From the western Thai town of Mae Sot it’s possible to cross the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge and make your way into the Burmese town of Myawaddy. The border here has been open more-or-less permanently since summer 2013, and while it bustles with Burmese workers, it’s not a crossing made by a huge number of Farangs, or Westerners (literally ‘guavas’), unless they work for NGOs. It is, however, becoming more a popular route with people completing visa runs. And there are the occasional people like me, who decide to visit for the day because they can.
For anyone wielding a passport other than Burmese, it’s a relatively straightforward affair. On the Thai side you’re waved to a window where your departure card is taken and your passport is stamped. There was no queue and no questions were asked. Then you head towards the no-man’s-land of the bridge and Burmese immigration on the opposite bank.
On the Burmese side you are invited to take a seat in an air-conditioned office. Here you are asked the purpose of your visit, to which my ‘I just want to look around and have lunch,’ was met with a bemused smile, asked to pay a 500 Baht fee, relieved—temporarily—of your passport, presented with a receipt, and told to return before the border closes. In my case, this was 17:00. I was under the impression that the border closes whenever the guards decide that it will.
As you enter Myanmar, you face a chaotic, littoral space. In Thailand, cars drive on the left; in Myanmar, cars drive on the right. Trucks loaded sky-high with goods ranging from scooters to linen to mechanical parts struggle to cross lanes against the armies of people and the cavalry of scooters. The road is lined with money-changers, ready to convert Baht to Kyat, taxi drivers of many vehicular descriptions, offering to take you places although where, I’m not quite sure, and the Burmese equivalent of the public telephone. It’s confused, confusing, and loud.
When you compare it to Thailand, it’s same-same-but-different. The Burmese will transport anything on a scooter, just like the Thais. Every taxi driver across South East Asia wants to know where you’re going and to take you somewhere. Both Thai and Burmese pavements are scarcely for walking on, but an extension of a shop or an opportunity to set up a stall. Still, you know it’s a different place and not just because everyone wears sarongs and faces are covered in chalk to protect against the sun.
Turn off the arterial road that leads out of Myawaddy and deeper into Myanmar and you’re faced with unpaved alleys, lined with wooden huts where people cook on open fires, that are no less thronging but very different. Here, you are presented with unequivocal poverty. I’ve seen poverty in many places, but somehow, this felt different. I’m reluctant to call it hopeless, because denying someone hope might be denying her or him all that they have. Perhaps the appropriate adjective is helpless.
The poverty that I’ve seen in Indonesia, in Morocco, in Thailand, is squalid and miserable but it never felt without opportunity or quite so crushing as it did in Myanmar. While these countries might be unstable or have governments that are perceived as corrupt, they’re also cosmopolitan, they have a backbone in tourism, and there’s at least the insinuation that the authorities can and do act in the interests of the people. Their economies aren’t black holes of persistent reliance on NGOs and minimal foreign investment.
Myanmar is recognised as the poorest country in South East Asia: approximately 32% of the population lives in poverty. Although it now functions as a parliamentary democracy, its economy is still recovering from years of corruption and mismanagement under a military dictatorship, and arguably still suffers these vices. What wealth there is sits concentrated in the hands of the very few; there is minimal foreign investment in the economy, and little infrastructure, both in terms of ultilities and in human capital, to tempt it. Myanmar’s poverty exists adrift in a vicious circle of corruption, poor infrastructure, lack of external investment, and insularity.
However much the Burmese people are determined to help themselves, who is balancing them on the other side of the equation and is able or prepared to help them in kind?
My morning in Myanmar let me meet children who were overjoyed to be photographed so that they could see themselves on the LCD screen of my camera; speak with an 86 year-old gentleman whose English was mind-bendingly good; eat lunch for 500 Kyat (roughly 30 pence); see young boys playing in the street; marvel at stands of sarongs; smile at men with their moveable feasts; and answer that no, I didn’t want a taxi. There’s a sense of determination and resilience rising from these people, amongst their bowls of washing and open fires, but they need more than just that, and me with my smiles and my camera and my intrepidity.
It’s an experience that I’m pleased that I’ve had. It is, however, one that left me feeling incontrovertibly sad.