The Little Burmese Tout in Training

I was an easy target, strolling happily towards the temple outside Inwa, Myanmar. The little Burmese girl chose me as the unwilling object of her relentless sales pitch. Clinging to my side she chanted loudly, “Lady! Lady! You buy my earrings? Buy my earrings! Lucky money! Lucky money!” She recited these words over and over in exactly the same order, a mindless loop of singsong, all the while holding up a selection of cheap handmade jewelry. My polite refusals were completely ignored or perhaps she simply didn’t hear me. She absentmindedly stared off into space while repeating her jingle, daydreaming of being someplace else, any place else. She was clearly bored with her job but needed the money. 

As a seasoned traveler, I’d seen my share of touts. Overly aggressive to say the least, they will do just about anything to make a sale.

I learned long ago to avoid eye contact. Keep walking. Say nothing to encourage them. But from the moment my plane touched down in Burma, I felt no need for such guardedness.

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Clowning Around With Burmese Refugees

A Partner Post by contributor, Emma Corcoran. 

The dense, mountainous jungle on the Thai-Burmese  border serves as an inhospitable home to around 14,000 refugees. Over the last three decades, fighting between Burmese hill-tribe militias and government forces has turned the Burmese side of the border into a danger-zone of murder, rape and hunger. As a result, thousands of Burmese refugees have fled into Thailand seeking a stability they can’t find in their homeland.

The refugees are housed in nine ramshackle camps along the rugged border region or live precarious lives as undocumented migrants in towns outside the camps. Many of the children born to Burmese parents in Thailand enter the world as stateless infants, because they´re denied birth certification from either country.

Early Morning in a Thai Refugee Camp

“I think the first time I went to the camps was around eight years ago,” says Andrea Russell, speaking on the phone from her home on the Canadian west-coast.  “I just couldn’t believe how many people there were and how little awareness there was in the rest of the world about their situation.”

Andrea had been a regular visitor to Thailand since studying there at the age of 17 as an exchange-student. In 2005,  a friend who ran an informal circus took her to the Mae Sot region on the Thai-Burmese border to perform for some of the refugee children.

Eight years later, Andrea is the soft-spoken, but passionate “ringmaster” and director of Spark Circus, a nonprofit organisation which brings together circus performers from around the world to perform an annual series of concerts and workshops for the Burmese refugees in the Mae Sot area. The volunteer circus performers use music, dance, games and clowning to bring a day of levity into the lives of thousands of underprivileged children, many of whom don’t own even a single toy.

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PHOTO ESSAY: Myanmar by Longtail, Trishaw and Tuk-Tuk

story and photos by Paul Ross        

Getting to Myanmar (Burma) is a trip, but getting around while in-country can be an adventure.  

During 18 days of travel, we rode in human-pedaled trishaws, rickety horse-drawn carriages, vintage trains, and boats of every imaginable size, shape and color. Squeezed into crowded truck-busses, we joined indigenous commuters, and used the smattering of Burmese phrases we picked up along the way to interact and become part of their day. In turn, they became part of our memories. 

Much more than transportation, these conveyances provided an intimate glimpse of everyday life, a profound sense of place, and an authentic connection to this rapidly changing country.

Traveling with Eldertreks, an adventure travel company for travelers 50 and older, my wife, Judie, and I were able to step outside the tourist bubble and travel with the locals.  

Here's the visual proof. 

An old converted bicycle, with its five-inch seat not constructed with wide-beamed Americans in mind,  and a bumpy dirt road make for a colorful experience, especially if you add in the black and blue marks on your backside. The peddler/driver's friend rode along, balancing on the bike's peg, as either a human GPS or a spare "engine."  Far from "the days of Raj" luxury (the Brits colonized Myanmar as well as India), the trishaw is a practical taxi in a bustling, developing country and ––like all taxis everywhere–– it's best to negotiate the fare in advance of the trip. You want to help the local economy but--

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