I didn’t get to spend as much time in Yangon as I would have liked. (A snafu with an internal flight — not at all uncommon in Burma — cut our time in the former capital short.) But I loved what I saw of this once great city that still conjures up nostalgic notions of a bygone colonial era, and which is simultaneously decaying and thriving again. The city center is a mix of British colonial and Burmese architecture. Power and phone lines criss cross narrow streets laid out in a perfect grid radiating from Sule Paya, a 2,500-year-old pagoda perched in the middle of the city’s busiest traffic circle (it’s a rather jarring paradox). Of course the undisputed highlight of the city is Schwedagon Paya… more on that another day!
Burma hit that sweet spot.
To appreciate why, it’s important to understand what led me there in the first place. The decision was about as spontaneous as any I’ve ever had — borne out of my two prior trips to the region (Thailand in 2008 and Vietnam a year ago). I had come away mesmerized by the way of life in southeast Asia and by its beautiful people. Yet as eye-opening as those trips were, I couldn’t quite shake the notion that I was a little late to the party.
Southeast Asia had always evoked in me romantic notions of a simpler pastoral era. But Vietnam and Thailand are modernizing rapidly, and while villages and rice paddies still dot the countryside, they aren’t the quintessential Indochinese experiences they were just 20 years ago. I still wanted to see a nation untouched, unspoiled, as close as possible to the state in which it had existed for decades and maybe even centuries.
Burma offered me that opportunity. Considered until very recently the second most closed society in the world, the military junta that ruled this nation with an iron first had only dissolved itself in March of 2011. Visitors that year numbered a scant 800,000. (By comparison, nearly 20 million people visited neighboring Thailand that year. Another six million traveled to Vietnam.)
I felt that if I waited even a few years, Burma would be just another Asian nation I got to too late. So I packed my bags and hopped a plane to Yangon.
From the moment you set foot in Burma, you are stepping back in time. Sadly, the country has made scarce strides in the past half century. Yangon is a colonial city thriving, yet simultaneously in a state of physical decay. Up north in Shan State, ox-driven carts rule the road, and the motor vehicles reminded me of the jalopies from a Steinbeck novel. Everything is still done by hand, from field work to road work and everything in between. (When we came across new road construction, what we saw were upwards of 50 people — men and women alike — crushing stone and laying pavement. Machinery was virtually nonexistent.)
What made Burma even more special was its people. It’s not simply that they were amongst the kindest and friendliest I’d ever encountered, though that alone would have likely been enough. It’s that they went out of their way to welcome us. These are people who, with few exceptions, hadn’t encountered foreigners during their lifetimes. We felt like ambassadors… and so did they. They were incredibly proud of their nation and were pleased to see it finally reopening itself to the world. Our job, it oftentimes felt, was to embrace them and let them know the world hadn’t forgotten them. “Welcome back, Burma.” “Glad to be back, world.”
There were sad moments, too. Nothing broke my heart more than stopping at a roadside tea house and being served by the owner’s 8-year-old daughter. Everywhere we went, we saw too many kids who should have been in school but weren’t. (Unfortunately primary education isn’t free and, in a country with an average wage of just a dollar a day, is out of reach for many poor people.) There were the riverside slums in Mandalay, about which I wrote last month. There was corruption and vast cronyism, which is keeping most of the country’s wealth in the hands of a few elites and stifling the entrepreneurial spirit needed for real, sustained growth.
Of course I haven’t even mentioned the intense beauty of Burma. The pagodas, from the shimmering, golden Shwedagon Paya in Yangon to the thousands of temples that dot the dusty plain of Bagan. Inle Lake and its floating villages. Mount Popa and U Bein Bridge.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, take one glance at sunrise over Bagan… and pack your bags.
Last year, as the Reunification Express slowly chugged past the endless rice paddies that dot Vietnam’s central coast, I recall contemplating about the importance of water to that country. This, of course, barely registered as a noteworthy revelation — water is essential to developing and wealthy nations alike (or so my friends in California insist). Then I got to Burma, a nation that lacks so many modern conveniences that running water is still a luxury outside the major cities.
As we rode through Burma, we saw people washing, well, everything. In rivers and streams, lakes and ponds. Their food, their clothes, themselves — even their scooters!