After travelling almost a month in Burma, I can honestly say that this country definitely tugs at your heart and the experience won’t leave you in a hurry!
The level of poverty is appalling and the contrast with the rich is astounding; it’s common to see a palatial mansion among still inhabited rundown thatched huts. Inle Lake offers hotels with rooms upwards of US$350 per night (as does Bagan) and much more, whilst many of the floating villages on the Lake have no running water, power, or sewage.
The disparity between the rich and poor is so great that the similarities reminded me of when I solo-backpacked through India for a month, back in 1985.
At the time of writing, the average hospitality wage in Burma is around US$40-60 per month but if you’re a Graduate working in Yangon or Mandalay, the average wage is US$80-100. It’s obscene to be spending upwards of US$350 per night for accommodation and as a tourist, I felt awkward spending US$31 per night (in low season). Apparently, as a large proportion of the economy is being controlled by supporters of the former military government, thus, the income gap is among the widest in the world.
The archaic back-breaking methods with bullocks in farm fields; the laying of roads by women and men by hand, which one would expect to see some hundred years’ ago; the buildings built by hand (concrete slabs poured by bucket load), makes you realise how lucky and soft most Westerners are, but mostly, makes you really appreciate what you have in life.
As expected, the army is prominent in some areas more than others, but typically throughout the country. Travel on most routes and you’ll see many pristine and well-kept army bases; it’s obvious where the country’s money is used.
Signs of tourism are seeping through, such as new flash hotels/buildings in the main tourist destinations, especially Inle Lake and Bagan. Tourism will change the local culture and bring its own set of problems to the country but Burma is screaming for progress.
Already, children in the street are asking for money from tourists; it’s an easy way to make everyday life a little easier and not so arduous for locals. Poverty is so ingrained and as children are born into this type of life, it seems that as they grow, there’s not much aspiration for a better life – they can’t visualise betterment as they’ve never known anything else. For me, this makes Burma extremely and morally confronting. But the warm smiles that radiate from the people and the countless “Mingalaba” (hello) you’ll receive throughout your travels, makes Burma an incredibly humbling country!