Similar to our observations of what is currently happening in China, with this post we would like to share and summarize a few observations of our 3.5 weeks in Myanmar:
- Myanmar is both less and more developed than we had thought
- The people are incredibly friendly and open (if you do not want to talk politics)
- Globalization has not yet (fully) reached Myanmar
- Myanmar is complicated
- People have strong beliefs
- Strict Dos and Donts
- Understanding an being understood – lost in translation
- Sustainable Tourism is important for Myanmar
- It is safe to travel in Myanmar (currently)
Myanmar is both less and more developed than we had thought
Our first impression of Myanmar was a poor area of Mandalay, next to the Irrawady river (see picture below). People there and in other parts of the country live in simple shacks, quite a few still without electricity. We also saw far fewer people with smartphones compared to China for example. This gave us the impression that Myanmar is indeed less developed than we had anticipated. (It must be stated thought that we did not really think a lot about what to expect, if we are very honest with ourselves.) In any case, there are some numbers to back up our impression. In 2016 the GDP per capita was ony a bit more than $1.400, putting it in the range of countries like Djibouti ($1.580) or Lesotho ($1.387). According to the Worldbank, 37% of people still live near or below the poverty line. This means that they continue to remain vulnerable to poverty.
As with everything, it depends on the perspective, though. We met other travellers who were actually surprised by how developed certain areas are in Myanmar. The tourist infrastructure is by no means bad. The standard of accommodation is quite good and buses, albeit often delayed (see our blog post here), do have a decent standard. The roads are not great and need to be repaired.
In any case, when travelling through the accessible areas of the country, it is clear that Myanmar is developing rapidly. For example, in 2015, over 42% of households already owned motorcycles, compared to only 10% of households in 2009 (Worldbank).
The people are incredibly friendly and open (if you do not want to talk politics)
It is always very difficult to make a general statement about many people, since everyone is different. Still, we got the impression that the people of Myanmar in gerneal are incredibly friendly and helpful. We always felt comfortable and never got the impression that we were being ripped off or cheated. Yes, sometimes we probably paid a bit too much for a taxi or some food on the street. Overall though we believe everybody was very honest with us. Honestz is also an important virtue in Buddhism. What is more, in many parts of the country, with less visitors, we felt people took a genuine interest in foreign tourists. Quite a few times people would randomly start to talk to us and ask us where we are from. We really got the feeling that most people were genuinely curious.
To put it in a nutshell, the friendliness of the people was definitely a key reason why our stay here was such a great experience!
Globalization has not yet (fully) reached Myanmar
Only after we left Myanmar and came to Vietnam we realized the extent to which Myanmar has actually not yet adopted the globalized / Western life. Overall we got the impression that many aspects of life have probably not changed a lot in Myanmar over the last few decades, including the way people dress, shop and chew beetle nuts.
It starts with the way people dress – you find many people (women & men) in longyis and with the traditional thanaka make-up in their face (see our blog post here). What visitors to Myanmar also notice is the lack of all those big international chains stores. For instance, the first Starbucks was expected only to open in December of 2017. Vietnam for example is completely different in this respect – here you find everything from Louis Vuitton to KFC.
The lack of big supermarkets in most towns furthermore means people go shopping either in small cornershops or on local markets – see our blog bost on grocery shopping.
Myanmar is complicated
Myanmar is complicated, both for internal and external reasons as well as a colourful history of kingdoms, empires and colonisation.
Internally, Myanmar has 136 officially recognized minorities, although those can be divided in bigger groupings. This wealth of cultures leads to a whole range of different multi-ethnic conflicts that are frankly difficult to understand for foreigners. We were told it is very important in everyday life which ethnic group you belong to. It starts with the fact that your ethnicity is stated in your official ID and you have to prove it by providing IDs of your ancestors. Depending on the area, what ethnic group you belong to can help or hinder you to get a job, determine who you can marry and how you have to dress and live.
Externally, Myanmar’s resources and its location between mighty meddling neighbouring countries such as India and China often create problems. Myanmar’s valuable resources include oil, water, wood, jade and a lot of other gemstones just to name a few. For example, during the last government, China gave Myanmar money to build a huge damn. This project was however always very controversial and is now being blocked by the current government, which has to stand up to China. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, given China’s power in the region. Moreover, Myanmar’s north-eastern border region adjacent to China, Laos and Cambodia is a part of what is known as the Golden Triangle. This region is the very lucrative world center of opium production and heroin manufacturing. Most farmers there are involved in poppy cultivation and smuggling operations, which in turn are protected by well-armed local militias. We have heard several times that drug consumption is a big problem in Myanmar.
Historically modern day Myanmar and its borders are a brain-child of the British empire days. The Brits had united several formerly different kingdoms and had simply called the region British India under their colonial administration. They left the now northern states mostly to govern themselves and added territories such as the formerly powerful empire of Arrakine (now Rakhine state). When the British empire fell apart the borders were drawn to create one large multi-ethnic state. As we have mentioned above these ethnic identities far superceed any sense of belonging to the state of Myanmar. We have the impression that in Europe we tend to think of Myanmar as too much of one unified state and not the patchwork of different groups that it actually is. Much of the current nation-building seems to be mostly held together by Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi.
These are only a few of the many complicated political and economic problems that Myanmar faces in addition to poverty, lack of transparency and recurring natural catastrophes such as flooding and storms. To sum up, Myanmar is a complex country, but it has amazing potential to grow into a prosperous and more equal one. This seems to be dependent on how well it can circumvent the mile-deep potholes on the way there.
People have strong beliefs
In Myanmar both religious and non-religious beliefs play an important role in everyday life.
It would go too far for this post (and frankly we are no experts) to elaborate on all detailed elements how Buddhism is a key part of life in Myanmar. To point out just a few examples: It is said that every man should be a monk at least twice in his life and most people we met were confident that most men follow this rule. Furthermore, many people have a small house altar at home and seem to take veru good care of it, by offering friut and fresh flowers. Another example that is visible everywhere are the many pagodas. It is said that building a pagoda will improve your karma and relieve you of your sins.
Apart from Buddhism the people of Myanmar believe in the nats, which are essentially nature spirits that live everywhere. Altogether there are 37 official ones and they guard different natural domains as well as villages etc.. Their likenesses can be found on temples, pagodas as well as shrines.
Many further beliefs are not of an (entirely) religious nature. An interesting example is that the day of the week people were born plays a role in selecting your partner. Each day of the week is represented by an animal. There is a whole set of rules. One rule for example says that someone born on a Sunday is not a good match for someone born on a Wednesday. (Thankfully we are a Sunday-Tuesday combination 🙂 ). By the way: there are eight days in a week in Myanmar! Wednesday is split into AM and PM (an elephant with tusks and one without). Which day of the week a baby is born furthermore is often also considered when choosing a name.
Something else we found very interesting was that most cars and busses have a small bundle of branches/ leaves stuck to the front for good luck on the road.
Strict Do and Donts
As a tourist, it is helpful to read a couple of etiquette lists before coming to Myanmar. There are quite a few rules one has to follow in order to not offend local people. Most of the rules have their origin in Buddhism. One key rule most visitors will learn, for example, is that you have to take off your shoes and socks when entering holy sites such as pagodas or temples. Given the coldest it gets in “winter” is about 20 degrees, this is never really a problem… 🙂 The biggest problem you will face in this regard is that in Bagan you will walk over a lot of bat poo barefoot :-).
Another rule is not to point your feet at any religious site or anything/anyone really. We learned this the hard way when Christoph was sitting on the floor next to Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. His legs were accidentally extended towards the pagoda, because we had forgotten about that rule. Immediately a guard came and told him off for this. The feet are the dirtiest and lowest part of the body and it is disrespectful to point them anywhere, especially at one of Myanmar’s holiest pagodas.
Other rules include not to show tattoos of Buddha, wear appropriate dress when entering religious sites, women not touching monks, and in general not touching people’s heads, because they are the holiest part of the body. Speaking about gender equality: in quite a few temples we saw signs not allowing women to enter the innermost (and probably holiest) area. The simple explanation for this we got was that according to Buddhism women are “unclean”.
Oh, and there was one more interesting rule: In the few shopping centers there are in Myanmar you should not spit beetle nut juice on the floor… 🙂 See below:
Understanding an being understood – lost in translation
People often give you the feeling they understand what you are saying and what you want, while really they do not. For example, one day we asked for more toast in our hotel in Bagan, the owner nodded vigorously in understanding, left, came back four minutes later and we got an E-Bike. (We needed one, so yeah! But we never got the toast.) Moreover, taxi drivers routinely told us that they know where we want to go, only to check our Google maps three more times and on top ask people for the way. Vice-versa a lot of people speak really fast-English, but with a very Myanmar accent. They seem to be absolutely convinced that non-Burmese speakers will understand that accent. sometimes we could not even tell that it was really English. We filled in a lot of gaps in our heads, nodded politely and smiled. Which is – when you think of it – what happened the other way around as well.
A very useful thing is that many places have English menus or find someone to translate. Even most road signs are in both English and the pretty curly Burmese script.
Sustainable Tourism is important for Myanmar
Myanmar is more laid back than most countries when it comes to tourist crowds. There are very few Chinese tour groups and most groups are from France and Germany. To be fair this year there were less tourists because of the Rakhine crisis.
Since currently many parts of the country are still off-limits without travel permits, most tourists converge on a well-trodden (quite literally: in the most popular places you can rent horse carts!) tourist path in this beautiful country. In Mandalay for example the tourist crowd flocks to U-Bein bridge to see the sunset, where everybody crowds together on the bridge and is disappointed that they are not the only ones. Other popular attractions are Bagan, the Irrawady boat trip and Inle lake. These are all spectacular and big enough that the tour crowds disperse. If you have the chance do not miss them, they are popular for good reason! Otherwise, you get to see beyond the tourist spectacle pretty much everywhere else in Myanmar. If you want to be off the beaten path the country has many areas that are a little harder to get to and need a bit of pre-trip planning and a little more time. Travelling to places a little outside the main tourist destinations you are likely to be the only foreigner and receive many waves and curious hellos. Plus you help to spread out the economic benefits of tourism a little.
When more tourists arrive in Myanmar in years to come (which they will if the political situation is stable), it will be important to manage the flow of visitors sustainably and divert it to other regions as well to spread the advantages and disadvantages of having a lot of visitors. It remains to hope that as time passes tourism can be developed sustainably and that lessons from good and less stellar examples in other countries in Southeast Asia can be learned. Slowly there seem to be some tentative steps to promote community-based tourism and actually ask local people what they want before they are overrun by visitors and the local attractions are being hijacked by rich outsiders from Yangon or foreign countries. When going there be aware of how you spend your money and try to figure out which businesses support local supply chains and social projects.
It is safe to travel in Myanmar (currently)
Finally, we would like to mention that Myanmar (as of now) is considered a very safe country for tourists to travel in. Sure remote areas are off-limits to foreigners, so check ahead with your embassy where you can go. We never felt unsafe anywhere while there if you discount Tanja`s sometimes slightly irrational fear of barking stray dogs. We were informed that Myanmar takes care of its tourists (not the first country we have heard this. In China, Vietnam and Iran the locals say the exact same thing.). There is even a special tourist police dealing with visitor’s problems, although their English is apparently not great. If you are a local, we were told, you should however be more careful. Sometimes locals get drugged and robbed, but never the tourists. One of our guides surprisingly admitted that he takes a knife and a slingshot when he goes to a big city. When asked if he ever needed to use it or knows anybody who had to defend themselves, he said no. Regardless of this slightly disturbing admission, different rules seem to apply to tourists. Every traveller we talked to always felt very safe in Myanmar, even walking around later in the night. Overall the country is quite stable and very safe for tourists.
In any case, we think now is a good time to visit this exciting country in terms of safety, beating the crowds as well as supporting Myanmar’s youngish tourist industry. You never now how things turn out in the future, just look at places like Syria for example.