“This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any land you know about”
It is early evening when I first arrive in the Golden Land. A short flight from Bangkok took me to Yangon airport, where I jumped in a taxi and was driven downtown through a glowing sunset towards what’s known as Chinatown. I remember seeing people walk into the middle of the road to get on a bus – a leftover sign of colonialism, where they now drive on the right but still use left-sided buses. That was my first taste of the contrast between timelessness and development ever-present in Burma. I arrived at my hotel which was located down a side street, run by boys in skirts who for breakfast served a steaming bowl of noodles topped with a fried egg.
That first night I visited the Shwedagon Pagoda – the main site in Yangon. It is a huge golden pagoda which rises above the city and hosts pilgrims, tourists and monks all day. It is most interesting however in the evening when locals arrive after work, filling every corner of the golden dome to pray. I wait and listen as the peaceful murmur of humming begins, a sound that follows me throughout my travels up and down the country; a reminder of the country’s strong spirituality and peacefulness.
“There are countries you love and then there are countries you never forget. Countries which ring so deep within you that they become a part of you. For me Burma is one of those.”
I’ve visited Burma twice now, the first time travelling up and down the country with a backpack, exploring Bagan’s temples and trekking through Shan’s highlands. I met people kinder than I ever imagined, and saw a world trapped between tradition and political disrupt; a world so desperate to develop and grow like it’s neighbouring countries. Indeed, entering Burma is like stepping back in time, but within the cities there is a desperate desire for growth.
A year later I returned to live and work in Mandalay for two months. The development within that year I had been away was as rapid and unpredictable as expected. Now everyone had mobile phones – something which was an expensive rarity the year before – and wifi was popular in many cafes frequented by young people. You could see Hollywood movies at the cinema, and convenience stores similar to Thailand’s 7-eleven craze were beginning to pop up on every corner.
Burma seemed to have become a land of contrasts, suspended somewhere between the ancient timelessness I had fallen for the year before and a desire to develop and modernise to suit the needs of tourists. The train to Hsipaw still took 8 hours and broke down enroute and transport was appallingly un-tourist friendly around Mandalay. Yet Western-run motorbike hire shacks were beginning to crop up, and in Bagan the street between Nyang Shwe and Old Bagan was a completely different world than just a year before. Direct tourist flights into the city and the Instagram-friendly views of the ancient temple plains had attracted tourists in the bucket load, and upmarket hotels now way out-numbered local-run guesthouses. In some ways I felt it was a shame that these people, behind their gated hotel doors, would never experience the thing that continued to make Myanmar so special – its people. But I was glad I could still travel to corners of the country and find the same beauty I had fallen for the year before.
In Hsipaw I sat in Mrs. Popcorns garden and ate burmese snacks and homemade lemonade. I rode rickety trains and explored backstreet markets in Mandalay. Months after I left, democracy returned to Myanmar, and the rightful leader of the country Aung Sang Suu Kyi has taken the role which should have been her’s decades ago. Things are changing now, the country is opening up; education will be easier than ever before, people will finally have access to the outside world and foreign brands will begin lining the streets of Yangon and Mandalay. Yes, it is modernisation, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
In fact, it is an amazing change for the Burmese people. Although tourist numbers will grow and Burma might not always be as ‘untouched’ as it was a few years ago, I do not doubt that it will continue to keep that beauty that made it so special, the beauty that made me fall in love with this spectacular land. For that peace and uniqueness I found lay not in the closed-off and backward nature of the country, but in the beautiful and fierce people I met throughout my travels there. They will remain, and they will continue to make Burma one of the world’s most special places.
“Burma is indeed one of those lands of charm and cruelty. I have found more warmth, more wholehearted love, more tenderness, more courage and more caring concern among my people, as we hope together, suffer together, and struggle together, than anywhere else in the world. But those who exude hate and vindictiveness and rave about annihilating and crushing, are also Burmese, our own people”
– Aung Sang Suu Kyi