Thoughts on Myanmar, travel and change

On Sunday, citizens of the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar voted for the first time in 20 years. This week also marks the one-year anniversary of my own visit to Myanmar in 2009. At the surface level, these two events have nothing to do with one another. But as I struggle to make sense of what I saw and learned during my visit inside this cloistered country, I find that today’s historic vote is more meaningful than I expected.

I don’t claim to be an expert in the politics and history of Myanmar. I’m a traveler first and foremost, and the three weeks of my visit was barely enough time to give me a fleeting glimpse of the country’s fascinating history, warm people and awe-inspiring sights, let alone understand its complex political situation. But often travel has a way of forcing you to confront the issues you don’t want to see, and you find yourself drawn into them in ways you wouldn’t expect. In Myanmar, my window was through its people – their stories have stayed with me and touched me in ways I never expected.I remember the two enthusiastic young monks who accompanied me up the thousands of stairs that flank Mandalay Hill. They had left their families behind to take up a life of devotion and study. Then there was “Mikey,” the Burmese man I sat smashed next to in the front seat of a pickup for 10 agonizing hours as we bobbed and weaved along the treacherous dirt roads towards Kalaw. His broken-English banter and jokes sustained me through that exhausting ride. And Nain, who followed me all day across the sweltering, chaotic streets of Yangon, helping me buy train tickets and showing me around. He refused to take any money from me for his help.

There is much that could be said about the state of affairs in Myanmar. The lack of political freedoms and poverty echo the problems seen in developing countries around the world. But what has stuck with me the most from my experience in Myanmar is the stories of these ordinary individuals. These interactions brought the hard realities of life into focus in a place few travelers visit. As I think now about the election, I find myself seeing this event through their eyes and hoping, on their behalf, that some good will come of it.

Will the election create any meaningful change for the people I met in Myanmar? I’m not sure, but it looks doubtful. What about my visit? Did it have any affect on their plight? No, I don’t think so either. But what I believe has changed is my awareness. Myanmar is no longer just another news story for me on the BBC website. It’s a land inhabited by real people I met, affected by real issues. Change is possible. But often that change doesn’t occur in obvious ways like elections. It’s the accumulation of seemingly insignificant interactions, day-by-day and year-by-year that, over time, ultimately add up to something much larger.