Each year, Lonely Planet chooses the world’s 10 “Best In Travel” destinations. And though we might not be able to visit Myanmar (#9 on the list) in person, there’s no reason we can’t explore the country through words…
Burmese Lessons – Karen Connelly, 2010
Karen Connelly lands in Yangon, Myanmar with plans to write a series of articles about the political situation. It’s 1996, and the military government’s State Law and Order Restoration Council has gained international attention for squashing free speech, jailing dissidents, fudging elections and putting public figure Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.
Drawn by Western curiosity and an irresistible desire to assist the civilian democratic movement, the 28-year-old quickly shifts from simply interviewing locals to joining student demonstrations and witnessing, personally, what the outside world calls a “reign of terror.”
When her travel visa ends, Connelly drifts listlessly around Thailand. Unsure of her true motives, she only knows that she cannot let Myanmar go.
In Chiang Mai, her passions become even more mired: enter a Burmese boyfriend, the ethnic Karen separatist leader, Maung. The Karen are one of several ethnic groups within Myanmar who fight for self-determination – peacefully when possible, but armed, when necessary.
The world Maung invites Connelly into is one of jungle camps and malaria pills, conflicting nonprofit support and unceasing devotion to a greater cause. Can Connelly fully commit to this man and his country’s battle for freedom? Or is this a love story just as haunting and complicated as Myanmar itself?
…my departure is uneventful. Leaving is my consummate and cursed talent.
Because Connelly spends time at a Karen camp, her book is often a map of undisclosed locations. While inside Myanmar, she wanders the streets of Yangon (which Connelly still calls by its previous name, Rangoon). Her time in Thailand lopes between Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Mae Sot, and Burmese refugee camps along the border.
It’s unfair to say that Burmese Lessons flows like the diary of a 20-something nomad; because Connelly’s story, though laced with vulnerability and quarter-life angst, is far too self-aware to be called that. No, her journey seems more mature, and succeeds in offering respectful tribute to the greater complexities of the environments she enters. Connelly spent a year of high school on Rotary exchange in Thailand, and this background seeds the story with an understanding much deeper than that of an idyllic yuppie backpacker.
She’s graceful and honest – sometimes uncomfortably so (like when describing sex with Maung) – but I think that makes her memoir trustworthy. She seems to be writing for herself and the Burmese people she has met, and no one else.
Connelly you’ll either love (so poetic) or hate (too self-aware), but I think it’d be impossible to finish her book and not fall, inexplicably, into admiration of the brave and hopeful country she describes.
Have you read this book? What’s on your Burmese reading list?
Want an armchair escape through Lonely Planet’s other Top 10? Start reading your way through Colombia…