Sunday, July 10, 2005

Entering Myanmar?

Given the current political climate in Myanmar, I think that I should say a word or two about traveling to a country that most human-rights groups feels should be boycotted. This issue was a consideration in the early planning of the conference and the post-conference field trip. I asked sought the views of several people who I knew would be attending the conference about whether or not we should include Myanmar on a field trip itinerary because of the tourism boycott. None of them seemed to think it was a major issue.

The Chinese organizers were aware of the Myanmar issue, but in their opinion Myanmar was the most interesting of all the Golden Triangle countries. They sent me a few potential itineraries to look at that included Myanmar. Because I had never been heard of any of these places, I had to research them online to see what they had to offer. Well, the more I looked at Myanmar, the more fascinated I was by it – and it did not take long for me to decide that we had to go there! I guess I sold out to whatever motivating force that man people seem to have in experiencing places that are the most exotic and least touched by modernity.

On the first day of our field trip we drove a couple hours from Jinghong to the Myanmar border. Along the way we passed by beautiful terraced rice fields and hills covered with tea bushes and rubber trees. Everything was an incredible range of shades of deep and luxuriant green. We stopped at one point, at Dallen’s request, at a sight overlooking a terraced valley with a small river/creek at the bottom. Water flowed in hundreds of small, human-carved, waterfalls from one rice terrace to the next. The sound of the flowing water made the scene totally breath-taking! Dallen commented that it was one of the most beautiful drives he had ever been on.

The border was very interesting. We had to leave China on foot, each with our own passport in hand. There was a delay in one person’s passport, but once that was straightened out the process went very quickly. We then go on the bus to drive to the Myanmar border. We were told that it was OK to take photos and once we got to the border everyone got out and went wild with their cameras – posing next to the border monument and next to the stoic Myanmar border guards and the interestingly old-looking border office that was adjacent to a fanciful arched gateway. We gave our passports to the tour guide who had them processed out of sight from the rest of us. We then got back on the bus, along with two Myanmar guides, and we were on our way!

The border town of Mengla (across from the Chinese town of Daluo) does not feel like Myanmar. It feels like China. Chinese characters and Chinese currency are used everywhere – we have yet to see prices in Myanmar currency. There are several large and new-looking hotels, along with the now closed casinos and a closed gay/transvestite domed theater. And the food we had for lunch and dinner was all Chinese. The marketplace has its red-light district, which is virtually identical to the ones I have seen in China – open shop houses, some glowing with pink or red lights, with girls sitting around watching TV.

The hotel we are staying in, the Powerlong Hotel, is actually much newer and nicer than the one we had in Jinghong. This is not the Myanmar that we were all expecting. Some are speculating that this is an special border economic zone, and that we will pass another border check point after we leave Mengla. While I think that this is at least an ad hoc special economic zone, I am guessing that there is no other border checkpoint beyond what we have already gone through – which sure wasn’t much!

After lunch we checked into our hotel and a half hour later we did some sightseeing. The two female Myanmar guides took us to a very large Pagoda complex that sits at the border and oversees the entire town of Mengla. The massive pagoda, built in 1997 and dedicated to peace with China, houses models of about 16 of the most famous pagodas in Myanmar, plus four large Buddha statues. From here we could look down on the border crossing area below. At the bottom of the Pagoda hill, we visited an Opium Museum, which was dedicated to the elimination of opium production in the 4th Special Region of the Eastern Shan State. A catholic church was on another small hill nearby, though we did not visit it.

We also went to see a reclining Buddha statue, which was also built in the late 1990s, and which our guide told us would be much more representative of Myanmar life than the rest of Mengla – which was Chinese loking because of all the Chinese businessmen there. Personally, I did not see this.

From there we went to the Gem Museum, which is really more of a jade store than a museum, though they did have some rocks on display and a jade cutting area. We bought quite a lot of jade here for gifts back home – all from the bargain bin are (Yuan 10-40 RMB, US$1.20-$5.00) – they can go up to several thousand RMB. After dinner in the evening the guides took us the marketplace, which was very dark, though with my camera set a 1/10 sec, ASA 400, and held very still, I was able to get quite a few good photos.

Guiding through Myanmar

I guess I am a tour guide now. I had not thought about that when I was organizing this trip. I am the person who the local guides seek out to disseminate information. I am keeping room lists, at their request, and some interpersonal issues have been brought to my attention. I organized and guided a tour to China once before in 1993. While it was a great experience, it was not something that I have sought to do again. I will have to be careful how this aspect of our trip develops. I would rather not take on more responsibility than necessary. As I see it, this is an academic field trip/study – not a leisure and recreation tourist “tour”. Hah! – I am probably just fooling myself on that one!

The photo below is actually from the day after the text was written for above. It shows water flowing from through many small breaks from one rice paddy field to the next. The sound was fantastic.


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