It is the last day of the year and Pam, Judy and I are in Bagan, Myanmar. Until about ten years ago, it was impossible to enter the country, formerly Burma, for more than a week. This ensured a minimal influence from the outside world. The near absence of transportation guaranteed outsiders could not venture far beyond Yangon, the capital. But with an eye on the tourist dollar, the outrageously repressive military government extended its visas for up to one month. This extension played a large role in ending Myanmar’s preparation for the advent of tourism.
I had yearned to visit someplace undiscovered, someplace uncorrupted by Western influence, unpolluted by KFC’s, Hyatt Hotels, and tour buses filled with hordes of Japanese or German tourists attached to hugely phallic zoom lenses or with video recorders glued to their eyes.
And I found exactly that. But what I also found was a country virtually devoid of hotels, restaurants, public transportation, even postcards. Unless you could be persuaded and pressured into hiring a government-sanctioned official tour guide who would stick to you like glue and show you only the sanitized, government- approved tour of their country, you quickly found yourself scrambling and struggling for the barest necessity. And three foreign women traveling alone felt unheard of.
To begin with, the ever-present corrupt military regime had made it clear to the Burmese populace that they were not to discuss conditions in their country with outsiders. Neither were they to drive outsiders from one city to the next without several substantial bribes procured during frequent, unexpected roadblocks during which a number of soldiers would surround your car with pointed rifles. The only other option was to fly Air Myanmar, whose fleet of planes was the oldest, and whose crash rate was the highest in the world.
As one of the poorest countries in the world, few Burmese outside of the capital city owned a watch, much less a car. Few Burmese had traveled within their own country, and almost no one seemed to have an extra ounce of meat on their bones, I soon learned that for tourists and Burmese alike it was only through the black market that you could obtain what you needed, be it a room for the night, enough gas to get you from Mandalay to Bagan, or a cow to plow your field.