Myanmar Disillusionment: Setting Expectations
Myanmar, a place lost to time, a land of a thousand temples, and a mysterious water world. Fisherman rowing with their feet, long-necked women weaving with the silk from lotus flowers, and ancient temples as far as the eye can see. This is Myanmar, but don’t be disillusioned. While these places are real, this is no longer the untouched land you’ve dreamt about. By the time you’ve finished reading this it will be even less so. Let me explain.
We visited Myanmar only a couple years after its border was opened to the international community in 2011. During the previous 50 years, the country was under oppressive military rule, and the outside world was rarely, if ever, let in. This bred very unique cultures amongst the various ethnic groups within the country, and represented a unique opportunity to learn about them once the doors were opened. During our visit the remnants of this isolation were apparent at every turn, which made our visit such a unique experience.
At times, we were treated like celebrities, especially by the young adult generation. Teens and college-age Burmese would often approach us and ask us for a picture. The first few times, we politely declined, thinking this was a similar scam we had experienced in Europe resulting in the demand of money for our picture. No, they didn’t want to help us take a picture, they wanted to get a picture with us. We even had a young mother ask if she could take our picture while holding her baby! We did not expect to be greeted this way, to say the least, but it certainly resulted in some fun and meaningful interactions. Yet for every celebrity encounter we experienced, we were met with two times as many nervous, shy responses to our presence. The majority of these were given by the older generations. Once you understand the military rule and oppression these people have lived through, it is a small step to understanding their weariness of foreigners and respectfully not push the interaction further. It was especially important to be mindful of where we pointed our cameras, as older people did not want to be captured on film. The fear of the government will likely never fully leave them.
During our visit, our tour guide (we were with a guide throughout our journey) made a point to show us the old telegraph office in the center of Yangon. For you kids reading this, a telegraph was a form of communication where electrical signals were sent along a wire. I’ll stop there, so I don’t lose you to boredom, but just know less than a decade ago this place was still the preferred method of communicating with the outside world by most people in Myanmar. They would make the journey to the telegraph office, passing by buildings constructed, and unchanged, since the British occupation prior to 1950, to simply make a phone call or, yes, send a telegraph.
You can still find remnants of this past if you visit today, but don’t fool yourself into believing this is how things really are. Today, young teens carry cell phones everywhere, advertisements flood the public places promising beauty, romance, and wealth, and the youthful generation would rather hang out in bars than spend time in a monastery. Tourists are funneled through specific areas of the country, shown many cultural reenactments, allowed to take some pictures, and then sent back home. It is a well-choreographed dance, all in the name of making a few, crisp dollars.
The sad thing is, what you’re seeing is actually very close to how things were, if you could somehow ignore your tour guide handing the Intha “fisherman” a few bills after you snap your photo, or you didn’t have to use Photoshop to remove that luxurious hotel from your photo of thousands of Bagan temples. So how should you receive, and respond, to Myanmar today? How should you set your expectations? Is it even worth going?
Yes! Go now! Myanmar is incredible. No more words need to be written about its beauty and ancient wonders, and its culture, while drastically different in younger generations, is still alive in the old, and very much worth learning about. Plus, the dichotomy between the young and the old generations is a unique study in itself. First, you feel convicted of your own contribution to the change occurring in the new generation. Kids no longer hold their country’s history, and the symbols that represent it, as sacred. They are more concerned with social media and the materialism of the Western World, and look to you, a foreigner, with envy. We especially felt this during our celebrity photo shoots. If you are able to have a deeper conversation with an elder citizen, you will learn that they don’t agree with the direction of the youth (something it seems all elders have uttered over the years), and worry about losing their traditions. However, through all of this concern, you are met with hope. This hope you have comes after realizing that this wave of change cannot be stopped, but perhaps it can bring with it more freedom and a better quality of life for the people here. For decades they have been poor and oppressed, and in some ways have accepted it as their fate. That mindset is changing too, and perhaps for the better. One can hope.
Myanmar is changing before our eyes. Don’t miss it. Is it too late for a truly undiscovered experience? Yes, but it isn’t too late to find real, genuine pieces of the past.