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Monday, February 24, 2014

Thoughts on Burma, A Year After


Village Chief, Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek, Burma
Village Chief, Kalaw ot Inle Lake Trek

I saw this travel writing contest in the internet, the goal was to write about a place that inspires you to live life without regrets. And the first place that comes to mind is Burma. I wanted to go to Burma because I was curious to experience traveling in a country closed-off from the rest of the world – or as they say ‘where time stood still’, I wanted to see and explore the thousands of stupas and temples in Bagan, and see the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda. I did all of it, but traveling in Burma for almost three weeks was definitely more than this. The people and situation in Burma humbled me. Coming from a third world country, I’ve come to appreciate the sense of freedom despite mere resources (compared to the first world) I enjoy and how much I have been taking them for granted.

I wrote this piece having the theme and my experiences in mind, ready to send it to the website. Until I read the guidelines of the writing contest again and realized that I read it all wrong. So I decided to just share it here in my blog.


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There were seven of us, travelers from different parts of the world, who all met in Burma. All of us took breaks from something - careers, school, heartbreaks, and just life back in our home countries, to explore an isolated and closed-off country.

It was the end of 2012, two years since the democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. More than fifty years since the military government stripped off its countrymen their rights to freedom, to education, and to just simply build a life they deserve.

Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek, Burma
Afternoon Break
Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek

A three-day trek through the Shan hills gave us a glimpse of what life is like in the countryside – farmers hard at work in their traditional clothes, tending to their farmlands by hand, with no piece of machinery in sight. It was like looking at an idyllic countryside painting, that people have likened it to the early days of Tuscany.

This, along with the cities of Yangon and Mandalay, the temples of Bagan, the manicured lawns of Pyin Oo Lwin, and a few other towns, are the unrestricted areas for tourism. For travelers like us, going to these places was such a wonderful experience. We marvelled at the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda, we felt like explorers climbing ancient temples in Bagan, and visited several monasteries.

International roaming service was non-existent, wi-fi and internet were scarce and most of the time unreliable – there was no chance to check emails and facebook. We had time to ourselves, no past or future holding us back to enjoy our time there. We had more time to read books, relax, and meet new people.

Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek, Burma
Ricefield Ladies
Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek

But more than all of these, it was those small encounters with the Burmese people that stuck with me the most. The encounters that have humbled me and have pushed me to live life without regrets.

First were the scared and disappointed, trapped in the lives forced on them by the military government. Such is a village chief we met during the trek. He approached me and we began sharing stories. I noticed a photo of Aung San and her father (their national hero) on a calendar just right behind him. I asked him if posting their photo is already allowed. He said yes especially after the release of the icon. Then he changed the subject right away.

There was the man selling paintings in one of the less-famous pagodas in Bagan. He told me how he's dreamed of becoming an engineer, but decided on just learning how to paint instead. He said that his uncle paid so much money to bring his cousin to university to study engineering. But there was no chance to be one after he graduated. He said that no one really gets a good education for the money they pay, and no good opportunity waiting for them after. His cousin is now back in Bagan working as a farmer. He said that he'd rather learn how to paint and earn money, than waste his time and their savings in going to the university.

There were also those who have found peace through their faith and of the imagined lives they’ve built in their own minds. We rode our bikes through the narrow roads of Inle Lake’s countryside until we reached a dead end. We stopped for a while to rest, then a monk peeked out the window of the house to our right. He had the biggest smile. He called us in and welcomed us into the house which was also a monastery. He spoke very good English. He asked what countries we were from. Then greeted us in our national languages and mentioned historical facts about our countries. He showed us postcards, letters, and different books sent by travelers from different parts of the world who’ve been there as well. He told us about his dreams of traveling to learn more about the world. I later found out that the government has made it nearly impossible for anyone to have a passport, at least back in 2012.

But there were also those who were slowly building the courage to voice out their anger, and are hopeful for a better change. We were in a cab on the way to Yangon airport when the driver showed us the headline of the day’s newspaper. It was of the injured monks in Northern Burma who were protesting against the violence done on civilians who were in turn protesting against a government project with China. With intense passion, he told us about how the people are less scared after Aung San’s release, and that more are willing to fight for change. He told us to tell the outside world their story. But he kept quiet when we had to stop for the traffic lights. Afterwards, he told us that the people in the other car might have been spies.

I think about it now, more than a year after my travels in Burma. The memories of the beautiful places I’ve seen – the Shwedagon Pagoda, the country hills in Kalaw, the serene waters of Inle Lake, and the gorgeous sunset in Bagan – I remember them all now with a certain fondness similar to the other countries I’ve visited. But what has been making a bigger impact on how I’m living my life are those encounters I had with the people of Burma.

Old Train, Yangon, Burma
Train Ride
Yangon City

They have taught me to not take anything for granted – the right to education, access to different opportunities, capability to help others, to have dreams, and to travel. And just the freedom to build a life we want and deserve, something we all take for granted because we are too burdened by our own fears and excuses.

The monk, despite spending his whole life probably in that small town, has lived his life fully given the situation around him. He will probably never have the chance to travel the world, let alone leave his country. But he continues to learn about the world and other cultures and religion from the books he reads. The taxi driver who has probably dreamed of becoming something more has continued to live and fight for his country’s freedom despite fears of being caught. That maybe, somehow, he has hope that one day he’ll be able to live in a free Burma.

I hope one way or another, we learn from these people about truly living with all the possibilities, and despite all the constraints around us. Think about all the opportunities you enjoy and can explore, or those that you choose to ignore because you think you will fail. I’m not just talking about traveling, I’m talking about all that you want to achieve and have. They don’t have any of those opportunities, they’ve been stripped off the right to even dream about it from the day they were born. But you have so much of it, and you’re not doing anything. Think about it.




For more stories and photos of my trip in Burma:
Thoughts on Burma, A Year After