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Trip Report Still Wowed by Burma

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It is rare for us to revisit a place… it always seems like there are so many new places to see! We visited Burma in 2009. I’d planned this trip for almost 20 years before finally going. Burma was everything I thought it would be and more. My childhood dream of seeing Bagan was well-realized. Our time on Inle Lake was lovely, an idyllic trip back in time. We had to make choices about what to see on our first trip, and there were places we wanted to see that had to be left out, like the Ancient Cities area around Mandalay and Mrauk U. Burma is a country in a different time zone – by decades. I knew as I walked in the temples of Bagan, Cheryl and I the only visitors at most, that it would not always be this way. So it seemed wise to plan a return trip to Burma before too much time had passed.

While no one held much hope that the “elections” in November 2010 would usher in any real change in the country, change has begun to seize Burma in the last 6 months or so. Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) was released from house arrest, and was invited to meet with government ministers. There has been a release of several hundred “prisoners of conscience” and promises of more releases. Banks have been allowed to open foreign currency exchanges, exchanging dollars (and Euros and Singapore dollars) at real market rates rather than the artificial “official rate” (of about 6 kyat to the dollar) that meant both visitors and locals exchanged on the black market. Many internet restrictions have been lifted, making many more websites accessible, without the awkward (and only partially successful) work-arounds like the use of proxy servers.

Recent weeks have brought even more reasons for hope. The government has been in talks with the IMF about joining the international financial community. The National League for Democracy (NLD) was asked to participate in politics again, and ASSK and the NLD have both agreed. Burma asked to be back in the rotation to chair and host the ASEAN conference in 2014, and the ASEAN nations agreed. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton went to the new capital, Naypyitaw, and met with the president and other high government officials. This was the first official state visit by the US in over 50 years. She also met with ASSK in Yangon. These events unfolded during our trip. Indeed, Hillary Clinton was in Yangon at the same time we were.

As all of this unfolded, I was so glad that we had scheduled our trip for this year, and that I had booked six months in advance. Burma will see the largest number of visitors ever in 2011. I wondered how much impact the increased number of visitors would have on our experience, but remembered that Burma has a miniscule number of visitors in comparison to other countries in SE Asia. There were more tourists than we saw last time everywhere we went. At the Rupar Mandalar, a Russian group checked in our last day, taking up almost the whole resort. We saw a number of European tour groups in Bagan at the Trypitysaya, but we did not run into any tour groups while we were out at the temples. Several small groups were at the Princess while we were there – 6 to 8 person groups, and a huge 20+ person group checked in the last day we were there. In spite of this, we saw no large groups while we were out and about and ran into only a few small groups while we were at the temples at Mrauk U. We saw a big tour bus parked in front of the Strand, and one at the Governor’s Residence, something we didn’t see last trip. Hotels were full, flights were full. The limited tourist infrastructure was stretched as far as it can go.

A few basics for those considering a trip to Burma: A trip to Burma requires more research and preparation than trips to anywhere else I’ve been. Do inform yourself about the political situation in Burma. If you want a short primer, read the sections on whether or not to go in the Lonely Planet. LP is the only current guide to Burma available, and a new edition is due out in December. For more depth and detail, read The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U. Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma is another excellent book. I put together a reading list in advance of my last trip. Here is the link: www.fodors.com/community/asia/kathies-burma-bookshelf.cfm

Tour companies that previously boycotted Burma are now taking large groups in. If you are going on a group tour, please inform yourself about the situation in Burma. Don’t expect that your tour company will tell you about the history or the political situation in Burma. Tours are well-known for skimming the surface of things. Some of the surface of Burma is deceptively attractive – gilded spires of stupas, smiling monks and nuns, cordial, warm people. The uneducated visitor may simply see a poor, underdeveloped country. They may miss the fact that Burma was formerly one of the richest countries in this part of the world, with abundant natural resources and fertile lands that made it the top supplier of rice to other countries in Asia. And they will miss the fact that the political system has destroyed the economy and oppressed the people, arresting, imprisoning and torturing many thousands of dissidents.

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