I’m riding in the back seat of a friend’s Mitsubishi when Alan Jackson’s “Remember When,” comes on the radio.
And I want to chuckle because the friends I’m with are Lahu, a hill tribe in Southeast Asia, and we’re driving to a remote village in Myanmar.
But my friends are singing away to a song they fully expect I should know because after all, isn’t Alan Jackson American? Well, sure, I assure them, but I don’t listen to country music.
So my friend hits another song on his phone, connected to the car stereo, and suddenly Paul McCartney is urging us to “Let It Be.”
“The Beatles never get old, do they?” said my one friend. No, no they don’t.
At this point, I am chuckling, I can’t help it. Because, THIS IS THE MIDDLE OF MYANMAR! Formerly known until recently in the United States as Burma, and until a few years ago ruled by an often brutal military regime.
But times have changed and are changing quickly in Myanmar. You can see it everywhere, on the streets, in the houses, at the markets. And yet, so much of the country is still the same as when I last visited 10 years ago.
During that trip, I had to leave my passport at the border crossing with the officials in charge. In exchange, I was given a piece of purple construction paper with my picture and a set of instructions requiring a series of stamps and signatures along our approved course of travel.
Even this had to be turned in at each local government office with confirmation later made that we had checked into our hotels. Military checkpoints were everywhere, and absolutely no trips to villages were allowed.
Come back without a proper stamp, and…well, I’m afraid to think about what it would have taken to cross that short distance back to Thailand, our point of entry.
During that trip, we were often the only vehicle on the road and there were absolutely no communication devices allowed. And if the military stopped you, do anything they ask, including transporting soldiers with heavy artillery in the back of your truck. Yes.
Now, with a semi-democratic government and progressive steps toward a more capitalistic economy, motorbikes and cars fill the streets, and everybody has a satellite dish and a cellphone. While the government operates the main cellphone service, there are two independent competitors with signs everywhere.
But village life is really the same, and getting there may be easier but it’s still not completely welcome. Without an official invitation from a leader, you aren’t supposed to leave the cities, and you must be back to your hotel to check in at night. There is no staying in the villages overnight. While I kept my passp0rt with me, one night the innkeeper demanded it be retained just in case someone came by to ask.
There are still few westerners in most parts of the country, and it’s funny to walk the streets only to turn around and see a handful of children following you until you look directly at them. Then they scatter, only to regroup once you begin your walk again.
It’s been good to be back in Myanmar. I never thought it would happen. My work has taken me to other countries, and without the change in government, I’m not sure it could’ve happened.
And to be sure, not everyone has been happy to see me. While the visa process was super easy, some people have looked at me and chided my friends for traveling with an American.
But overall, it’s been a joy to be here, and with God’s blessings, I’ll be back, anxious to see what further change has occurred.
Like Alan Jackson, I’ll be remembering when.
Keep up with Christopher’s journeys (and see cool video of more Burmese basketmaking!) on our family’s Facebook page.