Upcoming trip to Thailand and Burma

Heading to Northern Thailand and Burma in 8 weeks

Ever since I started working full time, I’ve tried to make a habit of traveling outside the U.S. at least once a year. I am completely infected with wanderlust. If I had the luxury of choice and money, I would not be spending my 20s working full time. And I really don’t want to end up like my older colleagues and acquaintances–filled with regret over not having traveled more. Last winter, I spent about 2 and a half weeks in Taipei and Hong Kong.

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Bangkok in 12 pictures

I took 2,500 photos in Bangkok this spring break, so sorting them out and deciding which ones to use, has been, to say the least, time-consuming. 7 days in Bangkok were not enough, to even begin to capture it all. Next time I visit Thailand, I’m going to Chiang Mai and surrounding areas.

But the experience was amazing. Despite the simmering heat, which stripped me of my energy, I thoroughly enjoyed the visit. My only complaint was the terrible heat. California is hot, but thankfully dry as well, so the heat doesn’t feel so instense. I am now thoroughly tan from my time there.

I arrived in Bangkok at 2 in the morning, because of flight delays, but I was surprised at how blatant prostitution was in the wee hours. By the freeway, in alleyways and on major streets, there were huge throngs of prostitutes soliciting men for services. I’ve never seen so many women, obviously and openly doing this for a living. The taxi driver, as he took my family to the hotel, sighed as he muttered “night ladies.” Dishonorable, perhaps, but as long as there’s demand, people will continue supplying and fueling the industry. Las Vegas is nothing in comparison to Bangkok in this respect.

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In Thailand

 

Bangkok from

Bangkok from SkyTrain's Siam station

I’ve completely neglected this blog for the past month due to a seemingly neverending line of midterms and finals. But just to be sure, I am still alive. I’m currently writing this from Bangkok, where I’m spending this spring break. It’s hot and humid, but a beautiful place nonetheless.

Going to Asia (in three months)

This Christmas break, I will be going to Asia. It’s my first time going back in two years and I am excited. Since I was 13 when I last had my passport made, I had to go in person to renew it, and I will be expecting the new passport (chip-embedded and all) in two months. At least this time, the passport will expire in 10 years. Hopefully my passport will be renewed, since I forgot to bring my driver’s license/ID card as verification on the passport application (I know, I’m an idiot.)

Not sure whether I will go to Burma, since the political situation there is precarious. But I hope I will get to at least make a quick stop in Rangoon.

But if school keeps me bogged down during my Christmas break, I will most certainly have to delay my plans.

Went to Las Vegas

Las Vegas

The Las Vegas strip, from a pedestrian bridge between the Venetian and The Mirage hotels.

I have been absent from blogging for the past few days, because went on a road trip with my family to Nevada and beyond, staying three nights in Las Vegas. I never bring my laptop with me on vacations, so I was essentially disconnected from news in Burma and have been completely overwhelmed by the amount of developing news in Burma. Apparently, CNN only likes to cover Burma when a celebrity like Jim Carrey decides to voice his support for Aung San Suu Kyi on Youtube (I videotaped the news story with my camera, but the file size is too big for Youtube, so I can’t upload it.)

Las Vegas, in one word, is suffocating. Inside the casinos, passersby are suffocated by the overwhelming stench of cigarette smoke. Outside, pedestrians are choked by the desert heat combined with the smell of gasoline and cigarette smoke. I felt like I was being baked inside a parking garage at 11 p.m. after seeing the Cirque du Soleil show “Mystère.” At nearly $100 a ticket, the show was a bit disappointing, but nonetheless amazing (the acrobatics were stunning). I did not really understand the abstract ideas, though. Next time I visit Las Vegas, I hope to catch all 5 shows of Cirque du Soleil. Anyone who has been to a Cirque du Soleil show will agree that they are much more than fancy visuals.

Anyway, I’m back but may be a little delayed in terms of updates in Burma.

Traveling to Burma, a personal choice

Young girl selling postcards to tourists

Young girl selling postcards to a crowd of tourists in Pagan

The Irrawaddy has dedicated a large portion of its February issue to the sensitive issue of traveling to Burma. I have been inspired to write what I believe of this issue. Note that readers should not be persuaded or dissuaded by my opinions.

I visited Burma from December 2005 to January 2006, during the tourist peak season. My family went for many reasons, including celebrating the 20th anniversary of my aunt and uncle’s marriage, which they celebrated at a monastery in Rangoon. But my family ventured out of Rangoon, visiting Pagan, Mandalay and Shan State. Considering it was my first time visiting Burma, and because my parents were emotionally tied to their homeland, the experience was wonderful.

Local entrance at the Mandalay Palace

The local entrance (myauk pauk or "monkey entrance") to the Mandalay Palace, where tourists can avoid entrance fees by paying bribes to the army officers.

But, there are drawbacks. Of course, when one visits Burma, he is undeniably providing money to the military regime. Corruption is prevalent in Burma. Even if one were to stay in a small guest house, the owners must likely pay bribes to government officials to remain open and approved. Or if one decides to travel in luxury, and stay at a major hotel like Traders in Rangoon, which was built by Asia World Co., owned by the son of drug lord Lo Hsing Han, he still contributes to the government and illegal activities. To say the least, there is no way to avoid paying the government–if you don’t want to pay, don’t go.

Residences overlooking the Kalaw Golf Course, presumably housing army generals

Residences overlooking a golf course in Kalaw, a popular hill town resort, presumably housing army generals

Some people argue that traveling to Burma can be interpreted as a “stamp of approval” to the military regime. The National League for Democracy advises people not to travel, as does Aung San Suu Kyi. But, I personally believe that the best way people can get glimpses of Burma and the conditions under which people live, is to actually go there. The government may try to steer tourists clear of the intense poverty, but it’s unavoidable.

But from personal experience, Burma offers an almost authentic experience of the “old ways”, which has quickly disappeared in other heavily-visited countries like Thailand and Malaysia. Not to say that Burma has been westernized–in the decade following opening of Burma to the outside world, the country has undergone radical changes. Rangoon and major cities like Mandalay have undergone rapid transition, while towns like Pegu and Taunggyi have been nearly untouched.

Mandalay Palace

Mandalay Palace has been renovated with little historical authenticity.

But, traveling to Burma is still difficult and services are rudimentary. Exchanging money in the black market is difficult if you don’t arrange with tourist agencies or have local relatives and friends; the daily exchange rate varies and many will dupe unknowing tourists (because my family had no relatives in Taunggyi, we exchanged US dollars with hotel operators, who exchanged fewer kyat per dollar to make money). Also, traveling around is sometimes a hassle and potentially dangerous. Airlines do not follow many safety standards, although they have improved. The government, in a scramble to renovate potentially lucrative tourist sites, have quickly renovated or rebuilt sites across the country, failing to maintain historical accuracy in many cases. The Mandalay Palace is an example; it’s been rebuilt, with usage of corrugated sheet metal for the palace’s rooftops. In Pagan, an eyesore of a watchtower is being built to serve tourists who want to see Pagan in a panoramic view.

People also advocate boycotting travel to Burma because the influx of foreigners destroys local culture. This is true in many instances, of course. There has been rapid “Burmanization” of ethnic Inthas in Inlay Lake. In Mandalay, there has been increased Chinese influence, partially because the city is now half Chinese, predominantly those who recently arrived from Mainland China. Most tourists, who are from Europe or East Asia, have little contact with most people, though. But, Westernization and erosion of local culture is unavoidable; it is what is occurring in all countries.

What annoys me most about pro-democratic Burma advocacy and activist groups is that they are dogmatic in telling people what to do. They blacklist companies which publish tour guides for those who may want to travel and need resources to understand the country. I think it’s a personal choice, something people should decide for themselves. However, tourists are often ignorant in many cases, regardless. They do not make themselves aware of the political situation and visit purely for leisure and recreation. This is wrong–tourists should always at least know what they are getting themselves into.

Rangoon’s Intl Airport terminal construction completed

Rangoon Mingaladon International Airport

Snapshots of the newly constructed terminal in Rangoon's Mingaladon International Airport.

People’s Daily reports that Mingaladon International Airport is now completed, and will be inaugurated soon. The airport recently received a cosmetic facelift, addition of a terminal, and extension of the runway, designed by Singapore’s CPG Airport Consultant Co. and constructed by Asia World Co., a domestic company. According to People’s Daily:

The new airport […] would have the capacity of accommodating larger aircraft such as Boeing-747 and handling 900 outgoing and 900 incoming passengers simultaneously totaling about 2.7 million a year

Ambitious and lofty goals for the government. It’s strange that Mingaladon International Airport was renovated when approximately 300,000 600,000 international tourists visit Burma annually, most from Japan or Europe. And, a large share of tourists are day-crossers who cross borders from Thailand, Laos, or China. At least this renovation is more well-planned than the construction of the new Mandalay International Airport, which is built far from the city of Mandalay. Perhaps because the government anticipated that the city would expand in size is the reason that the airport is built 45 minutes outside of Mandalay. It takes even longer to drive to the city than to fly from Pagan to Mandalay.

Customs at Customs

Taipei's Taoyuan International Airport

Taoyuan International Airport, Taipei offers a far different experience from Mingaladon International Airport, Yangon.

Those who live or have been to Burma may relate to my experience at Yangon’s airport. As many know, Mingaladon International Airport is not the most advanced airport, a major drift from Taipei’s Taoyuan International Aiport. Bribery and corruption are rampant in the airport and those particularly targeted are Burmese.

In 2006, the Burmese government launched an anti-corruption drive to weed out civil servants who were acting inappropriately on the job. Yangon’s international airport offers third-world services and third-world behavior from its workers, without a doubt. I, along with my family, last went to Burma in December 2005, and as an American citizen, I did not expect many problems (except my passport shows my Burmese name). We had agreed to speak only English, knowing that customs officials usually target Burmese speakers to earn “extra money” (laphet yay bo, literally “pocket money for tea” or a bribe).

Two government porters at the airport began to unload the luggages, and we headed toward the customs table, hoping not to leak out any Burmese words. The customs official, a middle-aged woman, began rummaging through our baggage. (Burmese customs officials usually hold items “hostage”, something as simple as multivitamins, and refuse to give it back until they are paid bribes.) She began presenting problems, telling us some trivial items were not allowed, even though we knew better. The porters, believing we were foreigners, gave hand signals and told the customs official in Burmese to stop hassling us. Luckily, we weren’t caught in a predicament where we would have to pay.

The government has since attempted to end corruption, particularly in the Customs Department. The Associated Press reports

Myanmar released about 370 of its customs officials Friday, after they were detained last year as part of the ruling military junta’s anti-corruption campaign, a detainee’s relative said.

It seems that short-term imprisonment has been used as the tactic of choice to deal with corrupt officials. But that is unlikely to work in the long run–even wealthier countries face this problem. Corruption has been prevalent in Burmese society for a long time, burgeoning during the Ne Win era. It is almost now embedded in Burmese culture, a daily experience.

But the general feelings of creepiness and apprehension at the airport have not changed. The customs officials now do not take bribes directly. Bribes are given instead to bystanders (workers like the police who are supposed to “oversee” the customs officials), and then transferred with customs officials. The system for giving money has changed, but corruption has not ended, at least at the airport. But I cannot blame them–the money the government workers make is not enough, and supplemental money is needed. It’s difficult to earn a livable salary in Burma. Economic restriction will only force more and more Burmese to seek alternate ways of generating income, and bribery is certainly feasible.

Food from Burma

From Burma, with love

My aunt and uncle returned from Burma today, bringing with them pounds and pounds of Burmese delectables from friends and relatives living in Burma. My mother got her share of goods and letters from her friends and family. I cannot wait to enjoy all of this, including the la phet (pickled tea leaves) and zi cho (preserved fruit).