The Bride and I traveled to Burma (now Myanmar) on counterfeit / black market visas. More about that later.
We flew from Bangkok to Rangoon (Yangon), Burma, where we met a man holding up an envelope containing our air tickets from Rangoon to Heho — tickets for which we had paid before leaving Bangkok (clearly an act of faith). After landing at the tiny Heho airport we walked outside to find…nothing. No cars, no taxis, no tuk tuks. No people. Back inside we did the universal arms-elevated-to-the-side-palms-up gesture that we hoped meant “where is everybody?”. A kindly man — who understood universal signs — took us outside again and pointed south where we could just make out a grouping of cars. Turns out the Burmese government would not allow public transportation within about a quarter mile of the airport building. Security, we guessed.
So, we made the trek and easily found a driver who recognized the name of the guest house we had booked before leaving Bangkok. This marked the beginning of a most enjoyable and fascinating five days on Inle Lake in central Burma. In addition to exploring the lake we hired a guide and trekked to small villages in the mountains east of the lake.
Inle Lake sits about three thousand feet above sea level and is a place like no other. It’s ten or twelve miles long and averages about four miles across. There is a pretty good sized town at the north end but many of the people live in small villages along the shore; built on stilts. Men navigate and fish the lake standing in the stern of narrow canoes. They row with one leg wrapped around an ore which frees the hands for handling the cone shaped nets.
The villagers also farm the shallow lake — that is, they have created floating fields from weeds dredged up from the lake bottom — aquaculture at its most basic.
As a photographer interested in travel and cultures, I was in heaven. The fascinating culture, the pretty women with clear eyed children, the color — I could go on forever. You can see more of my Burma photos here.
All this took place in 2006 at a time when our government discouraged travel to Burma because travel dollars could support that repressive regime. We traveled with an awareness of the human rights and economic abuses perpetuated on Burmese citizens. On the advise of the Lonely Planet authors we spent our money on non-government transportation from Helo to and from Inle, stayed at non-government lodging, hired non-government trekking guides, and shopped at non-government markets.
Advisories against travel to Burma have now been relaxed by our government. It is important to point out, however, that the tourist accommodation (and the economy) is largely controlled by individuals “…who amassed their fortunes through alliances with the dictatorship; hundreds of political prisoners remain locked up; and the army is still fighting rebels in northern Kachin State.” This per a New York Times article by Joshua Hammer published August 3, 2012. So…if you have a heart for the people (as we do), use the bus where possible, spend your money at private, locally owned hotels and guest houses, and patronize independent guides (avoid packaged tours). By doing this your travel dollars will make a difference in the lives of the ordinary people.
Now, about the counterfeit visas. At the time we traveled to Burma their embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, allowed only forty visas per day to be issued to foreigners. We had arrived at the embassy an hour before their opening time to make sure we could get ours. There was a long line ahead of us but we thought we could make the cutoff. Just as the man in front of us approached the window the agent set out a sign: COMPLETE. We were numbers forty-two and forty-three. Even though we unashamedly begged all the agent did was point to the sign.
Our airline tickets were bought and paid for — we had to use them that afternoon. We were still in the embassy lobby when a guy approached us. “You need visa?” To keep this story short, we made the flight.
Getting a visa to travel to Myanmar is much easier — and less risky — these days. Google “Myanmar visa”. Photographers and independent travelers, my advice is this: Go to Burma/Myanmar. It is one of those rare places on earth that has yet to break out of the old ways. And the people are magnificent. It bears repeating: The people are magnificent.