sule payaIt’s a Sunday morning, half of the city is still sleeping, when I find myself staring at the impressive amount of gold of Sule Pagoda. The shiny pagoda is built in the middle of a roundabout and I soon realize that cars are flowing around me and the building. Only in Yangon you can see such an important building in the middle of street.

The sun is already up and sharp, reflecting its ray on the golden building and making me close my eyes a little. I decide to walk a short way down the road. My sight keeps jumping from one thing to another: everybody is wearing a longyi (the typical long skirt), everybody is spitting something red, which is creating dots that are covering the ground. It looks like blood, but I soon find out that is the betel: a leaf rolled around some tobacco and nuts that people chew and spit to get some extra energy.

The traffic is growing, the streets are becoming noisier and suddenly people are shouting. I am a bit confused; I wonder what’s the shouting about so I stop and look. I see the buses slowing down and opening the door without coming to a complete stop. People start to jump out of it, someone stays half way and shout something and other people jump in, almost lifted by the shouting guys. It must be the bus stop.

The noisy buses are old, rusty and covered in dust. They travel with the engine part open to the air so that it doesn’t overheat. The small streets, framed by the high and messy buildings, are busy with people selling the most different things: from books to padlocks to fruits to clothes. There are also small tables where a lady sits with a white phone and a big book, which must be the equivalent of the phone booth. Everybody is out for business and everybody do it loudly, to cover the sound of the traffic and the horns. The worn buildings are colorful and there are so many satellites and clothes hanging on the front, that makes them look even more vibrant, intricate and chaotic.

This is a mess! A colorful, hot, noisy and a beautiful mess. I’m in Myanmar, and I already like it!

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yangon lady (1 of 1)I keep wandering the streets, while the sun starts burning my skin and is just after a couple of hours that I realize that I still didn’t take any picture. This is very unusual for me: photography is a really important part of my travels. I don’t mind waking up at 5 am for the best light or being able to visit just half of the places because it takes me double the time to take pictures. My camera is ready to pop out in any occasion. In fact, it even pops out too often. Now though, while walking around, I’m so busy studying what’s happening around me that I forget about my camera.

Myanmar is one of those countries that you should visit twice: once to explore it with your jaw dropped and once with a camera in your hands.

I’m fascinated by the fact that both boys and girls are wearing a longyi and by the fact that guys can really pull it off. I keep staring at their teeth that are red because of the betel, which is a leaf rolled around some tobacco and nuts that people chew and spit. I soon realize that I’m not the only one looking around with surprise; people are studying me as much as I’m studying them. There are no other tourists around and my white skin and western looking clothes are in contrast with the surrounding. This is something that will happen over and over during my trip in Myanmar. There are many people that have never seen a western and I would often feel like a superstar, with people taking pictures with me and, the very brave one, even touching my skin with surprise.

 

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My very first impression of the country, on that Sunday morning in Yangon, didn’t trick me: Myanmar is very different from the rest of Southeast Asia. It’s history, the fact that it has been isolated from the rest of the world for years and the actual political and religious situation, has slowed down the development of the country and created a different culture. The isolation created something unique, something that, from a selfish point of view, I wish would never change.

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pagoda (1 of 1)The tourist wave that is starting to hit the country is obviously good for its economy and development. For someone learning a new language and learning about the world through the contact with foreigners is the best form of education that they can afford. I met a guy for example that was putting body and soul into learning English; he was coming from a small farmer village, he couldn’t go to school or have an education, he was dreaming of being a writer and to know what is out there.

 

“How can I improve my English?” he asked me under the shade of a temple in Inwa. “I really want to speak good English, not just because it can give me good job possibilities in the tourist market but because it is my only education. If I can speak properly with people I can learn many things from them”. I suggested him to select his customers, “Do not take around Spanish or Italian people, otherwise for sure you will not learn English!” We laughed.

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The increasing number of tourists has some positive sides for the tourists as well: a bigger market means more accommodation options and better prices. It’s well known that right now the accommodations are very overpriced for what you get, especially when you compare them with neighboring Thailand. The negative side is that you get often ask for money without a service in return. People that are more in contact with tourists, start to see them as gold mines and try to get as much as they can. In fairness, there is a lot that we, as tourists, can do for this country, like choosing businesses in which we know that the money are going to the people instead of the government.

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People in Myanmar are still genuine and friendly, and they would go out of their way to make you feel welcome and comfortable. Their big smiles and kindness are something hard to forget. The fact that a total stranger would offer you tea when you look tired, and a lady would put some of their yellow paste on your face so that you don’t get burn, is not a common thing in other countries. That’s why when I read that in 2015 they will open the first KFC in Myanmar, I wanted to cry. The American business is conquering the world, and Myanmar is not escaping them.

Does that mean that the longyi and the betel will disappear? Will the locals still welcome me with big smiles and kids wave at me on the street? What is going to happen to that beautiful mess that made me forget about my camera?