When I was little – in the days when they used to show black and white movies on Saturday afternoon – I saw a war movie set in Burma. Decades later I saw the country on the news, this time it was called Myanmar and government troops were shooting monks who were peacefully protesting for democracy.
I’d also heard about Aung San Suu Kyi and how she won the country’s first democratic elections for a long time and was promptly placed under house arrest for 16 years by the government she’d just defeated.
Just last year, a cyclone ravaged the country, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead. The news of the aftermath was even more horrific as the nation’s hard-line military rulers blocked aid for the devastated lowlands.
All that combined to present a mysterious picture of a country with one of the most interesting histories in the world. I wanted to see how life unfolded there. I wanted to see how the people live normal lives in the world’s longest-running military dictatorship, even if the thought of waking up, putting on a radio mic and then being filmed experiencing a country you haven’t been to before and staying in places without a flash bar and a cocktail list was at odds with my definition of what constitutes a fun trip.
But being filmed every day and talking about what you’re going through would be a fair enough price to pay for the opportunity to go the Myanmar. It had been a tough year for me in 2011, and two weeks in Myanmar seemed like a soothing way to finish the year. The experience proved to be that and so much more.
In the end I had no choice but to be real, vulnerable and unguarded. It’s that sort of place, the sort that seeps into your subconscious without you realising. Countries where 70% of the population live below the poverty line can have that effect. Especially when the place is so resource rich and very little of it seems to flow onto a majority of the people. A people with a nature so kind it beggars belief how their own leaders can subjugate them for so long.
But that was another thing I learned in Myanmar. That even Buddhism – like any religion – can be used to subjugate the masses and control the people. And that while it was clearly less than ideal for the masses to live under a military dictatorship and sanction forced isolation for 40 years, that’s weirdly one thing that’s made it such a must to visit.
The guidebooks say that going to Myanmar is like being in Asia 75 years ago. I don’t know what Asia was like 75 years ago, but there is a definite sense of being back in time, particularly the railway system, which feels like it hasn’t had any maintenance since the British built it in the 1940s.
According to travellers I’d met who had been there before things are slowly changing in Myanmar. Politically, the change is happening too slow for some, but economically, bicycles are being replaced by motorbikes and there’s garish billboards going up that are perhaps more familiar in other parts of Southeast Asia.
One of my coolest experiences happened on the last night when filming was complete and I was relaxing with the crew. I didn’t want to leave Myanmar without visiting the famous Strand Hotel and so, after two weeks taking in countless pagodas, sacred Buddhist sites, and mixing with some of the most beautiful people in the world, I got to finish my experience having a drink in the same bar where Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell use to hang out.
INTREPID JOURNEYS, TV1, Tuesday, 8.30pm.