Like many people who have visited Myanmar, I was particularly interested in the details of Tuesday’s Air Bagan plane crash landing near Heho Airport in Shan State. I’ve landed at Heho’s airport dozens of times, and I’ve used Air Bagan many times for the flight from Mandalay to Heho (there are also a handful of other domestic carriers that fly that same route) and even though I wouldn’t know a Fokker from a Fudgesicle, I have to assume that I’ve been on that same plane.
The first details that I read online on Tuesday afternoon were sketchy. The initial news reports said that all passengers were evacuated from the airplane safely. Within an hour, however, updates said that an 11-year-old child died on the plane. Or was the child a passenger on the motorcycle that was hit by the plane while landing on a road near the airport? Or did the plane actually land in a rice field? Another hour or two later, it was reported that a tour guide, a Burmese woman, was the fatality on board. Did they mistake this woman for a child or did two people onboard perish? How many people were on the motorcycle that was hit? As usual with Internet “news”, there was a lot of rumor and disinformation. Did the plane hit a power line while trying to land? Was the fog so heavy that it caused the pilot to mistake a road for the runway? Did the fire start before or after the plane landed? Whatever the cause, looking at photos of the aftermath, it’s a minor miracle that nearly all passengers were able to evacuate safely. Apparently, the crew did an outstanding job of getting nearly everyone off the plane quickly.
The tour guide who died was Nwe Linn Shein. But in every online account that I’ve read of the accident, she is only referred to as a “local tour guide.” You can bet that if a foreign tourist had been killed, they would print the name, nationality, and other details of the person before you can shout “bamalama.” But in the eyes of the international media, because Nwe Linn Shein comes from Myanmar, she’s not considered important enough to have her name listed. She’s “just a local.” This is one of many media practices that I detest. Nwe Linn Shein was a real person, one with a family that loved her. Give her the same respect you would a foreign casualty.
In an online forum mainly comprised of local people working in Myanmar’s travel industry, they have already started collecting donations for Nwe Linn Shein’s family. In fact, one of the first questions some of the posters posed after the accident was how they could contact the woman’s family, and in turn do what they could to console them and help them. That’s typical of the people who I have met in Myanmar; they are a very concerned, generous, and caring community.
The airport in Heho is tiny, the terminal not much bigger than a suburban three-bedroom house. The choice of Heho for an airport seems puzzling at first glance. Heho is nothing more than a tiny provincial town out in the middle of nowhere with nothing for tourists to see or do. But it’s centrally located in Shan State. From Heho, it’s only a one-hour car ride to Nyaunghswe, the town known as “the gateway” to popular Inle Lake. Heho is also an hour from the biggest town in the region, the hill station of Taunggyi, and not far away is Kalaw, a popular base for trekking in the area. Earlier this year they expanded the departure area by knocking down a wall to create an area for more seating, but otherwise there’s been no other construction or expansion to the main building. With the huge spike in tourism, the days of Heho having a quaint little airport may soon be a thing of the past.
Meanwhile, I’ll be interested in how this accident affects both the short-term and long-term situation of the burgeoning travel industry in Myanmar. Already, domestic airlines are stretched thin in trying to handle the current tidal wave of tourists arriving to visit the country. I would assume that the number of tourists visiting the country this month is the highest ever recorded in Myanmar. Losing one plane on a popular route is going to create havoc for those passengers trying to book tickets in the coming months. But will other planes be grounded for safety inspections, creating more of a logjam? And will there be an increase in trip cancellations, tourists fearing that Myanmar is an unsafe destination? I’ve never felt unsafe anywhere in Myanmar; not on planes or boats, in hotels or walking the streets. It’s an incredibly hospitable and pleasant country. I hope the accident doesn’t adversely affect the country’s reputation.