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A Tourist's Paradox

While a military junta rules Burma, can you visit this Buddhist nation and still be an ethical yogi?

By Jeff Greenwald


Subsequently, some companies, like Pepsi and Wal-Mart, voluntarily divested their interests in the country. A few states, like Massachusetts, enacted legislation forbidding trade with the junta. In April 2003, the 600-member American Apparel and Footwear Association called on the U.S. government to end imports of apparel and textiles from the country. But the American travel and tourism trade is still open for business there. Operators like Geographic Expeditions and Mountain Travel Sobek promote Burma as an upbeat, exotic destination.

For years, Burma remained the single Southeast Asian country I refused to visit. In 2002, though, the country's situation appeared to soften. Suu Kyi was released from a second period of house arrest, and the generals agreed to let her travel throughout the country. A friend who had visited had actually seen her in public, addressing an adoring crowd outside a branch office of her National League for Democracy. Around the same time, there was a surge in the number of foreigners--people wary of visiting Indonesia, India, or Nepal--traveling to Burma. These included large tour groups, backpackers, independent travelers, and spiritual pilgrims arriving for meditation retreats.

Despite these developments, "The Lady" (as Suu Kyi is also known) held unflinchingly to her tourism boycott. I, however, found myself wavering. Was forbidding travel to Burma still a useful strategy? Or could she be clinging to an obsolete ideal?

Spiritual Tourism

The magnificent Shwedagon Paya, more than 300 feet high, pierces the skyline of Burma's capital, Rangoon, like a great golden thorn. The stupa--which was built, according to legend, over a well containing eight hairs from the Buddha's head--has drawn devotees for at least a thousand years. It is a radiant singularity, the spiritual center of Rangoon. You reach the paya after removing your shoes and ascending one of four broad stairways, each approaching from a cardinal-point direction.

The first impression is that the ostentatious pavilion--surrounded by shutterbug tourists, garishly painted shrines, and buddhas framed within flashing halos of LEDs--seems almost schlocky. But as the hot afternoon fades and the setting sun sets the spire aflame, magic and mystery pervade the air. Shwedagon becomes an oasis, far above the manic streets of the capital. The Burmese are a remarkably devout people; even the generals make a great show of their piety. This evening, and every evening, whole families sit in perfect stillness around the paya, absorbed in meditation. Bells ring; candles appear in the myriad niches.

I sit beside a convivial monk, watching a line of laughing volunteers sweep the paya's marble plinth with broad, soft brooms. "They believe that by cleaning the floor," the monk says, grinning, "they will come back next life with a better appearance." I nod, aware of an itchy paradox: These are the most cheerful oppressed people in the world.

Indeed, Burma is awash in paradoxes. Among the most dramatic is the fact that trade sanctions, and to some degree the tourism boycott, have helped preserve the country's traditional flavor. Most Burmese still wear longyis (saronglike garments) and sandals, rather than sneakers and T-shirts. There are no 7-Elevens, Coca-Cola signs, or McDonald's. The streets are safe at night, and the people are astonishingly friendly and generous.

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