May 10, 2012

Pig Intestine Soup Anyone? (Adventures in Burma)

I usually get most excited to travel to places I've never been. I look forward to see the sites for the first time, try new foods, have unique experiences. This time around though, one of the places I am most excited to go to on this trip is a country I have already been - Burma, or Myanmar. I visited Burma for two weeks in June, 2003, and it left such an impression on me that I have been wanting to go back since. I want to see how it's changed, but mostly, I want to go with Steph and experience it with her for the first time. I'll give a little background to Burma because it is like no other place I have been.

Bagan, Burma

Monks marching- Saffron Revolution
Bordering Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand, Burma is a very diverse country ethnically and geographically. Many people know of it as Burma- the US government still refers to it as Burma, while the UN calls it Myanmar. Regardless of the name it is a very complex country. The military junta has ruled with an iron fist since 1962. (Read more about Burmese history here.) Since then, several peaceful protests, such as the Saffron Revolution in 2007, have been squashed with incarcerations, beatings and murder by the government's military.

Monks met with violent resistance - Saffron Revolution 
The military government has staged several rigged elections over the years. They have held Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, in house arrest on and off since 1989, keeping her separated from her husband and children, for no other reason than she had an opposing view that was widely supported by the Burmese. The military rule has meant a bleak existence for the Burmese people. Even when she won elections, the government would arrest her and call the election invalid. 

Just recently, after yet another election where Aung San Suu Kyi won  the government allowed her to take a seat in the lower house of the Burmese Parliament. Those who have followed the struggles of her and her people realize these are small, yet hopeful steps.

Pig Intestine Soup Anyone?
While these steps forward are positive, Burma has a long way to go. It is currently ranked last of 190 countries in health care, gets the worst score for human rights, and a majority of children stop school at age 9 (the last year it is compulsory) to start work. While these are the problems facing the Burmese people, travelling there has it's own set of (obviously less dire) problems. A 100-mile bus trip may take 6 hours due to crater like pot holes, flat tires, multiple stops, or changing buses - not to mention the roadside snack shacks for 2am meals (when you know you won't have another option to eat for 5 hours) can be a roll of the dice. When I was there, I was very careful about what I was eating and drinking, but I took my chances on some rubbery, intestine-looking soup a few times...close the eyes, plug the nose, and go for it!

I was pretty good about drinking only bottled water, but I remember at a stop on a bus trip when I stayed on the bus, a guy walked past the window hawking snacks and bottled water. I bought it and made sure the cap was sealed. I was about halfway finished with my liter when I saw sediment at the bottom. At first I thought it was dirt on the outside of the bottom of the bottle. I can remember vividly my realization that this was a bottle of tap water where the plastic cap had been glued on (rookie mistake!!). Picture a slow motion "nooooooooooooooo". That was me. Sure enough, about 10 hours later, I wanted to die. I spent the next 48 hours questioning my life decisions. That roadside water gave me an intestinal parasite and I have never been so sick in my life. (I wasn't the only one suffering. My traveling companion on that trip also got intestinal worms a different day. We were a fun pair.) Due to the drinking water issues, transportations troubles and questionable roadside food, only 750,000 people visit Burma each year (compared to the over 16 million people who visit San Francisco each year).

With all these problems why would I want to come back here? There is something very mystical about the place. There are many gorgeous sites like the temples of Bagan, yet the true reason I want to go back is the people. I know it sounds very cliche but I had some eye-opening experiences with the Burmese people. Most Burmese people do not express any political views to each other, and especially to tourists. The government has plain-clothes spies integrated in public areas that keep the locals anxious about sharing opposing views. Being overheard talking to anyone, especially a tourist, about politics would put the person at risk for being jailed for an indefinite amount of time. As a tourist, you are not supposed to ask anyone personal or political things while there, due to the risk you may put them in.

U Bein Bridge
However, I did have two occasions when people spoke to me about the situation in Burma. One time, a bicycle taxi was taking me to a temple. I was in a sidecar type of thing so he could make eye contact and talk quieter than if I was sitting behind him. He spent most of the trip talking about how bad the government was and how they do not care for the people. Another time, I spoke to a monk after walking U Bein Bridge. He had been held in prison for 6 years in the 90s as a political prisoner. He was the most outspoken person I encountered and encouraged me to go home and tell my friends about Burma and the struggles that they were going through. He was also appreciative of travelers coming to visit the country and learn more about it. While most of the people are afraid to be seen alone talking with tourists, most everyone is excited you are there, not only to see their country, but putting some much needed money into their economy.

A Burma Taxi
I also remember the helps and laughs I got when I hopped on a local taxi. As I stood on the back on the taxi a man with red stained teeth (from chewing betel nut) wanted to practice his English. As we cruised down the bumpy road, hanging on for dear life he practiced the few dirty jokes someone had obviously told him. His attempts were funnier than the jokes but it ended up being a moment I won't forget.

There are two documentaries that I have watched in the past couple of years that give two distinct views. Burma VJ was nominated for the Academy Award's Best Documentary in 2008, and follows the 2007 protests in Burma documented by video journalists. These protests were known as the Saffron Revolution, because of the Buddhists monks in saffron-colored robes leading the protest. The footage had to be smuggled out of the country or over the internet and is a good glimpse of the struggles for democracy that Burma has been going through for 30+ years. Recently, we went to a local theatre to watch They Call it Myanmar - Lifting the Curtain. This documentary is more a look at the daily struggles the people of Burma go through. There are some heart-wrenching scenes in the film, including footage of a young girl dying of curable tuberculosis because her government will not allow her mother to get the medication her daughter needs to survive. The film explains the political situation clearly, but also gives many reasons why things haven't changed. For beginners, the Burmese are devout Buddhists and tend to accept the life they are born into, believing that any suffering they endure is a natural part of life and due to their actions in a previous life. It's a beautiful religion but, in this instance, the devoutness of the people could be holding them back. Take a look at these two trailers to get an idea of the films.

Steph mentioned the smiling people in her post about our Indonesian honeymoon, and, as with that trip, the memory of smiling faces, red from betelnut is what I've taken with me from my time in Burma (though at times, I found it difficult to understand why they smiled) and I can't wait to see them and their beautiful country again. Burma 2013!!!!

1 comment:

  1. Hello, Hope you enjoy Burma! And Mandalay has the best pig's intestines soup!!