Upon arrival at the Yangon airport in Myanmar, the first word spoken to us (at Customs and with a smile, I might add) was “Obama.” Similarly, the first basic thing we knew about Myanmar was probably “Aung San Suu Kyi.” Travelers and locals seem to identify each other in broad strokes like these, depending on current events, world leaders and history shared between countries. In our opinion, the attitude we encounter now from people around the world is vastly different than it was just five to ten years ago, when the revelation that you were from the US was not met with satisfaction. For whatever reason, people of the world seem to identify with, and be somewhat more satisfied by, our current leader. So to that we say… “Obama.”
That’s not to say everyone is happy. When we revealed to several people in Bagan that we’re from the US, one young man gestured with his hands as if he was firing a machine gun — not exactly the image you hope is associated with the country you come from.
Aside from this reaction, nearly all the people we encountered in Myanmar seemed genuinely happy that people are beginning to show up to see their country. The byproduct of their oppression and isolation is an authentic, preserved culture — something nearly extinct in today’s world and a huge attraction to today’s travelers. Yet many people here speak pretty good English — they’ve definitely been anticipating the arrival of the rest of the world.
Life moves at a different pace in Myanmar — from the old-school, corded telephone stations on the street corners to the rigorous paper currency exchanges to the horsecarts shuttling people around town. Even the heat, coupled with the absence of air conditioning in most places, relegates the pace at which people work and live to a slow, lethargic crawl. Coming from a developed country, we found all of it fascinating.
We left Myanmar on Day 8 with 4,500 kyats and $5 USD in our pockets (about $11 USD total). With no credit and no ATMs, our budget became a self-fulfilling prophecy. One more day… was not possible. But we left with a heap of good photos and memories unique to this country, and no other.
My only regret about the whole trip comes from Day 1 in Yangon. Walking down a street south of the Bogyoke Market, concurrently surrounded by extreme poverty and incredible scenes of everyday life, we came upon a poor, ragged couple. I would guess they were the same age as we are, sitting on a cart enjoying the day together. They saw us, and we saw them — wiry, disheveled hair, astounding faces etched deeply with time and sun, dark eyes filled with magnetic curiosity. And what were they thinking of us? Probably pale, bright-eyed and overly dressed for the occasion.
They stared at us, we stared back. We smiled, they smiled back. We looked and smiled again and laughed, they did the same. Oh, how I wanted so badly to take their photo to remember them. But out of respect, I didn’t approach them and I didn’t point my lens. I wish I had. I think they would have enjoyed being photographed and admired — for maybe the first time ever in their lives. I just wish they knew I was staring because I found them beautiful. But maybe the moment shared between us was enough.