Donna Karan, Diane Von Furstenburg, rock stars, soccer players and Russian oligarchs—they have all been to Burma, even in the bad years when Aung San Suu Kyi was calling for a boycott by visitors to this afflicted country. I struggled with the ethics, but when I eventually went the year before Suu Kyi’s release, I was converted not by any heated political discussion on the whys and why nots—which still haven’t been resolved either in the tourist or pro-democracy community—but an intimate meeting with a Burmese woman in the country’s north. It happened by chance, when I wandered off from the monastery we were visiting. A dilapidated wooden building just outside the compound’s perimeter had caught my eye.
When I heard movement inside, I put my head up the stairs. A barefoot woman moving about the deserted room with its broken floor boards saw me and motioned as if I should come in. I entered carefully, for sun cut through the woodwork where the structure was unsafe. Entirely unconcerned by my trespassing, she then gestured towards a corner where incense curled up towards a gap in the roof. She led me to some kind of shrine, the only furniture in the room, dominated by a black and white photograph of a man wearing silk. We sat together for a while.
When my guide eventually found me, he and the woman talked. The man in her photograph was her husband, an aristocrat in pre-junta Burma, and a victim of the regime change. She didn’t say much more, only that of all the things she wished she still had, it was a photograph of her and her husband together. With that incident, I no longer saw Burma as just a political hot potato but a place everyone must visit. The key is to travel responsibly, to pay above and beyond the package tourist deals where money goes straight to the junta. Travellers to Burma should insist on being taken off the beaten track by specialist guides who can show, not tell, the country’s human story. Because you will hear more than you will ever read, and feel more than you will ever imagine from people who have lost and suffered but clearly want to connect with visitors rather than remain ignored with just their memory for comfort.