Colonialism and Tourism

Unless one is as insensitive as a June bug—and I mean no disrespect to June bugs—it is impossible to travel and not notice certain similarities between tourism and colonialism. Both introduce foreign objects into the body of a native culture. In the case of colonialism the instrument of imposition can be a bamboo stick and the result is vicious. In Shooting an Elephant George Orwell--he worked as a policeman in Burma from 1920-1925,--wrote about it this way:

In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters.
The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups,
the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks
of the men who had been flogged with bamboos—all these oppressed
me with an intolerable sense of guilt.

In the case of tourism the instrument is money, in my case, the dollar bill. That has to be an improvement, of course. You can’t scar a buttock by beating it with a paper dollar. But even so the dollar changes the culture. It is a bit like the Heisenberg Principle of Indeterminacy: you look at a culture through a dollar bill and it changed before you saw it.

Indein Village, Burma--I call it Burma because the people I met called it Burma; it is only the junta and their extended family who call it Myanmar--is on a creek that flows into Inle Lake near the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda where five Buddhas adorn a central altar, five Buddhas that have been metamorphosed into five shapeless golden lumps by the faithful pressing on gold leaf for over a hundred years. Indein is the site of hundreds of 17th and 18th century Shan pagodas. Now in various stages of decrepitude, the crumbling complex is threatened with restoration. I say threatened because the ruins fall under the aegis of the local village and their attempts at restoration are horrendous. They are painted in garish orangy bronze tones that look like clown make-up. Here and there, as we walk through them, we see workman mixing cement and reshaping the stupas that have been eaten away by time. It is honest work and it is certainly good that these men are employed. But the end product will be more like a Disney theme park, which, I think, is the intention of the village elders.

Indein is also the site of a famous five-day market. Vendors come here from the hill country beyond to display what they’ve woven or harvested. The native products are marvelous, the Shan head dresses, the extraordinary laquerware. But recently the stalls have begun to show a subtle shift toward carved Buddhas and jewelry, sea-pearls, and shawls, all undoubtedly from China. The vendors have found it more profitable to sell wares imported from beyond Burma’s borders than homegrown farmer’s market produce. This is what tourism does. Just as a chameleon takes on the coloration of its environment, so, too, do these vendors take on the coloration of their customers. That process has only just begun in Burma. But it will build up momentum like a boulder rolling down a mountain. I count myself lucky to have been to Indein before it was too late.