Yangon –Five unexpected experiences

Kandawgyi lake - Yangon

The twenty-first century has split us all, and as the world moves to a higher level of consumerism, comfort and convenience, we often forget, that there are pockets of backwardness, or places not equally blessed with the latest technology and communication facilities. The prospect of living in such places poses new challenges everyday, and the decision to move, bag and baggage to Yangon, Myanmar, brought with it, a fair share of excitement and apprehension.

My first trip to Yangon taught me the crucial lesson of not taking anything for granted, and what has become the norm elsewhere, might be a novelty in Yangon and the rest of Myanmar. Having come with a clean slate, with no pre-conceived notions or expectations, the idea was to absorb rather than abhor.

My first taxi ride was an unforgettable experience. Within a day of arriving here, I had accepted the run down condition of cabs, even though I hadn’t seen vehicles of that pedigree in Bangkok or Kolkata, the two places that had been home for the last ten years. The vintage car was white and brown, the latter due to the rusted corners and edges. A piece of metal tore through my shirt as I brushed past to reach the door, but this was merely the first of surprises. As the door opened I found the inner soft covering on the metal frame of the door was gone, and I was just staring at 4-5 holes as I sat down. The rug beneath my feet slipped and as the cab moved, I got a shock to see the road whizzing behind, right under my feet! The journey ended with relief and amazement at the pride with which the driver drove his prized car.

Being accustomed to instant connectivity and being available to friends and family 24×7, the next shock was not being able to get a SIM card. The temporary twenty dollar cards were out of circulation, so I had to either pay $250 for a SIM or do without. Internet came at a steep rate in the hotel and it was only Traders’ Hotel (now called Shangri La) whose lobby offered wi-fi access. I just had to learn to do without Viber, Whatsapp, WeChat, Skype and other apps.

Clean, unfolded, and blemish-free dollar notes were the only acceptable form of currency we could use. It was a pleasant surprise to see US dollars accepted in every shop and restaurant, and they happily quote rates in dollars as well as Myanmar Kyats, the latter seemingly difficult to carry, with an exchange rate of around 980 kyats to a dollar. I was handed wads of cash in a plastic bag! I had to remove all my debit and credit cards anyway since there were no ATM machines. This was something that was going to take a long time to accept if I was to come and live here. How much money would I carry, in how big a bag? And with its poor purchasing power, what would I do if I ran short of cash?

The traditional  Myanmar attire is called the Lungyi, worn both by men and women, though the style of tying it is different. Not really an alien outfit, since it is seen in India, Bangladesh and other places as well. Its just that I hardly saw any locals in any other dress, even children. Men interestingly tucked their shirts in the lungyi which was knotted at the waist, while the women, look really elegant in their short tops over what appeared to be a long wrap-around skirt. I noticed the pride with which they have stuck to their traditional dress unlike so many other countries where western clothes have taken over, pushing ethnic clothes into oblivion or left for festive occasions. I also realized what this attire did for society-it had transformed Myanmar into a classless society-all the men wore similar checked blue, mar0on and brown lungyis with similar white or striped shirts. There was no way a driver could be differentiated from the owner, unless the elite chose to be dressed in formal silk lungyis kept for formal occasions.

The last shock that took time to digest came at nightfall when we drove in dark, extremely dimly lit streets, which often blacked out each time there was a power cut. The stillness apart, the lack of light made the place appear more depressing with an eerie feeling creeping in. Except for Pyay Road, it was difficult to find any road bright enough to feel safe on. But our fears were unfounded, Yangon is one of the safest cities in the world.

Aung San Suu Kyi-Myanmar’s Biggest Brand Ambassador

Aung San Suu Kyi

If there is one name that comes to mind at the mention of Myanmar, it is that of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The petite, pretty, iron-willed lady has been known internationally, and revered in her own land throughout the military regime and today as leader of the opposition, remains the most acceptable leader for the diverse ethnic groups. Her stature is similar to Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela and can be attributed to her peaceful and nonviolent approach to fight for her country’s freedom from oppression and imposed rule.

Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, who helped free Burma from British rule, and assassinated in 1948,  has faced personal loss and sacrificed a happy family life in UK to lead her country towards democratic rule. She was educated in some of the world’s best academic institutions but returned to Myanmar in 1988 to look after her ailing mother, and ending up with house arrest and unable to leave her country. This however, did not deter her from assisting in the establishment of the National League for Democracy in 1988 and become the voice of the people seeking freedom from oppression. She continues to serve as its Secretary General, pushing for reforms and seeking international assistance in helping Myanmar progress to catch up with the rest of the world.

One would wonder at her firm stance and her unceasing fight against military rule, and if it was in any way linked to personal gain. A close look at her life shows more personal loss, since she could not leave her country even when her husband was dying, since she would not have been able to return to Burma. She was committed to fighting for her people, to restore normalcy in the country and to begin its journey towards reforms and change so that Burma was not left far behind, as the world progressed. Her concern was about human rights violations, lack of freedom and educational reforms, which found voice in the world outside, though her husband and two sons, and won her support in the US and the European Union. Through years of house arrest, she kept up with her party and the world through the handful of people she was allowed to meet. Intermittent release for detention enabled her to reach out to the common man, till she became a free citizen in 2010.

 

Buddhist beliefs gave Suu Kyi strength

Myanmar’s population has 89 % Buddhists and Suu Kyi’s Buddhist beliefs helped her last through years of solitude while under house arrest. As a Theravada Buddhist, she believed in the Five Precepts, with non-violence deeply entrenched in each of them. As a political leader she felt that Buddhist culture would help preserve loving kindness and compassion in Myanmar along with a deep respect for education. Meditation for her is a type of spiritual cultivation that has held her in good stead during her years of detention and gave her the ability to stick to the right path. Without permitting her beliefs to be dogmatic, she has maintained a very practical approach and made her beliefs a way of living.

The Future

In 2013, she publicly expressed her desire to run for Presidency in the coming 2015 elections. Despite having steered her NLD party to a 43 out of 45 seat victory in the by-elections of 2012, her future role remains uncertain given the current laws. According to the constitution, any citizen whose spouse or children are citizens of another country cannot stand for presidential elections, and Suu Kyi’s two sons are British nationals. She left Myanmar to travel overseas after a gap of 24 years in 2012 and has been garnering support from countries like US, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and EU nations, even as she warns them to pursue cautious optimism while helping rebuild her country.

Myanmar-The Road Less Traveled

Sule

Myanmar has been an enigma, both mysterious and fascinating, and somehow, seemingly out of bounds. It is very much a road less travelled, with decades of military rule making it a pariah nation, or perhaps not alluring enough for the average tourist looking for comfort, relaxation and fun activities in a plush environment. But with political transformation in progress, a trip turns out more to be a courtship with nature, in almost virgin territories as yet unexposed to the vagaries of modern living. Not that Myanmar is devoid of snow clad mountain peaks, pristine beaches, historical structures and centuries-old monuments, not to mention the immense Buddhist influence. The Hkakabo Razi Ski Resort in northern Myanmar and the impeccably tranquil beaches of Ngwe Saung and Ngapoli offer ideal retreats appealing to those wishing for time far away from the madding crowds.

Ever since the country opened up and a civilian government replaced military rule, the number of tourists has been steadily increasing. The number of international tourists crossed the 1 million mark for the first time in 2011-2012, and the government is targeting a foreigner footfall of over 3million in 2014, and around 7.48 million in 2020, as stated in the Myanmar government’s Tourism Master Plan 2013.

Little wonder then, that the European Council on Tourism and Trade has selected Myanmar for the ‘World’s Best Tourist Destination Award” for 2014, an award that is perhaps the highest honor in the travel and tourism industry worldwide. The award is an acknowledgement of a nation’s endeavor to promote tourism “as a resource for cultural and social development”, while also respecting the “ethics of human relations and preserve cultural and natural heritage”.

The Place

Myanmar remains quite reclusively fascinating for the global citizen. And those who visit this place often return time and again. A country with 135 ethnic groups, it stands out with its natural lakes and rivers, mountainous terrains, and thick forested plains. The country is rich in natural resources and has amazing marine life that fascinates tourists. The British influence is conspicuous in the colonial style buildings, which are in stark contrast to some exquisite golden pagodas, which catch attention wherever you turn.

Myanmar is divided into fifteen states, regions and a union territory with Yangon being the biggest city with a population of over 2.5 million, followed by Mandalay, Naypyitaw which is the capital city and a Union Territory, and others like Bago, Mawlamyine, Pathein and others.

The biggest tourist attractions remain Bagan and Inle besides Yangon which remains the best known city abroad.

Myanmar shares a long, winding border with Thailand, and neighboring India, Bangladesh, Laos and China, making it accessible by road, sea and air.

The People

The Myanmar people are simple, pleasant and always smiling. There is an imminent gentleness in their demeanor, and an inner calm that manifests itself in their actions, and a sense of complacency, even a quiet resignation. There is a huge divide between the upper and lower classes, and middle class that generally forms the backbone of any country, is almost missing.

People speak the Myanmar language, along with a hundred regional variants. The script has been derived from the Brahmi script, and English is known to very few people, making communication a bit challenging.

The Ambience

The ambience again is peaceful and tranquil. Vast expanses of green meet the eye giving the country a clean, green look. There is no rush, no frenzied pace of life, and it is amusing to see people relaxing by the lake, in tea shops, or just ambling along sidewalks. It is like living in an Indian city thirty years ago, without modern infrastructure, and a pace difficult to find elsewhere.

Doubtlessly, all this is set to change, and rapidly too…it remains to be seen, how fast Western influences seep in to radically transform this almost sleepy old country.