Reflections of Burma

July, 2014

After travelling for almost one month in Burma and now having some time to reflect back, I can honestly say that this country definitely tugs at your heart, and the experience won’t leave you in a hurry!

Confronting poverty

The first thing I noticed in Burma is the level of poverty.

Not only is the poverty appalling but the contrast with the rich, is astounding. It is common-place here to see a palatial mansion nestled amongst still-inhabited but rundown thatched huts, without running water.

Stunning Inle Lake offers hotels with rooms upwards of USD$350 per night, as does the Temple Town of Bagan. Much higher prices can also be found in these two popular tourist destinations. You have to remember that many of the floating villages on Inle Lake do not have running water, power, or sanitation. The locals are extremely poor in these highly tourist areas, which is a paradox in itself – something is not quite right.

Inle Lake, Myanmar, Burma
Building roads by hand in all weathers and conditions

The disparity between the rich and poor is so great that the similarities remind 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 USD$40-60 per month. Although, if you are a Graduate working in Yangon or Mandalay, the average wage is USD$80-100 per month.

For me, I feel that it is obscene to be spending upwards of USD$350 for one night’s accommodation in Burma. Even if I could afford this nightly cost, I would not do this as a tourist. I even feel awkward spending around USD$30 per night for a double, whilst travelling in Burma during the low season. Remember, costs are much higher during the high season and I would hate to think what a room does cost in this season.

Myanmar, Inle Lake, Burma
Local rustic taxi

The archaic back-breaking methods with bullocks in farm fields. The laying of rocks by hand for roads by women and men, which you would expect to see some hundred years’ ago, and not today. Buildings are still built by hand, with concrete slabs poured and handled manually by the bucketload and a pulley system. All of these difficult daily methods that the local Burmese have to endure just to survive, makes you realise how lucky but also how soft most Westerners are; and mostly, makes you very appreciative of what you have in your own life.

The ruling class

As a large proportion of the economy is controlled by supporters of the former military government, and so, the income gap is among the widest in the world. Many locals confirm this as true, and it is in the government’s interest to keep people in this state of poorness.

As expected, the army is more prominent in some areas of Burma than in others, but typically, there is a presence across the country. Travel on most routes and it won’t be long before you see many pristine and well-kept army bases, which is a display of where the money is spent in Burma.

Inle Lake, Burma, Myanmar
Market shopping

Conflicting observations

The other confronting issue for me is that there are many gold-gilded and jewelled temples throughout this country, which is quite obscene considering the extreme poverty here. This displays that religion isn’t giving back to, or caring for its people. To give you another example, on arriving from Bangkok to Yangon’s airport and having to change currency at the airport, the most unusual thing occurred.

I was standing in line behind a robed Monk with a large bulky shoulder bag.

The Monk proceeded to change pristine bills in USD$1,000 lots to Myanmar Kyat (country’s currency) at the money changer. He then went to a couple of different money changers to continue to change more USD$1,000 bundles. I knew the amount as I had to wait whilst the money was counted and checked that it was not counterfeit money. I was behind him each time as my American dollars were knocked back from the same counters, due to having a slight crease or being a tad dirty for the money changers.

You may be thinking, well, no one knows where this money came from, it could have been donated, where the money is going, what it is used for, or other, and this is true. Although, what I also did notice in Burma is that the majority of Monks I saw, all have the latest mobile phones and the latest technology gadgets. This is not my understanding of Buddhism at all – unless I have totally got this religion wrong? I would love to hear your thoughts on this or correct me if I have indeed understood incorrectly.

Inle Lake, Burma, Myanmar
Friendly market vendors


Signs of tourism are seeping through, albeit slowly.

New flashy hotels and buildings, mostly built with Chinese money, in the main tourist destinations are either under construction or already built. This is especially evident in Inle Lake and Bagan, as these are very lucrative travel destinations for certain locals and foreign investors.

As in other countries, tourism will change the local culture and bring its own set of problems to this country no doubt, but in 2014, Burma is still screaming for progress and a reduction in poverty.

Inle Lake, Burma, Myanmar
Inle Lake napping

Already, you see children in the streets asking tourists for money, especially in Yangon.

The begging is 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 is not much aspiration for a better life.

Locals can’t visualise betterment as they have never known anything else but poverty and hardship. This is also one of the reasons that so many Burmese risk everything to cross the border into Thailand and start a new life.


For me, all of the issues I’ve discussed in this post, make Burma extremely and morally confronting.

Although above all this, the warm smiles that radiate from the people and the countless “Mingalaba” (hello) you will receive throughout your travels, also makes Burma an incredibly special and humbling country.

The natural and ancient cultural beauties of Inle Lake, HsipawBagan, and many more sites that Burma has to offer, including the simple but delicious cuisine, makes this country a fantastic but eye-opening destination. And, a country not to be missed, whether it’s travelling for just a couple of weeks or for longer.

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more images. More blogs on Burma.

Inle Lake, Burma, Myanmar
Ancient methods
Inle Lake, Myanmar, Burma
Going home

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12 responses to “Reflections of Burma”

  1. Sketchpacker Avatar

    That wage is horrible. What would you say is the average cost of living for those who would earn that wage? And about the lack of ambition – that’s tough. Would you say that with more exposure to our globalised world that ambition will grow?

    1. Nilla Palmer Avatar

      Hi, thanks for your comment! As everywhere, the average cost depends on the city/town and although food, clothing, and transport are cheap for a local, I didn’t think to ask what rent, hospital costs, etc. are for a month. Also, there’s an awful lot of information online about the cost of living for “expats”, which is opulent compared to a local’s cost of living. The costs I quoted in my blog came from speaking with locals trying to survive, not expats.

      Unfortunately, the military regime, their family and friends reap all or the majority of profits and this is one of the real issues in Myanmar; very little is filtered down to the needy so they’re on their own. Let’s not forget that a lot of money is also donated by locals to Monks and gold-gilded temples throughout the country are pristine with many more being built; shame a fraction of this money isn’t spent on the poverty.

      In response to your second question and this is only my thoughts, but as Myanmar is more exposed to globalisation, thus, locals will understand that it is possible to achieve a better life, then hopefully, the ambition will grow. Having said that, it’s always down to the thread of an individual; why is it that some people succeed where others don’t?

      1. Sketchpacker Avatar

        Super interesting. About poverty, this is so sad yes but very true for most of the world. Money very much accumulates, doesn’t it? In Vietnam also (where I’ve sort of stopped for a while), while the economy develops and the country urbanises, said development is off the back of a vast labour force. The poor stay poor and the rich have more fun. As for expat vs local costs of living – it’s actually kind of funny! For about 9 months I worked here part time as a language tutor (to save) and I earn’t $1000USD a month which covered an expat’s rent, eating, going out costs and other essentials like health care and stuff. Now I have quit that job in the interest of spending more time on Sketchpacking, and a new internship with citypassguide…and I earn (and live off) about $350/month. My boyfriend, a Vietnamese student, lives on $200/month. I know people who get by on $150, I guess it depends on how you’re prepared to live and how badly you want to be in this city! Either way, I constantly marvel at the vast gap between how I used to live and how I live now, and after that the gap between how I used to live and how most expats here live!! Most people earn $1500-$2000/month, and many spend it all!! I guess if you can why not, right? It’s just such a huge gap. Fascinating. And in the countryside rent is cheaper, cost of living even lower, so if you’re a local paying $200/month here in HCMC, imagine what you’d be paying in your hometown…crazy. This world is crazy.

      2. Nilla Palmer Avatar

        Yes, money does accumulate but unfortunately, not always to where it’s needed most – usually someone’s pocket.

        I travelled through Vietnam for 2 months over December ’14 and January this year (more blogs to follow). It is obscene the amount of money that is squandered, especially from some NGOs/INGOs. As an example, the UN paid over US$1,000,000 rent last year for an office in Yangon that a Former General owns and this is just one example, there are many more NGOs throughout SE Asia. Another shining example is Cambodia, a country that has been receiving aid for over 25 years, with total development assistance to Cambodia amounting to about US$5.5 billion during the last decade. If you’ve travelled through this country, you’ll see that not much of this aid has filtered down to the needy or the country’s infrastructure, only into certain people’s pockets. Corruption is rife but the whole world knows about this, doesn’t it?

      3. Sketchpacker Avatar

        Absolutely. Poverty is an opportunity for the rich to earn more, and it is very hard to prove that they’re doing it. Also, given international law, it is very hard to then do anything about it!!!

      4. Nilla Palmer Avatar

        Totally agree! I’m not sure what the answer is unless government’s and laws change; then again there’s corruption. But as you’ve probably found, the more you travel, the more apparent all of this becomes…

      5. Sketchpacker Avatar

        Gosh yes, the further I go outside my safety bubble the more I realise about this globe. Honestly I don’t think governments and laws will ever change, I’m a bit of a pessimist. What needs to happen is education – if more people knew these facts, like really knew them and felt them and understood the implications of them, then we could mobilise a grassroots force significant enough to shift the global power structure. THe danger would be though that we would just revert to how we always were – I think the current power structure has a lot to do with human nature. It’s natural for people to want power

      6. Nilla Palmer Avatar

        Sadly, as long as there’s buckets of money involved, nothing will change. You’re absolutely right, education is the way forward but in many countries, this is not always possible, so the status quo remains, which typically, corruption is worse in these countries – like a revolving door.

      7. Sketchpacker Avatar

        You’re a pleasure to discuss with – we’re totally on the same page! I guess we could also consider the role that developed states have in keep undeveloped states undeveloped. The World Bank is not a friend to everyone

      8. Nilla Palmer Avatar

        Thanks and likewise! It’s great to discuss different views and experiences. We could go on forever naming governments, corporations, etc., worldwide, which keep people purposely poor to benefit from the situation; it’s rampant and evil but nothing new. There’s more than enough money in this world to share around.

        Travelling has a habit of throwing realities in your face at every turn and for me, this is one aspect I can’t escape. Although I can’t close my eyes, some travellers have the ability to shut out reality and continue travelling as ‘none the wiser’ – great if you can!

      9. Sketchpacker Avatar

        Agreed! We could go on endlessly and in some ways we might find ourselves looking at our own lives too – I do not directly invest in anything that pushes other people down, but I do love diet coke…

        As for travelling – so true! Travel can open your eyes or your liver, depending on what you choose (and I guess both too hehe)

      10. Nilla Palmer Avatar

        Indeed! I try not to either…I don’t really like Diet Coke 🙂
        Definitely your eyes and depending on what country you’re travelling in and the cost, definitely your liver!

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