When my Husband and I traveled through Myanmar (Burma) with his parents, we noticed cameras were not just focusing on the Buddhas, they were turning on us too. Burmese life expectancy is nearly 20 years shorter than Italian, so few men ever achieve the snow white hair of my Father-in-law. My Husband has a thick beard, something Burmese men can not grow. I’m a tall red-head which is odd enough in America, let alone Burma. My Mother in Law is a beautiful, regal blonde. Combined we were an odd group to the Burmese and tourist from China and Southeast Asia.
Although being asked to pose for photos, gave us a few laughs, the realization that lack of adequate health-care, education and the regular consumption of only one meal a day were the contributing factors to shorter life expectancy, came with a heavy heart.
Yet still, the smiles persist. With an abundance of pride, kindness and respect between the Burmese ethnicities, I could not call the population poor, it would seem disrespectful. It would ignore the grace with which the Burmese live their lives. Their riches in life are simply put, drastically different from those in the Western World.
The reasons behind the slow development in Burma, now called Myanmar are complex. So complex, I genuinely struggled with writing a blog post at all. Even the political delicacies to call it Burma or Myanmar weigh on me as I write. What I can say, after learning from our travel is this.
In a country, where government officials leverage power in greed, against a population that is 80% Buddhist, you see the scales in life clearly tip. Believing you are to endure in this life, to pass to the next, believing the middle of the road is best, never to poor or too rich. These are beautiful peaceful principals for the Burmese people, that sadly do not stand strong against the powers that be.
I know that one trip does not an expert make. Yet when I look back, the memories that are most vivid for me, are those of beauty, grace, religion and pride of the people, land and culture.
These are the memories that persist with me still today. The moments I will be grateful to have observed for the rest of my life.
Life on Inle Lake:
The Fishermen, floating gardens, homes on stilts and unadulterated beauty of a pristine lake community, under the sun.
Entire families on a mopeds, pickups packed full, monks barefoot on tailgates,
Coolness of Thanaka:
A paste made from ground bark used by Burmese to combat the sun. It’s cooling and acts as a moisturizer and has none of the chemical smells of SPF.
Soups for Breakfast
Breakfast is often the one meal a day for the Burmese. Considered a national dish, Monhinga is absolutely delicious, hearty, fish and noodle soup served with condiments to spice and dice as you like.
Sunset for Two in Bagan:
Successfully avoiding the crowds on Shwesandaw Temple aka “Sunset Temple” in Bagan with a nearly private sunset on Lawkaoushaung Temple.
Traveling Back in Time:
Pre 9/11 airline travel was more trusting and in Burma it still is. Boarding passes have no name and tourist are tagged with colored stickers to ensure they don’t hop the wrong flight!
The Undeniable Beauty of Monks
Monks live a life without excess and it agrees with them. Both the male and female monks are beautiful, strikingly so. The biggest surprise for me, they have their own cell phones and you’ll see Monk’s pose for selfies together as they travel. Donors supply the phones for them as a form of respect to their commitment.
Gold, Gold and More Gold
Temples and statues of Buddha glitter with gold, often covered layer after layer in gold leaf. Though Burmese have little to no disposable income, they prioritize honoring their beliefs. Gold leaf is purchased and layered on status and templates as an offering.
This is a Gas Station
Recycled glass and plastic bottles fill carts roadside throughout the cities. As the vast majority of the population do not own cars and rely on bicycles and mopeds, it does the job.
Rather than filling a church on Sunday, the Burmese live their everyday life with their religion. It’s not uncommon to see children running around in temples and stupas playing one minute and then pause, kneel, pray get up and continue to play, with no adult prompting. As a Westerner, no one paused when I took a moment of my own for reflection. It’s a welcoming culture and inclusive in their templates. Naps, talking, laughter, lunches, kids playing, healing sessions all happen next to prayer. Their only request is that you take off your shoes and cover your shoulders and legs. They are a modest population and both men and women nearly always have their arms and legs fully covered.
Learning Italian in Myanmar
Our guide spoke primarily Italian for my Husband and his parents but also English for me and I will forever be grateful. I’d be willing to bet, on most days, I was the only kid from Ohio learning Italian while listening to a tour guide in Burma, the irony does not escape me. Thank you Federico!
My Mother-in-law Elena pointed out that it takes time to get perspective on large trips. I can say with no hesitation that she is absolutely correct. Ti voglio bene Mamma a Papà, grazie millie per i ricordi che terrò cari per tutta la vita.