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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, Hsipaw, Bagan, 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.