Myanmar Circa 2017
An amazing people and place. Myanmar in 2017 is a place and time seemingly disconnected and out of sync with much of the world in the 21st century. This is neither unexpected nor a bad thing. While on the road across and around myanmar for 28 solid days of Myanmar immersion I was of course posting daily to all my social media feeds and was getting a lot of interesting feedback for all my followers. Having lived in Asia for 15 years I have lots of asian and western followers. No matter whether my followers were from Thailand or China, or america or finland everyone had comments to make about how surprised they were about some aspect of Myanmar daily life. I'll do my best to touch on the more interesting of these disconnects between expectation and reality.
One of the most striking things about Myanmar was it's connectedness and by that I mean how easy it was for my to stay connected to the internet even in the middle of the jungle on top of some mountain in the middle of nowhere. But let me put a caveat on this one. I would expect that all of us 21st century folk would expect to find good qualityinternet pretty much anywhere where there is a reasonably sized community of people or at least in a city. This was not the case in almost all of Myanmar. Even in the actual cities of Myanmar the land lines were almost always terrible. However I was able to get very good quality 4G almost everywhere. This is not unsurprising as the country basically missed the whole generation of internet development that required wires. They skipped right over it and went pretty much straight to 4g. The issue here is that it is pay per kilobit so you have to pay for all your uploading of pictures and video which can be costly if your are a photographer such as myself. But the quality of the internet in Myanmar is surprisingly good as long as you are prepared to pay for it. I do feel it is important to mention though that there is internet backbone there somewhere that is wired because all those 4G towers still need fiber optic cable to connect to the main data centers but it seems we at street level do not have access via cable to that backbone.
One of the interesting comments that was made by one of my followers after looking at my photos of how most Myanmar people live in the jungle in shacks made from the jungle and without electricity . Very much village life. My follower commented on how the people, "have nothing". I thought this was interesting because it is the opposite of how I had personally interpreted the environment. What I saw was people living in small communities in shacks in the jungle and they all had homes, food, family friends and were very definitely in communities of people interacting and helping each other all day every day. Most notably I saw that these people and their communities had everything without the need for internet, AC, cars, electricity and all the other things we "have" in the developed world. What I saw was happiness and joy. What I saw was people loving life and each other and living in harmony with their community, and their environment. This experience made me feel the opposite of my comenter, I felt and feel like these people living in the jungle with nothing are much richer than me and most people I know. I likely don't need to reference the disconnectedness of the communities that we live in despite our constant connectedness via social media. My family is fragmented with each member of my immediate family living in separate cities and even different countries. So the question is would I trade all my digital connectedness for a "simpler" jungle life with none of my modern toys? Although my experience here was only 28 days I certainly left the jungle with the feeling that I could live without everything if I could trade it all for a life surrounded by a community like these. There is always that one thing though that would be really hard to relinquish and for me that would be my camera. I could certainly live without it for a while but eventually I'd be reaching for it.
I travelled throughout Myanmar by bus, van, taxi and on occasion by boat. Everywhere you travel in Myanmar in 2017 you will see road construction. Many of the existing roads are very old and in poor repair and so are being upgraded and in many places new roads are being built to connect areas that were difficult to reach or in fact unreachable by traditional means in the past. The development of Myanmar appears to me as a foreigner as the beginning of the building of a country. Myanmar is not a new country and in fact has a long and colored history. But it feels like a new country as everything is being either built now or rebuilt. My impression was that as long as things continue the development of Myanmar is going to be robust and will accelerate as the development of roads and infrastructure allow the speed to increase.
Prior to opening tourism a few years ago there were only a few places that tourists were allowed to visit in Myanmar. Places like Yangon, Bagan, and Inle Lake. All of these places have been catering to tourists for many years and as a result the people here were very experienced in how to get tourists to part with their money. This wasn’t a bad thing and I didn’t ever feel like I had been taken advantage of but there was a feeling of everything being staged in most of these places. All of the places that I visited that were previously not available to visit prior to opening were not only much more genuine but were the best places I visited on my trip. The local markets, morning markets,jungle walks and cave tours in remote areas were amazing and raw and real and fresh and unlike any places I have travelled in the past. Great food, people, air and scenery in all the remote jungle places I was able to see. Places Like Gwa and Pyay were just incredibly themselves having not been adulterated by western or even 21st century influences. I loved these places and their people. Some of them were dirty and gritty. No let me adjust that statement. They were all gritty and dirty and charming and special and unique. Most of these places had no other foreigners or even foreign influence. They were raw undoctored Myanmar and I loved them and their people. In contrast to places like Bagan which every tourist hears about and wants to visit but upon arrival in Bagan I found the roads to be made from not dirt or gravel but from concentrated dust. As a result the air is constantly filled to varying degrees of dustiness. At times impairing visibility entirely and causing quite a lot of discomfort and even pain in my eyes and lungs. I am a strong guy and rarely get sick but in Bagan the dust weakened my immune system and I got quite ill as a result. I didn’t feel right again until several days after leaving Bagan. Bagan was nice but not great and nowhere near as interesting as almost everywhere else I went. My takeaway was that all the famous places in Myanmar are fine but most can be outright skipped if you are on a short trip. If your time is limited I would suggest putting yourself at any of the small towns or villages in the jungle and make some local friends or find a local guide and get immersed in the community and discover the real Myanmar and its people, culture and food. If you only have time enough for one thing in Myanmar I would suggest going straight to Hpa-An and stay at the Galaxy Hotel and take their monastery cave tour.... To be continued....
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