Someone once wrote that to visit Burma is to be haunted for the rest of your life. I read it in a book while traveling the country; some text that we tucked furtively behind the Lonely Planet guide so no one could see the now-forgotten title, nor learn that we might carry novels speaking candidly of the military government.
No one had told us we needed to be so careful, but there were veiled warnings. The unnamed men who seemed to follow us in Shwebo. The merchants of Aung San Suu Kyi souvenirs, poised to dash at the slightest trouble from authorities. The youth who asked to share his honest opinions at a later meeting place – and then never turned up.
We wondered about exchanging money on the black market, medicating whatever germs were ravishing our intestines, and getting our tourist visas revoked so close to the 2012 April elections. Again, no one told us this would happen, but we’d heard stories.
And there was no need for our Western bravery, because Burma’s own citizens – emboldened by the promise of democratic voting – showed courage anew. Approaching us to whisper The Lady’s name with enthusiasm, or tacking a National League for Democracy flag onto the roof of a trishaw. Public support unimaginable even a year before.
Now, while the country votes in its first general election since then, I’m haunted by this quote, and our travels there. I’m haunted by all the questions I never asked. All the things I was afraid to say.
The country’s borders officially opened to tourism in 1996, yet entire ethnic regions were still prohibited to travelers in 2012. And so I’m also haunted by the places we could not see, the cultures hidden, like our books, behind more acceptable imagery.
The ghosts of our travels tease me with the lingering flavor of le payey, sweet tea, and the weary sigh of overloaded buses as they spewed out a thousand extra passengers and bags of market vegetables.
I can still feel the bony weight of the grandmother who climbed into my lap in a packed minibus from Mandalay to Kalaw; and on certain foggy mornings, my eyes play tricks with clouds and rice paddies that no longer exist.
I’m reminded of passport checks on the borders of nations unrecognized by the U.N., the barefoot children who kicked a soccer ball as well as my boyfriend, the scarlet stains of betelnut on broken pavement slabs.
Memories mute my words and muddle my opinions – the very thing a travel blogger is always supposed to have in good, loud supply.
But that, in its own way, is my experience of the country now commonly called Myanmar. A place that politely shirks all the opinions you lined up against it, holds them before proud faces rubbed with thanaka, challenges each one with an easy smile and respectfully passes them back to you.
I have loved a thousand destinations and frequently declare my will to return to them all someday. But only Burma taunts me in daydreams and news headlines, outdated library books and the occasional golden egg curry.
Only Burma sends its ghosts after me, reminding me that even with an eternity to travel, I will never fully appreciate the place it is, nor understand the country it could be.