Reflections on Myanmar

Myanmar is a strange country. You can tell that it’s located between India, Bangladesh, Thailand and China, on accord of the food, the language and the clothes. There are buddhist, hindus, christians, muslims and jews living in this country (I would like to say living in peace, but that is not true, as I hope you already know, otherwise google “Ethnic Genocide Myanmar”), and despite all the differences, in most places religion can be practiced freely.

Food

It’s been tough being vegetarian in this country. It worked out well in the monastery, but in Yangon, especially during the water festival, it’s been difficult. I really didn’t expect a (mostly) Buddhist country to have such a big meat culture. The food also contains a lot of peanuts, as a heritage from the south east, with fresh tea leaf salad, cucumber, carrot, lime salads. But overall, I am largely unimpressed by the Myanmar cuisine. Most people we have met agree with this.  One thing that did make me happy, having spent 6 months in dry India, is the widespread and largely tolerated beer culture. In Myanmar, we didn’t see drunk people like one does in India, making me believe that in Myanmar they are better on holding their drink, so to speak, perhaps they have had a longer relationship with alcohol than the Indians. Still, I cannot recall seeing any women drink, except for in Yangon.

Prices

One Euro is 1703 Kyat. We had 60 000 kyats in max budget per day and we did make it most days. That being said, it’s expensive in Myanmar, at least compared to India. Transport is expensive, food is expensive and you cannot get such ridiculously cheap accommodation as one can in India; here, the cheapest we’ve found has been around 4 dollars/person/night in dorms in hostels. In roadside restaurants in the north you can get a full meal for two people for less than 2000 kyats, with rice and soup and tea and all, while in the city the same meal can cost 10 000 kyat. It was difficult to understand the value of the kyat, so our entire time in the country we kept thinking in rupees to make sense of it all. In India or Sweden or a Euro-country or Thailand, you can understand the value of money, water costs 20-50 rupess in India,in Sweden a kilo of potatoes costs 8.90 SEK, and these are constant across the countries. In Myanmar, it feels like anyone can decide how much something costs, somewhere a bottle of water is a 1000 kyat, and in another place it costs 200 kyat. The difference isn’t that big in euros or even in rupees, but it’s hard to get a feel for the money when the prices sway all the time.

People and culture

The people are lovely. They are soo smiley and genuinely happy to see you, a guest in their country. They will do everything to make sure you are having a good time and that you get to where you need to go. But it’s a little hard with communication, even if they are taking you to the right place, they might not communicate this with you, making you insecure. But if you have set your mind on non verbal communication right from the start, you will find other ways to communicate. Since the Myanmar people are sooo cute, they can also be very shy, and are too scared to talk to you. Sometimes I also got the feeling that they got very nervous when I tried to talk to someone, and that they wanted to understand so bad that they get totally blocked, panicking inside themselves.
In Myanmar it’s custom to wear a longi for both men and women. It looks like a long skirt, it straight in its cut and goes from the waist to the ground. .
To be respectful of the Myanmar ways, one should cover knees and shoulders, and not wear shits/dresser that show cleavage. For men this is less important (one thing that bothers me a lot, is that in many religious places, women are not allowed, I’m 100 % sure Buddha did NOT say that women weren’t allowed to touch his statues). Other cultural tricks include don’t touch children on their heads, be respectful of shrines and take off your shoes when entering a holy space.

Tourism

Infrastructure is really crappy; there are a few good roads, but those roads are the exceptions. I’ve already complained bout the hospitals, and if you read my post about Nyaung Shwe and Inle lake, I’ve already given my criticism of the “development” currently taking place in Myanmar.

I have felt 100% safe here, all the time, everywhere. I’m not the paranoid type and feel safe in most places so maybe that doesn’t mean so much, but still; it’s a pretty safe country, a place you could easily bring your kids.

As a tourist in Myanmar, you live in a bubble. None of the tourists we have met have mentioned the conflicts, nay, the ARMED conflicts that are currently taking place in the corners of the country. At the monastery, we could see a result of these conflicts in another way, with orphaned children and poverty.We graced upon the subject a few times, since the topic ethnic groups is an important one if you are to understand the Myanmar context. Our friends in the monastery were keen on us understanding their culture and this country, something we are very grateful for. But I understand why people are angry in this country, some ethnic groups get better service than others; for example, in the north east, in Nagaland, the Myanmar government is spending no money, leading to all kinds of troubles, since this area in within the “Golden triangle”, the worlds best ground for growing opium.  

Pagodas

Myanmar is full of Pagodas, temples, and in most places, the Pagodas are the main trouist attractions. There are some cool pagodas, most of them are golden and I am sure that they used to be much more decorated with precious jewels before Brittish colonialism touched the country. I have seen a lot of art describing the life of Buddah in different pagodas as well.

Languages

The Burmese language and people are the dominant ones in Myanmar, that’s why the country was called Burma until recently. Burmese is the language of universities and business, And most children learn it in school, if you are lucky enough to go to school . We met a woman, a farmer 22 years old with two kids, who didn’t speak burmese, so not everyone knows this language, leading to more problems. We haven’t seen any military during our time (maybe because they are in the east, fighting insurgents) which we really expected we would!
If you learn english, I think it’s a lot easier to get a job in Myanmar. The tourism business is a good one, and I have heard Myanmar guides talk french and german as well!
A popular language to learn is Japanese. The Japanese occupied Myanmar between 1942-1945, but Japan and Japanese culture seems to be like the US or UK is to India, or what Australia is becoming to young Swedes

Politics

Burma, as it was called then, gained independence after world war 2. During most of the country’s independent history, there have been a civil war going on on many fronts in the country. Different minority ethnic groups are fighting for independence, and against unjust leadership. The military ruled the country from 1962 until 2010 when Aung San Suu Kyis took over. She got the Nobel peace price in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” Today she is the leader of the ruling party but are largely quiet about the militaries violence against minority groups. Since social media (read Facebook) came to the country, the internal conflicts have gotten worse. Facebook has been used as a platform to spread hate against for example the muslim minority.

A milky tea

Conclusions

I always wanted to go to Myanmar, and I am happy I went. But I don’t think I’d like to go back anytime soon. So, to conclude our one moon cycle in Myanmar, I’d like to say that if you really want to go to Myanmar, go as soon as possible, ‘cause tourism will ruin this country within a few years. It’s already begun.

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