My last week in Thailand was spent in Chiang Mai and was mostly uneventful. Or maybe it’s just that I’d rather spend this entire post talking about Myanmar because I have a lot to say and it’s my blog so I’ll do what I want.
Prior to my trip I had planned on coming to Myanmar, then it sort of fell off the list due to the tragic situation with the Rohingya community in the northwest part of the country. But in speaking with other travelers I met in Thailand, and doing a bit more research, I decided I would go after all.
Ethical travel wasn’t something I had thought all that much about until this decision. But in speaking with other travelers about Myanmar I would hear things like “I won’t go to Myanmar because I won’t support their economy” or “I won’t go because I disagree with their government and would feel wrong smiling in front of a temple while people are suffering”. This is perfectly fine, and to an extent I agree.
But while dismissing the country entirely may do nothing to worsen the situation, it also doesn’t do much to help it. And no, I’m not here protesting in the streets or seeking interviews with government officials, but something I feel very strongly about is that knowledge is power. And if by coming here I can learn about the Burmese people and culture, try to spend money as responsibly as possible (supporting local business over government), and share my experiences and knowledge with others, I think in a way I’m doing my part to keep Myanmar on the radar and bring more attention to what is happening here.
So I came. And after spending 11 days in Myanmar, I have to say I’m still having trouble digesting my time in this country. The best way I can think to describe it is to start by sharing experiences, so here we go:
- My introduction to the country (after going through an empty immigration station) was my driver from the Yangon airport singing Enrique Iglesias “Hero”, which came out in 2001, by the way. Him: “Do you like my singing?” Me: “Yes!” (No) Him: “Thank you!” Anyway, it was a good introduction to the friendliness of the Burmese people – they are so friendly.
- Walking around downtown Yangon I had to try to keep my jaw from hitting the ground. The downtown part of the city is shaped sort of like Manhattan, a long narrow downtown with three main “avenues” and about 60 city blocks, numbered in English I assume from British colonial times, and the Yangon River bordering it to the south. It is loud, busy, compact, and everything is so colorful – the architecture, the clothes, the food, even the money (the Burmese kyat, pronounced more like “chat”, currently around $1 = 1,332 MMK).
- I got to take part in our block’s turn for giving morning offerings to the Monks. Each day of the week the procession of monks goes down different city blocks. We provided spoonfuls of rice to each monk that went by thereby receiving advantages for the next life.
- A bicycle tour recommended by some Irish girls I talked to for less than five minutes landed me on a ferry to a rarely-visited-by-tourists island with a local village where we road around an amazingly connected series of sidewalk/streets while hundreds of children ran out to give us high fives yelling “Mingalabar!” (literal translation is “It’s a blessing” but also used for “hello”) all while we dodged pot holes, dogs, baby chicks, cows, goats, motorbikes and more. I felt like the Queen. I only hope we brought as much joy to those kids as they brought to us.
- Also during the bike tour we were forcibly ushered into a three-year-old girl’s birthday party where her tiny body had been photoshopped onto posters all over the house (my favorite pictured below of her photoshopped into a ski resort) while the “happy birthday” song played on repeat. They plopped all six of us down in front of tables full of food and insisted we eat; the generosity of a family that lives in such a poor village was overwhelming.
- Walking through the meat section of the local market in Dale, just across the Yangon River from Yangon, watching women use giant butcher knives to cut up chicken while their children sat on the same table playing with the chicken feet. I especially liked the way prices were determined, using a scale balanced with stones of different size and weight indicating price.
- Taking what’s called the “circle train” around greater Yangon for three hours in a constant state of awe as much at what was happening inside the train as outside it. Some things that stand out – the incomprehensible amounts of trash, monks asking us to take selfies with them, and women balancing giant trays of food on their heads while the train swayed side to side.
- After the bumpiest drive of my life, being dropped off at the foot of the stairs to Mount Popa and immediately seeing a girl get bit by a monkey, and then still deciding to climb ~700 steps to the top, while locals hit monkeys with rocks from slingshots to deter them from attacking us (honestly, you cannot make this stuff up). I also recall a monkey sliding on its butt down a stairway bannister, but I’ve mostly blacked out the rest of the climb. At the top several other tourists from countries I can’t even pronounce forced us to take pictures with them and their children…
- Riding around Old Bagan on e-bikes trying to find the perfect place to watch sunrise and sunset while pagodas were being shut down by the hour – literally watching tourism in the city of Bagan change forever.
- Walking around Mandalay Palace, which was abandoned in a hurry during the British Invasion of 1886, feeling very uncomfortable. It was a combination of many things – the man I bought the ticket from trying to keep my passport, the women at the gate refusing to rent me a bicycle but trying to rent me a motorbike (which are illegal for foreigners to drive in Mandalay), the giant “foreigner” badge I had to wear, signs restricting access to nearly every street, the military with their guns standing guard everywhere, and this sign:
I later learned the entire complex is inhabited by government officials, the military, and their families, so, I guess it makes sense. I took some photos where I was allowed to (and one where I wasn’t!) and hustled out of there.
- Watching the sunrise over the U Bein Bridge, the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world, while chatting with our Burmese guide about what it was like being a monk and the challenges of transitioning back to the “real world” (he had just recently left the monastery after being a monk since age 11).
- Sitting on top of Mandalay Hill helping a 19-year-old Burmese student practice his English while watching the sunset. His goal is to one day become a tour guide. His eagerness to learn and the hours he puts in were really impressive, and got me even more excited to get to the school in Cambodia.
Some interesting Burmese things I learned:
- Burma vs. Myanmar: The name was officially changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 by the then ruling military. Everything about it seems a bit controversial (like most things in this country). Burma was a name imposed by the British, and this seemed to be the primary reason the military wanted to change it. But at the time, many opposed to the military-backed government, especially minority groups, continued to use the term “Burma” in defiance of the government. Now it seems both are widely accepted, but Myanmar is the official name, while everything else still seems to stem from Burma (the people of Myanmar are called Burmese, the language is Burmese, the food is Burmese…).
- All men must be a monk or novice (under 20 years old) at least once in their lifetime, generally for a one month minimum but it can be flexible. The local at my hostel only lasted three days as an eight year old because he was too hungry (you can only eat until noon each day). Women can be nuns but not monks, but they used to be able to be monks too, but broke too many rules, but you might still see some women dressed like monks and they might be imposters? Buddhism is very confusing.
- Men and women dress very conservatively, both wearing long skirts called longyis. The patterns are really colorful with plaids, strips, and floral designs.
- Despite the conservative dress, the women openly breastfeed, in parks, on the bus, street corners, everywhere.
- Myanmar switched to driving on the right side of the road in 1970, to shed some of that British colonialism. However, most cars still have drivers sitting on the right side, which really throws me off.
- The streets are all stained with red splotches from the locals betel nut addiction. With variations, it’s tobacco, betel nut (Areca nut), and a lime paste wrapped in a betel leaf. Walking down the street you will constantly see, and hear, the locals spitting the reddish mixture on the ground. Apparently it gives you energy, but it also stains your teeth and mouth red, reduces your teeth to nubs, and gives you oral cancer so… didn’t try this one.
- The majority of locals also wear something called thanaka at all times. It’s a pale yellowish paste they put on their faces made of ground bark, and it’s been used for over 2,000 years. I’m told it provides a cooling sensation, protection from sunburn, helps with acne, and also keeps the skin healthy. Other locals also told me many women don’t like their dark skin, and think the thanaka can make their skin lighter and more beautiful. I would have tried it but a girl at the hostel said it took her weeks to get it off and it left red marks on her skin. I already have sensitive skin, and as I’m now dealing with my 5th round of bed bugs (but who’s counting…) I decided to skip this one. (Photos below from google.)
Other more personal observations:
- For the most part, the travelers that come to Myanmar seem different than those making the loops around Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Most people give this country some thought before coming, they aren’t here to party, they dress appropriately, and they ask thoughtful questions. But there are other types of travelers as well. The kind I have found to be the worst here are those treating this country like a human museum. When I take a picture I try to think, would this be an appropriate picture for a tourist to take in my city? Although San Francisco and Myanmar are on opposite sides of the tourist spectrum, I think the concepts around being a respectful photographer are similar. I hated seeing people stick their giant cameras in the faces of children to capture how they look with the thanaka face paint, or of a man burning trash in front of his tent home, or of monks receiving their morning offerings. I also have the urge to capture these moments because they are so interesting and different to me, but these are also just people going about their daily lives. I certainly wouldn’t want someone sticking a camera in my face while I eat a burrito in the Mission, or while I roll my trash bins out to the curb.
- I had a fun group to hang out with in Yangon and Bagan, AKA the Sunrise Kids. After Bagan they took off for a multi-day trek, logistically it would have been a bit stressful for me ahead of my flight to Cambodia so I stuck with my plan to come to Mandalay instead. While I enjoyed some alone time (catching up on the blog, my books, responding to emails, starting my tax return, getting stressed about teaching Cambodian kids English) it’s easy to forget how much harder it is in many ways to travel by yourself versus with a group.
- I noticed in Myanmar more so than Thailand there is always someone waiting on you. Some examples: in restaurants they often hand you the menu and then stand over you until you order, or at clothing stores they follow you around (as if I’ll steal something), at the cafes in the airport someone comes to stand next to you while you look at the menu in front or while you look through the glass case at the food. I think they mean to be attentive, but instead it just feels like a lot of pressure to make fast decisions.
- I had read in multiple places that the food in Myanmar was nothing to write home about. Well I’m writing home about it, because I found it to be delicious. There are a lot of noodles – noodles in soup, fried noodles, noodles with egg, flat noodles, rice noodles, oil noodles, vermicelli noodles, etc., and they are really tasty and crazy cheap – in Yangon a big bowl of broth with noodles, veggies, and chicken was $1. Many restaurants provide a bowl of flavored/roasted peanuts before meals, often with garlic or cardamom spices. There is also a big Indian influence in Myanmar (when the British colonized they brought over a lot of Indians as laborers) and the Indian food is delicious and the locals got a kick out of watching me eat with a fork (they were mostly using their hands).
- I’ve been reading and listening to two books while meandering through Myanmar. Listening to The Glass Palace, which takes place during the British Invasion and follows parallel stories from of an aid to the royal family and an orphan boy who found himself in Mandalay right before the invasion occurred. Reading Letters From Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader who was put under five years of house arrest after her party won the 1990 election, and winner of the Nobel Peace prize. The book is a series of short essays about various topics (mainly political and cultural) published a couple of years after her release from house arrest. As always, I have found reading books relevant to the country I’m traveling in to add a lot of context and really enhance my experiences.
- I started to learn to play the ukulele and I’m really excited to continue (assuming I continue to find people with ukulele’s while I travel). Either way, it will be a sure purchase once I’m home and I can’t wait to get into it.
- I think for the first time I experienced what it’s like to walk around a city and feel 100% out of place. In Europe I could pretty much go unnoticed. Here I am noticeably different looking, an outsider, a foreigner, and it gave me a huge appreciation for what it must be like for immigrants who move somewhere new where they look different, don’t understand the language, customs, how to eat the food, etc. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was never allowed to be where I was. The staring can also add a feeling of uneasiness, even when they often return your smiles; there is just a constant feeling of having multiple eyes on you.
And finally, and maybe more importantly, some brief history:
- Mandalay was the last of Burma to fall to the British in 1886. The royal family was forced to abandon the Royal Palace in Mandalay and was exiled to Ratnagiri, India, where they were essentially held as prisoners until the king’s death in 1916. Burma regained its independence in 1947 after WWII.
- A military coup took place in 1962 and lasted, more or less, until 2011. During this time Burma became one of the most impoverished countries in the world. Several violent uprisings, mostly by students, occurred in the 60’s and 70’s. In 1988 thousands were killed during widespread demonstrations for democracy, and the government finally agreed to hold free elections in 1990.
- The NLD (National League for Democracy), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 80% of the seats; however, the military junta disregarded the election results and placed many leaders of the NLD in prison and under house arrest.
- In 2010, another election was held under a new constitution and the military-backed party claimed victory with 80% of the votes. However, it was widely agreed that the results were fraudulent and this party was finally dissolved in 2011. General elections were held again in 2015 with the NLD being the clear victor.
- Although the NLD holds office, the military still has a lot of power in government, and this power is being abused for ethnic and religious persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, a minority group living mainly in the Rakhine State (see below). In the last couple of years the ongoing tension has escalated and is largely recognized by the rest of the world as a genocide and/or ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims. It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, many fleeing to Bangladesh and Malaysia, where there is a greater acceptance of Muslims. The Burmese government denies most of these accusations and claims these are exaggerations.
Sometimes you travel places and you say, “that was cool” and that’s that. Myanmar was different for me. A bit of culture shock, a lot out of my comfort zone, a handful of moments I will never forget, and a lot of knowledge moving forward. I think it’s fitting that from here I head to a town just south of Siem Reap called Po Krum Village to teach English for the next month. I can only hope it will be as fulfilling as my eleven days in Myanmar.
I just arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia tonight and head out to ECC School tomorrow – enjoying one last night of air conditioning before I do 😛 .