What brought you to Burma?
Myanmar has been on my bucket list for a while, but it still ended up being a mostly unplanned and last minute trip.
Since I started traveling Southeast Asia, I have become enamored by the buddhist culture. The architecture of the temples is so beautiful and I find the sound of the prayers so emotionally fulfilling each time I hear them. I so wanted to see Myanmar, with its vast countryside dotted by golden stupas and its complex Bagan and Theravada traditions, practiced by 89% of the country’s population. While traveling in Thailand, many people I met on the way kept telling me how welcoming and safe the country was, dispelling my preconceived idea that it wouldn’t be a safe place to visit. They also often mentioned how fast the country was changing. And so, a few days before my Thai visa expired, I applied for a Myanmar visa and bought a plane ticket to Yangon with very little planned.
What were your expectations going into the trip, and how were those matched or subverted?
I expected a very rural and undeveloped country where it would be hard to find ATMs and decent accommodations. I assumed people would be reluctant to speak about what was going on in the country, if they would have been able to speak English at all. To my surprise, this wasn’t the case; at least not completely.
It’s true that the rural parts of the country, where people go around with carts pulled by cows, is still intact. Everywhere, there are many men and women that still wear the traditional long skirt, and spit red betel on the ground. In Mandalay, one of the biggest cities, I ended up having my dinner side-by-side with a cow. The small streets of downtown Yangon, framed by the high buildings, are busy with people selling various goods, from books to locks to fruits to phone top-ups. The streets are noisy with people shouting from the old, overpacked busses. Trishaws are still used to get around and tea shops are in every corner. Even in the bigger cities, Myanmar didn’t lose its character.
On the other hand, Myanmar is developing really quickly. I know that has been said everywhere, but it’s really true and very visible. Many new guesthouses and hotels have been built in the last year; fancy project buildings and exclusive restaurants are popping up in Yangon; and it’s easy to find petrol stations, banks, VIP busses, and other tourist services. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was seeing small huts with no running water or beds, but with solar panels in order to run big TVs and charge smartphones. Technology is really everywhere.
Describe the climate and the energy of the nation.
There is a lot of energy and a great desire to know the world outside of Myanmar. One thing that really surprised me was the number of pictures that people took of me. Having dark hair and not particularly light skin, I am normally ignored by locals — but not in Myanmar! In more isolated temples or in the countryside, I was literally the star of the show with entire families surrounding me, giggling and pushing the youngest to say hi to me and ask for pictures. People are extremely curious, but shy at the same time. English is still not widely spoken but more people are learning and often someone would start a conversation with me. Most of the time in my conversations, I ended up answering many more questions than I asked and I often forgot to touch on topics that I was really curious about.
More people are leaving the countryside to learn English and work in the tourism industry. Doing so is not just a way to earn more money and a better life for their families; it is also a way to become educated. My guide in Mandalay came from a small farming village where he couldn’t go to school. He dreamt of being a writer and to discover more about the world. “How can I improve my English?”, he asked me under the shade of a temple in Inwa. “I really want to speak good English, not just because it can give me good job possibilities in the tourist market but because it is my only education. If I can speak properly with people I can learn many things from them.”
Describe the best moment of the trip.
There were many wonderful moments during this trip; it’s almost impossible to choose just one. I have to say, though, that I really enjoyed the simple things, like riding the bicycle in the countryside in the early morning. Kids would run out from their huts just to shout ‘hello’, monks would start to collect their donations and would wave at me while passing by, and I would often be invited into a temple to drink some tea. Those mornings were beautiful.
Walk us through the most challenging moment of the experience–emotionally, mentally, physically, and/or spiritually.
It was emotionally overwhelming to see how people live with very little but are still so generous. I was often offered cups of tea, flowers picked from the side of the road, or even just the best spot to watch a parade on the river. There is a real sense of community where everybody does their part, no matter their age, and helps each other. When those simple gestures come from kids, particularly those from the poorest villages, it really moves something inside you.
Another big challenge for me was the transportation. Even though traveling in Myanmar is getting easier and easier, it can still be difficult: the long and sometimes overcrowded bus rides on bumpy roads were mentally and physically exhausting, and the heat and dust in the biggest cities often drained my energy. The lack of English made simple communication very hard at times and at major tourist attractions, I sometimes felt like a walking ATM, constantly being asked for handouts. Adding all these things together, you might wonder why to even take the trip to Myanmar; but those feelings don’t ever last long. Finding a quiet spot on the top of a temple in Bagan or seeing a smiling face in the middle of a busy, noisy road will mesmerize and overwhelm you with joy and gratitude.
The political climate was only recently calmed after decades of military rule. What can you tell us about the current political climate?
Myanmar’s political situation is still far from stable but it has improved since 2010. I found that people don’t have any problem explaining what has been happening, expressing their opinions and making sure that people can differentiate between the past and the present.
People don’t believe in a government that hasn’t done anything to help them; they only hope that with the 2015 election things will get better. This is the time for their chance to grow and develop and they want to capitalize on it. The people are extremely tired of the negative reputation that Myanmar still has. Yes, there are still difficult situations, particularly in the northern province where the conflict between buddhists and muslims is still very much present, but generally, for tourists, there are few dangers. I seemed to understand from my conversations and interactions with people that the government wants people to think that it’s not safe in order to discourage independent travelers, who are a big resource for locals as they spread their money widely and create job opportunities. The government would prefer that travelers use big tour operators which create profits for them.
Travel+Leisure recently anointed Burma a “Destination of the Year.” Based on your experience, what kind of problems and benefits would an influx of tourism pose for the nation?
Of course the increasing number of tourists brings big economical and educational benefits. Being in contact with different people and cultures is a fantastic way to learn for both tourists and locals. For those reasons, the improvement of tourist infrastructure and services would be positive of the country, particularly because it has so much to offer and the people are wanting to see it grow.
All those positive changes come at a price, though: it’s not long before big chains land in Myanmar; more and more investors will build and establish their business in the country, which may present good opportunities for the Burmese economy, but also adversely impact the country’s traditions and culture.
What was your takeaway from this experience?
I traveled to Burma because I was attracted by its religious sites, monuments and spirituality, but I ended up getting lost in the small and simple things that make this country unique. I ended up observing a lot and falling in love with the energy of both the country and its people.