Authored by Petra Chappell & Shaun Pearce
Myanmar is a country of contrasts. The traveller’s eye sees glittering temples, women in brightly coloured headscarves, and fishermen rowing with one leg while standing on the other. But dig deeper and you’ll find that Myanmar is a country with a dark past and her people have endured the worst.
While travelling through Myanmar we learned that the country and her people had a lot to teach us.
Truth be told, we didn’t know much about Myanmar’s recent history before deciding to travel there. But upon reading Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma before our departure, we were suddenly aware that the Burmese people had been through hell.
Many young people our age don’t realise that Myanmar underwent a horrific military dictatorship for almost fifty years, which only ended only a few years ago. During this time, the country was pretty much shut off and forgotten by the world.
We hardly knew anything about Myanmar except that it was a place that nobody visited. Though since the end of the country’s dictatorship, Myanmar has opened up to the world and is the new ‘it’ country to visit in Southeast Asia.
During our first few days in Myanmar, we fell in love with this chaotic but charming country and its people.
Those glittering temples are awe-inspiring, and the men rowing with one leg are truly talented. The curries are lip-smackingly good and the teashops buzz with activity. We loved roaming the street markets on the lookout for oddly shaped vegetables and another vibrant scene to photograph.
During our time there we had the opportunity to interact with a number of Burmese people. One, a guide called Soe Soe who took us on the back of his scooter around Mandalay for a day, chatted very openly about the military dictatorship and the hardship he had faced in his life.
Yet Ilias, a guide we had on the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, was very reserved with what he said in regards to the country’s political situation. It was like he was scared that someone would overhear and report him to the authorities (which is what happened in the past).
We then realised that Myanmar is a nation of wounded souls.
Yet in spite of all this adversity, the Burmese are incredibly happy, generous, friendly, and gracious people. We saw this everywhere: families opening up their homes to us to sleep and to eat in while we were trekking, young monks shyly asking to practice their English with us, and children squealing with delight as they learned how to blow bubbles.
How could they be so positive when they have been through so much?
A huge component of Burmese life is religion. Some 90% of the population is Buddhist, and all Buddhist boys become novice monks at some point. This is part of the reason why Burmese people have such a friendly and generous demeanor. They aspire to reach enlightenment and to achieve this they adhere to their beliefs.
One thing that our Mandalay guide Soe Soe said stuck with us: “it’s not the money that I earn or how successful I am that is important, it’s how I treat others and how I live my life that will pay it forward into my next life.”
Visiting a country like Myanmar had a hugely positive effect on us and made us think deeply about the way we conduct our lives.
It made us realize how lucky we are to have been brought up in a politically stable country like New Zealand.
We’ve taken these lessons from Myanmar to heart and they have really made an impact on our lives.
3 lessons we learned in Myanmar
Lesson 1: We come from a lucky country
It wasn’t until visiting Myanmar that we really, truly realised that we are so lucky to come from a country where we never have and never will have to face these same political issues, and we will never have to watch our backs in case someone is listening.
Lesson 2: To be grateful
The positive outlook on life that the Burmese have has taught us to be unquestionably grateful for the lives that we have been given. We will never have to go through what they have endured.
Lesson 3: It’s not about the money
We aren’t religious, but we totally agree with what Soe Soe said. There is so much focus on money and success in our society that focusing on things like treating others well sometimes falls by the wayside.
Since visiting Myanmar, we have become less caught up on how much money we make – we just want to live happy and fulfilled lives.
Having the means to travel is a gift. It means we can leave our comfort zones, learn, and gain perspective on our own lives.
Myanmar helped us to do that – and for that reason, we will definitely be back some day.
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Featured Photo CC by Nhi Dang