Part I: Introducing Myanmar and Its Peoples
I first went to Indochina early in my life, to Cambodia before the war and the Killing Fields, to Laos during the "secret" war, and to Viet Nam during the early phase of an already unwinnable war. Myanmar was a different story. Although it had remained apart from the power struggle going on in Indochina, it had entered into a prolonged civil war and isolated itself from the international community. In 1965, my request for a tourist visa for Burma (Myanmar's name at the time) was denied, but I was able to get in through the back door from Thailand with some smugglers. Although I stayed almost ten days in the Kengtung (now Kyaing Tong) district, I saw only a small part of the country.
Today the governments of Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are making major efforts to attract foreign tourists. The choices are ours. But to visit more than one country on one trip is not advisable. The good traveler knows that less is more. Having to choose to visit one of the four interesting and attractive countries is not an easy task. All four went through a period in the latter part of the twentieth century of devastating wars that left them poor and underdeveloped. And the current political news from Myanmar is troubling. The country is led by a military junta that shows little willingness to reintroduce democracy to the inhabitants; the opposition appears to be disheartened, weakened, and divided. Any sort of national reconciliation seems years away. However, in February 2001 Aung San Suu Kyi confirmed to foreign visitors that secret talks between her and members of the military junta had begun in October 2000. Whether such meetings will eventually bring about national reconciliation and power sharing is impossible to predict. Then there is the drug problem regarding opium and heroin. Myanmar's northeast is part of the infamous Golden Triangle, and the country remains the second largest heroin producer in the world.
The causes of Myanmar's problems are several: the devastating effects of World War II; a failed democracy thereafter; the economic ruin caused by Gen. Ne Win's policy of socialism, nationalization and isolation; the civil war between the Burmese military and the many insurgent groups and feudal lords; and, last but not least, the emergence of heroin as a valuable export commodity. After Gen. Ne Win took over the country and closed it, the outside world followed developments in Burma with some interest for a while, but because all foreigners were banned from the country and little news found its way into the Western press, over time the rest of the world seemed to lose interest in this isolated country. Several years ago, in the 1990s, the military reopened the country to foreign visitors. Today visas can easily be obtained, and a tourist industry is gradually developing. However, not all areas of the country are open to foreign visitors-only those that the government considers safe to visit.
Aware of the many political problems, such as the absence of democracy, suppression of the opposition, and calls for boycotts, I decided to see for myself and form my own opinions based on my observations, contacts, and conversations with the people of Myanmar. In the last five years, I have visited Myanmar five times, and what I found was an amazingly diverse and incredibly beautiful country that is some twelve hundred miles (two thousand kilometers) from north to south, with alpine foothills, high mountains and mountain plateaus, tropical rain forests, large rivers and delta areas, deep valleys, desertlike regions, and a long tropical coastline studded with thousand of small islands. Although Myanmar is the largest country in continental Southeast Asia, it was not its size that impressed me so much as it was the country's physical and biological diversity. Then there was another remarkable feature of the country: the great number of ethnic groups and their customs and costumes. Although the Burmese constitute the overwhelming majority, especially in the heartland, the Frontier Areas are home to about sixty tribes who speak some two hundred languages and dialects. During my visit to beautiful Lake Inle and the surrounding area, I met people of several ethnic groups, such as the Shan, Intha, Pa-O, Danu, Palaung, Burmese, and Chinese. The peoples of Myanmar-this includes the ethnic Burmese as well as the minority groups-are hospitable and friendly. Not many speak English well, but when the language barrier is overcome, you will find them eager to interact with foreigners. I found their favorite topics to be the development of their small businesses or farms and higher education for their children. Myanmar, despite its poverty and underdevelopment, has a literacy rate of well over 70 percent.
Although there are Christian minorities in Myanmar, it is a staunchly Buddhist country. A thousand years of Buddhism have endowed and enriched the country with magnificent religious sites-temples, stupas, and monasteries-over two thousand of which are located in Bagan alone. And the country offers many more marvelous and interesting historical and archaeological sites at Mandalay, Inwa, Amarapura, Sagaing, Pindaya, and Mrauk U. Buddhism also inspires the many colorful annual festivals like the nationwide Festival of Lights, or local ones, such as the picturesque Phaung Daw U Festival at Lake Inle. Although the country's infrastructure is in its infancy, a basic infrastructure does exist, and accommodations and transportation do not present problems. I used the services of one of the many private travel agents in Yangon, who made all the necessary arrangements for me. In addition to the several new hotels of different quality and price, inexpensive guest houses are available at many locations. Employees at both of these types of accommodation were helpful to me in arranging transportation on airplanes, trains, buses, ships, and ferries. For shorter distances I relied on taxis, longboats, canoes, horse carts, pedicabs, and bicycles.
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