Countries governed by military dictatorships are not generally renowned as prime holiday destinations, and Burma is no exception. Unless you’re on a pre-organized package tour, there is nothing easy or relaxing about traveling through Burma.
Take, for example, one of the most basic transactions necessary on arrival in a new country: changing money into the local currency. As there is no internationally recognized banking system in Burma, credit cards, ATM cards and traveler’s cheques are largely useless. You must carry all the cash you need. The country’s bogus economy means that the kyat is grossly overvalued and the official exchange rate for tourists is 450 kyat to the US dollar. on the black market, however, you can get well over 1,000 kyat to the US dollar. Negotiating with illegal money changers in the heat and chaos of a busy market alleyway is often tricky. Money changers require pristine, uncreased dollar bills and rarely leave you time to count the wad of notes they stuff into your hands.
Consider also the logistics of traveling around a country that has been ground into poverty by over 40 years of military misrule. The transportation infrastructure is in an abominable state. Buses and cars frequently break down, and trains are often delayed. While traveling around Burma to research my book about life under a military dictatorship, I wasted whole days stranded on desolate roads in the Burmese countryside. one time, I was on a bus that broke down just after midnight. There was no protest or even any show of surprise from the weary Burmese passengers. They simply shifted slightly in their seats and settled down to sleep. At dawn, the bus conductor hitched a ride with a passing ox cart to search for spare parts in the nearest village, and the bus didn’t start moving again until the sun was setting at the end of that day.
Neither is there any access to reliable healthcare. Hospitals in Burma are horrifyingly underfunded and lack up-to-date medicines and properly trained staff. If you become seriously ill in Burma, your best hope is to be medevaced to Bangkok. Standards of hygiene are low; in Rangoon, sewers are clogged to overflowing and water is poorly filtered. Almost every time I left Burma, I carried home with me a feverish or viral souvenir.
Simply getting where you want to go can be difficult. The regime places strict controls on where foreigners can travel in Burma, and tourists are limited mostly to the central areas of the country.
Destinations further afield, such as the mountainous region of Putao in the north or the archipelago of islands off Myeik in the south, are periodically closed to tourists. I once enquired at a travel agency about a trip to Myeik and was informed that I would have to be prepared to stay there indefinitely as the return flights could be canceled at a moment’s notice and overland travel in that area was not permitted for foreigners.
Not only are there restrictions on where foreigners can go, but also on what they can do. one group of Americans traveling around Burma on a package tour asked to stop at a local school in the countryside near the ancient temples of Pagan to hand out pencils, pens and notebooks to the schoolchildren. They were told they would need special advance permission, which they dutifully applied for. They were refused.
Wading through the endless bureaucracy of dictatorship can be especially tedious. Everywhere you travel you leave a paper trail of your movements, which enables authorities to pinpoint where you are in the country at any given time. Train tickets on most routes must be purchased three days in advance. If you manage to get to lesser-visited towns, considerable paperwork will be required for your stay—that is, if you can even find a guesthouse that is authorized to receive foreigners. When I stopped for a night in one such town in the Delta region, I had to submit signed copies of my passport and Burmese visa to nine different government departments.
A trip to Burma will also mean being cut off from the rest of the world. Newspapers are rigorously censored and few places outside the big business hotels in Rangoon have access to satellite television and international channels. Your mobile phone won’t work. Calling abroad through hotel phones is ludicrously overpriced.
Internet access is irregular and firewalls that control the number of sites that can be accessed in Burma mean that you can log into a Yahoo or Hotmail email account only through special proxy servers.But perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of travel in Burma is being in a country that is ruled by fear. The oppression is ever present but almost invisible. You may have done your homework and read the human rights reports about forced labor and political prisoners, but you will seldom see any evidence of military rule. There are few soldiers in the streets, and the violence that underpins the regime takes place beyond the carefully controlled tourist trail. It is this dark undercurrent that will no doubt ensure Burma doesn’t become one of the world’s top holiday destinations any time soon.
author: Emma Larkin
Courtesy of the author and The Irrwawaddy.