MYANMAR — As the nurse expounded on the risks of dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis and malaria, I realized it was going to be an unusual trip. No five-star hotel this time.
I travel a lot. Some people have asked if I go primarily for business or pleasure. It made me wonder: What kind of pleasure trip would include a risk of malaria?
For this latest journey, I got various shots (polio and tetanus boosters, hepatitis, etc.) and took Larium for malaria. I had to purchase a mosquito net, promise not to drink the water and buy baby wipes. The latter was for . . . well, there aren’t any toilets in the Myanmarese hills, dominated by ethnic Karen guerrillas, where I was heading.
It’s easy for Americans to be a bit provincial. One can never venture beyond U.S. borders and not seem to miss anything.
Yet as diverse as the United States is, it isn’t the whole world. Some cultures, events and peoples need to be seen to be believed.
There’s North Korea, for instance. A bizarre Stalinist state with an overwhelming personality cult, North Korea is a country apart.
But Americans are as strange to North Koreans as North Koreans are to Americans. I went jogging, presenting residents of the capital of Pyongyang with the sight of a bearded occidental wandering the streets in shorts. Every head turned — but their eyes never met mine. Instead, they looked through me.
Perhaps more bizarre was visiting the Demilitarized Zone from the North Korean side. I came down the steps at Panmunjon in the company of North Korean soldiers, only to be photographed by U.S. soldiers.
Very different was Kosovo, even before the NATO bombing. The province was bleak: economically impoverished and ethnically divided. The overt hostility between ethnic Albanians and Serbs presaged the coming war.
I jogged there too, but there were few people on the streets. Western journalists favored armored Land Rovers for transportation. I spent one day convoying around the Albanian border with the Yugoslav Army, and later, in my rented taxi, blundered into a guerrilla checkpoint.
Belgrade was equally bleak, though without armed fighting. Officials were worried about America’s implacable hostility; residents remained impoverished from years of civil war and Western economic sanctions. The sight of a Western jogger was almost as unusual there as in Pyongyang.
Another interesting country is Cyprus, an island divided between ethnic Greeks and Turks. Even the names are political: the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey, and the Republic of Cyprus, recognized by virtually every country except Turkey. One must fly into each separately, since they are divided by their equivalent of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone: the Buffer Zone.
Particularly fascinating is a trip within the Buffer Zone, filled with empty streets, abandoned buildings pockmarked with bullet and shell holes, minefields, empty entrenchments and the detritus of life before war unexpectedly intervened a quarter-century ago.
More mundane are the host of other stops on my ongoing, if sporadic, world tour: Athens, Bangkok, Beijing, Caracas, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Jerusalem, London, Moscow, Paris, Phnom Penh, Prague, Quito, Seoul, Taipei, Tokyo, Vancouver and more. Most fascinate without endangering. Some even come close to pleasure travel.
In most, but not all of these places you can drink the water and eat the food. You usually don’t have to worry about hepatitis, malaria, typhoid fever and tuberculosis. In none of them do you feel in imminent danger.
Then there is Myanmar. The legal way in is bleak enough. Visit Mae Sot, Thailand and cross the “Friendship Bridge.” Pay $10 and see dirty streets, dilapidated trucks, crumbling buildings, trashy stores, and impoverished people. A constant stream of Thai citizens but few Occidentals cross the border: My traveling companion, who sported a large cigar, and I earned stares from all around on our stroll.
Yet this trek was boring compared to our earlier trip into Myanmar. That involved driving through Thai military checkpoints, hopping into a small boat to cross the Moi River and stopping at the local guerrilla headquarters. There we formed a small caravan, complete with armed soldiers (including a rocket-propelled grenade launcher) and porters.
Then we snaked up and down hills and through several villages, all the while avoiding Myanmarese military encampments. Life looks largely unchanged from a century ago: no running water, electricity or latrines. Cows, chickens, dogs and pigs running loose under bamboo huts built on stilts. Dirt and worse everywhere. I felt I was roughing it with my mosquito net and boiled water; these people live with far worse every day.
A pleasure trip? Not exactly. But then, it’s hard to think of what else I would prefer to have been doing.
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