I didn’t either, until I started planning my trip. I respect Aung San Suu Kyi and would like to support her in her stand for democracy. But I decided that since I’ve spent the past ten years giving my tourism dollars to Communist governments in China, Vietnam, and Laos, and I don’t agree with them any more than I do the junta, then that aspect of the boycott doesn’t jive with me. Visiting people in the Burmese countryside and trying to get a better understanding of what their lives are like—that was a major purpose of my trip, and surely The Lady would agree with that. Thank goodness, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t ask her if she agrees—several weeks before my trip, she spoke from house arrest and encouraged tourists to come back to Burma.
Despite the newness of the lift on the boycott, we met quite a few people on our trip who speak very passable English and whose livelihoods depend on Western visitors. Guesthouses, restaurants, drivers, shop owners—everywhere we went, we found someone who could help us or translate for us. Early October is still the end of rainy season in Burma, so the number of travelers was at a low point for the year. Hopefully business will pick up and the empty places we visited will begin to draw more customers as the weather cools down over the next few months.
The evidence of tourism as an industry was particularly noticeable in Bagan. Since the whole area is an archeological zone, businesses and factories haven’t developed nearby, which helps the town maintain a quiet, rural feel. The bulk of the available work in Bagan is in catering to tourists, both national and international. When the owner of the vegetarian restaurant told us he wouldn’t send his children out to earn quick money off of tourists, he was referring to the abundant number of people waiting outside and inside the ancient stupas, trying to sell souvenirs at a high mark-up. Lacquerware bowls and bracelets, sand paintings of Burmese scenes, longyi made of cheap material, postcards printed circa 1980, the photocopied Orwell novel.
Erin and I were met by a small gang of children outside one of the more popular pagodas, and they wouldn’t stop bugging us to buy something from them the entire time we walked around the grounds of the site. One girl asked repeatedly if we would come look at her father’s sand paintings. Another offered to let me trade for souvenirs using as payment a Tibetan bracelet I was wearing. Giggling, cute, and annoying, they made me feel like the Pied Piper of Bagan as we made our way en masse around the premises.
The most persistent of the bunch was a little boy, probably 8 or 9 years old, who kept calling me señora and wanted me to buy some bamboo bracelets coated with lacquer. I told him I wasn’t going to buy anything until I was finished looking around the pagoda, and then I’d think about it. “OK, I’m waiting here for you,” he said.
Four steps later, he was at my side again offering the bracelets. “Wait here, and I’ll come back and buy them,” I said. “But stop following me.”
“OK, señora, I’m waiting here for you.”
A minute later, he was back. He was so darn cute, I couldn’t get mad. What decent Texas girl could get mad at a Burmese kid for addressing her in Spanish?
We repeated the whole process several times, me telling him to wait, him saying he was waiting here. Finally I clued in to the fact that he wasn’t trying to be obnoxious—he genuinely didn’t know the meaning of the English word wait. I let him follow me around and then bought the bracelets for $1 before I left. The last thing he said to me (and as far as I could tell, it was a complete non sequitur) was, “Mei guanxi. Weishenme?” Chinese for “It doesn’t matter. Why?”
I don’t know why either, kid. I’ve been asking that question for years.
Next in the “Burmese Days” series: ”Con Artist“