According to Global Finance magazine, Myanmar is the 23rd poorest country in the world. It is certainly the poorest country to which I have ever been. With a population of over 50 million, I’ve never seen so many people living with so little, especially in the more rural areas, where I observed people living in palm leaf huts with no electricity or running water, in the middle of a desert wasteland. Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) was a British colony until 1948 (during which time George Orwell lived there for 5 years as a colonial police officer). It then flourished under a short-lived democracy, which ended in a military coup in 1962. From 1962 to 2011 Myanmar stagnated and its people suffered under military dictatorship. Until the last couple of years, many areas in Myanmar were restricted to foreigners without government permits. Tourism in Myanmar has been extremely low in general, due to the restrictive history of the government. It wasn’t until 2011 that the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi supported the idea of tourists coming to the country, as she felt foreign currency would just support the military junta. In 2012 tourism broke the 1 million mark in Myanmar, and it nearly doubled by the next year.
While I was there for 2 weeks I visited 4 states (Mandalay, Shan, Kayah, and Yangon) and 6 cities (Mandalay, Bagan, Nyaungshwe, Loikaw, Pan Pet, and Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon). I got extremely sick for 2 days from eating undercooked and unrefrigerated chicken, and then I was later sick and bedridden for 2 weeks, starting the day before I left, from what I believe was Dengue fever.
My general impressions of Myanmar are that it’s an extremely difficult place to try to live. It seems to be closer on the spectrum to surviving than living. Outside of the mass poverty, and government repression, you have an extremely harsh climate in much of the country where it’s difficult to grow, and the heat is punishing. Beyond that, there is a general lack of adequate sewage systems, and widespread problems with standing water and mosquito-based infections.
Despite this, possibly ironically, every person I came into contact with was extremely friendly, if not overly friendly. While there, my girlfriend and/or I were asked to have our picture taken by and with local people over 20 times. And of course, both the people and the geography of the country are exotic and quite beautiful. The country will likely change very rapidly in the coming years with opening borders and a massive influx of tourists. While I selfishly find it fascinating to explore places lost in time, and I hate to see unique cultures ruined by the infection of McDonaldization and the monoculture of American consumerism, I can’t deny that in the case of Myanmar, change and modernization will certainly save and improve the lives of many struggling people, while possibly tainting and corrupting some of the more purer souls.
To view more of my photographs from Myanmar, click on the video below (Best viewed in 1080p):
Further reading on people and places in the photographs: