While the armchair is a perfect place to start your travels, it can be even more rewarding to learn about an unfamiliar place as you move through it.
Yet when I first visited Myanmar (in 2012), political tensions surfaced so tumultuously that in backpacking circles, rumors said carrying the wrong book could get you kicked out of the country – or worse.
You (hopefully) no longer need to disguise your copy of Everything Is Broken behind a local Burmese newspaper. But Myanmar’s many positive changes haven’t lessened its intrigue.
These 13 travel books, music and movies aren’t meant to be a definitive collection; instead, I hope they introduce one of my favorite countries, and help you explore Myanmar from wherever you’re reading, watching, or listening today.
The River of Lost Footsteps – Thant Myint-U
This remains one of the most comprehensive and compelling versions of Burmese nonfiction I have ever read. History becomes memoir as a former United Nations official considers his family’s role in, and personal memory of, Myanmar’s grand but troubled development.
Freedom From Fear – Aung San Suu Kyi
Through a collection of speeches, letters and interviews, the icon of peaceful revolution shares her hopes and dreams for a better Myanmar. There’s a reason ‘The Lady’ won the Nobel Prize, and nothing illustrates her inspiring vision of the future better than this.
Beyond The Last Village – Alan Rabinowitz
Each year, more of Myanmar is opened to tourism; but previously, entire ethnic states were off-limits. The author/biologist is one of the first outsiders to explore the remote northern regions, a “forbidden wilderness”, where he discovers new species and establishes the areas’s largest conservation area.
Burmese Lessons – Karen Connelly
The self-titled love story weaves together one woman’s reflective journey, within the greater struggles of the Burmese democratic movement. When Connelly falls for an ethnic Karen separatist leader, she realizes that the things we care for the most aren’t always human.
Everything Is Broken – Emma Larkin
Larkin’s commentary on the 2008 Cyclone Narvis portrays government failure and local response in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, when few other foreigners were allowed inside the country. Her critique has been known to upset many a Burmese military leader and sympathetic Western reader.
They Call It Myanmar
Filmmaker Robert H. Lieberman won international acclaim for the clandestine footage he used to create this documentary of daily life inside Myanmar. An interview with Aung San Suu Kyi completes his visual story of a country in isolation.
VJ, or Video Journalist, is the name given to a group of courageous Burmese who used handycams to document the infamous protests of 2007 – and the terror that followed. The group risked their lives to release this footage to international media.
Road To Mandalay
Part of Myanmar’s on-going story occurs beyond its borders, with the displaced peoples and ethnic refugees who flee to camps in Thailand, China and Bangladesh. When two strangers unite on their escape to Bangkok, their future together is challenged by fate.
The Burmese film industry dates back to the 1910s, and has a proud history producing world-famous classics like this one. Told over the course of 23 New Year (or Thingyan) celebrations, the star-crossed saga won a 1985 Myanmar Academy Award for Best Picture.
Those slapstick dramas they show in public television
Catch a long-distance ‘tourist’ bus, or chow down at a local noodle stall, and if you’re lucky, the TV will play something Burmese. A mix of over-dramatic closeup shots and canned laughter, these comic-tragedies are not typically captioned in English. (You can imagine how much this aids the plot line).
The website dedicates itself to modern and pop Burmese music.. Explore a playlist of current favorites, focus on the albums of one particular artist, or find out when the next big concert will be. If you haven’t explored Myanmar’s hip hop scene, this would be the place to start.
As part of its world music collection, the Smithsonian Institution drew together 16 tracks of traditional Burmese music. Listen for the saun gau (arched harp), an instrument rarely heard outside of the country.
The vintage cover of this one-volume compilation hints at its eclectic history. Containing songs recorded by Burmese artists from the 1960s-1980s, originally shared on LP and then re-released in 2004, Princess exposes the culture’s large variety of instruments and styles.
What books, movies and music make you want to travel Myanmar?
All images taken from Goodreads and Wikipedia (Fair Use).
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