Sunday, February 3, 2013

Myanmar (Burma)

Monks pray and study at the Kha Khat Wain Kyaung monastery in Bago.
One of the largest (if  not the largest) Buddhist stupa at Shwemawdaw Paya in Bago. 
Burmese pray at the Shwedagon Paya in Yangon.
The entrance of the Ananda Ok Kyaung temple sits at the center of Old Bagan in northern Myanmar.
A Buddhist monk takes pictures with his iPad on top of the Shwesandaw Paya in central Bagan.
Novice monks walk around the massive golden temple in the center of Old Bagan.
Ancient temples litter the landscape of Bagan. 
A girl sells food at a village outside of Mandalay.  The yellow on her face is a sunblock worn by nearly all Burmese every day, but has ceremonial implications too. 
I got to hold a 6-7 foot Burmese python in a village outside of Mandalay. 
An ancient palace sits near an old dirt road in the soporific town of Inwa. 
The underside of the beautiful teak bridge in Amarapura.
Sunset comes to the gorgeous and longest teak bridge in the world in Amarapura, a village outside of Mandalay. 
Two classic temple styles sit at the southern end of Bagan.

The poorest country in Southeast Asia (with the possible exception of East Timor), and one of the poorest countries in all of Asia is Burma.  Famous for major human rights abuses, military rule, Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize, and corruption, Burma is emerging as a new player in Southeast Asia after the 2010 elections.  However, it didn’t start this way for the Burmese.  After independence from British colonization, Myanmar was one of the richest and educated countries in the region.  The 1962 military coup resulted in a socialist government that slowly led Burma down a path of economic disintegration ultimately resulting in riots throughout the country.  Once the cost of petrol spiked in 1988, protests emerged so widely that reforms were taken such as the 1989 election.  These pro-democratic moves would be for naught once the election results revealed a massive loss of power for the military, so the ruling military government refused the ceding of power and continued on as per usual.  A true changing of the guard wasn’t seen until the 2010 elections (Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party did not participate) whereby democratic reforms were seen but still allow the military a large amount of power.  Nevertheless, Burma has slowly stepped back on the world’s stage as evidenced by Barack Obama’s November 2012 visit and the country’s position as Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chair in 2014.  There are bright hopes for the future, but Burma still has a long way to go.  Major suppression of the Rakhine state riots (western Burma near the Bangladesh border), civil conflict in the Kachin state (independence movement juntas fighting the government near the Chinese border), and a non-existent help to the citizens in the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster lead to 200,000 people dead in southern Myanmar.
Poverty and major sanctions are evidenced everywhere from the large exposed diesel engines rumbling through the street to a lack of products from outside Burma.  Education has slowly gone downhill in the last fifty years.  Proof of declining education is shown with older Burmese having a much better grasp of English than younger Burmese, whereby nearly every other country in the world has a younger population speaking English substantially better than the older generation.  Transport is poor and roads can be rough, and market lifestyles largely seen in Africa are everywhere in rural and urban areas.  Electrical brownouts are highly common and it is much more difficult to find necessities (such as bottled water) versus the rest of Southeast Asia.
This doesn’t take away from the charm of the Burmese people.  While I’ve been told that interaction between Burmese and tourists is highly regulated, I still find them to be some of the most hospitable and upbeat people I’ve ever encountered.  Relative to the rest of Southeast Asia and developing nations, begging is quite uncommon (Buddhism shuns begging).  The people seem to be genuinely interested in tourists and are very helpful.  The tradition towards women is much more in the style of Indian culture (example: men shouldn’t touch women and showing discretion in the presence of women), men dress much more Indian in style (sarongs), and food seems to share a lot of tradition with Indian and Chinese cultures. 
While tourism is emerging, it is still in a nascent stage and can be difficult to find accommodation, especially in Bagan.  With no credit card reservations or ATMs, tourists have to haul in all their money for their stay and have to try the old show up and see what happens method much of the time.  That being said, Burma has some well worth visiting areas.  Bagan has some of the best preserved Buddhist temples ranging from the 11th to 13th centuries AD.  Inle Lake and Kalaw are popular trekking destinations.  Yangon’s Shwedagon Paya is an impressive demonstration in Buddhism architecture.  Kyaiktiyo has a gravity defying rock doubling as a golden pagoda.  Also, the weather is more temperate and has much lower levels of humidity relative to the rest of the region.  Ultimately it’s worth a peek into a country that is charming and changing, and I recommend you see a beautiful place that will take you out of your comfort zone and simultaneously see a society and culture unlike the rest of Asia. 


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