Tuesday, March 3, 2015

From Rags to Riches in Myanmar

Rural life in Myanmar, their river is their bath and the place to wash clothes, and also provides them with food and water for crops.

From rags to riches, that is exactly what I witnessed as I made my way down to Yangon and the beaches of central Myanmar. I would say that during my travels in Myanmar, 70% of my time was spent on the backroads surrounded by rural villages and countryside. Here, life is very primitive and simple (hence I used the title “rags”) but that does not mean that they lack happiness in their daily life. Actually I'd argue the opposite. Village life witnessed from the side of the road and through my interaction might be titled as extreme poverty with few resources on which to live, but it was in these areas that I felt the most comfortable as a traveler because of the genuine heart filled personality of the locals.

Village houses in rural Myanmar

A grouping of houses by the main road

The bridge to a few houses on the other side of a canal.

Despite their very meager conditions, villagers in Myanmar always seemed happy and content with the bare minimum. And when I say refer to the bare minimum, that is even a bit of a stretch. Houses are nothing more than a roof, some without walls, others with only three walls and are as small as 3 or 4 square meters.  Privacy is a luxury, beds the floor unless they have a foldable mattress or some sort of bamboo pad.  Roofs made out of dried banana and palm leaves, raised on stilts if they are lucky to survive the wet season. It was common to encounter people here bathing in the streams or at a public water hole, which might be as simple as a big barrel of water and a bucket to be shared by all the people in the vicinity. Most families found a way to convert their living quarters into some sort of a business selling snacks or beverages, anything they could to make a little money. Close by was some sort of crop growing that they would all cultivate, probably one of the only sources of income for the people.

In a nut shell, the character of many Burmese is similar to this little girl

In the mountains from Inle Lake to the new capital city of Nay Pyi Taw, I had trouble finding a restaurant. Small shops were scattered along the way, but a proper tea house with green tea and meals were hard to come by. One morning I had to pedal 20 miles before I found a shop with tea I could drink to warm up in the crisp mountain air. This is unusual for SE Asia where food and drink is normally in abundance. Resources in the mountains in Myanmar were limited, making it feel as though I was really off the beaten track experiencing rural village life, which accounts for a good majority of the lives of people in Myanmar. As a tourist in rural Myanmar, they were always so curious regarding my presence, but never once treated me poorly. Never once did it dawn on them that I was a tourist and therefore they should treat me differently, charge me more, or take advantage of me in any other way. They were always willing to help me, even if it involved a lot of giggling.

No food stalls lining these mountain roads

Many of the remote landscapes in Myanmar's mountains

In rural Myanmar I was fascinated to observe their daily lives and have a profound respect for them. Survival is their objective as they are completely reliant on their own efforts in order to meet their daily needs. They build their houses by hand, they grow all their vegetables that they eat. Meat, I'm sure is a commodity but comes from the few chickens and pigs you seem roaming around freely. They might have a water buffalo to help with the efforts, but if not, they carry everything with their own bare hands, many times balancing things on their heads, or strapping heavy bags over their heads. If the road needs to be repaired, it is done all by hand. That means they gather the rocks, spread them out on the ground, level them with hand tools, and burn the barrels of tar that is then spread over the rocks. There are no bulldozers, no trucks, everything is done by hand. Witnessing their daily efforts were humbling. Their day is consumed doing everything in order to maintain a sustainable life up in the mountains. With few resources they depend completely on themselves, their family, and other village members.

A barrier to avoid mud slides, all done by hand

Road works, all done by hand

My company on the rural roads

Needless to say, I was in shock when I arrived in more developed areas, especially the new capital city of Nay Pyi Taw. About five years ago, the government decided to move Myanmar's capital from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw, because of the more central location. Perhaps it is central geographically but the hub of activity remains in Yangon. My jaw dropped as I witnessed immaculate newly constructed 10 lane highways, skyscrapers, and infrastructure such as expo centers that looked as if they could accommodate events of many thousands of people. Oddly enough, the city is deserted with few inhabitants. I was repulsed by what I witnessed imagining the money and time that was spent to move the capital to Nay Pyi Taw, after observing the poverty conditions in rural villages. Just stop and thing about the money and effort that would be involved if all of a sudden the United States decided to move our capital from Washington DC to let's say somewhere central like Wichita, Kansas? With the money spent on the new capital the Myanmar government could have invested in the country's basic education system or improved the network of rural roads using the proper technology and machinery. It was appalling to witness and the reason why I chose hop on a night bus rather than spend the night and contribute to this economy.

Nay Pyi Taw, an empty capital

A empty massive highway, think it was an over kill?

Government buildings

Having cycled up the western central plains of Myanmar, I bused myself down to Yangon and cycled through the delta to the beach destination of Ngwe Saung, where I was also in for more surprises. In central and northern Myanmar there are a total of 3 beach destinations, one being for middle class locals and the other two for rich Yangonites and foreigners. I headed to the upper class beach because from the description of a 13 miles pristine stretch of beach with virtually no inhabitants, I thought I would find plenty of places to camp. Boy was I in for a surprise when I discovered that the entire stretch of beach basically belonged to a huge hotel compound and all the property was carefully gated and strictly patrolled. I cycled to the very end of the beach strip where the road turned to sand, and found myself among all the local village people who probably worked at the hotels. Their huts and houses were scattered everywhere and there wasn't one place I could put my tent and go under the radar. My plan back-fired as again I found myself surrounded by the “riches” of Myanmar.  Luckily I found a "resort" that would let me put my tent in the back corner of their property for a meager price, using their bucket shower to wash-up.

Definitely a tourist hub!

This is what the locals spend their time doing at the beach, taking photos of themselves

The average price of the beach resorts in Ngwe Saung go for about 80 dollars a night all the way up to 300 USD, and to tell you the truth, the amount of western foreigners is outnumbered by far by the locals. SUV after SUV with a Yangon license plate passed me on the road to the beach, which again blew my mind: the disparity between the rich and the poor in this country. It blows my mind as there is such an extreme spectrum. Here I had spent so much time up in rural Myanmar observing their simple and minimal lifestyle and now I was surrounded by extreme wealth among the very wealthy burmese. Here I had eaten three meals a day for under 2 dollars and at the beach, I couldn't even buy a fruit shake for 2 dollars. Amazing! Hence the title of this blog, from rags to riches.  Unlike western beach destinations, you won't find towels or people bathing in the sun on the sandy beaches.  No, the Burmese don't go to the beach to do that, they go there to take pictures, a status symbol, that let's others know they were there.  A few men were in the water in bathing suits, and the women that dares entered did so fully clothed or in a bathing suit that was completely covered up.  The sun was so intense on the beach during the middle of the day that everyone retreats to their resort for shade.  I found myself on a beach chair under an umbrella completely alone, which was absolutely delightful! 

The abandoned beach

Believe it or not, I can sit still, for an hour or so

My visit to Ngwe Saung prepared me for my visit to Yangon or Rangoon, as it was once called, the former capital of Myanmar. I'm glad I waited until the end of my trip to see Yangon, because, where as some people would see it as the norm for life in Myanmar, rural village life had become the norm and Yangon was something out of the ordinary. A bustling big city, that was actually quite calm and pleasant compared to other southeast Asian capitals such as Phnom Pehn, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh. For one, motorcycles are prohibited so traffic consists of a sea of taxis, buses, and bike taxis, making it easier to navigate than motor scooters. I also arrived on a Sunday and the following day was a bank holiday, so I think the city was calm in comparison to other days of the week. There was an ever-present essence of colonialism with the decrepit colonial style buildings that looked as if they hadn't been restored since they were built 200 years prior. Also remarkably noticeable is the confluence of cultures and religions all sharing the same city. There is an eclectic mix of Chinese, Indians, Myanmar, and a few westerners, and therefore on the same street you see a pagoda, there is also a Hindu temple, a cathedral around the corner, and a Chinese temple across the street. Yangon reminded me a bit of Penang or other cities in Malaysia with the cultural diversity and amicable relationship between all it's inhabitants.

Market goers, evidence of Yangon's cultural diversity 

A woman setting up her market stand, impeccably organized

A Hindu temple in the city center

A Mosque behind the ruins of another building in Yangon

An old colonial buildings in Yangon 

I'm not a fan of big cities and only scheduled a day and a half to visit. The noise, crowds, and traffic usually deter me, but Yangon was a pleasant surprise. I found a quiet guesthouse in Chinatown and found the downtown area easy to navigate. Even the main Schwedagon Pagoda is accessible by foot, making it a very friendly city to do on foot. Hands down the most enjoyable part of my visit was the food. I had no idea that Yangon is a foodie hub. With all the different ethnic groups it's no wonder. Basically my day and half here involved eating my way through the different neighborhoods trying anything and everything that I saw on the street. I would have needed an extra week if not month to do justice to the exquisite culinary offerings in the city, and I'm only talking about those that you find on the street food carts.......

Schwedagon pagoda, the main attraction in Yangon for tourists
The night market that lines the streets of downtown Yangon

With my visit to Yangon, my bike tour in Myanmar came to a close. I have thoroughly enjoyed biking this country even considering the more difficult circumstances involved with accommodation, the suspicious police, and the controlling government. I've developed a new appeal for traveling in a more undeveloped tourist destination making for more of a challenge and a memorable adventure. The daily life I witnessed in Myanmar is humbling. I have an incredible amount of respect for the Burmese, their work ethic, and their daily routine. After my month here, I'm again reminded about the perspective I gained after many months and kilometers traveling on a bike. I need very little in order to be happy and my standards and expectations are so low, that happiness comes from the most simple things in life and this, in my opinion, is priceless. Maybe you'd say I live like a poor person, especially traveling through Myanmar, but so be it! I prefer to experience a country as a local rather than as a king, pampering myself with frivolous amenities. I'm the happiest of people drinking a cup of milky tea and eating a fried pastry for a total of 30 cents. Dare I tell you the three souvenirs I bought? A burmese lunch box, the ingredients to make pickled tea leaf salad, my staple here in Myanmar, and their milky tea in sachets!

Stay tuned for a few more blog posts on Myanmar featuring their food, my accommodations in Myanmar, and a photo documentation of the country.   

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