The Country Formerly Known as Burma

I cannot stress this enough, but there is nowhere you can visit that is quite like Burma. You will find no place more intriguing; nowhere more eclectic, comfortable and confusing. I pray everyday that it doesn't change, but we all know it will. I think the Myanmar people want it to, for the better. We'll see which way the world turns.

The only time I really felt hassled was in a temple in Bagan. It was my first day exploring the old town of crumbling millenium temples which has developed into a big tourist hub over the past few years. I saw more new "old" looking guesthouses being built than ancient temples, I think. A young Burmese woman approached me to browse through her shop, which was a bunch of antiquey-looking souvenirs laid out on a cloth all costing above average prices. She took my hand and eventually I bought something. I have issues with stuff being sold in temples. I paid my money and went about my day, taking pictures in front of golden pagodas and wandering around the town on a rusty bike I'd rented from my guesthouse for 1 U.S dollar (I paid for half of my things in Burma with crisp dollar bills I exchanged at the Yangon Airport). At the end of my day after I'd returned the bike and was walking home from the grocery store I saw the girl from the temple shop, on her e-bike heading home after her long day of selling. That's the new Burma, I thought. She had a smile on her face, she'd made some money and was fighting the bike traffic back to the new town of Bagan, probably home for dinner with her family. I smiled at her as she passed, and I realized that I didn't have any right to be annoyed or judge at how a country that I have no idea about is developing.

However, if you are traveling to Myanmar, please make a note of this. A lot of socially aware Burmese (and it's a country filled of them) will warn you not to pay inflated prices for things. Even if it's an extra dollar or two. It's not much for "us", but this type of inflation too fast will hurt many people who still don't have any money and this can only push towards unsustainable development. I tried my best to go local, and pay only 30 cents for a short bus ride or a dollar motor taxi. Many nice locals and hostel owners warned me what Burmese pay for things, and that I should pay the same.

I bought a 3-dollar bag and 8-dollar pants from a young family running a shop in the old town of Bagan. It was a few shops away from a little National Democracy Party office. I bought the bag one day, and came back the second day for the pants. On my second day when I asked her how much the pants were she said "I remember you, my friend." The typical Burmese accent is a hint of British with splashes South East Asian and Indian. Not everyone sounds exactly like Aung San Suu Kyi, but after a 50-minute flight from Bangkok to Yangon and I was transplanted into the world that is Burma, I was shocked at how different things could be and people could sound, a mere few hundred kilometers away.

People approach foreigners with ease and this kind of inquisitive curiousity in Myanmar. I didn't feel that jaded sense of abandon that is inevitable for any "Westerner" in Asia, from the Pacific rim to the south-east. You're looked at differently in Burma. And it looks like no place you've seen before, and it looks like bits of everything you've seen before on your travels and at home.

I truly felt a sense of home when I spent four days in Moulmein. The place is called Breeze Guesthouse and it's right by the river in Moulmein, a place that Rudyard Kipling once wrote about and Myanmar's fourth largest city. There's no taxis or buses just yet, only motorbikes and great barbeque by the sea. The popular and bustling (and not a lot of Burma bustles, for now) Breeze Guesthouse is a century-old house that was constructed for a British shipping tycoon. Years later, during post-colonial times the house was handed back to the real locals, and was inherited by a Burmese family and now the two brothers of that family opened it up as a guesthouse. The house had one huge main floor, filled with lots of single rooms. Guests were allowed upstairs in the mornings for the complimentary breakfast on the deck with a view of the river. The upstairs was beautiful, lavish, and filled with old books (my favourite!). It reminded me of my grandparents basement, and my grandfather's collection of history books and Canadian Prime Minister and Churchill bios. I'd browse through them and he'd tell me stories of working in Finland and for the Canadian Steamship Lines.

Anthony, one of the brothers who ran the front desk (no computers, only big notebooks that they used to check people in, using a ballpoint pen to carefully write in your name and passport number) tried everyday to sell me a tour. I prefered wandering the city with friends I'd made at the guesthouse. When I'd come home Anthony, a Catholic and his brother a Buddhist, told me about his church and his beliefs. He had the kind, energetic eyes that reminded me of my great aunt. My aunt's favourite saint is also St. Anthony, this Burmese man's namesake. I've called places like China, Korea and Thailand my home, and I am blessed to do so, but I've never felt so welcome or at ease in Asia than at that guesthouse. There's no culture shock when you wake up in a lively, 100-year old house and talk to its owners who open up to you, seemingly a "stranger", speaking very candidly about their country, their family and their beliefs over instant coffee and eggs. Dinners of delicious local barbeque and beer, evenings spent watching the World Cup in damp, old tea shops (filled with only Burmese men and a few backapckers like myself) and lifts home in the rain from kind strangers doesn't hurt either.

My last day in Burma I was biking around Hpa-an, a town a few hours drive (at a slow pace, uphill) from the Thai border. A nice man in uniform and his friend waved me over and asked where I was from. He proceeded to give me directions in his broken English (and I knew the equivalent with my few words in Burmese) and invited me to the little shop off the road. They told me they were police officers (I'm still not sure if government employees in Burma are all bad or not) and I sat down in what appeared to be a shop/someones house. A lady greeted me and offered me a seat in her shop/living room. My friend bought me a soda and handed it to me with a smile and said " outside!". We watched some t.v and everyone talked (I'm assuming about current events/the weather) for a few minutes. After my drink was finished they escorted me outside to where my bike was parked and I was on my way again.

After only two and a half weeks I crossed overland and took refuge in the warm embrace of Thailand, once again. I had a great rest of my summer. I felt ready for anything.

That was many months ago; and then there was Bangkok to rest, a brief Beijing life, and now Busan (why so many Bs?) while I teach kids, live by the beach and dream of a return to Burma.

Don't we all?