LAST week, I traveled to Yangon, Myanmar (or Rangoon, Burma, if you prefer) to work with the UNICEF office there on developing fundraising and program plans and conduct a communications training on ensuring that government budgets meet children’s needs. Myanmar is a fascinating place. Most of you probably know about the recent decision of the military dictatorship to allow parliamentary elections and release the famous dissident Aung Sang Suu Kyi from years of house arrest, which led to the end of international sanctions. What you might not know — I certainly didn’t — is how rapidly things are changing there. The current President has embarked on a wholescale program of reform, moving from state control of the economy to a more open system, allowing some limited dissent to be voiced, and scheduling elections for 2015.
While there are still huge problems — civil war, human rights abuses – what I thought was really interesting was how flabbergasted everyone seemed by the rapid pace of the changes and the general perception that nobody really understood why the President was really making these moves and how likely they were to actually be implemented, despite the good rhetoric coming from the current government. The other big surprise was how foreign aid still seems to be in the 1960s model, with money pouring into the country, but government resources still very low as donors are more implementing projects than providing resources to the government directly to implement programs itself, an understandable situation given the fact that it’s not clear that the government has either the capacity, or in the long run, the will to actually implement the vast economic and social reforms it’s calling for, but one that people worry is creating a parallel system of service delivery and might undermine the reform agenda in the long run. I have probably done a miserable job summing up the situation; it’s impossible in four days to really get a grasp for what’s going on, but these were just a few of the impressions I got from talking to folks there.
You can see that Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the region just walking around the capital. It’s such a different feeling from Bangkok, or even Phnom Penh. There’s not much sign of a local middle class — no western-style restaurants and bars outside of the few big hotels — and the infrastructure is a mess. Street life, like everywhere else I’ve been in SE Asia, is vibrant, with market stalls and tiny shops organized by street (e.g., a street of plumbing, a street of eyeglasses, a street of sign-makers — apparently I only walked down the REALLY boring merchant streets; I couldn’t find the art or fabrics or anything else for the life of me, even though I’d been told they’re there…).
Some observations from my visit: I was struck by how open and friendly the people in Yangon were; tourism, while growing, is still tiny, and everywhere I went people greeted me with loud “Hello!”s and broad smiles, or shy smiles that got wider and wider as I grinned at them like an idiot.
More random Myanmar observations:
- I nearly died on an AM run crossing the street because they drive on the RIGHT hand side here! Oops — used to looking the other way by now! Also, the cars are left hand drive, which is hysterical.
- NO MOTORCYCLES allowed in Yangon — totally different from every other Asian city I’ve visited. Therefore, despite my looking the wrong way, it felt so much safer to cross the road without crazy motorcycles and scooters ignoring traffic lights.
- While waiting for my cab one morning, I was flirting with an adorable, chubby 5-month old, making him giggle, so his mom just handed him to me and started snapping pictures with her phone, getting me to kiss him and tickle him so he giggled. Diddums!
- Yangon is so green and the air is so clean compared to BKK. Trees and flowers everywhere, and loads of chattering birds. Lovely.
- Many men wear skirts, called longyis, and I have actually seen men holding hands on the street, just friends. LOVE it!
- After BKK at 41 (106.8 degrees), I was absolutely freezing in the hotel, despite cranking the AC all the way to 30 (86) degrees. I ended up sleeping under both blankets and woke up freezing.
- Ran past about 100 people in front of the pagoda one morning, doing some sort of group aerobics (NOT Tai Chi, definitely bouncier!) to that awful Beethoven’s Fifth electronic version. Giggled so hard I had to walk.
- Dragonflys! Dragonflys everywhere! No wonder there are so many birds!
- Green tea salad — pickled green tea leaves, with various other things like crisp fried garlic, peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, crushed dried shrimp, preserved shredded ginger and fried shredded coconut, is absolutely delicious.
- My new favorite thing EVER is the crosswalk signals, with a little man jive-walking until the last couple of seconds when he realizes he’s about to get flattened and rushes to complete his crossing. I laughed and laughed every time I saw one — watch the video to see.
I was fortunate to actually have a whole day to be a tourist (!!) because Friday was a Buddhist holiday and the UN offices were closed. Of course, my first stop was the iconic Shewedagon Pagoda, just around the corner from my hotel. Because it was a major Buddhist holiday, the pagoda was HEAVING. I only saw two other foreigners in the massive crowds, though — everyone else was Burmese, just out enjoying their day off and observing the religious holiday. Perhaps the most interesting thing, that is, the thing that was different from pretty much every other pagoda or temple visit I’ve done, was the actual entrance to the pagoda itself, which was a long, covered set of three escalators, with people on each landing handing out free drinks with big smiles — not sure why, assume it has something to do with the holiday. The funniest part was how the crowds didn’t seem to know how to use the escalator – everyone was stopping before stepping on VERY hesitantly, then giggling as they lurched ahead. Inside, the impressive gold stupa towering over everything, crowds heaved and people meditated, lunched, lit incense, banged on big gongs, and showered stupas and Buddha images with water, as loudspeakers blared, monks received devotions and sunlight glittered off all the gold and mirrors.
Afterwards, I wandered around the downtown area, where the market and many stores were closed because of the holiday but I still got to see little glimpses of everyday life: a man sharpening a knife with a pedal-powered contraption, a couple taking their afternoon siesta at their food stall with a rooster standing watch, people cooking on the street, women wearing traditional sunscreen face paint and everyone just going about everyday life. After the morning of walking, I had (another) amazing green-tea salad in the swank, old, colonial Strand Hotel then headed to a spa for a much-needed massage and mani-pedi. I was exhausted after the long week and morning of walking, and actually fell asleep despite the fact that the massage, manicure and pedicure were all occurring at the same time, awaking with a start and sitting bolt upright, snorting with with confusion when the masseuse turned on the light to get me to flip over. It was slightly embarrassing, to say the least.
All in all, like most of my work trips, I felt that I’d just begun to glimpse the place when it was time to leave. After my friend Julie’s rave reviews of her trip to Myanmar this spring, I encourage everyone to think about getting there while it’s still just opening up – it’s been a world apart for years, and feels so different, so much less globalized, than the other places I’ve been — and I didn’t even make it out of the capital!