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Friday, 03 July 2009

New Year's Eve in Burma - Page 2

Written by Janis Mitchell
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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.

Most of the population had scant education and worked tirelessly in the rice fields or open markets, selling undersized produce and scrawny chickens. Meat was a luxury nowhere to be found.

Life in Burma was the hardest I’d seen in the world. This was a country where slavery still existed, where countless women built roads by hand after being kidnapped as forced labor to produce highways for future tourists. This was a country where people disappeared without a trace, and where families dare not attempt to find them; where hundreds, maybe thousands died by torture each year because they were ethnic minorities or pro-democracy.

New Year's Eve in Burma, Bagan, Myanmar, Ayeyarwady River, holiest Buddhist sites, burma, drive to Rangoon, Janis MitchellNo waiting for the next Burma Shave sign to pass like when I drove across the desert as a kid. Instead, giant billboards ominously warn to OBEY THE LAW AND LOVE YOUR MOTHERLAND. And just like the Motherland of your childhood, here was a whole country where punishment might come at any moment, where love and obedience did not guarantee safety.

And yet, what I found in Burma was a country of people who smiled easily, and carried themselves with dignity, grace and serenity stronger than that I’ve seen anywhere else in the world. Traveling with my friends Pam with her fair hair and striking features, and Judy, with her natural Scandinavian blonde hair that most Americans lose by the age of five, the three of us were followed like movie stars everywhere we went (I, small and dark-haired, attracted somewhat less attention). A regal and beautiful school girl shyly approached me, smiling silently as she reached out her hand to offer me a white rose. Little children, their faces painted with sandalwood paste to protect them from the sun, giggled as they surrounded Pam and Judy who knelt so the little ones could take turns touching their hair and cheeks. Even adults, who dislike disturbing other’s privacy, timidly approached to share their peanut candy or favorite pastry: fried balls of sugared dough.

New Year's Eve in Burma, Bagan, Myanmar, Ayeyarwady River, holiest Buddhist sites, burma, drive to Rangoon, Janis MitchellA government and its people may be as different as night and day, and nowhere was this truer than in Burma. And nowhere in Burma more so than Bagan. Bagan, forty square kilometers stretching back from the great Ayeyarwady River, is among the holiest of Buddhist sites. A breathtaking and other-worldly panorama of hundreds of immense temples climbed towards the sky. Glorious pagodas of every size and shape dotted the empty fields dating back to the beginning of the Christian era. It was impossible not to be moved by the peaceful grandeur and its timeless tranquility.

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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