Three days ago Ben and I hopped on a flight from Hanoi to Bangkok, where we spent a couple low key days preparing for our trip to Myanmar (Burma). There’s a certain degree of mystery about going to Myanmar. Since the British left in the 1960’s, the country has had little outside influence and borders have only recently been opened to foreigners. We were really excited about the prospect of seeing an Asian country that has not been altered too much by Western culture and tourism.
We arrived in Myanmar on February 14 with 28 days on our visa. As usual, we arrived without an itinerary beyond our first couple days in Yangon, the largest city in the country.
Our first day in Yangon was one of observation. We slowly walked around the downtown area, letting it all sink in. Most the buildings here were built in the 1900s-1920s during British rule, and there’s been little maintenance since their construction. Decades of neglect have resulted in layers of peeling paint, sun bleached colors, and black exhaust stains from pollution. But there is something really attractive about the shabby condition of the buildings here. In a historic, romantic way they are beautiful.
The most interesting thing on the streets is by far the people themselves. They’re so striking I couldn’t stop staring at everyone we passed. One of the first things we noticed is how different people look from one another. Myanmar is a very diverse country. In total, over 100 languages are spoken here. There are 3 major ethnic groups, which can are separated into 8 peoples: the Burmans (the largest population), Shins, Kachins, Karens, Kayahs, Mons, Arakanese and Shans. There are also Indian and Chinese populations that immigrated during British rule. Although diverse in many ways, they have religion in common. Almost 90% of all people in Myanmar are Buddhist, and very devout in their beliefs and practice.
Face paint was another thing we noticed. Many people paint their faces with thanakha, a yellow-beige paste made from ground tree bark that acts as sun screen and has medicinal properties. Over the years the custom of wearing thanakha has become cosmetic as well as practical. It’s applied in various shapes like squares and hearts for beauty. And it’s really beautiful on their dark complexion.
Another striking characteristic is their clothing. Both men and women wear traditional ankle-length skirts call “longees”. The men’s longee is more basic, a simple plaid or dark color, while the women’s are gorgeous, decorated with intricate designs. Some are made of hand-embroidered silk, the result being somewhere between exotic and elegant. Spotted amongst the crowd are a few rebellious skinny jeans, but for the most part, people remain true to their traditional dress. Their clothes, combined with the thanakha on their faces, against a backdrop of shabby pastel architecture create a stunning scene on the streets on Yangon. I wonder if they know how exquisite they look.
We seemed to catch people’s attention as well. Each stare we received we met with a passing ‘mingalaba’ (hello), which guaranteed a huge smile back to us.
Our second day Yangon, we wandered by street vendors selling noodles, fermented tea leaves, fresh and pickled fruits, and fried spring rolls. So far we are really impressed with Burmese food. For breakfast we settled on a popular teahouse downtown. It was slightly run down but, like most of the city, had a certain retro charm. It was our first time drinking Burmese tea which was borderline life-changing. As standard it was served chai-style, steaming hot with a generous amount of sugar and condensed milk. I think I will have to put my coffee addiction on hold until we leave Burma, I’m all about the tea right now. For breakfast, I had a bowl of noodles cooked in garlic oil topped with shredded chicken and green onions. Delicious! I’m finally getting used to breakfast sans eggs and toast.
After breakfast we continued wandering. Suddenly we were approached by a young monk who asked where we were from and if we would like to sit in on an English class to speak with some of the students. We love getting opportunities like this and without hesitation said yes. He smiled and said ‘follow me’. He quickly led us around a corner, across the street, up an elevator, and into a classroom. Before I could process where we were, or develop any kind of expectation for this experience, there were about eight bright-eyed locals staring intently across from me. Ben was taken to another group, so we were to do this solo.
Their questions came flying as I tried to adjust and get comfortable. They wanted to know so much about me and the outside world. But they also had an equal curiosity of what I thought of them and their world. Questions such as: ‘Are you two married?’ ‘Do you have kids?’ ‘Why don’t you have kids?’ ‘What do you do for work?’ ‘What are your hobbies?’ ‘What are people like in America?’ ‘What do you think of Myanmar?’ ‘Are you happy to be here?’ ‘Why are you happy to be here?’ ‘Where is your hotel?’ ‘How much did you pay?’ ‘What is your religion?’ I was really moved by the innocent nature of their questions.
In particular I was amused by their questions about Ben and I: ‘Do you love him?’ ‘What exactly do you love about him?’ ‘How much do you love him?’ The question about ‘how much’ I loved Ben stumped me. I wasn’t sure if I should hold my hands out really wide to illustrate that I love him a lot.
Most the people in the group were around my age but there was one older woman, the most outspoken in the group, who began discussing their tradition of marriage. As she spoke I began to understand why they asked those kinds of questions. In their culture, parents play a big role in orchestrating a marriage. Having an ‘arranged marriage’ is not nearly as strict as in some other Asian countries, and women here have the right to refuse, but the parents’ approval is very important. There are many factors when considering a prospective husband, for example. Parents will consider his education level, his family background, etc. etc. After a typically short dating period, marriage seems more like a business contract than a romantic affair. In recent years American movies have become accessible and popular here. Everything they know about marriage in the Western world is probably based on our romantic comedies. Although the importance of romance exists in Myanmar (we saw first-hand having been here on Valentine’s Day), I think it’s a fairly new value.
What’s funny is that they were so inquisitive about my love life, but clammed up when I asked about theirs. When I asked if any of them were married or had a significant other they all suddenly got shy about the topic. But all managed to reply that they were single, not dating anyone, and seemed to have no interest in finding a partner. That really surprised me. I’m interested to see how this compares to the sentiments of young people living in the countryside.
After the older woman finished her explanation she proudly declared that she never married because she wanted to be her own boss. ‘I go where I want, when I want.’ and then smiled. I liked her a lot.
Before we left the school, the head teacher asked if we would like to accompany him and some of the students to an orphanage tomorrow an hour outside of the city. We agreed and went back to the school early the following morning.
When we arrived teacher prompted us to get into a car with an older gentleman and his wife. They were to drive us to the orphanage. On the way I realized I had no idea where we were going, what we were going to be doing, who these people were driving us, or how they were affiliated to the school. I also realized how comfortable I was with this. I think over time traveling puts you at ease with the unknown.
We chatted with our driver on the way to the orphanage. He asked if we knew who Aung San Suu Kyi was. He was really pleased that we knew of her and have read books about her. His voice suddenly got very gentle and he said “She is our mother”. I’ve been learning a lot about this amazing woman and I almost got choked up by his words. Another man later that day would tell me “She is the Goddess of our country”, which made me smile. I have never seen first-hand a political leader so loved before. Aung San Suu Kyi’s life and dedication to be people of Myanmar is incredible.
When we arrived at the orphanage I was surprised to see there were no kids there. The orphanage was actually more of a monastery it seemed. When we arrived we were taken into a room with about 30 people who were all sitting in front of a head monk. The head monk, dressed in dark red robes, sat very poised in the front of the room. Everyone showed him respect, bowing before they knelt down on the ground. We were escorted to the front and I suddenly realized we were their honored guests.
The monk, using a translator, asked us questions about America. Specifically how our school system compared to theirs. I thought we were coming to play with kids but instead we were discussing societal differences with a head monk. The questions were difficult to answer. Questions like how would you compare Myanmar and America? Or how could they prepare for a trip to America? We tried to answer the best we could with 30 faces staring intently. As we started to talk I noticed more people gathering around. Those who could not fit in the room crammed their faces through the windows.
Afterwards, the head monk began addressing the audience. He led them in a chant and then transitioned into a sermon. It lasted about 30 minutes and was all spoken in Burmese. I wanted so badly to know what he was saying. He seemed like such a graceful and wise man, I would have loved to gain some of his insight.
While he spoke two student monks sat on either side of him. They seemed to be listening closely to their teacher. After it was finished one of the monks walked up to Ben and proudly showed him a few photos he had secretly snapped of Ben during the prayers! And the photos didn’t stop there. Suddenly everyone wanted a photo with us. You would have thought Brad and Angelina showed up instead of us. Or perhaps Prince William & Kate, as three girls on three separate occasions told Ben he looked like Prince William!
I felt overwhelmed by how welcoming they were to us, unsure if or why we deserved it. They didn’t want anything in return, just to inquire what we thought of Myanmar (and to take a photo with us).
Back in Yangon that afternoon a man approached us asking where we were from. He and his friend were teachers and offered to show us a couple important religious sites around the city. They took us to a statue of one of the largest sitting Buddhas in Myanmar (sitting at 46 meters). Afterwards we went to the Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda to see a huge reclining Buddha. It’s the third largest reclining Buddha in the world at 65 meters long.
As we walked up the steps into the temple, our guide explained this is where the Saffron Revolution started. The Saffron Revolution was a protest led by thousands of monks in August 2007. They took to the streets of Downtown Yangon, with the support of the people, to peacefully protest against the military-run government. Although borders were tightly closed to international press, the event was secretly filmed and released over a period of several days from local journalists, which allowed the event to be reported around the world. The footage is very moving and tragic as the government responded with violence.
Monks have a special place in society here. They’re highly respected by the people not only for their religious insight but for their leadership and support for human rights. After learning about the protest and seeing the footage it was a little surreal to suddenly be standing in the temple where it all started.
Another important site we went to in Yangon was the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world and is over 2,000 years old. The site is centered around a huge 325ft zeti (stupa). The zeti is covered in 27 metric tons of gold leaf. At the top are thousands of diamonds and precious gems. It is also believed to enshrine eight hairs of the Buddha. The main zeti was under reconstruction while we were there, so mind the scaffolding in the photos.
There were hundreds of people there walking around the zeti, kneeling in prayer, or sitting in some private corner meditating. Over the loud speaker women melodically chanting a prayer could be heard. Even with all the people, the mood felt very peaceful. We stayed until sunset. It was one of those places I never knew existed but as soon as we arrived I couldn’t image never seeing.
There’s a certain barrier, especially in big cities, between you and locals which requires only minimal effort to break down. It’s one thing I’ve come to understand about traveling. You could spend days in one place, see every neighborhood in the city, and still never know much about the local people. Perhaps it’s the language barrier or the simple sentiment that, in a big city, you’re just another person in a sea of other people. But once you put yourself out there a little, the barrier comes down effortlessly and you realize that what you were seeing all along was a just a thin surface. What’s beneath is really why you came in the first place.
This has been an incredible start to our journey in Myanmar. We’re looking forward to continuing to see what’s beneath the surface.