Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Tales From the Road: Focus on Burma

by Tim Patterson Oct 2, 2007

I’ve long been fascinated by Myanmar (Burma), a large country of diverse geography tucked between Yunnan, India and Thailand.

Since 1962, Burma has been ruled by a brutal, self-serving military junta, but recent news suggests the peace-loving people of Burma may finally rise up to demand an end to military rule.

Processions of Buddhist monks are courageously marching in the streets of major cities to protest the junta. These marchers risk torture, imprisonment and death, but they speak with conviction and carry their banners high.

Perhaps their courage will be rewarded. It’s crucial for the outside world to stand with the marchers of Burma.

If we turn a blind eye to their plight, the junta will be free to unleash a firestorm of violent repression. If we pay attention, even from a distance, the military may be unwilling to risk global outrage, and a peaceful resolution might be achieved.

This edition of Tales From the Road is focused on travel narratives from Burma, but I also encourage you to read and respond to breaking news. At the bottom of this page I’ve included links to some good news articles, and a Google News search will no doubt turn up others.

Your thoughts and comments are especially welcome.

1) “From Mandalay to Pyin U Lwin” by Sean McCarthy

Sean McCarthy’s rattle-trap narrative about his journey from Mandalay to the small town of Pyin U Lwin gives a good picture of what independent travel in Burma is actually like.

McCarthy’s writing isn’t as exact as it might be – he refers to the pro-democracy protests of 1988 as violent, when it was actually the repression of those protests which led to hundreds of deaths – a crucial distinction.

He does have an eye for telling detail, however, and writes with honesty and good humor.

2) “Lingering a Little Longer With the Lotus Eaters” by Michael Meadows

“Of all the countries I’ve traveled in, I’ve never enjoyed and respected a people as much as I do the Burmese,” writes Michael Meadows in this casually eloquent travel narrative.

Meadows displays a good ear for language and imagery, and although he sometimes falls into the trap of personal travel blogs – “we met plenty of other interesting characters and had a great night” – the piece reads smoothly and contains plenty of concrete observation and useful cultural context. Great photos too.

3) “Native Eye for the Tourist Guy” by Rolf Potts

Emperor of Vagabonds Rolf Potts once rode a bicycle across Burma, but this story is more about the oddities of backpacker fashion than the people and places he encountered along the way.

Rolf managed to destroy his pants during the ride and replaced them with a traditional Burmese skirt, or lungi. After an awkward initiation, Rolf was able to wear his lungi like a native – so why the laughs on Khao San Road?

4) “The Ghost Road” by Mark Jenkins

Wow. Nobody writes like Mark Jenkins. This heart-breaking adventure story about his attempt to travel through Northern Burma on the old Stillwell Road reads like a confession and rolls hard for 8 full pages.

Jenkins risked his life to write this story, but it’s the profiles of the people he met along the way that are most wrenching.

For decades the Burmese military has brutalized ethnic minorities. Their suffering reminds us how lucky we are, and how travel – even the most hardcore adventure travel – is ultimately a selfish luxury.

5) “The Walk From Burma to Northern India” by Jagjit Kohli

Jagjit Kohli is not a writer, so far as I know. In this essay, she simply tells her story, a tragic story of epic dimensions boiled down to a few hundred plain-spoken words.

Kohli became a refugee during World War II and fled through malarial jungles from Burma to Northern India. She then became a refugee for a second time during the creation of Pakistan.

“We were worse than animals in those days,” she writes. “But these things do happen.”

News articles about the monk-led protests in Burma:

On 9/26 the military cracked down on peaceful protesters, arresting hundreds and swarming the streets with riot police. The New York Times has a solid article.

Here’s a CNN article about the global reaction to the protests and crackdown.

And finally, here’s a short piece quoting an opposition leader who “fears more loss of life.”

Until next week…

Tim Patterson travels with a sleeping bag and pup tent strapped to the back of his folding bicycle. His articles and travel guides have appeared in Get Lost Magazine, Tales Of Asia, Matador Travel and Common Language Project. Check out his personal site Rucksack Wanderer.

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