Snapshots from Myanmar

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Asia » Burma
February 7th 2017
Published: February 7th 2017
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I got back from Myanmar and promptly came down with pneumonia. I do not recommend getting pneumonia. It is tiring, and I am bored with it. But now that I am recovering, it is time to finish up my Burmese blogs.

Emerging Country

I don’t like the term “third world country,” it seems so condescending. So I’m taking a phrase from the financial pages: “emerging market,” or “emerging country.” Emerging seems to fit Myanmar very well; this is a country just emerging from the cocoon of an oppressive regime, and the people are curious about the world and eager to learn more about it.

Books and More Books

There are bookstores and second-hand bookshops everywhere. In some parts of the city it is common to see a bookseller spread a tarp on the sidewalk and arrange his books for sale. Many of the books are in English, and even in grocery stores there are whole sections set aside for books for English learners. There are nineteen (nineteen!) daily newspapers. The thirst for knowledge is real.

Since I am incapable of walking out of a bookstore without buying something, I ended up chatting with the manager of
bookseller smilingbookseller smilingbookseller smiling

Friendly when he was talking to me,I had to coax him to smile for the camera.
a tiny book stall. The next day I came back to give him an American magazine I was finished with. He was so moved by that little act of kindness he insisted I sit and have tea with him.

One of the things I noticed was that people who had gone to school in the early 1960s or earlier spoke pretty good English. People who had gone to school in the past five years spoke pretty good English as well. But the folks who had learned English in the intervening 50 years or so were not proficient. While they may know the correct words, and could read English fairly well, their pronunciation was off, mainly because they had not had the opportunity to hear spoken English. This is what happens when your country is cut off from the rest of the world.

Betel Juice

I had read about the chewing of betel nut, heck I’ve even visited the home of the “Gambier King” of Singapore. But I had never actually seen anyone preparing and chewing betel. I can tell you now that it is fairly disgusting. A betel leaf is smeared with slaked lime and wrapped around

nuns on their morning rounds
a piece of areca palm nut. This quid is chewed or placed in the cheek, much like chewing tobacco, and the resulting saliva is spit out. This leads to roads and sidewalks stained a rusty red from the betel, and people with a mouthful of ruined teeth.

Betel chewing is very widespread. I don’t recall seeing anyone in Myanmar smoking, but there were people preparing and selling betel quids on every street corner, and pretty much everyone who smiled at you showed you red-stained, broken teeth.

Pagodas and Monks and Nuns

I like Buddhist temples, and can happily spend hours admiring their intricacies, or sitting in the cool silence of a temple hall. But even I became “templed out.” There are just so many! Many of them are very beautiful, but even the poorest neighborhood will have its pagoda, and monks and nuns are common sights around town. It is good manners – and a way to earn merit – to drop a few kyat in a monk’s alms bowl.

The General and the Lady

Before I came to Myanmar, I was cautioned not to talk politics. It wasn’t all that long ago that a Burmese citizen seen talking with a foreigner was going to be followed and questioned. What I found though, was everyone wanted to talk politics with me. And those discussions invariably centered on “The Lady.”

I don’t presume to say that I understand Myanmar, much less the political intricacies of the country (heck, I don’t understand the politics of my own country, witness the 2016 elections.) But I have come to realize that to get any sort of handle on present day Myanmar you have to have a bit of background, and some understanding of “The General” and “The Lady.”

“The General” is General Aung San, variously called a resistance fighter, a nationalist leader, the architect of independence, and the founder of the Union of Burma. His picture once graced the Burmese money, and school children are still taken on field trips to his grave site. He is still a much respected figure in Myanmar. “The Lady” is his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, head of the National League for Democracy Party, and a well-respected person in her own right.

The much abbreviated version of the story is this: Aung San fought for independence for his country, first from the British, then from the Japanese, and then from the British again. He brought together all the various armies and factions fighting for Burma, and signed an agreement with Britain promising independence.

He was assassinated shortly thereafter. Civil war broke out in the northern part of the country, and the military took over the government in 1962. It was supposed to be temporary; it lasted until 2011.

His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi continued her father’s fight for freedom and human rights. After working at the United Nations for three years, she became an official in the newly formed National League for Democracy. Even though the NLD won 81% of the seats in Parliament in the 1990 election, the military refused to hand over power. Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 of the next 21 years under house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, however the military government would not allow her to leave the country to accept it. She was finally released from house arrest in 2011, due mainly to pressure from the international community.

In the election of 2015 the NLD won the majority of seats in parliament, and even though Aung San Suu Kyi was barred by law from becoming president, it is no secret, either within Myanmar or outside, that she is the real power in the administration.

Today you see Aung San Suu Kyi’s face on calendars, key chains, t-shirts, and all manner of tourist tat.

The Civil War You Never Heard About

A violent civil war has been going in northern Myanmar for the past fifty years. At last count there are about fifteen different factions fighting each other and the Burmese military. Add into that the turmoil caused by the drug trade, and you have a blood-soaked mess. Consequently, there are whole chunks of the country, primarily in the north and east, where a tourist needs prior permission to enter. This is an improvement from a few years ago when the Shan, Chin, and Rakhine states, among others, were off limits to foreigners.

Even if you are granted permission, this is still an active war zone. Aerial bombing runs were carried out by the Burmese military in December of 2016, and landmines continue to be an issue. This is not the place to be a tourist.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

To quote the old song from The Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?’

Myanmar is a beautiful country with a crumbling infrastructure, kind people, an active civil war, and, no, you can’t drink the water. If you are looking to see some history before it is all gone, by all means, visit. If you are interested in Theravada Buddhism, you will find lots to contemplate. But if you are looking for a place you can roam around at will and expect everyone to speak English, well, you should probably wait a while.

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25



my hotel was down this street

showing the parts of the country not open to tourists without permission
Shan ladiesShan ladies
Shan ladies

At the Shwedagon pagoda. The Shan state is one of the areas were the civil war continues.
me and monksme and monks
me and monks

these young monks really wanted their picture taken with me
public transportpublic transport
public transport

All the local people told me tourists did not ride public buses.

the Foreign Corespondent's Club
Telegraph OfficeTelegraph Office
Telegraph Office

crumbling, but still in use

7th February 2017

Books and more books....
It's a nice read, Karen. I love places where l can spend hours browsing books. I didn't know that such a passion exists in a country run by military junta. Regarding betel nuts, u are absolutely right. I was born North-east lndia and it is so rampant there.... They are close to Myanmar, so habit must have integrated over time.
7th February 2017

My understanding is that when the military was in control, English language books were kept under wraps. Now that the National League for Democracy is in power (though the constitution decrees that the military hold 25% of the seats in Parliament) information is flowing much more freely. Still not a lot of interaction with the West, but a little more open.
9th February 2017

Your trip seems to be exciting. You have truly given a overall view of Myanmar. Visit:
9th February 2017

Thank you for your comment, and thanks for reading.
9th February 2017

Nice info and clear explanation.Thanks for sharing such a informative content. it was very helpful. regards, john
9th February 2017

Thank you for your comment. I plan on writing another Myanmar blog, so stay tuned!
9th February 2017

Interesting history!
Karen, sorry to hear you had Pneumonia and am glad you are back to your writing! Interesting obervance on spoken English of the people during that 50 years of isolation. I remember my My Myanmar ESL students very well; there have only been a few in the past 10 years. One student set up his musical instrument for the class and performed for us. It sounded like a stringed xylophone, if you can imagine; sounded beautiful. He was a neat person. Myanmar has had such a rough history with it's civil war going on and on. I'm surprised you were able to travel so freely! Welcome home, I'll look for you at Tri City!
9th February 2017

I really didn't travel outside the typical tourist areas of Yangon and Bagan, and tourism in those areas is a source of much needed hard currency. It will be interesting to see how Myanmar evolves over the coming years.
10th February 2017
downtown 2

We nearly had a brief sojourn there for Denise's birthday last year but got busy so it did not eventuate. I had thought sooner rather than later but I note you seem to say to wait a while. Food for thought?
10th February 2017
downtown 2

It depends....
You and Denise are well traveled, and I think you would enjoy going now. I've talked to some people who seem to think they can just rent a motorcycle and travel through the north into Thailand. That is a bad idea. There is some interesting history here, with the whole story of the British considering Myanmar a division of India. Throw in the story of General Aung San, and you have the makings of a pretty good movie. The temples are stunning, particularly in Yangon, and if that interests you, you'll have a field day. The people are welcoming, especially the older ones, and even as a single woman, I never felt uncomfortable. So, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Myanmar to you, but people who are expecting the conveniences of a developed country will be disappointed.
14th February 2017

Burma vs Myanmar
It will be very interesting to see how they deal with the emerging tourism market, but we would really like to get there sooner rather than later (apart from the war zone areas of course). Regarding the Burma vs Myanmar name, did you get a sense which the locals preferred to use? As for the people who 'expect everyone to speak English', I would suggest they restrict their travels to English-speaking countries :) Hope you've fully recovered from that horrid pneumonia...
14th February 2017

Myanmar vs Burma
I got the impression that Myanmar is the preferred name. Without getting too deep into the country's history, "Bamar" or "Bama" is actually the name of the largest ethnic group in the country. The Portuguese, then the British, then the Japanese all called the country by some variation of "Bamar" or "Birmah." The name "Mranmah" or "Myanma" dates back to the 12th century. In the post colonial era, it was decided to change the country's name to Myanmar to be more inclusive of all ethnic groups. In April 2016, soon after taking office, Aung San Suu Kyi clarified that foreigners are free to use either name, "because there is nothing in the constitution of our country that says that you must use any term in particular."
19th February 2017

Artsy photography
19th February 2017

World travel opens minds
So wonderful that you shared your magazine with the shop owner. Always good to have a tea party. I would imagine everyone who goes to Burma gets templed out...we did. You can't help it...there are thousands. Nice read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
19th February 2017

Kind words
I wish I had brought more magazines with me. I did have a copy of "Rolling Stone" with me, but I was concerned that the fashion choices of some of the celebrities featured might be offensive. I ended up giving the RS to an Australian couple.

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