Burma/Myanmar
Soul
Soul
Portraits
Portraits
Life on water
Life on water
Architecture/Sculpture
Architecture/Sculpture
Everyday life
Everyday life

My trip to Burma/Myanmar took place in January/February 2010.

Burma is the largest country in South East Asia, but the area currently open to foreigners is relatively small in comparison to the size of the country as a whole, due to the oppressiveness of military dictatorship, a.k.a the junta. Most of the accessible territories are populated by the Bamar peoples, indigenous to Central Burma. The rest of the country, the vast majority of which, is populated by many ethnic tribal groups - the government claims there are 135 different. Historically, Bamar-oriented governmental policies have led to alienation of many ethnic groups living on the fringes of Burmese territory. The current government designates many of these areas to be off limits to foreigners because of the ongoing rebellions and anti-government sentiments. In reality, this is just another control mechanism by the junta to limit international attention and money injection by tourists to these very poor areas. Despite all the travel restrictions, Burma still offers the traveler ready to explore many unique experiences. In a sense, it can be considered a step back in time. Being limited to foreign influences, Burma has retained its identity and many traditional lifestyles still flourish more here, than anywhere else in South East Asia. The most commonly worn piece of male clothing is the loungyi - a long piece of cloth of cylindrical shape, folded over around the waist hanging to the feet. While playing the popular national sport, chinlone, men fold their loungyis up into the shape of a diaper. Women, in turn, not exposed to skin whiteners wide spread among other developing South East Asian countries, still apply ground sandalwood bark to their face - yellowish Burmese make-up, called tanaka, usually applied in distinctive patterns. Popular throughout Asia betel nut - a red narcotic seed of the areca palm - is spread around Burma like a plague. Sidewalks, roads and sides and windows of buses are painted red with the spit of men and women chewing betel nut, the same color as what is left of the chewers' teeth. Despite the fact that the government has made it illegal, production and distribution of betel nut thrives everywhere from street stalls to road-side cafes. Preparation of the betel nut itself is quite distinctive - chopped areca nut together with different flavor tobaccos and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) is wrapped inside the betel leaf - thus the name. A package usually consists of 2 or 3 betel nuts wrapped in clear plastic. Nonetheless, plastics are used very little for packaging in Burma compared to the regional countries. Most of the wrapping is done with traditional natural or reusable materials - dried bamboo barks, palm leaves, hand-woven baskets, reusable glass bottles and cups. Therefore, roads, sidewalks, gutters, drainage systems and rivers are not strangled by non-biodegradable matter. Successful recycling program is also implemented by the government, paying K14 for the recycled plastic bottle, whereas the price of the new one is K300.

Religion is very important to a Burmese person. Theravada Buddhism is the official state religion, followed by an estimated 90% (or 70% according to unofficial sources) of the population. Current and previous Burmese leaders have manipulated the Burmese peoples undying devotion to Buddhism in order to fulfill their personal needs. In Bagan and around Mandalay this is very evident in the huge quantity and size of religious edifices, contracted by ancient Burmese kings, though more a proof to their attachment to megalomania than to Buddhism itself. In the modern times, high-ranking government officials promote their "buddhist" image by publicly displaying their photos in the places of worship, showing them leading a religious life.

In the course of their lifetime, every Burmese man has to be a novice monk. Usually boys go to live in the monasteries during summer vacations and the monasteries also act as orphanages and as educational centers. Being a nun is also common. After their daily morning prayers monks and nuns head out barefoot to collect donations for the monasteries such as food and money from families and businesses. Free drinking water is available everywhere in Burma, stored in clay vessels along road sides and in pagodas, donated by surrounding families. The sheer number of monks and scale of daily donations is testament to the Burmese peoples' devotion to Buddha. At the same time, Buddhism in Burma is affected by traditional animistic beliefs. The 37 nats (spirits) are worshiped, with Buddha being the highest nat.

The literacy level is quite high in Burma at approximately 90%. Historically, literacy rates have always been above average for the region. When the British arrived to colonize Burma, they noted that literacy rates amongst Burmese women were higher than British women at the same time. During modern times, censorship of available literature and educational material have actually promoted Burmese peoples willingness to privately educate themselves.

Despite all the hardships the Burmese have endured over the centuries cast upon them by their "noble" leaders, it continues to be the most welcoming, friendly, helpful and hospitable destination. The pure hospitality of the country is visible in every tea house or restaurant, serving free unlimited green tea to any patron. Hitchhiking is easy and effortless due to the kindness and helpfulness of every local person passing by. The nature of the average Burmese person makes their country a destination very high on the list of any traveler.