Myanmar has been high on my life list ever since I first saw a photo of the temples in Bagan over ten years ago. For some reason, that image of a misty red haze hanging low over thousands of stupas stuck in my mind for years, so it’s no wonder that when I stepped off the plane in the capital city of Yangon, I felt a rush of excitement to finally be in a place I’ve been inexplicably called to for over a decade.
Having only been minimally accessible to the outside world until recently, in the words of Zoolander, Myanmar is “so hot right now.” Nearly every traveler I’ve met backpacking in the last year has either (A) been there and can’t stop singing it’s praises or (B) planning to get there soon before the masses pour in and Starbucks starts scouting locations for it’s first Burmese store.
So why do people want to come here? The words “untouched” and “authentic” are thrown around a lot, words that bother me for reasons that will take more than a short blog post to explain. Myanmar is still the least-developed and least-visited country in Southeast Asia, but to understand why, a little knowledge of Burma’s recent history is helpful.
Recent History of Myanmar
Formerly the British colony of Burma, Myanmar gained it’s independence in 1948, but has been under military rule since 1962. The country was closed off to most visitors until the last decade, when pro-democracy advocates began to gain traction and the country started issuing longer-term visas to foreigners. In 2010, the government promoted tourism for the first time and it began to take off. The country saw 1 million visitors that year, and the number has quadrupled in years since.
The influx of visitors has brought rapid change to the country and the government is working to keep up with the tourism demand, while some world leaders and Western governments are still hesitant to encourage tourism here, citing continuing civil rights violations and corruption, despite the country’s turn towards democracy. Last year, more promise was shown in elections as the majority of seats were won by pro-democracy candidates, led by the fascinating leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Forgive me for trying to simplify a complicated history, but knowing a bit of the story helped me appreciate the country and it’s people more once I arrived!
In Yangon, the evidence of British colonialism is everywhere in the form of grandiose colonial architecture. On a walking tour of the city with our young Burmese guide Thura, we learned about how leaders opted to keep the British buildings after being granted independence, however many of these once-grand constructions have fallen into disrepair. The Yangon Heritage Trust is working to restore some of these buildings today, but for many the years of neglect are still very evident.
My favorite of these old beauties was the Accountant General’s Office and Currency Department, one of Yangon’s oldest colonial buildings. Vines creep over the walls, weeds sprout from cracks in the bricks, shutters hang off the upper windows, and some parts of it look completely abandoned, so I was surprised to hear it is still being used as a law office. It’s a stunning building, despite the decay (in fact, I daresay the decay makes it more beautiful) and I hope the YHT manage to restore it in the coming years.
If you saw the Myanmar episode of Anthony Bourndain’s Parts Unknown, you’ll remember the famous chef’s meal on 19th Street in Chinatown, an alley famous for its beer stations and outdoor eateries popular with locals and tourists alike. My first night in town I capped off with dinner and drinks here, along with a new friend I met on my flight in. Not yet plagued by the stomach troubles that would hit all of my traveling buddies later, I dug into fried pork and chicken with morning glory and stir fried veggies, washing it down with the local Myanmar beer. Yum!
On my second day in Yangon, I headed outside of town to the pottery village of Twante about an hour south. It was good to get a taste of the countryside I’d be exploring for the next two weeks, but I especially liked taking the public ferry across the Yangon river, which was packed with locals and vendors selling everything from fried pork to newspapers to nail clippers. The river itself is pretty mucky, but it was interesting to see the city from a different perspective.
Yangon also has a famous circle train line, which I didn’t ride but watched from a station’s bridge while waiting to meet a friend. It circles the city and locals use it to transport their wares to the market, including livestock! I hear it’s a great way to experience everyday life for the people of Yangon and the full circuit takes about three hours.
When people say that Myanmar is underdeveloped, this is what they could mean: there are hardly any big consumer chains from the West. Besides the one KFC I spotted in Yangon, I saw no Starbucks, 7-11s, McDonalds, Burger Kings, H&Ms or other businesses that are so abundant elsewhere in Asia. I’m sure that will change (unfortunately) but it was something that struck me after spending a few days here.
Local Dress & Appearance
Walking around the streets of Yangon, it’s easy to identify to rules of local dress. Women almost always wear thanaka (a yellow paste made from tree bark powder) on their faces, which protects their skin from the sun and keeps them cool. Some of them apply it with intricate patterns to give it stylish flair, much how we sometimes wear makeup in the States (see: MAC cosmetics).
Both men and women wear longyis, traditional long skirts that are wrapped differently depending on your gender and sometimes your marital status. Men are much more likely to wear longyis than pants or jeans, and one local told me he prefers it because they are much cooler in the Burmese heat.
The Friendliest People Ever?
The most striking thing about my time in Myanmar so far has been the friendliness of the people here. Nearly every local I met is SO excited to welcome visitors with a smile, a “hello” (or “mingalaba” in Burmese) and offer their hospitality. Several locals have even asked to take a photo with me on their cell phones! It’s strange, but a local explained to me that seeing a tourist is exciting because, until recently, it was rare. They’ve lived without seeing foreign visitors for so long, we are just as interesting to them as their culture is to us. I always take the opportunity to take a selfie with them too – because why not?
Thura, who will be with us the next two weeks, is so passionate about Myanmar and it’s history, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Several local people have told me that they feel hopeful for the future as their country steps into the 21st century. It seems the people here are eager to address their country’s problems and embrace the change that comes with globalization while still preserving their culture and traditions.
I certainly hope they get their wish, because this place is fascinating and full of heart. I can’t wait to see the wonders the rest of the country holds!