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Burma not quite ready for primetime tourism

Franklin Corbin used the words “raw,” “reverent,” “stench” and “sacred” to describe the sights, sounds, smells and spirit he experienced on a recent 10-day journey through Burma with his son.

Slightly smaller than the state of Texas, Burma was big on Corbin’s bucket list. And with the welcome mat only recently thrown down for Westerners, he seized the opportunity in early October to visit the country christened the “Golden Land.”

Corbin, a longtime Medford resident who is semi-retired after a career with the Department of Veterans Affairs, had previously traveled with his wife through much of Southeast Asia. They’d trekked through jungles in Cambodia and Thailand, but Burma, maybe because of its decades-old closed-door policy, held a special fascination, especially with its rich history as one of the oldest civilizations and its wealth of sacred shrines.

“Burma has always interested me,” he says. “I was intrigued too by the country’s recent adoption of a more democratic culture.”

With 85 percent of its 51-million-plus citizens practicing Buddhists, he also figured the country was one of the safest to travel.

“There is respect and reverence,” he says, because of the belief in karma.

Other inspiration came from Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani’s book, “A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East.” Terzani, a correspondent in Asia, traveled throughout Southeast Asia by foot, boat, bus, car and train after being warned by a fortune-teller not to fly for an entire year.

After flying 18 hours to Burma, the Corbins traveled by foot, boat, train and motorcycle to immerse themselves in the culture.

“I prefer not to do things touristy,” says Franklin Corbin. “When you do, you lose the local flavor.”

Like Terzani, he wanted time to observe a day-in-the-life without Western trappings.

However, a short hike turned into a two-day trek, traveling to northern Burma required an 8-hour trip upriver, and aboard the train, they “were knocked around” for 18 hours as the cars rocked and rolled along tracks built by the British prior to 1942.

“We had a sleeper car, but we didn’t sleep,” says Franklin.

“It was a pretty wild ride,” says Forrest Corbin, who added that the tracks might have been “three feet wide.”

The Corbins found a country not quite ready for primetime tourism with its aging infrastructure, poor sanitation or lack thereof, and lodging that oftentimes “was dirty, seedy and filthy.”

“There was always a stench in the air,” Corbin says.

Forrest Corbin, 35, had never traveled outside the United States.

The Medford native says he did a little research prior to winging east with his father and was “semi-familiar” with the country’s history and culture.

“But nothing could have truly prepared me,” he admits. “It was a mild shock.”

“Raw” was the elder Corbin’s first impression.

“It’s a country as original as you can get,” he says of the population that is both indigenous and indigent.

Officially known as Myanmar, the country is wedged between China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh and India. The Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal surround it to the south.

Burmese is the common language. However, in a country with more than 144 distinct ethnic groups, there are 144 or more dialects and distinct customs dating back thousands of years.

The country was under military reign between 1962 and 2011, and most people still call the country Burma, although the name was changed to Myanmar in 1989. The United States, along with Canada and the United Kingdom, did not recognize the name change or the military junta.

Franklin Corbin says that travel through Burma was “tough” before the military junta was dissolved and a civilian government elected in 2011.

A visit by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December 2011 marked the first stopover by an American dignitary in 50 years. A year later, President Barack Obama visited, becoming the first U.S. president to ever visit the country.

“The locals praise Obama,” Franklin Corbin says. “And they love Hillary.”

Both visits opened doors, and U.S. aid has help create congenial diplomatic ties with the country’s prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi, who assumed office earlier this year, he adds.

Despite being under British rule for more than 80 years before the Japanese invasion during World War II and again after the war until independence in 1948, very little English is spoken outside of Yangon, the country’s economic epicenter and former capital.

“There is little or no English spoken,” says Franklin Corbin, who added that they hired guides to assist them in their travels. Even then, they had to employ sign language because they “had very little command of English” beyond hello, goodbye and thank you.

Forrest Corbin, who learned a bit of Burmese before the trip, says that “with a little effort, there was not much of a language barrier.”

“Quite a bit of body language is pretty universal,” he added.

Both men said they could “get by with a lot of bowing and smiling.”

While they found the people warm, open and friendly toward visitors, there is an icy aloofness and bitterness toward the military and police.

“The military is despised,” says Franklin Corbin, who learned from locals that there is a culture of cronyism and corruption.

The Corbins also saw first-hand that the decades of civil war between clashing tribes and a corrupt military regime overseeing a heroin and opium trade second only to Afghanistan have left Burma as one of the least developed nations in the world.

Outside of the cities’ decay and debris, village life is much like it has been for centuries, and the landscape beautiful.

The lush rolling hills, Forrest says, “are similar to Southern Oregon in spring. Everything is bright green.”

The Corbins saw families living hand-to-mouth, “scratching out a living” farming their small plot of land or quietly fishing the many rivers and lakes.

They both were touched by the sight of young children and old men and women on their hands and knees tending to the fields of ginger, peppers, melons, mangoes, cabbage and tomatoes.

By boat, they harvest rice and seaweed, and catch fish, eels, squid and ducks, and herd geese — the men paddling the boats with their legs to free their hands to work the nets.

There is no sound of machinery or motors on the farms, along the rivers or in the villages where the young and middle-aged laborers pound gold chunks into paper-thin gold plates and gold leaf for the pagodas and monasteries, gather coal for market, forge bronze or carve marble in the foundries and quarries, and roll tobacco into fat cigars.

And for their labor, most will earn as little as $1 a day or as much as $3 a day.

Both Corbins recall an unforgettable night spent in a Buddhist monastery.

They had hiked six hours and ended up at a monastery filled with hundreds of “novice” monks, children, some as young as 5, most 7 or 8 years old.

All night they could hear the “comings and goings” of the monks, old and young, as they prayed and chanted.

“It was a wonderful experience,” says Franklin, who adds, “it really hit Forrest that we were allowed to be there in that holy place.”

And in a week of unforgettable experiences, Forrest recalls standing on the roof of a temple, some 150 feet high.

“The temples are built facing east and west,” he says, “to catch the sunrise and the sunset. I watched the sunset. It was beautiful … the sun and clouds aligned perfectly.

“So thankful … so grateful for such a great experience.”

Father and son would go east again.

“It’s such a long flight … pretty brutal,” says Forrest. “But if I could fly in under 18 hours, I would be back there tomorrow.”

— Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

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World heritage sites such as Bagan, with more than 2,200 temples and pagodas, are a main draw for Myanmar's fledgling tourism industry. Courtesy photo
Forrest, left, and Franklin Corbin spent 10 days trekking through Burma, including an unforgettable night in a Buddhist monastery. Courtesy photo