An uneasy feeling tickled deep within my stomach forcing my heart rate to jump. I tried desperately to calm my uncontrollable nerves, but the effort proved futile. As Dan and I stood inside the cold, bare walls of Myanmar’s Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand the escalating anger and calls against Myanmar’s government from the dozens of protestors gathered outside echoed through the shell of a building.
Myanmar’s security staff did what they could to cover the angry shouts and keep protestors from the view of the dozens of people inside the Visa section, but nothing could hide the cries pouring through the thick, metal door.
As the number of Thai police outside increased so did the uneasiness now palpable inside. I inched ever closer to the small service windows lining the front of the wall, and with each step my nerves wavered.
My incomplete visa paperwork was more than just an oversight, rather the lack of information flanking the back page was intentional. Knowing full well Myanmar’s controlling government would most likely deny anyone with an inkling of media experience, I felt I had no choice. I was not traveling to the remote, and until recently closed, country to expose its poverty, ailing infrastructure, lack of education or allegedly corrupt government; no, I was simply traveling to explore the beautiful, often desolate, landscapes and revel in its fascinatingly unique culture. Still, the government must understand, it’s impossible for any journalist to wander the sometimes chaotic city streets or through remote villages without snooping out a story.
Still, heeding the advice of fellow travelers who say the government cronies do what they can to prevent social workers and journalists from entering the country under false pretenses, I knew I must somehow erase the nearly ten years of work as a broadcast journalist, something I’ve worked tirelessly to achieve, from my past.
It pained my heart as I stared blankly at the open the form.
CURRENT EMPLOYER: NONE
JOB TITLE/DESCRIPTION: HOUSEWIFE
JOB TITLE/ DESCRIPTION:
There it was etched by the sharp tip of a ball point pen: HOUSEWIFE. While its deeper meaning is much more than a respectable title, it was not what I had imagined calling myself.
Following advice from recent online postings, Dan encouraged me to put something, anything, under the previous employment section. “You could put sheep farmer – they don’t care,” he urged. “They won’t check.” But each time I brought pen to paper, I simply couldn’t do it. Whether driven by a fear of being caught and questioned by Burmese security or an uprising of conscience, I just couldn’t lie. “I won’t lie,” I pleaded with Dan as we moved ever closer to what I imagined was my doom.
I signed the back of the blank form and slid it beneath the glass window now separating Dan and me from a very kind, beautiful woman perched atop a stool on the other side. She simply flipped each application form from front to back, collected our passports, two photos, several pristine US twenty dollar bills and smiled as she exchanged our mass of paperwork with nothing more than a thin yellow slip of paper indicating when we were to return to the embassy, three days later, and the exact time we were set to collect our passports.
We stepped from the building flanked by Thai police officers and made our way through the crowd to find the dozens of protestors draped in red and white, shaking signs and throwing their fists high into the air, their tightly clutched megaphones used to amplify a deep dissent in their voices. The signs weren’t in English nor was their dialect, but Dan and I were able to ascertain they were demanding action against the unjustified imprisonment or unjust treatment of a fringe group of Burmese associated with Thailand. Why the visa section? The protestors vehemently encouraged the Thais and foreigners filing through Myanmar Embassy’s Visa section to abandon their travel plans and therefore take a stand against the additional influx of money to Myanmar’s economy and government.
For three days, the uneasiness haunted me. I was sure I would be denied entry and therefore derail the next couple weeks of planned travel or worse, I would face a penalty for knowing omitting information on my visa application. Three restless days in Bangkok passed and my nerves were frazzled as we made our way across the city back to the embassy to learn our fate.
Aside from a small line of people collecting their completed visas, the building stood empty – a rather different scene than the chaos of the protests only days before. I held my breath and slid the yellow collection receipt through the small slit in the glass window positioned in front of me. Moments later our passports emerged from the same small slit, both fitted with 90 day tourist visas for entry into the mysterious country of Myanmar.
The next day, the golden temples rose from the dusty landscape that faded into a city skyline thick with trees and dense, rundown development. We piled off the plane and into a semi-modern yet small airport and passed easily through passport control to find a tall, thin man clutching a wrinkled piece of paper bearing our names.
The man led us not to a car rather to a group of taxi drivers who pushed and shoved each other – each jockeying for position and to get his attention. The man lifted the paper high into the air and handed it to man in the middle of the struggle. The other drivers revolted, one going so far as to snatch the paper from his hands and a series of shoves and shouts ensued. Scared to death, Dan and I stood frozen witnessing the chaos ahead.
When the anger subsided, we followed a small, stout man, his wrinkled face home to a troubled expression, which seemingly told the story of a tough life. We climbed inside what can only equate to a miniature version of a VW van, the floor nearly rusted away and the sagging seats torn from the springs and overflowing with foam spilling from each split.
As the van made its way through a sea of older model Toyota vehicles swarming the roadway, Dan and I sat in silence. Suddenly, the driver looked back from his bench seat ahead of ours and asked, “Is this your first time in Myanmar?” I can only imagine we couldn’t hide the look of astonishment on our faces. “Yes, we’re very excited to be here,” I said as a smile spread across his face.
“Things are changing,” he said simply, his response dripping with optimism. On the thirty minute journey to our hotel, we learned more about Myanmar, its government and what life was like when the oppressive military regime sealed the country from the rest of the world. My struggle to get a visa hit home. This is exactly why the government, still very much in control of the country’s resilient people, does not want a journalist traveling through Myanmar on a tourist visa.
As we drove past the university, recently reopened after years of government shut down, our driver detailed the lack of education offered and ventured to say the quality of education offered now pales in comparison with that in other countries leaving the Burmese students without the ability to compete in a global marketplace.
Our driver, proud of his English, which he learned from a British missionary school before they were forced from the country ahead of the military takeover, pointed out the newer vehicles on the roadway – a sign of changing economic times and less restrictive trade with some of the world’s top foreign countries.
We eventually pulled in front of a towering, extremely rundown, dirty, building with bars covering the windows. We hauled our bags across the sidewalk littered with dozens of generators, an early indicator of the lack of reliability of the country’s power system, and up a narrow, concrete stairwell into a small office. We settled in with a cup of traditional Myanmar tea, which likened itself to a chocolate Yoohoo rather than a healthy tea.
As darkness fell on the capital city of Yangon, we ventured out to explore a nearby temple and to grab a bite to eat, which proved more difficult than first imagined. We slowly navigated the dark streets, our feet reaching out to feel for the deep pits, potholes and cracks that filled the dilapidated sidewalks and streets, but the lack of streetlights made it nearly impossible.
Seemingly the only tourists out after dark, Dan and I wandered through the nearby temple containing the Buddha’s Sacred Hair Relic and watched for the first time as Burmese families carried out their daily duties at the temple. We walked through a nearby market and hailed a Sai Kaa (Myanmar’s traditional pedicab) to 9th street, where we were told to eat.
The small man, cloaked in a traditional Longyi or Burmese skirt, put his entire weight behind his effort to turn the peddles of the bicycle, but it was clear – he was not accustomed to two, large Americans flanking the seats attached to the side. In only a few minutes, sweat built up upon his brow and he was forced to jump from the bike and walk in a strange hovering position as he lurched forward to push the handlebars and in turn us.
He tried desperately to communicate with us, and was able to muster up a few worlds and phrases, but in the end an attempt at a full conversation ended only in frustration.
Not a restaurant was in sight until we turned the corner to the narrow stretch of a pedestrian roadway known as 9th street. Here, flanking either side of the smoke filled alleyway were dozens of restaurants, each packed with locals and tables overflowing into the street. Still, despite all of our time in Southeast Asia, and much of spent eating street food, this was different. This was a reflection of true city life for those in Yangon – this was not a show for tourists.
The next day we set our sights on Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the largest and most impressive temples in Myanmar. The 2,500-year-old pagoda is homes to hundreds of temples, statues and stupas, but the famous pagoda itself stands 110 meters high and is plated in gold and encrusted with 4,531 diamonds – the largest of which is 72 carats.
While the intricacy and grandeur of the Pagoda is simply astonishing, it’s the devotion and faith of the hundreds of people who pray at the site that make it a more than an unforgettable experience. Men, women and children swarm Shwedagon to practice Buddhism, the country’s majority religion with approximately 90% percent of Burmese subscribing to the Theravada doctrine.
Alongside the pagoda dozens of stores selling golden buddhas, mantra or meditation beads lined the corridors and just beyond the complex itself vendors sat with large crates of small birds hoping those leaving the pagoda would pay to free one of the innocent creatures – a good deed and sign of good will in Buddhist culture.
We wandered the dirty, decaying streets lined with layer upon layer of filthy, worn buildings as we made our way back to our small, rundown hotel before heading to the airport once again – this time headed to explore an entirely different side of Myanmar’s mysterious culture.