You went where?

Myanmar09(Dana) In January, Cambodian Living Arts annual board meeting took me half-way around the world. To justify the expense and travel time, I opted for a second week away and detoured to Myanmar. Where? Myanmar…the country formerly known as Burma.

Like many Americans, I had the impression that Myanmar was still romantically undiscovered. After all, travel to the country by Americans was discouraged before 2011 due to the repressive and often reprehensible military government. Although I feel fortunate to have explored Myanmar at this point, it is far more discovered than I expected. It turns out that before 2011 – when the country’s transition towards civilian-led government and parliamentary elections restored diplomatic relations with the US, President Obama and Secretary-of-State Clinton visited and world icon Aung Sang Suu Kyi gained more freedom – there had been hundreds of thousands of French, German and British travelers for over a decade. So the atmosphere is optimistic and highly capitalistic. The people are kind and peaceful, although the handicraft makers and souvenir hawkers have learned their trade well from their Indian and Asian neighbors. Fortunately, the vendors aren’t yet jaded, so most accept a “no thank you” gracefully.

I was on the standard tourist loop – fly into Yangon (formerly Rangoon), then fly onto Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake, spending only one or two whirlwind nights in each location.

Myanmar13The days were exhausting, packed with tourist destinations of pagodas, handicraft makers and historical sites. The circuit is highly scripted, in part because they haven’t expanded beyond the obvious in each location. My fear is that within 5 years, Bagan will be overrun and the airport with whiteboards listing the flights and the dirt roads to hotels will be replaced with infrastructure able to handle tour buses.

Myanmar was endearing in so many ways. A few of the things I learned/idiosyncrasies that I appreciated during my time:

  • There are seven states representing the seven primary tribes of the Myanmar with each tribe having multiple sub-tribes. In 1989, the ruling military government officially changed the English translation of the country from Burma to Mynamar. The US did not recognize the name change until 2012 because it did not recognize the legitimacy of the ruling military r its authority to rename the country. Actually, both names are derived from the name of the majority tribe. Myanmar is the literary form of the tribe’s name, while Burma comes from “Bamar”, the colloquial form.
  • Myanmar24In general, credit cards are not accepted and ATMs are just beginning to appear (although I found 2 ATMs in the famous Yangon Shwedagon Pagoda). So to get kyat, the local currency pronounced “chet,” I needed to change crisp, new US dollars at the government regulated money-changers. Interestingly, $100 bills gave me a 1% better rate that $5-$50 bills and 3% better rate than $1. Fortunately, I suspect that the days of travelers arriving with stacks of clean $100 bills is waning.myanmar_1
  • The written language is beautiful but completely indecipherable to me.
  • Traditionally, both men and women wear a long arong called a Longyi (lon-jee). The urban, working men pair their elegant navy or dark green checked longyi with a crisp, ironed white shirt. On special occasions, women will wear colorful, intricately woven longyi with color-coordinated tops. The more manual the labor, the more stained and dirty the longyi. However, this may be a dying tradition as increasingly, young people are opting for jeans, much to the chagrin of their elders.
  • Cars have their steering wheel on the right, yet drive on the right side of the road. Apparently, around 1970, the military leadersdecided to part with any residuals to British Colonialism and decreed an overnight change to the side of the road on which to drive. The cars didn’t change, just the rules. Today, those old cars are joined by cheap imports from Japan. This seems oddly fine until you need to pull out to pass a slower vehicle and the driver is the last person to see if the coast is clear.
  • Myanmar food iMyanmar20s all about curries. For lunch or dinner, you are served a plate of rice and several small dishes of curries and salads. After spooning the variety onto/around your rice, you then eat with the spoon in your right hand, using the fork in your left to push the food onto the spoon. It’s endearing, especially when you realize that the spoon has recently replaced eating with your right hand. And it’s still a country where a 600ml Myanmar or Mandalay beer is cheaper ($1.50) than a Coke and your entire dinner costs about $8-10.
  • As one guide said, “our people are poor, but they are rich in their donations.” Predominantly Buddhist, the people visit pagodas frequently and pray for help and luck frequently during the day. I wasMyanmar11 repeatedly struck by the overflowing cash donation boxes populating the pagodas. Daily, the monks go out into the neighborhoods with their bowls to collect food donations for their two daily meals at 5:15 and 10:15am. The only exception to this ritual was the Mahagandayon Monestary in Mandalay. With 1502 monks, the community actually brings the donations to them. A full procession of the monks from 6-7 year old white-robed postulates to the older red-robed men was an incredible sight. Buddhism is fascinating to me. One very wise monk explained it to me as a belief system that asks you to “look inside yourself, then open yourself up.”Myanmar10
  • I would put Bagan in the category of world-class sites. Thousands of red brick pagodas/stupas dating from 1000-1200 AD dot the plain, punctuated by a few gilded, renovated ones. They rise from the farmed fields and are tucked among the trees with beautiful contrast between the red brick and green vegetation. From elevation, they appear to march off to the horizon. Each holds 1-4 Buddha images as well as painted frescoes and other statues. Like Angkor Wat, it’s hard to imagine that these were living places of worship in neighborhoods of hundreds of thousands of people in wood and corn-husk houses.
  • Diverse tribes dot the area around Inle Lake. Members of the P’aoh tribe wear brightly colored turbans, now often made out of towels! Myanmar18Ladiesfrom the Kayan tribe used to be called Padaung or literally, “women with long necks with rings.” Rings of brass are put around the neck andonly taken off when exchanged for a longer coil at age 9, 25 and 50. Interestingly, the neck itself is not made longer; the weight of the brass – up to 8kg or 15 pounds! — pushes down the collar bone and compresses the rib cage. It is merely an illusion of a stretched neck. A lock in the back keeps the coil in place during the day but allows movement for sleeping. Myanmar21 Three legendary reasons for this tradition: 1) The original patriarch was a dragon and this imitation pays respect; 2) it is an indication of being pure-bred Kayan which would attract a Kayan husband and repel a man from another tribe and 3) they are a migrating people who are afraid of tigers who bite the necks of their prey. Or maybe a combination of all 3!
  • I had the privilege of a 1+hour conversation with a monk while standing on the U Bein bridge (the longest teak bridge in the world). Having learned English in grade school, he now hones his language skills by listening to the BBC and Voice of America on the radio. He has used the Internet and has email to keep up with old friends, after all, “it’s important to understand technology and how to use it.” As curious as I was about his life as a monk and Buddhism, he wanted to know about the US. From geography to population to average wage and work-week, he was full of questions. My favorite was “what do you think about Obamacare?” Seriously, a 24-year old monk in Mandalay, Myanmar is asking me for my opinion on Obamacare and what democracy means to me. He believes that Myanmar is 20% better than it was 5 years ago because they have freed the political prisoners, people can vote and they can protest with permission. But there is still much corruption and bad leaders, and the monks are not allowed to vote. He thinks that there are lots of people with knowledge, but no wisdom.
  • English is now part of the pre-K and up curriculum, which will certainly change the country over the next decade. As one guide put it, the education is slowly changing from “parrot education.” Until recently, the High School curriculum did not include Myanmar History because, “the government wants the people to be idiots.” All of these changes add to the spirit of optimism among the young people.
  • Myanmar16Myanmar15Because real people still live in the touristy locations, it is possible to stumble onto real Myanmar experiences. For example, we happened upon a Novitiation ceremony where boys as young as 6 (or even younger as it looked) on robes and commit themselves to 7 days studying Buddhism and living a monk’s life. The parents were so proud, dressed in their best including several tribal outfits from the hills. Technically, monks do not eat after noon, but the rules are stretched for these young guys. After 7 days, many will revert to being little boys, only to spend another 7 days off-and-on through their adolescence until they determine if being a monk is really for them (or necessary due to the poverty of their family). I was so fortunate to feel the excitement at this pagoda.

Wow. What a week. Being in Myanmar continues to fuel my desire to get off the beaten path and experience these places “while we still can.” How lucky am I?


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