Night was closing in on a gray Bangkok day as Jana and I took the express rail to Suvarnabhumi Airport, 33 dirty urban kilometers from the city center. We boarded our Air Asia flight to Yangon, and were soon ascending through the dense layer of smog that hung over the city. I pressed my forehead against the small window and was looking out at the thick clouds rolling by when suddenly we burst through the top of the clouds into dazzling clear light. The sun, far to the West, cast sharp horizontal rays across the open sky. An infinite view. I sat mesmerized for an hour, watching shadows deepen over rough currents in the ocean of clouds below.
We started to descend. The plane plunged into the gray ocean of clouds and the sun disappeared. We floated downward until, just as suddenly, we dropped below the clouds into full night. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, I began to make out the contours of a ragged coastline. Burma appeared to me first as an absence, negative space in my field of vision, completely dark but for the ghostly shimmer of winding rivers stretching toward the sea. No city lights. No electricity. No evidence of human habitation.
But scattered all across the dark mass below: fire. Dozens of open flames, strewn out to the horizon, as though flung by God’s dripping hand, blazing orange and red against the dark earth.
Burma is on fire. I was thinking through this when a cluster of electric lights appeared in the dark distance, a small smattering island of light, toward which our plane directly headed. Yangon.
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There is no trash service in Burma. Whatever isn’t needed or can’t be reused gathers up in piles, either through the force of wind and the shove of foot traffic or through the effort of sweeping and gathering. Branches and leaves, food scraps, paper, and, increasingly, plastic bottles and bags, cellophane packaging — all the things we drop in the trash that then magically disappear do not magically disappear in Burma. Instead they are set on fire. Dark plumes rise from glowing piles, large and small, city and country.
Add to that the smoke of the slash and burn of fields being cleared to make way for crops of rice and tea and pulse and beans.
Add to that the diesel fumes that spew from mid-century Mercedes and Mazdas, secondhand Japanese sedans, and low-gear open engine tractors that serve as primary transport outside of urban centers.
Add the exhaust trailing from thousands and thousands of motorbikes buzzing along unlikely roads and paths. (But not in Yangon where motorcycles are banned by government decree.)
Machines don’t die permanent deaths in Burma. There is nothing to replace them. They are kept alive by hook and crook. Mechanics set up shop on the sidewalk: a jumble of rusty tools, put up a sign, and open for business. Curbside open heart engine surgery. Plastic water bottles full of home-brew petrol are stacked in stands along the road, glowing amber in the sun, like lemonade stands for motorbikes.
All that smoke and smog adds up to a continual haze that pervades the Burmese air. It washes out colors and blurs the edges of objects. Successful photos are taken only in the short hours after dawn, before the ascending sun’s rays are trapped and diffused by the gathering smoke.
The effect is cumulative. I develop a harsh cough, an upper respiratory infection of some sort, that much as I try will not be ignored.
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I had been warned by other travelers that it is prudent in Burma to eat only food cooked while you wait. Street stalls, market diners, and roadside restaurants offer bowls and platters of noodles, curries, fish, meats, fried snacks, etc that have been prepared hours in advance and are left to stew in the sun. Flies are shooed away by hand, or by carousels of plastic bags rotating on wheels propelled by strings and pulleys, or not at all. A pile of noodles looks innocent enough sitting on the counter, and the Burmese consume it all with abandon, but unless you are Burmese you want to eat food cooked only in the moments immediately prior to consumption. A lack of discretion can take you out for days.
I’m at a local street cafe in the charming village of Hsipwa. I order Burmese tea– strong and sweet– and samosas. The samosas arrive cold. I look around and I spot a small pyramid of samosas piled onto a big steel bowl on a table in the kitchen. There is no telling how long they have been sitting there. I eat them anyway.
The next morning we are meant to catch a bus– wake up call at 5am. But I have been up all night spewing liquid out my back end like a fire hose. I stay in bed for the rest of the day, and the cough sets in. It dogs me throughout my trip, well past Burma, throughout Thailand, and into Laos. My stomach muscles ache, sharp pains with each relentless coughing fit. There is a gurgling and burning when I breathe. It subsides for a day or two and then reemerges with a vengeance whenever I am fatigued or overdrawn.
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Traveling in Burma is difficult, uncomfortable, and time-consuming. Tourists are banned from many regions, ostensibly for their own protection, but there is much that the military government prefers not to be seen. There are regular and affordable bus services connecting many areas, but the roads, where they exist, are abysmal. It is not unusual for a bus ride of a couple hundred miles to take 15 hours or more, shifting and lurching through ditches, cracks, and potholes. The buses are, without exception, absolutely freezing. The air-conditioning is on full blast. There seems to be no concept of dialing in a comfortable medium. It is either on or off, all the way. Everyone on the bus puts on every bit of clothing they have. We hunch and huddle together to preserve body heat. The TV in the front of the bus is on, loud. Every bus in Burma is showing the same sitcom: the same three goofy hapless guys, the majority of the action taking place in a single room, the set apparently lit by bare light bulbs, the production values primitive, the situations ridiculous, but judging by the uproarious laughter of the Burmese on the bus, very, very funny. It’s either that or the equally impressive music videos– most likely one of the apparently numberless videos and live recordings of a single group out of Yangon: The Lazy Club. Passengers sing along with abandon.
The bus station is invariably located 20 or 30 kilometers out of town. A taxi is required, often costing twice as much as the bus.
There are also trains, but these are run by the government, apparently haven’t been serviced since they were abandoned by the British, and are notorious for arriving hours or days past schedule. I spent one of my more memorable mornings on the circular train in Yangon. It ranges out in a wide circle from the city center, through small villages and fields of rice and watercress. Local transport. I was the only foreigner in my section of the train– a fly on the wall observing a day in the life of Yangon. This was my first close taste of the diversity of the Burmese people, the many different tribes and ethnicities that mingle and mix in the urban center. People hopped off and on, carrying their wares to market, going to school, or to a job in the city.
By far the easiest way to travel longer distances in Burma is to fly. There are several domestic airlines to choose from, none of which are known for their stellar safety records. Flying is also problematic because the airlines are either owned by the government or run by the Burmese business tycoon Tay Za, who is closely connected to former head of state Than Shwe.
Flying is also expensive. This becomes a point of contention between Jana and me. I’m stubborn and would prefer to spend 17 sleepless hours bumping through the night in a freezing cold bus than to dish out ten times the money to fly there in an hour or so. Jana is stubborn and thinks flying is money well spent for the comfort, time saved, and chance to sleep.
But even with the luxury of flying, it can still take days to get where you want to go. The boat up the river leaves only on Tuesday and Friday. It takes half a day just to get from town to the bus station. You can’t assume you can get from point A to point B to point C. You will have to go back to A to get to C. There is always someone willing to get you where you want to go for a price, but hours in a taxi quickly turns into hundreds of dollars. We realize that in the few weeks we have, there will only be time to see a few of the most compelling (also most travelled) spots, and almost no time for aimless wandering.
Also, everything is full. Since Burma began easing the visa requirements, tourists have been arriving in droves. You can get a 28 day Burmese visa in Bangkok within a day. We met very few Americans, but the place is full of tourists (mostly French). What infrastructure there is to accommodate them is stretched beyond capacity. As such, we had to plan, which I hate. Throughout the trip we called 2 days in advance everywhere we went to book transportation and find a place to sleep, often calling several places before securing a spot. Those who didn’t plan discovered the joy of spending half their precious visa time huffing their gear around town from guest house to guest house hoping to find someone about to vacate.
Money is tight. Because of the sanctions imposed on Burma, it is almost impossible to get more money once you are in the country. Only the highest end places accept credit cards. The ATMs don’t work for foreigners. The money you bring in is all the money you will have for the duration.
Jana and I arrive in Yangon with money belts full of pristine new hundred dollar bills, compressed between hard sheets of card stock, and zipped tight into plastic pouches. I had learned from the forums that only perfect post-1996 US currency (with the big faces) would be accepted by the Burmese. A bend, a tear, or a mark and it might as well be toilet paper. We had also budgeted based on advice from previous travelers. But because of the tourist influx, prices are rising sharply. Taxi drivers especially seem to have realized they have a captive audience. And I hadn’t planned to spend cash on domestic flights.
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It quickly becomes apparent to me that traveling in Burma with Jana with only a couple of weeks and limited funds at our disposal is not going to be much like my other travels– alone, with unlimited time, few expectations, and plenty of transportation options. Before long, I’m dying to get off the gringo trail, away from the tourist infrastructure, the cafes and organized tours and treks, the hard sell and hustle. I don’t care if it’s uncomfortable. I don’t care if I get sick. I want to see what Burma is like for the people who live there, not the Burma that is presented to tourists. I want to eat what they eat, travel like they travel. I want to throw the Lonely Planet guidebook out the window and just see what happens.
It all boils up and over. We don’t have enough money. We don’t have enough time. Jana would prefer to spend extra money to save time and avoid being sick and uncomfortable. I just want to get away from tourists. Jana accuses me of injured pride, because the reality at hand won’t allow me to pursue my romantic fantasy of myself as a hard-boiled traveler. I accuse her of too readily exchanging cash for comfort, willing to settle for the tourist version of Burma rather than getting into the real dirt.
More than once, I suggest to Jana that maybe this isn’t working out. Our styles of travel are incompatible. Maybe we should just go our separate ways for the rest of the trip. But she doesn’t feel comfortable going it alone, and, anticipating that it might not be the smoothest sailing traveling together, I had promised her that I wouldn’t abandon her if things got tough. We weren’t to part unless we both agreed it was a good idea.
She says to me, “You keep accusing me of complaining, of being selfish and caring only about my own comfort, but you haven’t stopped complaining about tourist this and tourist that, how you aren’t having the authentic experience you had hoped, how much everything costs — ever since we got here.” I suddenly see her point. I keep getting frustrated with Jana, but I’m really mad at Burma. This place won’t let me run free. I keep trying to resign myself to the fact that time and money are limited, that aimless wandering is not an option, that it takes a huge amount of planning and time just to get around this country, especially visiting for the first time, and that I’m going to have to let go of much of what I imagined this trip would be. I keep trying to accept things as they are, but the rebel in me rises again and again, generating tension.
I resolve to shut the hell up and make the best of it. And we both, in the end, in spite of the smoke and sickness and tourists and discomfort and frustration, fall in love with the place.
Next: more better.