Apologizing for the long delay due to limited WiFi, Diane and I have been in Myanmar for a week now. Finding it difficult to put into words, this county is a special place that steals your heart from the minute you walk out of the airport. Having spent a few days in Yangon, travelling out to The Golden Rock area by bus and returning again, we can’t get seem to get enough. Catching us both off guard, let’s clarify something from the beginning. Looking more like a real third world city in sub Saharan Africa similar to what we’ve seen on episodes of The Amazing Race, much of the city’s buildings look dilapidated with that horrible dark gray soot covering every inch of the building.
Strolling along the “strand” (waterfront) beckons the days of colonialism as you approach the controlled chaos of the ferry terminal that transports people across the river to an area known as Dala that’s actually considered a slum. Carrying everything from fish to rice in large baskets over their heads, you won’t likely find this much old world charm in the heart of any other major downtown area in Southeast Asia. Unlike Penang, Myanmar is just beginning to enter its foray into vibrant tourism which means construction of modern buildings, hotels and shopping complexes. But most of it just started, leaving the city in a bizarre state where a shanty developing world meets modern storefronts, shopping complexes and new restaurants. Promising to post lots of stories and pictures once we get back, I want to focus on what makes this place so special; its people.
Although The Golden Rock is the third most popular pilgrimage site in the nation and thousands of tourists come every year, very few stay in the little town of KinPun long enough to do anything but catch a crazy giant flatbed truck that takes people up the winding steep road with grades far beyond what you’ve ever seen. Often spending all their time at the top, it’s kind of a carnival atmosphere with two hotels, food vendors and trails that nobody ever takes. (More on that in a future post). Diane and I volunteered to do a work exchange program for seven days at one of the lodges in the gateway village. Unfortunately, it’s off-season due to the heat and there wasn’t much work to do anyway. With no guests other than us and an already bored live-in staff of twelve Burmese, we decided to just pay for three nights and explore the area. Only two steps down the street, we discovered what really makes this place great. Admiring one the awesome straw and wood houses where multiple families live, the girls you see in the window invited us in to spend some time and have tea. Usually considering ourselves too “western-touristy” to partake in something so genuine, it’s impossible to refuse when you feel such generosity from people who have so little willing to share. Humbling us in a minute, here’s the house we entered.
Quickly getting past any uncomfortable feelings, the strangest part of our world today came into play as we entered the children’s room and saw them all playing with 3G smartphones. Eager to take pictures of us, technology allows these kids a new sense of empowerment and none of them are the least bit shy. Allowing us to explore the entire house, we sat and had tea and before long word got out and some young men that looked like teens came by and chatted, clearly anxious to practice their English. After about an hour, one of them who told us he only had limited work when he could get it led us down some back streets that tourists would never see and would’ve gladly spent the entire day with us had we wanted to. Promising to post lots more stories and pictures of all the other great things we’ve seen and will do over the next two weeks, I hope these pictures inspire you to come visit this beautiful developing nation before it falls victim to extreme tourism as Vietnam and Thailand have.
Planning on joining the international banking community and already contracting with many countries to improve infrastructure, now is the time to enjoy the people while they’re in the innocence phase. The few locals we’ve seen with some money at our hotel already act like assholes, staring at us and acting condescending to the hotel staff. Seeing a brighter future, Myanmar has decades to go before reaching the status of its SE Asian neighbors and hopefully the democratically elected government stays in place and provides a better future for these friendly and warm people. Unexpected encounters often make the best part of trips and this one will stay with us a long time.
Here we are enjoying tea with our hosts and below that are some of the family members. The guy that spoke English told us he didn’t know how many live in that house but he thinks it’s about fifteen.
Taking us down side streets, we saw kids playing makeshift games from dirt volleyball courts made from bamboo, some older folks enjoying their quiet time and various others who probably don’t see foreigners on their street very often. Well worth the extra day.
Although there is WiFi here, it’s very slow so please be patient and I’ll try to post another few entries before we get home in May 10th. With so many fascinating stories in such a short time I hope I’ll be able to recall them all and we will have hundreds of great photos and videos so please check back soon.
Cheers from Yangon