For the whole of February, Moonpeak is heading to Burma, or Myanmar as it is alternatively known, where we’ll be putting up regular posts about the places we go and the things we do. It’s a hugely exciting time to be going, as this outstandingly beautiful country opens up to the world after more than 50 years of isolation and military dictatorship.
The only time I’ve visited Burma was almost 20 years ago, which was coincidentally the last time a change of leadership offered a brief hope of change. That opening proved to be a false dawn, followed by two more decades of military rule. This time around, things look a little more promising; Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, an election has brought limited democracy, and there have been some remarkable liberalisations. In the wake of all this, tourism is booming, and Burma is suddenly the new ‘must-see’ destination, with all the opportunities and challenges that entails.
I’ve always longed to go back. I remember a country of dreamy beauty, golden light, world-class cultural sites, and an exquisitely gracious people. Part of Burma’s allure – and also of its tragedy – is that it has been isolated for so long, giving it the air of a place lost in time. Rangoon then was full of charming colonial edifices, vehicles dating to World War Two, and young men more inclined to dress in longyis than in jeans. Even back in 1994, though, the wrecker’s ball and a flood of secondhand Japanese cars (with steering wheels on the wrong side) were cutting a swathe through the city. Change is likely to come fast to Burma, not least to the parts frequented by tourists, so it really does make sense to see it sooner rather than later.
Number one on our itinerary is the first-ever Irrawaddy Literary Festival. With the patronage of Aung San Suu Kyi and the support of such litfest heavyweights as William Dalrymple, the simple fact that such an event can be held is another sign of growing freedom. The gathering has attracted stars such as Jung Chang of Wild Swans fame, Rory Stewart, bestselling author of The Places in Between and Occupational Hazards, gifted Burmese writers including Pascal Khoo Thwe and Thant Myint-U, and upcoming talents such as Akash Kapur. I can’t think of a better way to start off a visit than to spend three days in this kind of company, swanning about the doubtless flawless amenities of Rangoon’s Inya Lake Hotel, gathering interviews for future posts on Moonpeak.
After that, we’re not really sure where we’ll be going. We’re staying the full 28 days allowed by our visa, but Burma is a big country with plenty to see, even if much of it is still off-limits to tourists. The incomparable ancient city of Bagan beckons strongly, as do the ethnic mix of Inle Lake and the frozen-in-time colonial atmosphere of Maymyo and Moulmein. These are the usual sites. But there are other tantalising possibilities, further from the beaten track, such as Mrauk U, site of an ancient capital, or the tribal towns of Hsipaw or Myitkyina. Riverboat journeys promise to be special highlights, and it sounds like there are some train journeys that shouldn’t be missed.
Actually arranging a trip invokes an air of mystery that makes it even more intoxicating. The website of the Burmese embassy in Australia was impossible to find on Google. When we called them, we were told that our visa applications might take a month to process; as it happened, they took four days. Our attempts to book accommodation by email have so far met with silence, but I assume we’ll get there in the end. There’s no international roaming in Burma, no credit card facilities; we’ve been advised to carry nothing but crisp US notes. The internet sounds like it might be problematic, so if posts are fewer and further between than they should be, that’s probably the reason. On the other hand, a bit less connectivity might not be such a bad thing, just for a while. After all, the last time I went to Burma, the internet barely existed anywhere in the world – yet somehow we managed.