Myanmar Impressions

Before I forget them, I’m going to post some general impressions of Myanmar/Burma, since I spent the last month there. I spent most of the time being a proper tourist, so I don’t have any real insights into the political situation that you can’t get elsewhere. However, I did talk to an interesting Wa monk (from Shan “state”) in a monastry in Mandalay – I’ll post up some of the stuff he said another day.

It’s hard for me to think about Burma without making comparisons, to either Ghana or Cuba, being the most similar places that I’ve been to. Relatively speaking, Burma felt quite prosperous. The people had a lot of dignity, a real strength and depth behind them as a people, that they will succeed and maintain who they are. They also had reasonable resources, lots of standard consumer products either manufactured locally, or imported from China, and there wasn’t much overt poverty. However, I suspect the worst poverty in the country is in more remote and rural, or even war-torn, areas, exactly where the government doesn’t let tourists go.

Saying that, the country has low quality facilities by Western standards – the roads are atrocious, and you can’t buy many European/US products, particularly outside Yangon. This has a very good side to it. People still wear their traditional clothing, and I was soon used to seeing men in longys (a sort of skirt, a sewn up sarong – they nearly all wore them), and everyone in nice bright coloured shirts. People still eat traditional food, cooked by the road side, produce bought from markets. Here in Thailand people do that too, and the best and cheapest food seems to come like that, but there are also pointlessly expensive restaurants and fast food chains. In the UK you can’t buy cheap traditional food many places, and our food culture has vanished such that you probably wouldn’t want to.

You’ll notice that I’m saying Burma again, when before I was so picky about saying Myanmar. This is an interesting one. Really, to my mind, Burma is a subpart of the Union of Myanmar. It’s forms the bulk of it, and consists of the people who are ethnically Burmese. Now, before hand I thought that saying Myanmar was a bit like saying the United Kingdom – Myanmar includes the other parts such as Shan state, as well as Burma, just as the United Kingdom includes Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as England. I think this is how the Myanmar government sees things. However, it isn’t how people in Shan state see things. They refer to the Burmese areas as Myanmar, and their own areas as if another country (albeit not internationally or UN recognised) – almost deliberately subverting the word Myanmar, so it can’t be used for the political inclusiveness the government is trying to achieve.

The Burmese smile all the time. A cynical part of me says this is the laughing smile in the face of adversity. However, I think it is genuinely that they care. They aren’t worn down by tourists (like people here in Bangkok, where the land has considerably fewer than a thousand smiles), and they are calm, compassionate, friendly and warm to each other as well. I miss being able to smile at anyone and get a smile back.

Religion – it was lovely to travel in a Buddhist country for a change. There are stupas and wats everywhere, as much as there are churches in Europe. I had lots of lovely experiences in the early evening visiting a stupa, and watching the generic pious paying their respects to a Buddha. If you are Christian and have never been to a Buddhist country, come and try it out. The two are similar in lots of ways:

Both spread from one man having a new, positive, ethical way of looking at the world. Both Jesus and Buddha lived a similar amount of time ago, and both the religions have spread a long way (one mainly West from the Middle East, one mainly East from India). Both have diversified into sects with different doctrines. Both created and still create incredible religious buildings, amazing texts and statues. Seeing these similarities makes it even harder for me to believe that strong Christianity could be “right”. Not that I’m about to become Buddhist either, it is often to me cosmologically suspect, and also I think some of the people do worship Buddha as a God, rather than celebrate his achievements as a person. Both religions have spot on ethical messages.

Phil (who I was travelling with in Burma) is addicted to Buddha images, so we went to see lots of them, and look at how they vary. I can imagine a mirror world where a Japanese tourists gets obsessed with images of Jesus being crucified, and tours the cathedrals and museums of Europe hunting out obscure ones. If you look at a Buddha sculpture hard, kneel down and stare into his eyes, it is easy to get entranced by the enigmatic smile, or the strong face, and wonder what character he had to have to achieve whatever state of mind he achieved.

On a lighter note, Asian toilets are fantastic. There are lots of combinations, and I’m not too fond of squatting – most guesthouse toilets were sit-down though. However, the trigger hoses which you use to spray and clean yourself instead of toilet paper are fantastic. Bidets, eat your heart out.

Yangon (Rangoon). It’s a very green city, from the plane even in the dark all the lights twinkled, and it took me a few seconds to work out that the effect could only be caused by trees. I kept thinking I was in a Tintin novel there, I think because of the type of green jeep that was often in the streets, and also because it still had the feel of colonial times before cultural imperialism of Coca-Cola, Shell and McDonalds – a real foreign city.

A thought on being annoyed by people overly-persistently trying to sell you tourist tat (not too bad a problem in Burma – I’ve heard stories elsewhere of people being followed by a hawker for an hour): That people are annoyingly persistent in trying to sell you stuff is a symmetrical consequence of you (the tourist) being able to visit the place so casually and easily.

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