Of all the countries I have been to so far, Burma has been my favorite. Burma contains everything a traveler like me is looking for. The scenery is spectacular and interesting - from sweeping rivers cutting through karst filled landscapes and towering limestone mountains to ancient teak monasteries. The people are friendly, helpful, and shockingly generous. Poor store vendors offer gifts; monks approach you at cafes and offer you food from their donation or alms bowls. Strangers greet you like old friends and take you out for dinner without asking or expecting anything in return.
Peering from off the edge of the towering Zwegbin mountain, you could watch the sun slowly descend from its perch in the sky, casting the Than Win river in bright red glow. Almost every day, I would simply sit down and think what a great trip it was, how every day was filled with a special type of magic, from simply sitting around a lunch table piecing together conversations with bits of Burmese and English, or biking through the 3000 temples of the plains of Bagan, there was a magic, a sense of mystery that still pervades and emanates from the country. This mystery is perhaps most apparent in Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the massive 98 meter golden stupa (painted with real gold) that dominates Yangon, the former capital. Especially at night, when the stupa is surrounded by candles (lit as offerings to the Buddha) and the gold shimmers in the soft light, hundreds of pilgrims come to pray and meditate, and you become lost in place of magic and wonder, and swept along in the slow tide of pilgrims making the slow, deliberate clockwise orbit around the stupa in the center of compound.
But there is a way in which this is the saddest country I’ve ever been to. It’s remarkably beautiful. The temples amazing; the people sweet and friendly. But hanging out with the Burmese you meet, you catch glimpses of the horror and fear they live under. You can hear the slight tinge of terror in their voices around soldiers and even police; the hushed tones about Generals they don’t like (and hence temples they avoid because they were build by them); the coded references to the “incident” around Shwe Dagon pagoda (meaning the monks who were massacred there last year). It's eeire walking the streets, knowing recently that had been crowded with protesters and then flowing with the protesters blood as the government cracked down with their full fury and viciousness. The people are cute and sweet, offering gifts from a necklace from a store owner around the Golden Rock to fruits and sweets in Moulmein, and it seems so sad. Cuteness, sweetness trapped in this hellish country – this beautiful country become hellish by the vicious regime in charge.
Many travelers avoid this country partially due to the travel ban that Aung Suu Kyi advocated years back. But as she continues to remain under house arrest, the travel ban feels like a collective house arrest for the people in this country. Unable to leave because of travel restrictions from the government, they remain caught in a large prison of sorts. War and conflict surrounds them in the Kayin, Rakhaing and Shan states of Burma. The government maintains a hidden but ubitiquitious presence. Monks point out “spy” monks near Shwe Dagon Pagoda; military checkpoints keep track of both local and foreigners movement throughout the country.
It’d be easy to move around this country and just see the beauty and history. Like in Sierra Leone, lost among the white sand beaches and rolling mountains, lost in the lush forests and caught up in the friendly people. But there’s a deep hidden horror, just beneath the surface, just barely hidden from view and you need only spend a little time, a little effort to see it in all its brutality. The horror of day to day fear, the horror of poverty, the horror of a regime bent on retaining power at costs and all the brutality that entails. You notice the absence of street children in many cities. A seemingly positive sign, yet also a silent reminder that Burma has the most child soldiers of any country in the world, some 80,000. Street children disappear into the military, brutalized and brutally turned into the governments instruments of brutality throughout the country.
I have spent the last four weeks in Myanmar, in Burma, traveling all around, witnessing beautiful, amazing, wonderful things. But perhaps more than anything else, I am a witness to horror.
Mount Zgewin and a field of 1200 Buddhas in Hpa'an
Shwe Dagon at night
Sunrise at Bagan