What does travel to the controversial destination of Myanmar (or Burma, as some still affectionately call it) mean today as a US citizen? It means getting a raised eyebrow from the Verizon Wireless salesman when you ask if your travel pass will work, as he fidgets saying, “um, well that country’s not supported.” It means signing on with a well-established tour company. It means getting a visa far ahead of time. It means loading up on cow colostrum. It means getting a flu shot. And it means landing in at least one other country (ours was Singapore) before reaching Yangon.
And for me personally, it means walking out of a Singapore Airlines flight this morning to the same musty smell and moist heat that I experienced on my last trip here to Yangon (Rangoon) back in May 1997 as a newlywed with my husband Rob. A lot has certainly changed since then. It was so much more deserted and empty back then, and Aung San Suu Kyi was still under a form of house arrest, a mere 6 years after earning her Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a defender of human rights here in Yangon, in response to military brutality. Today she is State Counsellor (similar to being Prime Minister) of Myanmar.
During my college days (1987-1991) I was tangentially involved with Amnesty International and her struggle was paramount back then. She was a Gandhi, a Joan of Arc, an Evita, a champion of doing the right thing in the face of so much wrong. She personified human rights to college-age me.
Now, I stand as a mom of three, as they stamp my visa and passport and allow me into this country once again. My parents and I are warmly greeted by a man in a long skirt who smiles and thanks us for coming to visit his country. His gratitude has an urgency to it as he gushes, “It is so important to have visitors now, especially now, your visit means so much for our country.” He is referring to the recent military events that have happened up north and how that has so negatively affected tourism to this country.
But we are here, my eager and adventurous parents and I, to explore this country that has suffered so much under such a corrupt government. Our guide proclaims, “we are better now, we are the 13thmost corrupt government. For a long time we were 2nd, behind Somalia,” he pipes up optimistically, smiling his biggest smile. I try to echo his optimism as I let his statistics sink in.
I change the topic and inquire about the yellow paste I spy on so many Burmese faces out the van window and am quickly told it’s Thanaka. We are then given a lesson in how to apply it while we are checking into our hotel, as we sip ginger concoctions through lemongrass straws and settle into the intimate allure of this space along with the smell of wafting incense. Our other guide rolls the bark onto a smooth stone and she adds a little water to create a paste. I find it calming and clever and realize that this is a lot like what I used to do when I was 8 years old playing pretend in the backyard, crushing stones with Krista Jones and applying the powder like it was make up. The bark is a natural sunscreen and also a skin smoother. Later on at Scott market I can’t resist buying a container of the stuff for a dollar.
We settle into our lavish teak bedrooms complete with mosquito netting adorned beds, then manage foot sugar scrubs and a swim before sauntering off to Bogkok Aung San Market, (aka Scott market) to hunt for jade and gold, clothing, fabrics and purses. The prices are extremely low and we buy a a few items. But my real focus is on the pink dresses and shaved heads of the young nuns who seem to be everywhere in the market. The youngest girl looks to be about 4 years old. I give them as much kyat (Burmese currency) as I have in my purse.
We finally birth our way out of the market, all the more sweatier for it, and head to The Strand Hotel. It has been 21 years and I wanted to see if it had changed since our stay there just after it’s first restoration in the 90’s. (Coincidentally it just underwent yet another facelift in 2016 and is now even more polished, and has a pool and is much busier, that’s for sure.)
Then we head back to the sanctuary of our hotel, the Belmond Governor’s Residence located in the quiet tree-lined embassy section of Yangon to nap. Boy my parents have a lot of energy! We are lulled to sleep by the jasmine and sandalwood scented serenity that this hotel provides.
When we wake, we watch a movie about Ang San Suu Kyi entitled “The Lady.” I cry three times at such stoic bravery and selfless choices made for her country.
Afterwards, we dine alfresco in the soothingly warm, still, humid night air on a teak porch surrounded by floating lotus flowers and small shimmering green ceramic tiles which line the pool’s shallow floor. It could be 1921. Nothing except our cell phones tell us otherwise.
It’s the end of our first day in Buddhist Burma, and it’s also Halloween 2018. And I realize that the only costumes I saw today were real ones, small, pink and dusty. And worn every single day…and not necessarily by choice. 🇲🇲