Raise the Bamboo Curtain: A Journey into Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam

by Steven K. Bailey, May 1, 1998 | Destinations: Myanmar / Yangon

The travel documentary Raise the Bamboo Curtain opens with a beautifully filmed sunrise sequence of ancient temples and fishermen quietly casting their nets into a tranquil Asian river. With jarring abruptness, the sequence ends with a haunting shot of an adolescent Cambodian boy shouldering an M-16 assault rifle. These juxtaposed images neatly sum up the opposing focuses of this documentary for it provides an alternately light and dark vision of contemporary Southeast Asia that is both profoundly pessimistic and hopefully optimistic.

Independent filmmaker Rick Ray opted to divide the film into three roughly equal segments. The first section covers Ray's travels in Burma (now officially known as Myanmar); the second covers his journey into Cambodia and the third portion takes him into Vietnam. Although all three segments share common themes, they can easily be viewed independently. This is a good thing, because at 95 minutes, Ray has produced an ambitious, feature-length film.

More or less, Ray followed the standard backpacker's itinerary while traveling. If you are an old Asia hand, then Ray's route will be familiar to you. If you are making a first journey to the area, then at least some of Ray's itinerary will parallel your own. The journey opens in Rangoon where Ray stays at The Strand in the room once occupied by Rudyard Kipling. From there Ray heads north on the road to Mandalay, with stops at Inle Lake and the pagoda-studded plains of Pagan, then returns by boat down the Irrawaddy River. In Cambodia Ray visits Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat, which were then, as now, the only reasonably safe areas in the country for foreigners to visit. In Vietnam, Ray journeyed from Saigon to Dalat, Nha Trang, Hue, Hanoi and Halong Bay--a route that western budget travelers now call the second Ho Chi Minh Trail.

As the recent economic implosion in that part of the world so vividly illustrates, things change fast in Southeast Asia. Released in 1994, Bamboo Curtain seems somewhat politically dated. When Ray went to Burma, for example, democratic opposition leader Aung San Su Kyi remained under house arrest and Rangoon resembled the abandoned movie set for a British colonial melodrama. Pol Pot haunted the jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam languished in relative isolation from the outside world. Today, Aung San Su Kyi is no longer confined to house arrest and holds a Nobel Peace Prize; Rangoon has gained considerable hustle and bustle, particularly after being admitted to ASEAN. Pol Pot has been captured and tried in an impromptu jungle court. Meanwhile, Vietnam has opened its doors to the world market with the end of the twenty-year American trade embargo.

Sadly, Raise the Bamboo Curtain proves the old axiom that the more things change the more things stay the same. Today, four years after the film's release, the impoverished people of Burma still suffer and Ray's description of Burma as "the Albania of Asia" holds true. In Cambodia remnants of the Khmer Rouge are still armed and at large and last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen staged a bloody coup that resulted in the execution of his political enemies.

Raise the Bamboo Curtain is not an entirely grim film, however. Ray balances the documentary's darker moments with bursts of comic relief, often at his own expense. One of the strengths of the film is Ray's willingness to poke fun at himself. He recreates one incident at Min Goon Temple, which features the world's largest bell. A local boy convinces Ray to clamber beneath the bell to read its nineteenth-century inscriptions, then slams the bell with a log once Ray is underneath. Deafened, Ray seeks to relax with quarter-cent cigars made in Taunggyi, the "Havana of Burma." Later he meets U Kite Thima, a monk who has trained his domestic housecats to spring through hoops like circus tigers, an activity Ray captures in slow-motion. In Vietnam Ray visits the Ho Chi Minh City War Market, where he shops for "Saigon suitcases" (ammunition boxes) as well as gas masks and flak jackets "for the discerning shopper." In Hanoi he guzzles bottles of mineral water with scrambled English-language labels that read "Free Bacteria." Then he barely escapes an ear-swabbing at the hands of an over-enthusiastic sidewalk barber. During his travels Ray encounters sadness, too. Tragically, in Phnom Penh, Ray finds a traumatized nation that no longer knows how to laugh.

Although this documentary often focuses on politics, it actually spends a greater amount of time examining the cultures of the three countries. For example, Ray clearly finds Southeast Asian religions fascinating. He films temples from Pagan to Phnom Penh. In the Burmese town of Pegu, Ray films a giant gilded Buddha and the associated production of hand-pounded gold leaf that worshipers affix to statues of Buddha. At Angkor Wat--originally created by Hindu rulers--he finds an ancient temple complex of stunning beauty. In Vietnam Ray visits Tay Ninh, home of the mysterious Cao Dai sect that worships such deities as Winston Churchill, Lao-tse and Victor Hugo.

Ray also has a good eye for quirky cultural details. He films the Burmese boatmen who have perfected the art of one-legged stand-up rowing, and the Paduang "giraffe women" who wear bangles that elongate their necks to a foot or more in length. Ray also captures the characteristic entrepreneurial spirit of the southern Vietnamese, who he notes are selling everything from "karaoke machines to cappuccino makers."

Bamboo Curtain offers an honest examination of Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam that keys in on those things that make all three countries unique and amazing places to visit. At the same time, Ray is not afraid to criticize. After the repression of Burma and outright genocide in Cambodia, Ray ultimately finds the most cause for optimism in Vietnam, a nation on the brink of entering the world market as an economic tiger cub. This positive note concludes the film.