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Pictorial: Burmese Maze
by Maciej Tomczak, December 2006

Last year I met Swiss newlyweds, honeymooning the world, who solemnly pledged to counter the American militaristic misanthropy and cruel xenophobia by excluding the US Empire from the itinerary until it reforms. They took the oath over a pint of Myanmar Lager in Burma's now-ex capital, Rangoon.

Following six decades of exploitation under the stiff Indo-British Raj, briefly interrupted by Japanese occupation, Burma enjoyed 14 years of relative democracy after the WWII. As Pico Iyer points out, it was the general Ne Win's bloody coup of 1962, not the nullified 1990 elections highjacked by the present junta, that '...sent the rest of the world into exile' by embracing a queer mixture of religious Marxism and totalitarian isolationism spiced with astrology. The incarcerated Burma's poster dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, who advocates that the world ought to, in turn, boycott Burma as a way of isolating its military regime, was 16 at the time attending an elite boarding school in Delhi.

Independent travel to Southeast Asia's forbidden fruit became much easier lately as the country no longer requires the $200 compulsory exchange into the Monopoly-money and most border crossings with Thailand are now open to the western 'overlanders' (though one has to take an expensive domestic flight to venture farther). Several areas are still nominally off limit to foreigners - I was thrown out of a bus at the fifth military checkpoint (dodging the first four on account of soldiers sleeping) while trying to reach the Padaung long-necks of Loikaw. But on balance, there are relatively few restrictions as to where and how one can travel - Area 51 is not that easy to reach either.

Despite the pre-departure guilt trip inflicted by the guidebooks, political campaigns by Burmese exiles and the general knowledge of atrocities, you may remember Burma more for its kind, docile and respectful people than for its complicated history and politics. What you read is a murderous regime, ethnocentrism, coercion, forced labour and censorship; what you remember are cheroots, men's longi skirts, thanaka bark sunscreen, betel nut juice spitting, lephet pickled tea, trains without timetables, ubiquitous shortwave radios permanently tuned to the Burmese edition of the Voice of America and overly tactful conversations.

Burma is poor to be sure, but so are many other places in Asia; dilapidated infrastructure doesn't always translate to visible poverty and starvation. Above all, Burmese desire what most other people world-over do: peaceful lives and prosperity.

Phototramping is apolitical: there are very few places that one couldn't find some fault with and thereby elect not to go to see them. Burma is the one that you will always remember but never understand.


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