A Reality Check in Myanmar

New Bagan, Myanmar is very quiet on any summer afternoon. Only a few brave, foolish or desperate souls face the midday sun head-on. Yet, knowing full well, there I was, wilting quickly under the gaze of our benevolent star. Paige, was miserable, unwilling to speak to me in such heat, so we silently trudged the endless quarter mile back to the kind embrace of our air conditioner. 

Despite needing to respond to emails, wax poetic in an article about our lunch, and keep up with our Instagram, we opted instead to undress, turn on the AC and watch TV. And as I drifted cozily into an afternoon nap, an unexpected knock rattled our door.

The hotel manager, like many Burmese people, smiled a lot — almost constantly. The day before, when I’d returned one of his electric bikes with a freshly cracked fender, his smile was not tentative or even hesitant; it seemed as warm as ever. That day was no different in that respect. When I answered, he stood at my hotel door, smiling back at my groggy face. 

He asked me if I was going outside today. Before I answered, he advised against it. It was too hot, best not to leave the hotel until the evening, he insisted. While I wholeheartedly agreed and was eager to get back to my nap, I couldn't help detect anxiety cracking through his smiley mask. Did I notice a raised eyebrow? A bead of sweat? Maybe not, but something felt wrong. Wasn't it odd that the hotel manager should ask us not to leave the room? We are, after all, adults, and if we want to sweat through an unbearably hot afternoon, isn't that our choice? 

We may or may not go out was not the response he wanted to hear. His brow furrowed for a moment before he started smiling again and explained. There was a government official coming to the hotel to inspect. The inspector would not want to see any tourists there.

The manager left and I went back to bed. When Paige asked me what that was all about, I wasn't actually sure. I felt uneasy. I was hesitant to say, almost ashamed of what had just occurred. Why had I not scolded him, told him that I would do as I please, inspector be damned?! 

In America, I stood up to tyranny. As a kid, I organized a boycott of a pizza shop that raised the price of soda (we were successful). I marched against war and police brutality as an adolescent. I have avoided conflict as much as possible, but I cannot contain my indignation at certain slights. Now, in Myanmar, this guy came to our room, smiled politely and told me not to leave until he said so. And I said "ok". 

I mumbled a sort of explanation to Paige, as much a justification of what had happened as a description. "Well, there's an inspector coming, and well, I guess he doesn't want to be bothered by tourists?" I couldn't help but phrase it as a question. It made no sense. Bagan is a tourist zone. We had paid twenty dollars just to enter the area. What possible problem could a government official have with seeing a tourist in a hotel? Isn't that like seeing white on rice? Or was it more sinister? Maybe he didn't want us to see him.

We heatedly debated the different probabilities, implications, and so on. We didn't really want to leave our room anyway, but also couldn't help but feel like prisoners. Then came another knock on the door. We had to exchange a look before answering. Was this our time to face the vaunted inspector? It was the manager, again smiley, with another hotel worker, also beaming. The inspector had come. Don't leave the room. 

Now was our chance — our time to lather up in sunscreen, put our hats and sunglasses on, tote our cameras and stand up for our rights as tourists. Screw you, hot afternoon sun! Piss off, you flounced up, over-important inspector! We are going to a cafe! You may be able to bully and suppress your own people, but not us! We paid 20 dollars! We are Americans! 

We meekly watched a bad movie on TV instead. Eventually, the perma-smile came back to our door, thanked us and told us we could leave.

I didn't want to leave the hotel room. I wanted to leave this planet. I didn't want to see that grinning visage again. I felt embarrassed for not taking a stand. I felt sold out by the hotel I had paid for. If I had been at the Four Seasons, in New York, in the same situation, I would have slammed the door in his face and gotten dressed for town. But we weren't there. We were at a budget hotel in Myanmar, formerly Burma. 

When the Burmese military government took control in the sixties, they didn't hesitate to gun down hundreds of student protesters. This was the land of secret-police spies in cafes, strange disappearances and backroom torture. Despite relinquishing power to a civilian-led government in 2011, the grim specter of the former military regime looms over all politics in Myanmar. The President and many other top officials were part of the military government. Outside of Yangon's city hall, gruesome barbed wire barricades, used for crowd control, remind the citizens of Myanmar, "this is a democracy, but don't test us." And just as Paige and I bowed our heads when confronted with the violence and atrocity that simmers just below the surface of words like government official or inspector in Myanmar, so do the majority of Burmese. 

Overall, hospitality from strangers, warm smiles from old women and excellent meals defined our time in Myanmar. We had many of the local experiences we had imagined when deciding to travel there. The most important one, however, was not one we wanted. We didn't want to feel the unsure feeling that Burmese people have to live with on a day-to-day basis. 

I also didn't want to find out how I would react to it. Yes, I was far from home, on unfamiliar ground. I could not know the likely outcome of disobeying. But it made me wonder: If a time comes when the mighty American military asks me to bow down, will I show courage, or will I get in line?