Myanmar Travel Guide
Here's a little Southeast Asian history for you on this Sunday. Today marks the 61st anniversary of the creation of the Union of Burma. After 120 years of colonial rule, the nation cast off its bonds to the United Kingdom on January 4, 1948, and it has never looked back. Sadly, the hope for freedom that was stoked in the hearts of many Burmese people that day has been reduced to ember over the past few decades, as the nation has been ruled by military juntas since 1962 that routinely stifle any hint of free speech and political dissent.
Myanmar is still in shambles, five days after cyclone Nargis swept over the country, killing tens of thousands of people. Though only a fraction of those fatalities were in Yangon, the capital city is still a mess, which is a bad omen for relief efforts in the more remote parts of the country.
As aid workers negotiate with the ruling junta for access to the devastated Irrawaddy Delta, the Google Earth team has put together a KML layer that lets users visualize the current situation on the ground. Culled from various satellites, it's not an encouraging picture.
These before and after shots are from NASA, which used a special instrument to make them near-real-color:
This pair of images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite use a combination of visible and infrared light to make floodwaters obvious. Water is blue or nearly black, vegetation is bright green, bare ground is tan, and clouds are white or light blue.
NASA has also released a bigger, labeled image.
· NASA Satellite Captures Image of Cyclone Nargis Flooding in Burma [Official Site]
· Google Imagery for Myanmar (Burma) [Lat Long Blog]
· Azmil77's Cyclone Nargis Photo Set [Flickr]
· Myanmar's Biggest City Still Paralyzed After 5 Days [NYT]
· Myanmar Travel coverage [Jaunted]
[Photo: NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team]
You know things are bad when the famously brutal junta in Myanmar comes calling for help. Three days after Cyclone Nargis ripped through the lower part of the country, the images trickling out show a near-apocalyptic aftermath. Yangon is in shreds and vast swaths of land are sunk deep in muddy water. But the real loss is in the numbers--over 15,000 dead, according to the most recent reports.
In the wake of the storm, the deadliest to hit the region since a cyclone struck India in 1999, Burma's military government is asking for aid. And who should step up but... Laura Bush? The First Lady is apparently urging Myanmar to accept $250,000 already allocated for aid, and is promising more if a US team is allowed to assess the situation.
The biggest concerns for now are providing electricity and access to safe drinking water, both of which were spotty in the first place. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are reportedly helping with relief.
But even with the country in shambles, the one thing the ruling generals won't do is allow democracy to slide--a referendum on the country's constitution will still be held on May 10, officials said. Oh, good. We were worried things might get out of hand.
With all the commotion over Tibet these days, the situation in Myanmar seems to have all but faded from the media's eye. But the case of Burmese activist Ohn Than made a blip on the radar last week after he was given a unusually ridiculous sentence: life in prison for not saying a word.
Than got the book thrown at him for his silent demonstration outside the US embassy last August, says the BBC. He was holding a poster that was pretty tame by American standards--calling for parliament to reconvene and for oil prices to be reduced--but that hardly seemed to matter. The junta slammed him with a fine of less than $1, along with a life sentence in the notorious Insein prison.
The US State department has no current warnings against visiting Burma, though we're still not sure it's a great idea. But whether you decide to make the country a travel destination or not, just don't forget about what's happening inside its borders when the news isn't watching.
As protests against the government continue in Myanmar, we've wondered what it's actually like in the Southeast Asian country. You could, in theory, head over to check it out yourself, though going right now would fall somewhere between reckless and unbelievably stupid.
Both the US and UK governments give dire warnings against travel to the country, and the common refrain is that your visit shows support for the authoritarian military regime that controls Myanmar. It's true that some of your money will end up in the hands of the government, just as it does in most tourist destinations. And the democratically elected leader of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, has asked tourists not to visit.
On the other hand, your trip also bears witness to the situation in the country, and your presence reminds authorities that the world at large is watching. And far be it from us to tell you where you should or shouldn't go.
If you go:
The easiest way to visit is with a tour group, though you'll likely be corralled away from the gritty realities of daily life. Independent travelers can apply for visas in their home countries at Burmese embassies; the cost is $20. (If you're a writer, journalist or anything else that might sound seditious, you probably shouldn't admit it when applying.)
Flights on Thai Airways and Singapore Air (among others) land in Yangon, the country's largest city and the site of some of the largest protests in recent weeks. Also worth seeing is the newly-created capital city of Naypyidaw, built from nothing deep in the jungles of the nation's interior.
[Photo of Naypyidaw: David Longstreath/Associated Press]