Myanmar is Surprising, Even Today

I first stepped foot in Myanmar this past August, 2014, with an arrival at the new Yangon International Airport. The place was pleasant and calmed my nerves, especially after being completely amped trying to scavenge for mint condition US currency in Indonesia the week prior - explanation below. It was great to have some unanticipated comfort right off the bat, after all that I had heard about the country. 

I couldn’t help myself but ask straight away about this currency situation. After a few direct questions upon arrival, I was able to figure out why I had spent so much time in money exchangers tirelessly awaiting these previously mentioned crisp dollar bills. I found out that there were a couple strange events that had triggered this obsession. Myanmar had experienced unusual monetary policies in recent history, such as the announcement that their high denomination notes were not legal tender after 1985, and a restructuring of those denominations to reflect a royal lucky number 9 a few years later. This has made the general population rightfully wary of their own currency value, even 30 years later. Now: crisp USD are recommended, preferred, and even part of local life. 

Thinking of Myanmar more fully, the country conjures up many images of contrast and confusion. The country is rich in natural resources, Jade, oil and gas. Yet it also has one of the largest wealth disparities in the world. It is also one of the most isolated. The country has gone unnoticed for a long period of time, yet It is also very large both physically, second largest in SE Asia, and by population, 25th in the world. 

I sought the country out because of its mysteriousness, intrigue, and recommendation from a close friend, and fearless traveler. I also thought the experience would be unique enough to bring me real refreshment before transitioning from one graduate program to another. It proved to take all my concentration, and a complete outlet: a whole new world. 

After hopping in the cab from the airport, with a driver about my age, we took the hour long drive into the center of Yangon. Observations: guy was surprisingly genuine, there were an increasingly odd number of cars everywhere, and I was completely isolated from the western world in every way but coca cola.  

He then delivered me to the foot of my hotel, one of just a handful in the city. This one was a converted cell phone shop, with a grand entrance showing off oversized wooden chairs instead of the typical glass cabinetry. I gladly then took my first opportunity to pull out my hardcover book, to pay the taxi fee in USD. The process didn’t seem odd at all for him, as he pulled out his booklet too. I flipped the page deftly and handed over what was owed. This hotel would definitely be a good basecamp for sleeping and morning eggs. 

As I always do in any new country, I decidedly set out on foot in a couple different directions upon arrival. However, before this happened, I had encountered a couple of the major sites in the city by taxi: The Shwedagan Pagoda and Hospital University complexes. All were situated along the main artery into town, and were well observed given the gridlock traffic. They were impressive and pretty, but strangely situated as the city grew in around them. 

As I stepped out into the street near my hotel, I noticed that I was skillfully frogger-ing between cars, not motorbikes. Cars only! This must be the only city in SE Asia that has a motorbike ban. This makes the city relatively slow, less noisy, and even more breathable! 

Walking the streets for hours and hours thereafter, I couldn't help but feel this disconnectedness to the world. An absence of influence in everything happening throughout daily activities here. I saw 5 foreigners in the several days of walking, and didn’t actually see anything else familiar to any extent. No selling, haggling, bothering, or advertising directed my way. It was a welcome feeling, but also a new invisible frame of mind. I never found anything recognizable for once. The prominence of the streets captivated me even further because of that. The once prized architectural wonders lining the old main street were now severely neglected. The colonial architecture had turned tropical. 

Life here was basically overgrown and left to function with foundational technologies. Landline phones with 100 meter cables still stretched onto the street for convenient calling. Rickshaws of the one-seater variety were still in full swing. Thanaka, a yellow paste made from bark, is still used as a cosmetic and skin protectant for women and girls. Yangon is not self-conscious. Everyone sticks to what they know. Traditions are strong, and most of the cultural phenomenon do not seem to have potential for experimentation or change. The strength of this place is exciting in a way. However, it does feel like I've been plucked by the shirt and airdropped in. I guess that is what happened, isn’t it. 

In other observations, street markets are common, and street hygiene is noticeably poor. Public infrastructure seems to be holding together from an infusion of money generations ago. Buddhism runs throughout the way every little thing here operates. The central market for goods was an exciting but removed place. Full of jade, cheap indescribable things, amazing antiques seemingly handpicked in the dirt from the 1800’s, and noodles. Much of the food is an interesting fusion of asian Burmese style cooking with Indian flare. Some of the best food I have had anywhere, and by far the most affordable and generous. The instant mix ‘happy tea’, is also a pleasant and rapidly produced experience. 

I was fortunate enough to also run into a university student on my final day. He was completely excited about learning and practicing english. He matched this enthusiasm with a real knack and ability for speaking english, bringing me on surprising adventures as well. 

I was so surprised to speak with a local for more than a few seconds, that I let down my guard and gladly joined him for lunch with his father. His father did not know any english, but reassured me, he was grateful to have foreigners visiting. He was a government worker, and one that benefited from tourism money and taxes generated from incoming travel. The son made a valid point that Myanmar benefited greatly from outside influence right now, and so wanted to make an effort to create valuable experiences for foreigners when they are in the country. After all, a friend recommended for me to come to Myanmar because of the nice people, and so I did. This circle seems to work well.

After a pause over our tasty Burmese diner food, the father and son discussed in private and happily announced that I was invited for a feast that evening. Pleasantly surprised, I checked my holiday schedule and declared that I was available. 

However, they didn't just live around the corner. I was informed by the son that he had quickly calculated a whole 6 hour experience for me within seconds. I must have been the first foreigner brave enough to have lunch with him. He was definitely overly energetic and creative. He explained that we would go on a ferry across the river marking out the city boundary, we would then rent a motorcycle to drive to a temple filled with snakes, we would then visit in his village and have our feast, I would then use the ferry once more and be brought to the place where we originally met. I slowly nodded through each stage of his elaborate scheme, and found myself walking down the street a moment later. I’m still baffled how I went with him. 

Let’s get into it then. First we boarded the ferry, and I gladly measured my height against locals, who found it astonishing that they only reached the shoulders of another human being. Then I became quite comfortable in the food cabin after settling down at a table. Tea and fruits were brought over. Then the slow drifting brown water melted everyone into their seats for the 30 minutes crossing. Once across, animals and people were everywhere. I realized most people walked or bicycled, so this motorcycle rental was a real special treat for my friend. 

Once we both hopped on, we zigzagged through small villages on our way to the main highway. I got to peak into rural Burmese life, and catch a glimpse of what most of the country probably looks like. Each village had their own elaborate pagoda, starkly contrasted with their living conditions. I then began to ask about where he was taking me. After all, I had no idea how to get back, and figured I should probably come to terms with how reckless I was being. He then went straight into the story.

This ‘Snake Pagoda’ we were going to see was very special, famous even, and there was nothing else like it in the world. This pagoda was on the outskirts of Yangon, and was just a typical pagoda until one night everything changed. The monk overseeing the pagoda had a dream about a snake, often depicted as a reincarnated thief in the eyes of the Burmese buddhist tradition. The snake spoke to the monk and said he had been wrongly convicted and thus wrongly trapped in a python’s body. The monk listened intently and woke the next morning.

As he walked into the pagoda he oversaw, this dream was still steadily anchored in his brain. That’s when the real python revealed itself. A python had slithered in that morning to rest in the center of his temple. Taking his newly acquired knowledge into consideration, he let the python stay. He even began feeding him milk and rice daily. This was an odd offering to the python, but his dream was so powerful that the monk maintained his conviction. Soon more pythons began entering the pagoda. He thought he should probably feed them too. Soon enough, news began to spread of this strange behavior and resulting zoo. After a few months of python word of mouth, there were several dozen calling the pagoda home. They even counted 70 pythons once. I was gladly zipping across the countryside to go to this python filled pagoda.

Once there, the environment was strangely expected and calming. The story and aura surrounding the pagoda gave me a ‘yes this makes sense now’ feeling. Stepping over and in between twenty adult Burmese pythons was enjoyable. We were all welcome here. After taking some time to digest the environment while they digested their rice, we gladly headed to this young man’s village. A big meal was in order. Weaving back through neighborhoods for about an hour, heads were almost popping off as we observed one another. It was hard to get this far out. We hydroplaned through the village footpaths and came to a stop in front of one of the many similar looking houses we had passed earlier. 

Stepping through his Burmese mud-and-rain room, I crouched into the cozy central room where the family lived, ate, and slept. Prepared for my arrival, I was given a well thought out seat for enjoyment and eating. Tea and an onslaught of formal offerings were given, all accepted with nods and smiles. We started by exchanging stories, showing pictures of family and home, and even telling them about some of my experiences next door in Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. The mountains of Vermont astonished them, and the spaciousness of everything in the state didn’t really compute. They didn’t understand why we lived so far apart from one another. I’m also trying to grapple with that.

Once we had laughed and compared lives for about half an hour, we segregated ourselves from the youngest brothers and mother, and began our feast. The oldest son, my acquaintance, and father, now got down to serious business. Local alcohol and dozens of small dishes enticed us. Meat and more meat, hidden vegetables, and oh the potatoes. Nice spicy potatoes that had eluded me for years in South East Asia. 

I soon found out that I did not have control over when I would finish drinking or eating. That was their decision, and specifically the mothers, watching from the far corner. They were a generous family, with clear thoughtful demeanors, just like everyone else I had met. I felt welcome and cared for during my trip. By the end of the evening, I left full and happy, especially after eating smaller meals throughout the last several days. I was brought back to the city pretty seamlessly, and went to the airport the next morning stunned at the random hospitality and adventures I had just been a part of. The old world charm and quiet pace of Yangon will be remembered. It will be interesting to see how the country adapts to globalization, because it has not happened yet.