Burma; quite a world apart

On particularly hectic days, my mind wanders back to the lazy days spent in Burma, kicking about with the locals and downing staggering amounts of tea at local tea shops.

Poh seng, thohng“, we gestured to the waitress. As she went off to fetch us another three cups of the intoxicating Burmese tea, the expression on her face indicated that she had done some quick mental arithmethic and had worked out that we had already had eight cups, and were now coming up to our 11th. And we were a party of four. On her way back to the kitchen, the waitress must have informed every single one of her colleagues about the Table of Three Crazy Foreigners because shortly after, the waiters and waitresses all began casually walking by for no reason, taking far too many nonchalant glances at the empty cups on the table.

The above was not helped by the incessant giggling of Kun, our Burmese friend, who had observed our tea-drinking prowess with equal parts of amusement and concern. “The Burmese order one cup of tea each, and sit for over an hour. This is your third/fourth cup in 20 minutes.”. And it was in this laid-back, idyllic manner that we spent ten very enchanting days in Burma.

En route to Burma, I had no clue at all what to expect. Apart from informing Kun, whom I had only met briefly in Singapore a few months ago, that I would be arriving “around 5 o’ clock or something”, no plans had been made and I had entertained the possibility of being coughed out on a dusty road corner staring cluelessly at a map. It was quite a surprise then, to come through the arrival gates to see two ladies I had never met in my life, holding my name printed out on an A4-sized piece of paper (sans the “m” in my surname because they ran out of room on the paper and thought how important could the last letter be anyway) while jumping up and down. And what followed was ten days of the most humbling hospitality I had ever experienced. The Burmese are heartwarmingly friendly, much more so when it came to hosting friends of friends of friends whom they had never heard of. Surrounded by their generous smiles as we bounced about this sun-drenched country with no international cell phone signal and minimal internet access, the city life, only three hours away by plane, quickly melted away.

Burma’s political history can be described as tumultuous at best. 14 years after independence from the British at the end of World War II, the military siezed power in a coup, and a junta was established. Despite the dissolution of the junta in 2011 in place of a civilian government, the cabinet continues to be largely occupied by military officers and the regime has been heavily criticized for their bloody crackdowns on protests and other human rights violations. The international community has responded by cutting food aid and imposing economic sanctions, some of which have lasted close to two decades, further weakening the resource-rich country’s already shaky economy.

Despite the situation, Burma remains deeply steeped in Buddhist tradition and culture – there are temples everywhere you turn. Monks file past on every street, their saffron robes a splash of colour against the dusty roads. There is an infectious sense of calm over the volatile undercurrents, and the Burmese are a gentle and friendly lot.

For the temple junkie, or even pretty much anyone, no trip to Burma would be complete without a visit to the ancient city of Bagan. Peppered with more than 2000 centuries-old temples, some crumbling, some not, even the most hardcore of aetheists would find a semblance of inner peace in this place. A sunset (or sunrise if you are really a morning person) over the temple-studded horizon is quite the surreal experience, and several local companies arrange hot-air balloon trips to facilitate this.

At the time of writing, Burma had headed to the polls for a highly anticipated by-election. The National League of Democracy, of which Aung San Suu Kyi is chairperson, swept 40 out of the 44 seats contested and for the first time, Aung San was elected into the Burmese parliament. In a show of approval for what was seen worldwide as a landmark election, the international community is in the midst of easing long-standing sanctions, as well as resuming the provision of food aid to the country. While current Burmese president Thein Sein has been hailed as a reformist, much remains to be done to reverse the effects that decades of strive have inflicted, and the elections should only be a hopeful sign of things to come.

Nevertheless, as I remember Burma in my mind, I think not of the politics and the unrest, but of the smiling faces and gentle demeanours of the locals I have met.

– Sarah Tham

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