of Asia’s two main opium-producing areas covering approximately 367,000 sq mi and overlapping the mountainous areas of Burma, Laos and Thailand. I have yet to visit the Golden Triangle.
Burma continues to struggle with democracy. Systematic Human Rights violations by the Burmese Military and insurgents are frequently reported and more recently the United Nations report ‘genocide’ against the Muslim Rohingya people in Rakhine state. The Burmese military remain a powerful force in politics and many are now challenging Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to bring about democratic chance to a much needed developing country. So much has the appalling treatment of the Rohingya shocked human rights groups that United Nations have described them as “among the world’s least wanted” and “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities”. Their treatment has drawn the rather worrying attention of the Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri who has threatened Burma with terrorist attacks.
I hope to study Burma and its rapidly changing political landscape, its struggle with democracy and despite the apparent negatives, I visited the country in January 2017 for a month and found a wonderful, vibrant, colourful and fascinating nation where the people were friendly and excited about embarking on democratic change.
Extracts from my social media written at the time of my visit January 2017
I arrived in Yangon via Bangkok, the flight around an hour or so. I had hoped to enter Burma via the land border crossing at Mae Sot / Myawaddy but my own time restrictions disappointingly prevented me from doing so. Yangon Airport is very small in comparison to London Heathrow and Bangkok Suvarnabhumi but the overhead view when landing allowed me to surmise that it is rapidly expanding.
It is 92* F and the largest city in Burma, the heat and humidity are immediately noticeable despite coming direct from Thailand. I’m so happy to be here, all my life I’ve wanted to visit this country and I just know I will not be disappointed. Like most international airports once through security and customs I was met by an entourage of taxi drivers plying for trade. I have a sense of trepidation, this really is the unknown for me but then it is for many other travellers and tourists.
Burma has only rejoined the international community and fully opened its borders since 2011. Change has been painfully slow in some areas but the country’s economic, social, and political isolation has hopefully come to an end.
One of the more exciting things about being here is the genuine lack of exposure to westerners, the majority of the people are delighted to see you, more so in the rural areas. I seem to attract a lot of attention, mostly because of my tattoos and unlike Thailand, where westerners are commonplace, some Burmese people are still unaccustomed to white westerners and often stand and just stare, their eyes following you as you walk on past. The people are warm and friendly and want to try and help, even if you don’t need any help and they love to try and speak English to you.
On the circle line in Yangon I was approached continually and attempts to engage in conversation were often met with confusion due to my ignorance and inability to speak Burmese. Something I hope to change when I start my post graduate studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies through the SOAS Language Entitlement Programme.
Burma is a Buddhist country and almost everyone seems to be or is Buddhist. There are alters or shrines on street corners where you can make an offering and the country has some of the most beautiful temples and Pagodas. Whilst I’m an atheist, secularist and evolutionist it is still interesting, important and rewarding to visit these places.
Buddhism, like all religions, has its problems or ‘extremists’ as the west likes to label them and recently Buddhist ‘extremists’, if there is such a thing , have attacked and murdered dozens of Muslims in the Rakhine state of Burma. The fact that Buddhism instils the promise ‘not to kill’ and that ‘non-violence is central to Buddhism and more so than any other major religion seems to have no value when monks have been part of the killing of Muslims in recent years.
This is something that I find disturbing but at the same time I am intrigued to learn more about what drives someone to slaughter another human in the name of their religion and as important , what allows others of the same faith and allegiance to excuse themselves from these atrocities.
We are quick to revile Islamic Extremism in the West and in recent years we have seen thousands of innocent people murdered at the hands of Islamic extremist, who also preach that Islam is the religion of peace. But do we harbour the same emotionally stirring feelings for the Buddhist ‘extremists’ as we do for the Islamists?
Until the point of learning this I had slightly more respect for Buddhism than I did other religions. Sadly it seems that even Buddhism is not immune from the violence, segregation and discrimination evident in all religions and simply ‘put down’ to extremism and not a ‘true refection’ of the religion itself. That I sometimes question and I intend to keep studying religion for a better understanding.
So to move on to the more positive attributes of the beautiful and wonderful Burmese people and their rapidly developing country!
Almost all the indigenous people wear longyi , a long skirt similar to a sarong. Footwear more often than not consists of flip flops and I was surprised to see the police, army, security and everyone wears flip flops! I didn’t come across a single shoe shop in down-town Yangon or Mandalay.
There are lots stray dogs and cats, they don’t seem to be mistreated and rely on scraps of food from people feeding at the street vendors and the vendors themselves. There are animal welfare groups but they are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of stray dogs and cats. Please take a look at the Yangon Stray Dog website and contribute a small donation to help these mutts also look forward to a better life.
I’m often woken around 5 am by the chanting of Buddhist Monks on their Alms Round, holding small bowls they accept, not request, what food is given and that’s their food for the day. This is a wonderful experience and worth waking early for , just to watch the morning Alms unfold as dozens of Monks and Apprentice Monks take to the streets before disappearing back to monastery’s , temples and Buddhist Schools.
Many of the women and girls and some men wear a white paste on their faces, made up of the ground tree bark Thanaka. You can find the street vendors applying it to faces early in the morning, I am informed it not only acts as a cosmetic beauty but Thanaka also gives a cooling sensation and provides protection from sunburn and helps promote healthy skin.
Yesterday I took a train journey and decided to venture out of Yangon Central to the villages. The circle line train is just amazing! An old British train from the colonial past that moves around 9.5 mph and take hours to get anywhere! It is 28.5 miles in a loop and takes around 3 hours to complete and is an excellent way to see a cross section of life in Yangon.
The trains occasionally break down and the locals just sit and wait patiently for someone to repair the track or engine. The line is a double track and the carriages open, crammed, busy and bustling with people heading to Yangon to sell their food and goods.
One particular good en-route for market is the Betel Nut. Thought to contain a psychoactive ingredient many people chew betel nut for the energy boost it produces, resulting in feelings of euphoria. The remnants are often spat out on the pavements and roadsides, leaving a bright red saliva mix to avoid! Those that have chewed the nut for a considerable time are easily identified by the distinct permanent discolouration of their teeth.
My hostel – Agga Guest House Yangon –
The hotels and hostels are very basic and at around £9 a night at the low end include breakfast, noodles and a fried egg. The reception area doubles up as a breakfast room in the morning and has beautiful colonial style architecture and furniture. It’s only a matter of time before this is all discarded and replaced with tacky marble and plastic chandelier’s as the west takes hold.
I’m hoping to catch the overnight express train to Mandalay at the end of the week, not sure how fast the express train is but it takes 12 hours for the 380 mile journey north. It’s a sleeper train and goes through some very remote areas. Excited! I think it averages 30 mph for the entire journey ! But look at its beauty!
So the Road to Mandalay
I have fallen in love with Mandalay ! It is everything I expected. The people are so friendly and beyond helpful. The journey here was eventful. I took the overnight train from Yangon to Mandalay, a British built railway line , leaving Yangon at 5pm it arrives in Mandalay the next morning at 7.45pm the train is painfully slow and my only mistake was to take the journey at night , after just an hour it was pitch black and I missed hundreds of miles of beautiful Burmese countryside and forest and jungle.
The carriages were packed and at every stop on the way would fill with locals selling anything from fruit, water, local produce and coffee! There were armed police for the entire journey, they accompanied the ticket inspectors and seemed to have government officials with them also. They checked my ticket on more than one occasion and wanted to know my destination, where I was staying, if I was meeting anyone but the same applied to the locals, they too were questioned.
Burma has had a troubled past and is still involved with internal conflict and civil war and despite the recent democratic changes I guess officials continue to be guarded and suspicious.
Taxi’s are everywhere, foreigners can only drive here under special permit so going on the back of a Taxi Ped is the cheapest and quickest way, but you do take your life in your hands! The roads are often chaotic and fatal accidents common place. I have quickly learnt that the taxi ped drivers say they know you’re destination but frequently they don’t unless it’s a major tourist attraction.
I’ve have learnt that once on the back of a taxi ped , the driver will often stop and ask someone else for directions , the person he asks appears to give directions but in fact they are just giving the taxi ped driver directions to someone else who might know the way ! I needed to find an internet café and after an hour or so of driving about on the back of a ped and asking around 8 people the taxi ped driver suggested I just go visit the Golden Palace instead !
The city is laid out on a grids system and each road is a number with streets coming of it , so, like a destination could be 22 Street 89 Road or in-between 22 Street and 23 Street 89 Road – its complicated and easily to get lost.
The white lines on this Mandalay Map indicate each block and the roads in the block. The large red and blue square is the Golden Palace , heavily guarded by the military.
Mandalay Hill is just awe-inspiring, it’s probably without any doubt the most beautiful place I have ever visited. Being science minded I am just interested in facts , like how many tigers are left in the wild here , however a few very strange things have happened that I will only put down to chance and not divine intervention but being here and in places like Mandalay Hill can make you challenge that. It took me an hour to climb the 240 meter (790 ft) hill which is located to the north-east of the city centre and has been a sanctuary for Buddhists for nearly two hundred years. At the top you can see a panoramic view of all of Mandalay.
I visited at sunset, not intentionally, but for some reason I arrived at the summit just minutes before the sun went down and took some photos, it was an incredible few moments as the sun disappeared behind the mountain range in the distance and mist was rolling along the river below and behind me stood Buddhist Monks.
Whilst at the Hill I met a group of Burmese student nurses learning English at a local Independent English Language School. I ended up spending the entire trip with them. It was a fantastic experience, listening to them discuss their training, ambitions and goals. Their teacher was also Burmese and after walking back down Mandalay Hill I was invited to join them all for tea at a local café. Two of the nurses had just qualified and the rest were still at university, one guy was learning IT but they all dedicated their spare time learning the English language.
The teacher and I spoke about religion and Buddhism and he respectfully reminded me that Buddhism encourages the exploration of other religions and non religion before finding your own path and that too many people blindly follow religion without opening their minds to other ways. I guess that he was saying that if I had looked at and had studied other religions, which I have, and atheism is my choice, then so be it, that was my destiny.
After our tea I was again invited to spend the next day at the learning centre and join the student’s discussion group in the afternoon. The students had previously read the short text ‘The Little Hunters at the Lake’ and we spent the afternoon critiquing the story. Some of the students had to present a paragraph and offer it to the class for discussion. I also had the privilege to discuss my opinions on the story and create topical discussion.
Once this lesson had finished most of the students left but a few remained behind and I presented an ad-hoc teaching session in the classroom around mental health and nursing care. It was all very surreal for me, what I set out to do by coming to Mandalay I had accomplished by a chance meeting, I had such a fantastic day and I truly feel honoured to be offered the chance to teach , even a day , to such intelligent , wonderful students. It’s only by meeting and engaging with people such as those I have today that I really appreciate how lucky I am to have all the things in life that I do. Tomorrow morning the students have invited me to the Wooden Bridge in Mandalay.
The Wooden Bridge Mandalay
The Wooden Bridge Mandalay (U Bein Bridge) is a crossing that spans the Taungthaman Lake. The 1.2-kilometre bridge was built around 1850 and is believed to be the oldest and longest teak wood bridge in the world. Legend has it that if you walk the entire length with your lover you will have longevity together – We took a boat around the lake before stopping for some lunch at the lakeside. In the evening I was again invited to join in the students English reading class.
Burma is changing rapidly and there is massive investment from China and soon and possibly sadly it will change beyond recognition. Shopping complexes and malls and high rise tower blocks and hotel chains are appearing and much to my disgust a KFC has managed to find its way here already but as yet in the entire land of Burma there is no MacDonald’s! Good – keep it that way !
I hope to return to Burma late 2017 or early 2018 and catchup with the wonderful people I met in Mandalay and visit their university and hospitals as part of my Medical Anthropology Post Grad at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
A selection of other photo’s taken on my travels.
Credits for other media: