Traveling In Burma: Exploring Life, Politics, And History

On The Burma Trail

Eight of us in a van bounced over rutty roads in Burma, a day’s drive north of the Thai border. Farther north was China, west was Laos. Suddenly a checkpoint appeared with a young soldier, weapon at hand. Our guide said, “That’s a Wa army soldier.”

We turned off.

I’d never seen a private soldier or a private army before. I’d always thought they’d be a ragtag, makeshift group, more like a street gang. But this Wa soldier wore a crisp green uniform with insignias and epaulets. He had a serviceable vehicle at hand.

Welcome to Burma, now called Myanmar. (When Thais say “Myanmar” it comes out sounding like “Burma” somehow.) We were in Burma’s extreme northeast Shan state, wedged between China and Thailand. Our part of Burma was isolated from the rest of the country. By land locals could easily get to China or Thailand. To get to Rangoon or Mandalay, however, they’d have to travel miles across mountains without roads, rivers without bridges.

Private armies and/or drug dealers in the region control huge swaths of territory.

Our group (mostly American friends and I) had started the day before in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We’d taken a van four hours north to the Burmese border, met our guide, then crossed the bridge into Burma. Because our group hadn’t obtained visas, we left our passports with the Burmese border people in exchange for visitor cards. We’d pick up our passports again after the five-day trip.

We paid fees, received our visitor cards, bought booze—Burma charges about half what the stuff costs in Thailand—and piled into another van up to Kyaing Tong, the regional capital. Call it KT. It was another four hours north of the border.

Somerset Maugham visited KT in the 1920s and wrote about its colorful market. People from “half a dozen countries speaking a dozen languages” gathered at market to buy and sell, to chat and change money. We saw the same market as Maugham did back then, and I doubt much has changed. Every morning traders from the surrounding hill tribe villages pour down into KT. Today they ride motor scooters. Back then they walked, rode on mules, or were pulled by horses.

At the market I saw a table selling good-looking pastries. I decided to buy one, but the vendor was off doing something else. The vendor had thoughtfully left her cash box on the table. Someone from a nearby stall came over, put my pastry in a bag, made change from the cash box, and I was on my way. Money changers at another spot seemed equally at ease with their cash stock, with piles of Chinese yuan and Thai baht sitting out on market tables.

Our small group spent five days in that part of Burma, mostly visiting markets and hill-tribe villages. We started every day in the market, to buy our lunch, to buy gifts for villagers, and to wander around that splash of color and commerce.

In the villages we gave sewing thread to women. We gave rubber bands and combs to older kids. Girls used the rubber bands as bracelets, boys to shoot at targets. We gave nail clippers and laundry detergent to mothers. We gave heavy duty, woven plastic sacks for storing and transporting rice. We gave candy and cookies.

In one village we were invited into the head man’s hut where adults had gathered. Some sincere, animated people were talking in a sincere, animated way to bored villagers. You guessed it: a political meeting. Burma’s first elections in 25 years were a few days away. These villagers had never voted and seemed to have a hard time catching on. Our guide pointed out that the villagers lacked the most basic information, like their birth dates and their ages, the name of their country, and how voting worked. They were illiterate, so the political types had to explain where to find the party icon on the ballot and how to mark it. Right way, wrong way.

The local candidate herself stood by. She worked as a guide out of KT, running in her first election. I asked her if she was going to win. “Whatever the people say, however the vote comes out.” I said I knew that, but I wondered if she had a good chance. “A very good chance. I think I’m going to win.” She represented a hill-tribe party called National Democratic something-or-other, probably part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political movement, which won the elections in a landslide.

When Somerset Maugham came through this part of Burma in the 1920s, the English still ran the place. Burma was the second-richest country in Southeast Asia. After World War II, Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, brokered an independence deal with Britain. Aung San had fought with the Japanese during the war. He switched sides when he concluded Japan might lose. Even if the Japanese won, he figured, they’d want to keep control.

Aung San wanted out, total freedom for Burma.

A few months before the agreed independence day, a gang of thugs hired by former Prime Minister U Saw broke into a meeting and assassinated Aung San and eight others. U Saw was later tried and hanged; Aung San became a national hero. Aung San’s daughter, now 70 years old, dedicated her life to gaining the position her father once hoped to have.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party takes over in January. Instead of the second-richest country in Southeast Asia, she’ll face the poorest. Reason? Ne Win.

Ne Win took power in a 1962 coup and for decades guided himself by the twin beacons of theft and incompetence.

Ne Win nationalized everything of value and promptly shut Burma down. He closed the universities. He threw out foreigners who were already there and kept others from coming in except for, in some cases, three-day stays. He banned foreign investment and new factories, even foreign aid and NGOs. He replaced the currency every now and again, wiping out peoples’ savings.

We can only guess why Ne Win did what he did. He never said; he never said much of anything. We know he cared little for ideology and believed fervently in auspicious numbers.

Today Burma remains hopelessly poor. In one village we saw long houses, where 10 to 20 families live under one roof. Each family has 100 square feet of living space, with a fire pit in the center and room around it for sleeping and eating. In the village I saw little girls, but no little boys. Later we found the boys in the nearby Buddhist temple, the boys dressed in novice robes. Boys but not girls can become novices. Parents, without enough food for all, feed their girls and ship their boys off to the temple to eat.

I asked our guide where the temple gets its money. He shrugged. “Maybe from donations. Maybe Thai tourists.”

I said, “Perhaps the government?”

Our guide shook his head firmly. “No. Nothing from the government. Ever.”

Hill tribes around KT ran opium during Ne Win’s time and today run meth labs. Our group had to have a guide, and pay a guide fee, not so much for what he could tell us but for what he kept away from us. Under no circumstances were we to stumble upon a meth lab or smuggling operation. Which was all right by me.

The army nullified the 1990 elections but appears willing to let Aung San Suu Kyi take over this time. The army remains in control of the military, police, and much of the bureaucracy. As a practical matter I figure the Burmese army owns everything worth owning. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will have little power. Yet she’s a start. She may bring hope.

Our group of friends ate out every evening in local restaurants. Some eating places had English-language menus, some not, but none of the menus had prices. I’d only ever seen menus without prices in China, and I always suspected the prices were there but in Chinese script. I asked the guide why no prices. “Prices tend to be the same all over town. Everyone knows what they are.”

At dinner we’d typically order several pitchers of beer, assorted meat and vegetable dishes, a few desserts, maybe some firewater. At the end someone on staff would come over and say “forty-five-thousand, two-hundred-and-forty kyat,” or whatever, and that was what we paid. No separate checks; no checks at all.

We did the entire trip over land, from Chiang Mai to KT and back. In KT we saw handfuls of European tourists who had flown in from Rangoon or Mandalay. Instead of leaving passports at the border, as our group did, these Europeans had proper visas and flew around Burma on local airlines.

Mandalay and Pagan offer history, spectacular temples and ruins. Rangoon offers the best of modern Burma. Our area near KT offers anthropology, a glimpse of how hill tribe villagers live in the 21st century.

You might want to consider a visit.

Paul Terhorst
For Overseas Retirement Letter

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