by - July 18, 2014

Sunrise over the Shwedagon Pagoda
Young female monks in Mandalay ready to splash our 
van during the water festival
I fell in love with Burma in a way that I had never fallen in love with anywhere else before.  Three months after leaving Yangon, and a month after returning to Europe, it is the memories of my ten days in Burma that are etched most vividly in my mind.  It was during my time there that I really came to terms with why I had dedicated such a large proportion of the last-decade to travelling abroad - a country that rewarded the curious adventurer with the company of warm multi-cultured people, the photographs of astonishingly beautiful landscapes and the stories that one day I will sit down and tell my grandchildren.  Since being back, my time in the country has also gained an added degree of poignancy as I found out that myself and my younger brother (who had visited Burma a year before) were not the first members of our family to have visited the country, as we might have assumed.  It turned out that just under 70 years ago my Grandad’s recently deceased elder brother was amongst the first British troops to enter Rangoon as it was liberated from the Japanese in World War Two - though his experiences in the Burma Campaign affected him so deeply that he never spoke of it.  I have no doubt that we inadvertently visited the graves of some of his friends on our first day in Yangon at the Commonwealth Cemetery.

The street book sellers of Yangon - now free to sell novels
that were banned only five years ago
It is the story of Burma that has captured my imagination more than anything else.  For much of my lifetime the country has lived in total humanitarian darkness - poor, corrupt, authoritarian and isolated.  Many believed that it was trapped in a vicious circle and that the power of the generals would never be released - though this iron grip was matched with a ‘steel orchid’, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose courage and dignity carried the hopes of her nation into a new era of optimism.  In her own words:
“it is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear.  Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man”
The daily commute in Yangon
'The Lady’ as she is affectionately known has herself become a source of inspiration - a character who fully deserves to be placed on a pedestal of great humanitarians alongside great men such as Nelson Mandela and Gandhi.  For those of you who don’t know her story, I can highly recommend watching the recently released biopic that was made about her (called “The Lady”), or at the very least listening to some of her interviews.  When hearing her calm and graceful tone it is hard to imagine that she was imprisoned, threatened and kept from her family for her beliefs and on a personal level I don’t think that any public figure has captured my imagination as a role model as much as she has.  Reading her essays and speeches has proven an uplifting experience that in a world where there is such abject misery inflicted by such terrible characters, it is possible for good people to give the good fight and win.  Desmond Tutu summed it up when he said:
“in physical stature she is petite and elegant, but in moral stature she is a giant.  Big men are scared of her.  Armed to the teeth and they run scared”
A pair of Buddhist monks in Mandalay
It is the flux that Burma finds itself in that makes it even more interesting to the outsider - the changes in the country over the last few years are as monumental as those seen in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.  I knew that these changes were taking place, but in doing my background reading before I arrived I was able to fully understand their significance.  Emma Larkin’s book “Finding George Orwell in Burma” was superb for this and is a must-read for anybody who is thinking of making the journey.  Even for those not so interested in the socio-economic background of the country, there is plenty to be gained from just visiting and observing - the fields of Bagan, the lake villages of Inle and the temples of Yangon are all thoroughly in the top 10 places that I have seen in South East Asia.  I would pick Yangon over Bangkok and Bagan over Angkor Wat easily. Practically, I admit that there are more challenges than you might find on the more thoroughly worn Asian paths - but for a certain type of traveller that is the whole point.  My perspective of this is perhaps warped slightly as the country was so busy with the water festival, but I reckon you would need to spend about £20 per day to get by, which is slightly higher than you would pay in neighbouring countries.  For the most part we stayed in budget hotels rather than in hostels, which have yet to gain a foothold in the country, but the backpacker network is really springing into life so there is a lot of information around.

The pariah status of the country over the last half-century has knocked it right off the South East Asian circuit.  I hope that this is set to change and I urge anybody who happens to be visiting the area to consider travelling there - as by widening awareness about the country, its people and its problems you help to ensure its continuation along a path to freedom and prosperity.  To finish with one last Aung San Suu Kyi quote:
“use your freedom to promote ours”

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