Burma is a poor country.
That was evident everywhere we went. A half century of totalitarian rule by a military junta had left the Burmese economy lagging far behind its regional neighbors. And while the country is embracing democracy and opening its borders, its economy remains stifled by a network of cronies who control most of the nation’s wealth. It’s hard to grow your way to prosperity when you exclude most of your countrymen.
As we cycled through the countryside, we saw rudimentary homes (huts, really) with few of the modern conveniences that are becoming commonplace in other parts of southeast Asia. Setting foot in much of Burma is like stepping back in time: many people still live largely as the generations before them once did. Yet whereas rural poverty carries with it certain romantic notions of a simpler pastoral era, there is no beauty in urban poverty. And so we rode into Mandalay…
On my first morning in Burma’s second largest city and former capital, I left our comfortable riverside hotel early in the morning and decided to walk down the banks of the fabled Irrawaddy River. What I saw shocked the senses. The narrow patch of dirt separating the river from the road was teeming with people living in rudimentary shacks, with no electricity or running water, and no sign of a toilet. (I watched two kids defecate under a truck.) Tiny rooms housed large families, occasionally with pigs living underneath. And everywhere there were children, always smiling, completely oblivious to their surroundings.
If there was any consolation to what we saw — an ironic silver lining — it’s that Mother Nature will see to it that these living conditions are only temporary. When the rainy season comes, the rising Irrawaddy will flood the ghetto and wash everything away, scattering the people and leaving no sign anyone had ever lived there. Of course next year the dry season will arrive, bringing with it new people, new problems, and the cycle will repeat.