Back to Burma


I’m back in Burma, a somewhat impulsive trip I decided to take when I got an invite to the first ever Internet Freedom Forum for a story — unsurprisingly, more on that later. (It went well).

My first trip to Burma was stressful, largely of the self-generated variety. I was worried about getting the visa, worried about getting enough crisp new bills, worried about finding a place to stay during the madness of November 2012’s tourist season, and generally entirely trepidatious about the place in general.

And indeed, I did come at a bad time. The tourist onslaught of fall in Southeast Asia was coming up against a just-opened up nation with little to nothing in the way of decent infrastructure: finding a hotel room of any caliber at all proved to be remarkably difficult, buses were booked out, flights were booked out, and leaving Yangon at all proved to be rather impossible.


I stayed in Yangon for a week, walking around back-allies with my friend Terry, eating at a lot of tea shops, and avoiding the many deep and slightly terrifying holes cut into the sidewalk. I was charmed, but I was also at the same time mostly bewildered: trying to parse out this curious place, the closeted love-child of Bangladesh and Thailand and Cambodia, trying to put it into some kind of understandable context.

This time around, things seem to have clicked into place. Not that I understand Burma much more, but in that I am not stressed about the procedure, that I am willing to take it in all of its weirdness as it comes. I have decided to (once again) stay in Yangon, and am lacking the pressure to GET OUT OF TOWN SOMEHOW from before: it’s mostly been leisurely walks around downtown and through food vendors, around the marbled-paved round of the Shwedagon for the fifth time, around the parks and by the  crumbling, gorgeous colonial buildings.


Myanmar Beer on 19th Street and food vendors in the alleyways, bookstores and the luxury malls that are popping up like shiny mushrooms on most corners of downtown: I’m trying to get a sense of the rythm of the place, what makes it shamble along, in which directions it is going. (It has been raining a lot. I keep trying to find a time when the weather will justify a photo expedition).

I was the other night at one of the massive new malls on the outskirts of Yangon, which featured gelato shops, the latest Korean fashions, and a multiplex: it reiterated to me that the outside percpetion of the world of Yangon — a land still full of secret police and Orwellian intruige and picturesque backwardness — has been wrong for a long time, grows more inaccurate as each day goes by.

We do not know how Yangon will develop, but we hope for the best. There’s darkness in the air, but even my in-borne cynicism is muted slightly by the hopefulness that permeates Yangon in this particular month, this particular year. Maybe, if my luck plays out, I’ll get to live here sometime soon and see for myself.

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