JPRI Occasional Paper No. 52 (May 2015)
Burma: A Journey Within
by Charlie Costello

Nestled like a jewel surrounded by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand—Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma, is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries. The Karen, Palaung, Rakhine, and Shan make up just a few of the over 100 ethnic groups within its borders, with Burmese being the official language. 

I had been talking about visiting Burma for years since living and working in Thailand in the mid-1990s. There was a phrase in the expat community in Bangkok that went something like this, “Burma is like Thailand was 50 years ago.” But at that time, it was also a country that had been isolated from the world for decades, locking up journalists, local protestors, and others who opposed the regime. I wasn’t even sure I would be able to get a travel visa but really wanted to go.

My first glimpse of the famed Golden Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon that first morning. © Charles S. Costello

I finally made it to Burma in December 2011, and went a second time in February 2014. At the time of my first visit, Aung San Suu Kyi was rumored to be in talks with the government regarding a possible election to be held the following year. She had been released from house arrest in November 2010 after having been in and out of house arrest for almost fifteen of the previous twenty-one years.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s image silhouetted on a poster advertising a concert as seen in front of the National League for Democracy Headquarters in Rangoon, December 28, 2011. © Charles S. Costello

As that first trip neared, there was reason for hope with an official visit from U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton in early December 2011. This news combined with announcements of official visits from other foreign governments confirmed that democratic change was indeed possible. My first trip to Burma was with an expedition led by Arlene Blum, an environmental scientist and internationally known mountaineer who led the first all-women ascent of Annapurna. Several months before the trip we took a walk in the Berkeley hills on a warm October evening. As we talked, Arlene said, “Nepal feels like home, but Burma’s like a dream.” That’s really something coming from someone who hiked across the Himalayas for 15 months on one of her “treks.”

Arlene Blum on the trek in Burma walking from Kalaw to Inle Lake. © Charles S. Costello

As I began my journey, I still wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be like a dream? Or would it be more like George Orwell’s novel, 1984, with Big Brother lurking in the shadows? Would I be followed while touring the capital city? Would a monk actually be a military informant in disguise as some had warned? Could I trust anyone? I struggled with what to call the country, was it Burma or Myanmar? Its name was changed to Myanmar by the military government in 1989 in the wake of its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the summer of 1988. I chose to honor the name of the country used most often by foreign governments and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma.

As we approached Rangoon, I looked out the window of the plane and my first thought was how the brown river moves like a snake, twisting and turning on the ground below. Not a road in sight as we began our descent, the haze and brown delta waters looked like the patchwork of a Picasso painting.

My first glimpse of Burma from the plane window, a patchwork quilt with temples in the distance. © Charles S. Costello

After collecting my bags I walked towards the airport lobby, looking for a driver with my name. I quickly found him, wearing the traditional longhi and preceded to change 200 U.S. dollars at the rate of 785 kyat per dollar. I left with a large stack of 1,000 kyat bills, 157 of them to be exact, that I stuffed into the large side pockets of my travel pants. In one of the poorest countries in the world, I felt like I had robbed a bank as we headed into town.

It was an eye-opening trip to say the least, a remarkable trip that helped renew my passion for ancient ruins, exotic lands and the bonds that tie us all together as a people. I met many people throughout the trip, some still using Orwellian terms like “Big Brother” when describing the government. Most were skeptical and held out little hope for change in a country long on promise, but short on real, positive change over the past fifty years. And who can blame them, some have a family member who was imprisoned, tortured or even killed. Soon after returning from that first trip in January of 2012, I started wondering when I might go back and how I could make it happen.

Ancient Capital of Burma, Pagan: Sunrise from the Sunrise Pagoda near the Bagan Hotel, Dec. 18, 2011. © Charles S. Costello

Anything’s possible after fifty years of isolation, but a lot has happened since that first trip, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) winning 43 of 45 seats in an election held on April 1, 2012. However with ethnic violence increasing and problems in the Rahkine state in southwestern Burma, it seems like the country has taken two steps backward in its quest for a true democracy. Violence between Buddhist and Muslims in this region has intensified and has even been flamed by local Buddhists monks in this country that prides itself on the monks in their saffron robes.

Three monks taking a break at the Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. © Charles S. Costello


Travel in Burma is not for the faint of heart. The infrastructure is still in dire need of upgrading after fifty-plus years of isolation. Things have changed to a certain degree. For example, you can get a visa on arrival at the airport, which would have been unheard of just two years ago. However, you have to be careful what you drink, watch your step on the streets of Rangoon (lest you fall into a 3 foot ditch on the concrete sidewalks), and take all travel precautions. I learned this first hand when I went back to Burma in February of 2014. Not only did I get sick from something I ate, I had to change my itinerary and “lay low” to avoid having to leave a country that is rated as one of the worst countries in the world in terms of local medical care.

With the next national election slated for November 2015, look for the NLD to win a majority of seats and possibly Aung San Suu Kyi running for the highest office as the world continues to put them under a microscope as they continue their democratic reforms. I was continually reminded that promises by the government have most often gone the way of the wind. A glaring example was in 1990 when election results were nullified despite an overwhelming victory by the NLD. “The ball is round, you never know which way it will roll,” a local resident told me when discussing the future.

Charlie Costello taking pictures in Bagan at sunrise. © Charles S. Costello

As we see in our own democracy, the road is long and hard and wrought with potholes around every corner, even big brother lurks here too. There will be large bumps in the road for Burma as they strive first for peaceful and open elections. Let us support the tide of democratic change and move forward with cautious optimism and patience and allow the Burmese people the chance to make history in their own way as we support them in their quest for a free and democratic society.

Charles S. Costello III is a photographer, writer and urban gardener who lives in the Berkeley Hills with his wife Elizabeth Cunningham (who is also an accomplished writer and photographer) and their dog Zack. Charlie has lived, worked, and traveled throughout Asia and holds an M.A. in Asia Pacific Studies from the University of San Francisco. He is author of Burma Bikes: A Journey Within (Blurb 2014) and Beijing Bikes: An Olympic View (Blurb 2009), and coauthor of Breaking Ground: The 70 year history of Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3 (M.T. Publishing, 2009).

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