In Myanmar, both in Yangon and Mandalay, most of the sidewalks are in very bad shape. A storm drain system beneath the pavement should be covered by concrete slabs, but a third of the plates is broken or simply missing.
And when the pavement is covered, vendors of fruit, herbs, garlic and ginger, traditional Burmese clothing, flip-flops, fake Ray-Ban Wayfarers or bad copies of Converse All-Stars settle on every square inch they can find. Other times you’ll find street restaurants with children-sized plastic chairs to sit and stools to use as tables, which set up their makeshift kitchens and small coal-fired stoves on hazardous ground.
But what is most striking on the sidewalks about life in Myanmar, is the ubiquity of diesel generators.
Electricity is almost a luxury. Burma’s electrical system is in very poor condition, and blackouts are frequent. Without warning, the electricity fails on a few blocks at a time. And since the government, which is rather deaf, is responsible for electricity, nobody knows when the power will return making life in Myanmar very difficult.
Businesses and the wealthiest families have to get generators, and they sometimes work long hours. That is life in Myanmar.
The climate in Yangon and Mandalay is hot and dry, and clouds of dust, smoke, charcoal, sand and oil smoke are constantly in the air, sometimes making life in Myanmar barely breathable.
However, Myanmar is an amazing place to visit, mostly because the people are extremely nice and display unparalleled generosity.
Life in Myanmar: Generous when they have nothing
Due to its pathetic history, Myanmar was cut off from the world for several years. It was not until June 2012 that tourists could get an entry visa quickly – in as little as three hours in Bangkok or 36 hours in Kuala Lumpur.
The Burmese invariably smile when they see a stranger. Once out of the center of the city of Yangon, I am flooded with “hello”‘s when I walk, waved at by both young and old. And children are turned inside out when I try to talk to them. Always willing to help, without malice, people smile and smile again.
People will also defend the visitors. For example, when a street vendor, selling small fruits, tries, on the train, to change its prices because she sells to a tourist, three or four travelers, Burmese, step up and ask the hawker to stop lying.
A restaurant is about to close and I’m still sitting there, sipping on a beer; I offer a couple of drinks to the employees, who accept gratefully; they quickly let me taste, free of charge, the local spirits that are not on the menu. After a few drinks, they invite me to an outdoor show that ends in the wee hours of the morning. Concerned about my happiness and my safety, they advise me to properly secure my pockets and stay close to them; they treat me like a brother.
Life in Myanmar: Devastating politics
If, in Southeast Asia, Thailand represents partying, if Vietnam brings back memories of wars past, and if Singapore personifies economic development, then life in Myanmar is poverty. And the Burmese government is largely responsible for this situation. But things are beginning, slowly, to change.
Aung San Suu Kyi, a campaigner for democracy in Burma, who was under house arrest for years, and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, was released in 2010. The military government was dissolved in 2011. The elections of April 2012 allowed the party of Dre. Suu Kyi to join the Parliament and to continue working with her political party, the National League for Democracy. The country was quickly opened to tourism after the election. President Barack Obama also visited Yangon in November 2012.
But despite the progress, serious human rights concerns persist in Myanmar. For example, some provinces are still off-limits to tourists, due to quarrels between different ethnic groups. And a much more serious situation has been kept silent by the Burmese government for years. In the province of Rakhine, in the southwest, Muslim citizens claim that they are persecuted, treated as refugees in their own country. Dozens of deaths were reported in June 2012 when three Muslim men were accused of the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. The conflict is still going on, and the situation is reminiscent of Kosovo, while local forces claim that Muslims in this province are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh; several of them tried to go to Bangladesh but the country refused to grant them access across the border. Information is difficult to obtain about this conflict, completely ignored by the international press. Al-Jazeera has dedicated a documentary on the subject, which has been decried as propaganda by the locals.
Up next: Food and drink in Myanmar, and closing thoughts