The boats on Myanmar’s Nilar River ride through wetlands teeming with different wildlife, and via estuaries that no humans have set foot in before. Three-hundred miles from Myanmar’s massive capital, Naypyidaw, looks upon an even wilder country — like those seen by the Cassandras in William Faulkner’s classic novel, As I Lay Dying. The brown algae that buries its branches like a tree, or the strange blooms of plant leaves and flowers. There are thorns and thorny bushes galore, there are so many nooks and crannies that monkeys stumble into all the time.
Living conditions aren’t always great here, but at least the landscape is breathtaking. And its people, who live amid lawlessness and the threat of war, are intensely proud and fiercely individualistic. They’ve built their own masterpieces, tacked tributes to family members to their homes — road markings in Arabic, Tibetan or Buddhist script. “Buildings,” reports one YouTuber, “may be actual buildings, or just an elaborate art installation.” They sometimes even do are-mats.
And then there’s the culture. My two cousins, based in Shweboi in central Myanmar, still remember their first encounters with cameras — held by the local authorities as a sort of bribe for finding footage of elephants, some which were drowned. “Never in your life did you see people using cameras to take pictures,” they say.
They’re not kidding. The Chinese are reportedly buying up some of the best hotels in Yangon. Yet the best things in the country are a world away, places that no tourist will ever see. Then there’s the politics. In The Guardian, Naymyin Soe talked about their trips to TripAdvisor. “We were shocked when we saw two reviewers coming from China,” he said. “There is a chance they’ve been influenced by the Chinese and published something like this.” With violence worsening between Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists, who make up the majority of Naypyidaw’s population, there are fears that the tourist trade will only draw the scorn of the authorities.
If nothing else, though, the country is bringing some much-needed relief from the threat of war.