What’s so special about this country? A lot.
The ancient ruins of Bagan, minus the crowds of Angkor Wat? The peaceful floating Shan villages along Inle Lake? The hustle and bustle of Yangon and Mandalay? The very small number of tourists? Maybe. But to me, what really stands out here are the people.
Everyone is so friendly!
The people of Myanmar are some of the nicest people I have ever met while traveling. Never have I been stopped so often by people just wanting to talk, without any ulterior or financial motives. In a country that has been cut off for so long, chatting travelers is a great opportunity for many people to talk about what is going on outside of the country as well as practice their English. And everyone wanted to talk about how much they love Obama and how excited they were that he was here for the ASEAN meeting last week.
My taxi driver on the way to my hostel from the airport recommended bus companies to take around the country and told me not to bother with trains. My first day in Yangon, I went out to lunch at a Shan noodle place near my hostel. I sat across from a young Burmese woman who works as a tour guide. Her English was pretty good, and we started a conversation about the area and where to eat. At the end of the meal, she offered to walk me back to my hostel so I wouldn’t get lost. Hostel staff made sure I had the right medications when I wasn’t feeling well. The list of people selflessly going above and beyond to make sure I had a nice time and felt safe in their country went on and on. After the grind of travel, this friendliness was a welcome surprise and made me feel comfortable even though I was way out of my comfort zone.
Traditional Burmese culture looms larger here than almost anywhere else in Southeast Asia. While kids in Thailand listen to American music and the emerging middle class in Vietnam prefers wearing jeans to anything traditional, people in Myanmar are still very dedicated to certain traditional aspects of their lives, probably because of the lack of ability by western culture to infiltrate the previously closed off country. In Myanmar, many men don’t wear pants. Instead, they wear longyi, which are patterned sarongs also worn by women. I would say about ⅔ of the men on the street wear longyi rather than pants. Definitely a cool thing to see.
The men aren’t the only ones embracing traditional culture. Instead of makeup, women wear thanaka, a yellow paste made from ground bark. Most women wear it for both cosmetic and practical reasons. Apparently, it’s great sunscreen. In a part of the world that’s rapidly changing with development and globalization, it’s nice to see the traditional Burmese culture continuing to survive.
Southeast Asia is deeply tied to Buddhism. Throughout Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, it’s common to see saffron- or maroon-robed monks chanting for alms in the morning. But nowhere have I seen the level of devotion I’ve seen here in Myanmar. In Buddhism, men are encouraged to become monks for a period of time at different parts of their lives. Women can become nuns, but it’s less common. In Myanmar, Buddhist monks and nuns are everywhere. On buses, boats, at temples, on motorcycles and in cafes. Each morning in Bagan, lines of young monks and nuns walked to their schools, while at Inle lake, entire boats full of monks (hiding their shaved head under their robes) floating to villages to chant for donations. It’s fascinating to see such a devout nation and I don’t know if there’s anywhere in Southeast Asia that shares Myanmar’s enthusiasm for religion.
Myanmar isn’t quite like anywhere else in Southeast Asia, but it’s changing fast. Get here before it becomes unrecognizable.