a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Our third international trip this year was to Myanmar. After our trip to Japan, we had just enough time to wash clothes and repack our suitcases before we headed out to the southeast Asian country formerly called Burma. It was a business trip for Stephen, but I went along too as I didn't want to miss the chance to visit a country that few people in the world have been to. Myanmar has been under strict military rule and for the past 50 years has been closed to the outside world. Most of the rest of the world had signaled their disapproval of this government by imposing sanctions. Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi have been in the news quite a bit lately. The government is releasing political prisoners, changing censorship practices and signaling to the world it wants to participate again. And the world is responding by lifting sanctions or allowing sanctions to expire.
Before we went I knew very little about Myanmar. I like to read about the history of a place because it gives some background and context to my personal experience. Our flight to Myanmar was quite empty; people were scattered throughout the plane. There are only two flights a week between Phnom Penh and Yangon, Myanmar. We decided to stay from Saturday to Saturday because Stephen needed
more than the couple of days we would have if we took the Wednesday flight instead. We stayed in a fairly decent hotel for $30 a night. The internet was reliable and adequate despite the rolling power outages. The East hotel has a giant generator out back that picks up when the city electricity goes out, which is most of the time. All businesses in Yangon who cater to foreigners have these giant generators. One evening as we were driving back to our hotel we passed a candle light protest. People were gathered peacefully holding candles protesting the lack of electricity. They were demanding 24 hour electricity where the current situation is about 2 hours a day.
As in every city we visit we searched out the good coffee shops and restaurants. Shan noodles are now one of my favorite dishes. They are so good it's almost worth the flight to Yangon to get them! Stephen found this little restaurant called 999 that for about $1 gave you a delicious bowl of noodles and a small bowl of equally delicious soup. It was close to our hotel so we went nearly every day we were there. We found a few coffee shops and though the coffee wasn't fabulous it was decent. At least
it was better than instant Nescafe! You can always count on getting decent tea pretty much anywhere in the world though, so sometimes I opted for that instead of coffee. On two different days I sat at a table in our hotel restaurant next to their floor to ceiling windows, ordered a pot of tea and worked on my colored pencil drawing.
On Sunday we visited the main tourist destinations in the city. As we walked along the streets it felt as though almost everyone was staring at us. Knowing that the people of this country have been mostly cut off from the rest of the world made me wonder if this wasn't partly the reason for their unrestrained stares. I looked back at people and noticed that there were many differences in facial features and skin color. Myanmar is bordered by China to the north and India to the west. Indochina is
the old term for the region of southeast Asia which includes both Myanmar and Cambodia. I could definitely see on the streets of Yangon the bigger mix of ethnicity in Myanmar. Cambodia is fairly homogeneous with 85% of the country being Khmer. While Myanmar has 135 distinct ethnic groups recognized by its government.
It seemed as though the entire population wears the same outfit: a kind of long wrap around skirt with a shirt. Both men and women wear skirts. And flat shoes are the norm. There are no motos (motorcycles) to be seen in the city; they are not allowed. A few years ago a government official was in an accident involving a moto so from then on motos were banned from the city. You can still see motorcycles in rural areas though, as we did when we drove out to a rural village. People get around in broken down beyond overcrowded buses or by walking.

To meet with clinic staff and tour a village for a potential project, we drove 4 hours north of Yangon. The driver of the van, both provided by the Christian organization partner, had from my perspective shocking driving habits. Though we drove on a wide new four lane freeway with hardly any traffic to speak of, our driver gave no room to motos, bicycles, or pedestrians we happened to pass. Instead of simply moving into the open lane to the left and passing safely, he honked his horn obnoxiously for great distances and then shaved past the moto, bicycle or pedestrian. I was perplexed and dismayed by this behavior.
We met with a small group of people at the clinic. Only the doctor spoke English well enough to communicate with us directly. The others' words went through a translator. It is very difficult to read the body language of people of another culture but I sensed a kindly vibe from the women. The doctor who spoke English seemed like a mild and compassionate woman. Being in that meeting made me wish I learned language easily and could then serve as a translator. But my Khmer language study tells me that isn't very likely, I'm afraid. :(
After the clinic meeting we visited one village served by the clinic. It was a long walk from the road and through another village. The heat was staggering or I would have captured many more images of this intriguing rural village of Myanmar. The children we passed pointed at us and burst out laughing.
I don't exactly know the reason, but the laughter of children is a beautiful sound. I laughed too. The
cows are healthy and fat in Myanmar. We passed a man herding his cattle up the road. And next to
the church, people were using a machine to separate rice. It was all quite fascinating but I was hot and my camera was hot and we really didn't have a lot of time; we still had to drive the 4 hours back to Yangon.

Since returning from our trip, I've been reading a book called "Finding George Orwell in Burma".  The author is an American journalist writing under the pseudonym Emma Larkin. As a young man, George Orwell took a post in Burma for the British army. One of Orwell's earliest books is called Burmese Days drawn from his 5 years living in Burma. In Emma's conversations with locals, she recorded how the Burmese love to read and they especially love George Orwell. With Burmese Days as part one, the Burmese consider Animal Farm and 1984 as parts two and three of a trilogy about Burma.  His books are banned but supposedly there are still copies to be found hidden in the country. When I finish Finding George Orwell I am going to read "Letters from Burma," a collection of articles written for a Japanese newspaper by Aung San Suu Kyi after one of her releases from house arrest. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and is the leader for human rights and democracy in Burma, just recently elected to parliament.

One week in Myanmar was plenty for me. Myanmar is even poorer than Cambodia and we could certainly feel that even as visitors. When we returned from Japan, Cambodia felt unpleasant in a number of ways compared to all the wonderful things we found and enjoyed while in Japan. But when we returned to Cambodia from Myanmar, Cambodia felt so pleasant. Cambodians are friendly, there are so many more restaurants and really good coffee, and the light in Phnom Penh is better to draw and paint by. It's all relative...

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