There's a commuter train that runs in a loop around Yangon, the former capital of Burma. For a single U.S. dollar, you can hop aboard for a three-hour ride into the suburbs and countryside, and back through the urban neighborhoods that make up the city once called Rangoon. Reviewers on TripAdvisor and travel blogs deem the ride a "must-do," a splendid chance to see authentic Burmese life.
On limited time during my first trip to Yangon and keen to see as much of the "authentic" city as I could, I eagerly made my way to the Yangon Railway Station late on a Sunday morning.
Contrary to what I expected based on TripAdvisor reviews and travel blogs, the car I was in was sparsely populated. There was a handful of locals and other travelers, but it wasn't anywhere near the chaotic, packed scene I had expected. I situated myself near the car door, and set my camera at the ready. This was the experience I had been waiting for all weekend, an opportunity to see how people really live in Yangon.
A warm breeze filtered through the open windows as we rolled along, occasionally bringing with it the stench of rotting garbage piled high outside what could accurately be described as slums. More than once, I found myself pulling my scarf over my mouth and nose, trying not to be too conspicuous. I had prepared myself to see poor neighborhoods, knew this was not going to be a pretty and picturesque ride. But the leaning shacks, some covered with nothing more than tattered blue and red tarps, the ditches filled with plastic bags, bottles, food, and all manner of trash, the putrid water over which people's homes had been built, was nothing like I had seen before.
Staring out at this scene, I started to feel kind of like an asshole. A white American asshole spectating at people's poverty, then gagging on the rancid smell of it. Why was this considered a tourist attraction? True, the colorful markets, friendly people, and gorgeous countryside were highlights of the trip. But taking the train ride for an "authentic" view of poverty, of the scars left behind by years of military oppression and a crippled economy, felt morbid and insulting.
What is the point of taking this train ride?, I wondered. I can't even say I'm supporting the local economy (though you can get off at different stations and eat at local restaurants or shop at the markets along the route). I've no doubt many people who have taken the train ride did so with the best intentions. I know I did. But that didn't make me feel any less squeamish about it.
As a journalist and blogger who has written about the human rights crises and poverty in Burma, I felt it would be tasteless and irresponsible to visit the country and see only the stunning pagodas, the elegant Western hotel bars, and indulge in the great local food. How could I come here and not try to understand the realities of life in one of the poorest places in Southeast Asia? Of course, Yangon is not a destitute city and I don't mean to suggest everyone except the ruling class is living in abject poverty, because that is not at all the case. But in order to even begin to understand the complexities and contrasts in the country, I had to see as many facets as I could in my short time there.
Any time I've visited a place to witness poverty or hardship, I try to do so with a purpose, to write about it and bring even a small amount of awareness to the plight of people in impoverished or oppressed communities. I don't pretend to understand all the nuances of their circumstances, but I try to make my time there mean something.
But that train ride made me question the ethics of these kinds of tourist activities, and my own purposes in traveling to such places.
(While writing this post, it occurred to me that I am making a lot of assumptings about the lives of the people in those communities I saw during that train ride. I don't know their level of happiness or peace of mind or satisfaction with their work, or have a strong understanding of local culture. I had to assume from what I saw that many are living in sub-standard conditions, but do not know much beyond that. I acknowledge that I am looking at this through my own admittedly limited worldview, and welcome constructive criticism of this point.)
Coming to Yangon
I arrived in Yangon as a tourist and a reporter. Burma has been at the top of my travel bucket list for awhile now. After my first visit to Chiang Mai in early 2012, I started learning more about Thailand's Western neighbor and the ongoing humanitarian and political crises there. Burma (officially known as Myanmar) was oppressed by a military junta for decades, a period during which fear, censorship, violence, and all manner of state abuse ruled. But the government began to open the country up in 2008 and there have been some reforms, and plenty of interest from foreign governments and companies looking to invest in a unique market.
About a year ago, I began writing about Burma for my blog on AsianCorrespondent.com. I wrote often about the disgraceful situation in Rakhine state, where Rohingya Muslims are the target of violence and discrimination, and where many have been forced into squalid refugee camps. (Human Rights Watch has called the violence against the Rohingya an "ethnic cleansing" campaign.) Human rights has always been an interest of mine, but somewhere along the way, I stumbled onto a more uplifting beat - the emerging tech and entrepreneurship scene in Burma, specifically in Yangon.
I decided to combine my travel and professional interests and spend a few days in Yangon in mid-March, when several groups within the tech community were coming together for the country's first-ever hackathon. I won't go into too much detail about that here, but those interested can see the piece I wrote on the growing tech scene for the Christian Science Monitor. Being at the hackathon and meeting the hackers, NGO workers, and tech professionals involved was humbling, and inspires hope for the future of the country. Witnessing their ingenuity and optimism renewed my faith in humanity, and reminded me that despite the endless streams of bullshit we hear about everywhere in the world, this is an amazing time to be alive.
In between visits to the hackathon, I was determined to see some of Yangon. Friends who had traveled to Burma all said there wasn't much to the city, and the real joy of traveling there came from visiting the countryside and cultural sites such as Bagan and Inle Lake. But I was on limited time and funds, so I decided to stick to Yangon for this trip. At least I'd get to see a small slice of life there.
Sai Aung's Story
When you're removed from the realities of a place, it's easy to think you know the whole story, to think you can prepare yourself to be there, to understand what's happened. I didn't understand. I couldn't comprehend the realities. The recent past was present in nearly every conversation I had. People approached me to ask where I'm from, and immediately launched into comments on the relationship between Burma and the "superpower" United States, and on the military regime.
On my first morning in Yangon, I went to see Sule Pagoda, a golden structure in the heart of the city's downtown. After wandering alone snapping photos of the golden spires and colorful Buddhas for a few minutes, a man in a white shirt and longi, a traditional sarong-like garment, approached me. He introduced himself as Sai Aung, and we exchanged pleasantries about American culture. I asked him more about himself, and he told me a story that could be the plot of a cinematic epic.
Sai Aung grew up in a small village near the Himalayas in Kachin State, near the borders with Tibet and China. The trip from Yangon to the village takes three days, and a half day of that is spent climbing a mountain on foot. He never knew his father, a Kachin man. His mother, a Shan woman, died of malaria when he was seven. Sai Aung lived for several years with an uncle who was a monk, and later went to Mandalay to study. There he was adopted by a teacher, and befriended another orphan who eventually convinced him to go to Mae Hong Son, Thailand, presumably in search of work. They lived in a refugee camp for more than a year. The friend then asked him to go to Australia, which meant sneaking into the country illegally by way of Malaysia or Indonesia. Sai Aung declined, fearing the dangers of such a plan. His friend made it to Australia, but he has not heard from him since 2009.
Sai Aung returned to his country and decided to study contemporary Burmese literature in Yangon. His adopted father agreed to support him financially, and his uncle arranged for him to stay in a monastery to avoid the cost of housing. When his adoptive father died of a brain tumor, Sai Aung supported himself by penning love letters on behalf of fellow students and writing political poetry. That's when he casually mentioned that his poetry had landed him in jail.
Of course I had read about political dissidents being jailed, but here was a man who claimed to have actually been imprisoned for writing poetry that upset the government. I hardly knew what to say beyond stammering "That's terrible." He smiled and shrugged, and said he has no plans to curtail his writing. "They will not stop me," he said. Whether he was telling the truth, I can't know for sure, though it's hard to imagine someone fabricating such an elaborate life story.
I later met others who had been imprisoned for their political activities, including the translator I worked with. He had been a student union organizer in university at a time when the government banned such groups from forming. I was floored by these stories of being jailed for speaking out against the government or defying bans on student organizing. These people were around my age. When they were in university, they were risking their lives to organize and defend their rights, going to jail for their writing.
I have no idea what that kind of risk is like. I wrote articles in university that occasionally ruffled a few feathers in the administration, but I was never at risk of being kicked out of school or tossed into jail for it. Hearing their stories put my own life and struggles into perspective, and I began to appreciate the luxury in which I grew up. That's not to say there aren't signifcant problems in the U.S., only that I have never feared imprisonment or had to surmount personal harship to go to school.
Hearing these stories and being frequently asked about the U.S. and its relationship with Burma left me feeling out of my league and unsure of what I was doing there. Yes, I had come to cover the hackathon, to see a small piece of the country. But I became acutely aware of how little an understanding I actually have of the country and its history, and of what life is like there, both good and bad.
While it's hard to miss the scars of the country's recent history, it's also impossible to miss the grandeur of Burma's more ancient past. Certainly there were slums in Yangon, but the city has many faces, as most do. Stunning pagodas, elegant British architecture, thriving markets. These are all part of Yangon, too.
The 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda is arguably Yangon's most famous site. The pagoda compound has hundreds of temples, statues, Buddha images, and pieces of art. If you've been in Southeast Asia long enough, it's easy to feel a little burned out on seeing temples and pagodas and the like, but this one was well worth the schlep.
I visited the pagoda on a Saturday morning, slipping past crowds of Burmese who had wisely found themselves spots in the shade from which to eat, talk, and pray. I was wondering how those still milling about in their bare feet (visitors must leave their shoes at the entrance) remained so damn cheerful as the deceptively cool-looking rock scorched their skin. Disappointment and irritation flared as my feet burned, and I prepared for a sulk about the pagoda turning out to be another underwhelming tourist trap.
And then, desperate for any relief at all, I turned down a small, partially shaded walkway and stopped in my tracks. The golden pagoda shone against a cloudless blue sky, complemented by ornate statues and trappings. At the risk of sounding completely cornball, the pagoda looked almost otherworldly in its beauty. That was one of those, "Yeah. Yes. This is why I travel" moments. Sometimes I feel I'm a little jaded when it comes to travel and sight-seeing after being abroad for so long, but in that moment, the excitement came rushing back.
There's also a privilege in getting to see a country developing before your eyes. In a single day, I went from interviewing programmers at the country's first hackathon to perusing black market stalls selling the kind of landline phones I remember my parents owning in the early 90s. Many vendors sold used mobile phones, which are becoming a hot commodity in Burma.
International telecoms are bringing low-cost SIM cards to Burma this year (until recently, a single SIM could go for $3,000), so the market for phones is growing. Crowds of people bargained over used phones that most Americans would scoff at but which will allow many poor people in Burma access to phone and Internet services for the first time. Some vendors dealt solely in batteries and chargers while others sold the entire package. A few had newer smartphone models, though most people seemed to go for old Nokias. I'm pretty sure I spotted the model of my first-ever cell phone. Memories.
In these markets, too, I questioned my place and purpose there. I wanted to see them but wondered whether I should be there spectating. Visiting landmarks is one thing, but inserting yourself into the lives of other people in their own country is another. Was I being exploitive? Ignorant? Insensitive? I've always thought of myself as a conscientious traveler but now I wasn't so sure. It's led me to an ongoing consideration of what is responsible tourism, and journalism, and what crosses the line into invasive.
A Privileged Journey
Everyone says Burma will be a different place in a few years' time, and being on the ground there, you get the sense this is true. Yangon felt like the most "foreign" city I had ever visited, made me feel the most out of my element, and pushed me most to grow, even in just a few days. The city pulsates with energy, commerce, and change. It wasn't "easy" the way Chiang Mai or Bangkok are, and I liked that about it.
By the end of my trip I felt, more acutely than I have in other places, that I want my visits here to count. To tell some story, whether beautiful or horrific, about Burma. Because it is a rich, beautiful, complex place. I got the sense that everywhere you look, there is a story worth telling. So I don't want to simply observe what's happening there, I want to in some small way add to the conversation because it is a privilege to have visited there.
It's a privilege to have the financial means to travel, but also to hold a passport that allows me to go wherever I want, and I don't take that for granted. But it was also a profound privilege to meet so many courageous, warm, funny, kind, and intelligent people during my short stay in Yangon.
Like so many places in Southeast Asia, there are reasons for outrage and despair, and also humility in the face of generosity and kindness, and a strength that runs deeper than anything I have ever had to muster. If I return to Burma, and I hope I will, I don't want to go simply for my own benefit. I want to do something, bear witness to not only the struggles, the poverty, the abuse - but to the hope, kindness, and strength that will surely carry the people of Burma forward.