Friday, January 16, 2015

Travels in Burma

My trip to Burma was amazing.  The faces, the color, the culture, the religion, the friendly openness of the people... all blended to make this one of my favorite trips of my life.

Burma is a poor country that sits very low on the development scale. Like so many others, colonialism tore it's identity apart and it has never really found it's balance since. Up until 2010, it was largely cut off from the world and under the control of a harsh repressive military regime. Some equate with the harshness Burma was forced to endure under colonial rule. It is hard to figure out where the country stands right now. Things have definitely changed and the country is opening up to the outside world.  Lots of reforms have been made, but the jury is still out as to weather the military is really ready to cede full power. 

One issue is that Burma is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world.  The government recognizes 134 different ethnic groups in a country the size of Texas with a population of about 60 million.  The new freedom is opening up space for contentious ethnic divisions to fester. As often happens, needs and expectations of the people far outweigh results.
Culturally Burma is all about Buddhism. There are ornate gold covered stupas and Buddhas everywhere. It's mind blowing. The thing to do is to visit  temples and learn Buddha's stories. And honestly, I couldn’t get enough.  Now that I am back I miss them. I think its partly because the pagodas seem to be a dynamic center for observing real life in Burma and visiting them gives a vibrant and vivid look into Burmese culture. For instance, we asked our guide what young people do on a date and he said go hang out at the pagoda. Doesn’t seem too romantic to me, but I did see many people using the pagoda grounds as a public space, having tea with friends, reading the paper, checking their smart phones…

We visited Bagan, the city that was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Burma. From the 11th to 13th centuries over 10,000 temples were built and today over 2000 of them still stand in a small radius. One morning I got up and took a balloon ride at sunrise over the temples. It was a magical experience to see the valley below light up and see then full extent of how many temples there are. 

We were very lucky to be in Bagan for it's biggest festival of the year. It coincided with a full moon and a Sunday so it was even bigger than it might have been. Travel kismet. People from rural villages came down into town and camped for up to a week. They shopped at pop-up markets and visited temples. The faces were amazing and their excitement about seeing us was palpable. 

Burma just recently reduced the cost of SIM cards for cell phones down to $1.50  from $200. It means they are accessible to everyone and now EVERYONE seems to have a smart phone and their nose in it. It also means everyone suddenly has a camera and they love to use it. We were a fascination and we often noticed people sneaking a picture of us. We started to ask everyone who took a picture of us for a picture of them and I posed in many shots. 

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