Global Observations

Impression of Myanmar

By Glynnis Rengger  
Ten days later and I am still trying to digest the five-day recce to Yangon.  It is a rare pleasure to find oneself in a place where you stick out like a sore thumb and nobody cares.  Granted it’s not high season – with temperatures in the high thirties making for sticky days and an extreme challenge being outdoors … but still the experience of walking through busy streets, and crowded and colorful markets without being hassled or hustled is quite rare.  Au contraire everyone is going about their business with a certain peacefulness and ease that I certainly have not experienced in any other city with close to 5 million people.  
Markets are everywhere!  Trade is bustling.  Small restaurants catering to all tastes are found at every possible nook and cranny along the road. Life happens on the street in Yangon and there is an overwhelming number of places to go to immerse yourself – in food, art, architecture, culture, religion – even coffee shops.  Starbucks plans are already in action but for now it’s mostly local coffee and it’s good.  No doubt the landscape will change, as has much of the rest of Asia, with its smorgasbord of foreign fast food signs changing the scenery and people’s tastes.  
Not everyone has a cell phone!  Imagine that?  In fact my own trusted telecoms companion didn’t work in Yangon.  Strictly offline until back in the hotel.  Creates a certain space and freedom that our typical Western lives don’t allow for. This too will change.  Both Telenor and Oordeoo are setting up shop fast.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big believer in the exceptional impact mobile has and can make on dynamic markets and the opportunities it creates.  It’s just that one can’t stop the overwhelming feeling of nostalgia – as if you are witnessing the future loss of something ancient and beautiful. A way of life that feels instinctively and intuitively right. And you can’t quite put your finger on it because it isn’t yours to lose.  
Is it that 95% of the country is Buddhist and beautiful, golden stupa’s are everywhere a reminder?  The Schwedagon Pagoda, easily worthy of being one of the great wonders of the world, captures the tranquility and importance placed on daily spiritual ritual and seeking blessing through acts of generosity and kindness.  I had an opportunity to release three birds from captivity, a common temple activity, for a small donation and the feeling was overwhelming.  The street is full of opportunities to give food, money, jewelry, clothing to the monks, nuns and the temple – all which bring blessing on the donor.  “We help each other” is what you hear all the time.  This is a country where people look out for each other.

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It’s hard to marry this experience with the other reality we all know about.  A harsh military government, still very much in power, that has committed some of the worst atrocities ever recorded on its citizens.  Conflict and extreme discrimination continue in hot spots around the country and even the government census has brought focus to its continuing issues with minority groups in the country.  While China, Indonesia and Vietnam accelerate their investment in this country rich in minerals and opportunity, the West is more considered, unsure if real change is happening.  Aung San Suu Kyi continues to have her presidential aspirations thwarted by a rule that bars her, as the wife and mother of foreigners, to run.  Corruption is systemic and ordinary citizens still seem to be looking over their shoulders to see who’s listening while vehemently asserting that the country is now open.  
Still a visit to Dala Township has the same restfulness.  With no running water and very few amenities, life looks pretty good.  An orphanage with 18 children is 100% supported by the village who built a home for the kids on donated ground and provides for all their needs.  Pretty amazing considering how little the rest of the community has.  We have much to learn.  
I recommend a visit and go soon for I suspect it will change fast.  And this is a place where it is good to give to get blessing.