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Sunday, January 24, 2016

11 Things About Myanmar That May Surprise You


"During the three weeks I spent wandering through postcard 
perfect scenes of bustling markets, glittering pagodas and faded
British hill stations I found it hard to believe I was traveling
through a country that has one of the worst records for human
rights abuse in the world. To me, this is the most staggering thing
about Burma: that the oppression of an entire nation of some 
50 million people can be completely hidden from view."

The changes I witnessed in Korea between 1973, when I arrived there as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and 1988, when I returned for the Summer Olympics, were nothing less than astounding. Myanmar may be on an even faster track.

The magic that is Myanmar is easily accessible from South Korea and the rest of Northern Asia. You can jumpstart your trip with a flight from Inchon or Busan. We flew to Bangkok and then went on to Mandalay. It’s from that city, or the capital, Yangon, where most people launch their Myanmar adventures. Capture the essence of Myanmar before Starbucks arrives.

Myanmar's most famous site, Shwedagon Paya,
in the capital city of Yangon.

Here are 11 surprising things about the country formerly known as Burma:
1. The infamous dictatorship here is, for all practical purposes, invisible to routine travelers. Other than a few propaganda paperbacks on our night stand in one hotel, the military government’s presence to tourists has largely receded into the background. To be sure, everyone here knows people who have served in prison. Myanmar and North Korea share common histories of cruelty and oppression. But with the recent open elections, Myanmar's military leaders have apparently decided to take a new path. The air here is filled with a cautious optimism.

2. International tourism and business is evident everywhere here and is already taking off. Planes are filled with the likes of LNG deal-makers and NGO staffers. Tourists abound from Germany, Italy, France, other parts of Europe and the U.S. From Asia, Koreans and Japanese arrive in large groups. Building cranes dot the skyline, especially in Yangon, where several KFC's recently opened. 

Construction cranes, these from South Korea, dot Yangon's skyline.

3. ATM’s are now accessible nearly everywhere you might go as a tourist. Yes, you will run into "out of order"signs on some machines, but it is generally easy to get access to your funds. 

4. U.S. dollars are no longer required! It was routinely suggested that you need to bring clean, crisp unfolded US dollars when you travel to Myanmar. While it is always smart to have back-up currency, it is no longer obligatory. Yes, dollars are nice to have, but you can access and use the local currency everywhere.

5. Everyone in Myanmar is courteous and friendly. The rest of Asia (and the West) can learn a lot about courtesy and "service with a smile" from the people of Myanmar. One surprising and effective practice we found throughout the country was that nearly every waitperson repeated our order before handing it off to the kitchen.

The people of Myanmar are universally friendly
and always seem to be smiling.

6. Though sometimes intermittent and frustratingly slow, the Internet is available in most hotels and in many restaurants and other establishments. We found the best reception in hotel lobbies. It is also easy to buy mobile sim cards thanks to two large foreign service providers from Saudi and Norway. The national service provider, MPT, is partnering with Japan to deliver services.

7. Meals can be had anywhere for just a few bucks. The food, a wonderful mélange of native dishes, Chinese and Thai culinary delights, is consistently delicious and inexpensive.  One of our more expensive dinners (there were two of us) came to $19 (including tip). We had four (4) cocktails, shared a soup and had large plates of chicken fried rice, fresh vegetables in oyster sauce, and a mixed grille seafood plate. Oh yes, there was a shrimp appetizer too.

8. Myanmar is a Baptist country! Well, in a sense. Myanmar is home to the world’s third largest Baptist population. That's in addition to the ubiquitous stupas and Buddhist temples that dot the country--which is 89% Buddhist overall.

9. Myanmar is about to go democratic. Well, fingers crossed on that one. But Noble Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to lead the NLD (National League for Democracy) Party’s transition to power in April, 2016. There is universal support and optimism here for her leadership. Recently, her party called for all citizens to go out and reduce the litter in their streets and communities. The next day millions of people heeded the call, including soldiers who nominally opposed her party's coming to power.
A calendar on the wall of a business in Mandalay. The NLD Party,
led by Nobel Prize winner, Aung Sun Suu Kyi, comes to power
in April 2016. Here, she is pictured meeting with President, Barak Obama,
first sitting U.S. President to visit Myanmar.

10. Many people in Myanmar have “double names.” One flight attendant’s name was Ei Ei Tun. Our guides’ names included Sai Sai and Min Min. One of our waitresses in the beach town of Ngapali was So So. Her service was, in fact, much better than her appellation would suggest. Traditionally, Myanmar people do not have surnames. The spelling of their first names tells others what day of the week they were born on. 
    
    11. The book "Animal Farm" was actually about Burma. Dogs are everywhere in Myanmar. And in the countryside, one sees pigs in nearly every nook and cranny. Dogs and pigs. It's not coincidental then that dogs and pigs took over the farm in George Orwell's Animal Farm. Orwell, who served with the British Imperial Police Force in Burma in the 1920's, found his life transformed by his experience there. While many people believe his famous works 1984 and Animal Farm were either about England or Russia, they were actually largely influenced by his experiences in Burma.

    Pleasant surprises are plentiful in Myanmar, a nation with more than 50 million smiling people hoping to finally reap the benefits of their richly endowed country. Myanmar is at the crossroads of the new world, where the two most populous countries, China and India, meet. It's a place with countless Buddhist temples and an array of ethnic tribes and racial groups that are as diverse as the spices and tastes one finds here. Countless too, are the reasons to find your way to Myanmar...before the boom.

A woman from one of the hill tribes in the Golden Triangle area of
Shan State. Integrating the many ethnic tribes will be one of the
countless challenges facing the new government.