My Myanmar Memories, Reflections & Observations

Trip Start Dec 19, 2012
Trip End Jan 13, 2013

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Monday, January 14, 2013

A Snap Shot of an Emerging Country

A Journey within a Life's Long Journey

Myanmar / Burma
is unlike anywhere else that I have travelled to. I was expecting a country coming out of a time warp but not so. It had the latest in communications / electronics / some excellent 4 lane expressways yet many rural people still had just running water and limited electricity - if any at all.

Sitting between India and Thailand, I saw elements of both countries – the gentle Buddhism of Thailand mixed with the chaotic street scenes of India.

These are some random observations from my 3 weeks travelling around the country:


The genie is out of the bottle
in that the Burmese with their satellite TVs, freedom of the press and now us tourists are aware of what is happening elsewhere in the world. I hope that they can learn from the mistakes that the rest of the world has made.


Without doubt the Burmese people were a highlight of my trip.

How friendly they were. Throughout the whole trip I was really surprised at the frequency that the locals initiated waving to us.

It wasn’t just the children but also the adults and grandparents as well. Even the construction workers fully engaged in their heavy manual work would stop and give us a wave. It seemed that often they very excited to see us in their country.

The locals were not only friendly ... they were welcoming, hospitable, fun, kind, unassuming and where they spoke some English great to talk with!

Plus in most cases they were happy for their photos to be taken without seeking any money.

We were smiled at and chatted to, pointed and waved at, and occasionally hysterically laughed at that may have been our attempts to speak Burmese.

Burmese women have an impressive ability to carry heavy loads on their heads and do much of the laboring work while at times it seems that the men folk just sit around.

People love smoking cheroots – cigars wrapped in green leaves.

Women’s and children faces smeared with thanaka, a paste made from ground bark that protects them from the sun and also acts as a makeup with many different designs. No wonder I took so many photos of the thanaka designs on their faces.

The most common item of clothing widely worn is the longyi. Both men (paso) and women (htamain) wear these colourful sarongs. It is a sheet of cloth - approximately 2 m / 6 ft long and 80 cm / 2 ft wide, often sewn into a cylindrical shape and worn around the waist running to the feet. It is held in place by folding fabric over, without a knot. It is also sometimes folded up to the knee for comfort. Similar garments are found in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Malay Archipelago and Juiz de Fora. In the Indian subcontinent known as a lungi, longi, kaili or saaram.

Untying and re-tying a longyi is often seen in public with both sexes, women much more discreetly than men. They do it so quickly!

"Men who cannot read are like the blind; women who cannot weave are like the cripple" … an old Burmese saying at a time when every household had a handloom and the womenfolk wove all the longyis for the family.

As one had to cover ones shoulder and knees when entering the pagoda / temples, a longyi was a real practicable cool item to wear in the heat of the day. My (cheap 4,000 K US$ 5 / NZ$ 4 / GBP 3) longyi / paso Tim took back to London. With my tall build and maybe “spare tyre”, I am sure that it was too small for me despite being told that one size fits all. I saw only a few obese locals!

The Burmese love chewing betel. Tiny stands located on nearly every street corner, hawkers on board the train carrying the ingredients laid out on a flat board suspended from their shoulder, mobile bicycle carts … all with the necessary ingredients neatly laid out – small pieces of areca nut, tobacco and spices that are wrapped in a green betel leaf pasted with slaked lime, folded up and popped into their mouth. The resulting blood red juice is splattered on pavements. As for the red stains on the people’s teeth and lips !!!!

Burmese people like many other Asian countries are obsessed with English football.

Seeing either in the rural villages or in the inner city people (mainly males) playing the traditional sport of chinlone. A combination of sport and dance, a team sport with no opposing team. In essence chinlone is non-competitive. The focus is not on winning or losing but how beautifully one plays the game.

Chinlone means “basket-rounded or rounded basket” in Burmese. The ball is woven from rattan, and makes a distinctive clicking sound when kicked that is part of the aesthetic of the game. Players use six points of contact with the ball: the top of the toes, the inner and outer sides of the foot, the sole, the heel, and the knee. The game is played barefoot or in chinlone shoes that allow the players to feel the ball and the ground as directly as possible. The typical playing circle is 6.7 m / 22 ft in diameter. The ideal playing surface is dry, hard packed dirt, but almost any flat surface will do.

A team of six players pass the ball back and forth with their feet, knees and heads as they walk around a circle. One player goes into the center to solo creating a dance of various moves strung together. The soloist is supported by the other players who try to pass the ball back with one kick. When the ball drops to the ground it is dead and the play starts again.

The simple toys that some of the village children made and played with.

I saw very little begging despite being a very poor country.


Will the children and young adults who are moving off the land towards the cities with the prospects of a better financial future return to their roots / land? Seen this only to often in other countries.

Will the local customs e.g. tribal dress be reserved for the tourists? Hope not.


Being such a strong Buddhist country 90%, Christianity 5 %, 3% Islam and 2% Hindu, seeing so many of the tiny squares of gold leaf being applied to Buddha images as a way of making merit, some sacred statues have had so much gold leaf applied that they are now unidentifiable.

Child novices at times seem to be more common than adults. All wear the maroon robes, in contrast to the saffron of neighbouring Thailand.

At dawn you’ll see adult monks and nuns and novices walking and lining up in a neat line to collect their daily alms.

Then their are the memories of the really devoted.


Seeing a few schools with basic teaching resources and what appears to be the learning by rope / repetition method.


No western chain stores or restaurants in the country (yet). When will McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, Subway …. be here?

What the western world is used to i.e. the red Coca Cola red ribbon, it is the yellow and black Grand Royal whisky signage throughout the whole country that Myanmar currently has. Coca Cola has only just recently been allowed back into the country and already their red and white bill board signs are dotting the landscape.

Tea shops are to Burma what pubs are to England - places to drink, eat, chat and watch sports on TV. Tiny child size plastic or wooden stools seating in the tea shops and food stalls.

May be OK for the local Burmese but us taller foreigners? Myanmar has a tea culture, not a coffee culture (yet). Bring your own UHT milk PCU if you don’t want to use the powdered creamer or thick condensed milk.

Cooking over open fires. When will the firewood run out? Deforestation was already evident.


Myanmar is rich in agriculture growing an array of food which is exported eg rice. It is also rich in mineral resources as well: copper, oil, gas and precious stones.

The mix between the old (oxen) and new mechanical ploughs in the rice fields.

Animals: dogs, cattle, pigs, chicken, ducks roaming free.


Inle Lake fishermen standing and balancing at one the end of their dugout boat with the other with one leg wrapped around a paddle, leaving their hands free to cast nets. Then using their long paddle to slap the water driving the fish into their nets.


Everywhere I saw people using the river or lake to wash everything – themselves, their clothes, dishes, food, animals like their buffalo as well as their newly prized motorbikes and tuk tuks.

Washed clothes just laid out on the ground or on trees to dry.


5 l plastic bottles or clay pots of water with cups on street corners - everywhere and free for anyone to take a drink. Complementary water in the hotel and on most of the buses. Didn’t have to buy any water.

Wells still relied on by many villages for their water supply plus personal washing.

Blue pipes with water inside snaking its way across the land and villages.

Rural water schemes supported by other governments / NGO’s.


Like other countries bamboo used extensively as scaffolding, stairs and furniture.

From the simple rural houses without electricity and running water to modern high rise apartment blocks.

Buildings painted in an array of shocking bright colours … from the purples, pinks to the lime greens.

No glass in their windows – just a thatched shutter.

roofs becoming more prevalent. Wonder if they are galvanised?

Houses raised off the ground for the cooling ventilation plus sheltered housing for the animals or from the lapping lake water.


Power cuts are annoyingly frequent.

Solar panels
in abundance.


Here is another country that will miss the landline era. Villages who currently have no phone will simply move to cell phones and the latest model at that.

Five years ago a mobile phone was US$ 3,500, 2 years ago US$ 600, now US$ 250 and falling. 

Landline phones found on tables on the pavement – local call 40 K for a minute.

TV in every restaurant, tea shop … and even in the temples.

Satellite TV dishes dotting the rural villages.


Most hotels we used had free wi-fi.

Free wi fi in some temples as well.


ATM just starting to be now available in main cities for foreigners to use.

One still needs to keep your US dollars absolutely FLAT, not even folded in your wallet. No bends, creases, tears or marks on them.


Yes, not exactly a clean country (seen worst) with rubbish littering the road and many villages.


Some roads are excellent and a huge effort in progress to upgrade others. Many road crews seen laying the different size rocks helped with some heavy machinery – that’s labour intensive and slow.  
Tolls collected throughout our trip ... someone has to pay for the upkeep of the local roads and bridges.


The overcrowding … from the people sitting on top of the small pick-ups local taxis, local buses, trucks to Golden Rock … saw only 1 road accident.

well and truly overloaded with their goods. Wonder what damage to their suspension and roads?

The introduction of the 3 wheel red tuk tuk for use as both as a local taxi and small lorry. No doubt the start of the demise of the bullock and horse cart used as transportation in towns and rural areas for centuries. Villages are starting shared ones.

The abundance of second hand Chinese trucks with their exposed noisy uncovered engine up front.

The scooter / motor cycle is quickly replacing the bicycle. Scooters / motorbikes are currently banned in Yangon but they are allowed in Mandalay and this looks like any other scooter infested Asian city. Most families have a motorcycle.

Lack of helmets worn plus the 3 - 4 up on a scooter.

With 60 + million people, soon the roads will be clogged and once the middle and upper class earn more, then private cars will be added to the congestion. Second hand cars are imported from China, Japan and Korea. It was interesting to see a mixture of left and right hand drive vehicles - cars, trucks and buses driving on the right hand side of the road.

Petrol stations being built before other essential village buildings.

Local buses are cheap 200 K / US$ .20c / NZ$ .30c / GBP .14.

Local train 100 K.

For the locals to catch a train Yangon to Mandalay taking 12 – 13 hours. 6 – 8,000 K / US$ 8 / NZ$ 10 / GBP 5. For us tourists a bit more expensive.


With Thailand and China as neighbours, there are so many opportunities that abound ... plus the unsavoury side of human (child) trafficking. With the opportunities of better financial rewards across the border, I am sure that many won’t return home. Then there are the tourism opportunities from these 2 as well as the other Asian countries.


Seeing the impact of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s victory in the recent by-elections, the first free and fair election in the country in over 50 years.

Posters of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her father General Aung San who was assassinated July 1947 were on walls of restaurants, tea shops, villages houses, hotels, buses …. everywhere. Books and magazines were abound also featured these 2 local “heroes”.

Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988, after years living and studying abroad, only to find widespread slaughter of protesters rallying against the brutal rule of dictator U Ne Win. She spoke out against him and initiated a nonviolent movement toward achieving democracy and human rights. In 1989, the government placed Suu Kyi under house arrest and she spent 15 of the next 21 years in custody. In 1991 her on-going efforts won her the Nobel Prize for Peace. She was finally released from house arrest in November 2010.

There now appears to be freedom of the press with the newspapers able to criticise and report on current issues like the copper riots and the on-going corruption.

Plenty of army bases with their white star that we past. We were asked not to take any photos of the military installations or personnel so I didn’t.


I truly hope that this wonderful country will not be like South Africa where apartheid, which started in 1948 and ended in 1991 and the blacks first vote was in 1994 .... in that a few have become richer yet many still survive in many shanty towns and still have poor living conditions. Will Myanmar in 20 years time be similar still with shanty towns and people struggling to make ends meet. May Myanmar / Burma learn from the mistakes that some western countries have made?

I wish that I can revisit Myanmar in say 5 and then 10 years time to see the changes that the country will undoubtedly go through. It has already in the last few years jumped forward in leaps and bound so I am so glad that I saw and recorded it in a “snap shot” of time (Jan 2013).

THANKS to my fellow 15 Explore group members whom we were all privileged to learn and share a bit more of our local guide George's wonderful country.
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