In the month of March, I had the opportunity of exploring the enigmatic territories of Myanmar – a country that after years of abiding to military rule, on the 1st of April had its first free elections. I left Jordan with no expectations (my mother had visited the country about 30 years ago and was only able to offer limited amount of information as, back then, tourists were strictly restricted to only certain areas of the country) but returned with a soaring appreciation and love for the place and its population.
Coming from and having travelled to cultures that have been for years pawns in the game of international trade, my most striking experience in Myanmar was in fact the openness and acceptance of its people – something deceivingly simple and perhaps silly, but of great impact. As much as I hate to admit it, the reason why this tends to be striking is the fact that a lot of us are privy only to the world of aggressive bargaining and economic strategy – it becomes our normal – so much so that when we find ourselves in a world which contrasts this, we believe something is wrong. But considering its limited exposure to tourism, Myanmar’s population is bound to be curious and less overtly aggressive around the influence of foreign money. Despite this, the “purity” and kindness of Myanmar’s people goes beyond their absence in the world of globalization; it is Myanmar’s way of life that gives way to genuine love and support for the lone traveler.
In my view, the influence of nature plays a crucial role in the positivity and acceptance openly shown Myanmar’s people. Prevalently farmers in cities other than shiny Mandalay and Yangon, the routines of Myanmar people reflect the cycle of nature: one wakes up when the sun shines and goes to bed when the sun sets – and this all makes sense, considering not only the work they do on the daily needs to take place in the early or later hours of the day in order to avoid heatstroke, and the fact that electricity is at times a luxury, but also the environment which surrounds them. Northern Myanmar offers areas completely encircled by mountainous ranges and vast tapestries of forest, which, in the wet season, give way to jungle-like enclaves, which wrap themselves around the explorer wading through. Nature literally engulfs you and, as I personally witnessed in my travels to other bountiful environments, it is difficult to not feel at peace with both oneself and one’s surroundings; the greenery and life, the silence – all offer opportunities for self-reflection and meditation.
Closely related to the impact of nature is the profuseness of simplicity. Under military rule, Myanmar’s people were made to give away their assets – it was accepted that any add-ons one my have belonged to the Government. This meant that, on average, Myanmar’s people lived a basic lifestyle, which holds true until this day; it is rare to see a car in cities other than Mandalay and Yangon. Combined with its limited exposure to globalization and its results, the development and expansion of national infrastructure has moved at snail pace and the people have had to adapt. Myanmar’s families live off of their own land and agriculture, they work to feed themselves with their own means, the ultimate meaning of reaping what you sow. Not only does this self-sufficiency reflects the country’s independence from globalization (which cyclically could mean the less of the latter, spurring even more self-reliance and so on), but also reflects the lack of necessity for anything else. On one of my hikes, I remember travelling with a Dutch couple whose man could not for the life of him understand why Myanmar’s people couldn’t start other businesses other than agriculture in order to earn more money and spend it on improving their lives by investing in assets – he took the example of a car. Whilst logically sound as business proposition to entice growth, I understood the need and reason for the contrary. When simplicity is what you know, accept and desire; when it yields to the basic necessities in life and, ultimately, happiness, do you really need assets?
As a final layer connecting these elements, lays Buddhism – a religion widely practiced in the country. Buddhism teaches of acceptance, compassion, hard work and simplicity – all reflections of the Myanmar way of life, all values which lead one to whatever one believes awaits us: judgment, Nirvana, happiness, love. You will find temples and shrines not only in every angle of every city in Myanmar, but in people’s houses – a dedicated shrine sits in one room of the house, which is tended daily with flowers and donations to Buddha. Aside from its identification as a religion though, what Buddhism tends towards is the understanding of a human’s struggle through life – a notion that, in my view, facilitates compassion and solidarity. And when there are reminders of these values every so often each day, the origin of a Myanmar person’s kindness is understandable.
Much like other countries in South East Asia, Myanmar and its people reverberate happiness – a happiness that they share openly with new visitors. Despite limited in amount and sophistication, each family I had the pleasure of meeting offered me food and hospitality; despite the limitation of a common language, each person on the street that gathered I was lost showed me the correct path; despite the hardships they endured that day, each person on the street smiled and welcomed me. In Myanmar’s people I found a well of wisdom, compassion and acceptance – a love for the visitor as one of its own and values, which, in this day and age, tend to be left at the wayside elsewhere.