The Digital Journalist
A Tourist in Burma

by Darren McCollester

I admit I knew relatively little about Myanmar when I flew into the country in late February. I knew of political dissident Aung Sun Suu Kyi, and her house arrest. I knew that a military regime controlled the country and cruelly suppressed its people. And I knew they did not like journalists and rarely allowed them in, which is why I entered the country as a tourist. A teacher on holiday, to be exact.

I had just spent the month of January in Baghdad, chasing explosions along Haifa Street with the 1st Cavalry Division. After a month of daily gunfire, rockets, mortar and car bombs, I was looking for a vacation.

Visiting my friend Paula Bronstein in Bangkok, a fellow photojournalist who had broken her ankle covering the tsunami, I asked her which country she most enjoyed traveling to in the region?

"Burma," she said without hesitation. Several other journalists in the room agreed. Although, they informed me, I would have to go in as a tourist.

But wouldn't they see I had just come from Iraq? Couldn't they punch my name into Google and find I was a journalist? My friends smiled and told me not to worry.

So I applied for my visa at the Myanmar embassy. I filled out my form and where it asked, "occupation," I followed my friends' advice. When I approached the man at the desk, he saw what I had written: "teacher."

"What kind?" he said sharply.

"What?" I asked. Now I was nervous. Paula told me they would not ask questions, and I was a terrible liar.

"What kind," he reiterated with a stern face, "and where?" For a brief minute, I saw myself in a Myanmar jail.

The flight into Yangon takes one hour from Bangkok. I was nervous entering the small airport. What if they began asking me teacher questions?

"How much is 4 times 25?"

I could get that one. But if they included long division I would break under pressure. And if they looked inside my bag they would see one pair of pants, 2 shirts, one pair of socks, and a rather large looking professional D1x camera, two lenses, and a dozen flash cards. Wondering how many tourists eschewed shampoo and soap for spare camera batteries, I stepped to the counter and showed my passport.

A pleasant woman waved me through customs and another man helped me fill in the blank on where I was staying in Yangon. It took about 5 minutes.

"Welcome to Myanmar," said a grinning taxi driver in perfect English.

Everybody says hello

photo by Darren McCollester
Like many capitol cities Yangon is crowded and loud. Outdoor markets line the sidewalks. I found myself one day wandering down a side street alley. Little kids were playing chinlon, a soccer-like game, played with a bamboo ball. Woman cooked food on outdoor fires and men were working at various trades. I found that everyone works in Myanmar. They were working for pennies, but they still worked. Also, they smiled. I mean everyone. A smile, 'hello', and 'where are you from?' greeted me everywhere I went. In recent years I have been traveling to many countries where you specifically said you were NOT from the USA. And now everyone shook my hand and told me that it was good being from the USA. It was a nice change from 'death to America' chants, and attempting to speak German when asked, "USA?"

photo by Darren McCollester

One early morning I am following the monks on their daily rounds. Walking in a long line through the street, banging a bell, the monks go out to collect alms. Vendors, restaurant owners, ordinary citizens, all come to the street and dole out rice, bananas, tea, whatever they can spare, into the bowls of the red-robed monks. I found it amazing to see people giving what they didn't have. I imagined my neighbor knocking on my door at 6 am, asking for some uncooked potatoes. I wondered if the man at 7-11 would give out free Doritos? One of the monks, passing by, looked up from his bowl and smiled at me, and then continued barefoot down the street.

Kiosk vendors in Yangon, Myanmar

Photo by Darren McCollester
In Bogyoke Market I came across a man selling goods in a kiosk. He was surrounded by Buddha statues of all sizes.

"You are American?"

I told him yes.

"What do you do for work?"

I winced because I knew I had to lie.

"I am a teacher."

He told me it was a good profession.

"Tell me," he said, "What do you think of your president?"

I was stunned to hear this man speak of politics. In the two weeks I'd been in country not one person had gone near the subject. Now this man asked me a question openly, a question that could get him thrown in jail for years.

Shrugging and looking around I said, "I voted for the other guy?"

He looked up over his eyeglasses.

Almost sadly he said, "I think he does not care for people."

He told me he had a son who studied at a university in southern California. He asked me for a favor.

"Could you call him? Could you tell him his father is proud of him?"

On the plane back to Bangkok, I was thinking of how the people of Myanmar are governed by a sinister hand that is unseen but wholly there; and yet they smile and sing, working for pennies and mere existence. Not once did a person complain (although that can get you a life sentence in Myanmar) but somehow I had the feeling that these people would not complain even if they were allowed. Complaining did not seem to be part of their makeup.

A man sitting beside me asked, "How did you like Myanmar?"

"I love it," I told him. "The people are great."

Nodding he said, "What do you do for work?"

I didn't hesitate. "I am a photojournalist," I told him, and leaned back in my seat.

Note: Anyone traveling to Myanmar should make sure to stay at private owned hotels and hostels, and not use government sponsored businesses.

© Darren McCollester

Darren McCollester is a photojournalist based in Boston Massachusetts. He recently returned from a trip which took him to Iraq via Kuwait where he covered elections, and onto Thailand and Burma. He is represented by Getty Images Agency. More of his work can be seen at:

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