May 16, 2013

Burma, Revisited

If you want to catch up on our Burma posts before you read our wrap ups, click for Yangon, Mandalay, Kyaukme, Bagan and Inle Lake.

When Steph and I planned on traveling in SE Asia we both wanted to go to Burma. When I travelled there 10 years ago (see previous post here) it was one of the best traveling experiences of my life so I was excited to share it with Stephanie. I was also eager to see how the political changes in the country have benefited the Burmese people, if at all. I was pretty skeptical that the announced political changes recently would have much of an impact on the country's people, but once we arrived, I was happily proved wrong. There was a noticeable difference in the openness of the people. When we checked into our guest house in Yangon there were posters, calendars and even a clock of "The Lady" (Aung San Suu Kyi) everywhere. I also immediately noticed how the people seemed a lot more relaxed and at ease. There were people hanging out on the streets, chatting with storekeepers, and children playing soccer. Years ago, people who were seen by the police (or undercover military) in groups were viewed as suspicious, so things were very quiet on the streets and there was an eerie feeling of secrecy. Thankfully, one thing that hasn't changed is that the people of Burma are still the kindest people I have ever encountered in my life. Over and over, we were greeted warmly, hugged, and invited into the homes of the people we met. To be honest, it was overwhelming at times. (Steph was even moved to tears a few times because, as Westerners, we're just not used to this kind of kindness with no strings attached.)

Peasant woman in Bagan

Novice Nuns outside Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon
Dave, Kate, and Steph at dinner in Bagan
Steph's favorite kid outside Kyaukme
Beautiful tshirt sales person in Bagan
Ten years ago, that kindness was even more overwhelming because the people were so oppressed by the government and their lives were so dismal. It went against everything I had expected. On this visit, it was great to see the people being their same genuine friendly people, but able to be more relaxed about who they talk to and about what. There is also an empowerment that the people have now that is evident. In Mandalay (read here), Steph's motorcycle taxi driver said to her, "They can't stop us now. Now that we know freedom they will never be able to take it from us." He was so proud of his country's people, what they have overcome, and their commitment to holding on tight to to their freedom. They still have a long way to go. Burma still ranks among the poorest in the world. It's healthcare system is one of the worst in the world. Their education program is one of the least developed in the world. But there is progress. Tourism is on the rise. The politics are evolving. Things are getting better and, with any luck (and the continued hard work of the Burmese), things will continue to get better.

Gorgeous Shwedagon Pagoda inYangon
Novice monks outside Kyaukme 
Our hiking group in Kyaukme
Amazing temple in Bagan
Another things much different from ten years ago: the roads. In most parts of SE Asia, when a guide book says that a bus ride will take 8 hours, it will usually take about 10. When I was in Burma before, the roads were the worst I had ever encountered. This time around, many of the roads were new and in great shape. This change has happened so quickly that the guide books haven't caught up yet. So, when a guide book says a bus ride in Burma will take 8 hours, it probably actually takes 6! Great relief! Not to mention, with tourism increasing so rapidly that all the buses are also new and really comfortable. Also, the sickest I have ever been was in Burma 10 years ago. Luckily, on this visit, we noticed that there is a lot more bottled (ie: safe and clean) water, cooking standards and personal hygiene are improving and, in general, living conditions are better. So, while we didn't particularly love the Burmese food, we didn't get sick while we were there, despite eating at plenty of local places and even a few street food stands.

Sunset in Bagan
River outside Inle Lake
Biking in Bagan
Since most western countries have recently lifted many of the sanctions against Burma there has been a huge increase in tourism. While it is great for some of the people in the country there was definitely a bit of a tourist track and, at times, we could feel like were on a traveler conveyor belt. Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan are the four main stops on the circuit, and the price of guesthouses was high in those places. (At least, high for SE Asia standards.) There really aren't a large number of places people can visit in Burma because the government still limits the places tourists can visit, there is some rebel fighting in some areas, and tourist infrastructure isn't set up everywhere. While most of these sites are great to see there is a feeling of making the rounds.

U Bein's Bridge outside Mandalay
Gorgeous view on our Kyaukme hike

The next five to ten years will be key for Burma. The country is rich with natural resources such as lumber and gem stones but they are in a very vulnerable position right now. With a lot of economic sanctions lifted, many countries and companies are looking on how to make a profit from Burma. I only hope that the Burmese government continues to improve the country for the people. I am, however, fearful that these subtle political changes were just another strategic way for a few powerful people in Burma to make more money. Only time will tell.

Check out this video of some of our favorite photos from Burma. (Note: the video will not appear in your email newsfeed. You'll need to click through to the blog to view the video in the post. Or you can click here to watch it on YouTube.)

Check out all our favorite Burma pics here. (A few more favorites are in this post and below.) You can also check out all of our photos and videos by visiting our Flickr page and our YouTube channel. And, if you want to read the first of our "Revisited" Wrap Up Series, click here to read about India.

Coming up soon is a round-up of our best and worst moments and memories of Burma and the second installment of our series called, "The Good, The Bad, The 'Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!'" Stay tuned!

Pyin Oo Lwin
Wearing a giant hat in Inle Lake
Motorbiking outside Mandalay
Check out all our favorite Burma pics here. You can also check out all of our photos and videos by visiting our Flickr page and our YouTube channel.

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