Making New Friends in Myanmar

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Without question, the best part of our travels has been meeting people in the places we visit. Over the past six months we have met so many unique individuals, and each one has enriched our experiences. Whether it was a quick conversation with a Malaysian woman at a bus stop in Bergen, Norway or driving through the Atlas Mountains with our tour guide in Morocco, we’ve walked away from each encounter having learned something new, or with a new perspective on a given idea, or simply with an uplifted spirit if even for a moment. Our experiences with the people in Myanmar were no exception. 

Going to a new country can be intimidating for many reasons, one of which is that as Americans we often feel guilty entering less developed countries for fear that we are imposing on their way of life and changing their economies and cultures without giving anything in return. We were worried about this prior to visiting Myanmar because we know the country has only recently opened to tourists again, and we were unsure about how comfortable the residents would be with tourists coming in.

When we arrived in Yangon we quickly learned that the people of Myanmar were very welcoming and interested in the fact that we had come all the way from the United States to visit their land. Throughout our interactions with locals (both in the tourism industry and outside of it) the main thing we took away is that they have a great deal of pride for their country, and their home state in particular, and that they want tourists to learn about and understand their history, culture, and traditions.

One of the chefs we met ensured that we knew they used the best vegetables from his hometown nearby to make an authentic soup. One of the young men we befriended was very excited for us to see the famed pagodas in his hometown of Bagan, and it was clear that it was important to him that we took note of the details of what we were seeing. After all, these were not only significant religious and cultural structures but also sources of pride for him and his family. Our tour guide enthusiastically told us about the new leader of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, who many people look up to as a source of hope and inspiration. Another of our new friends was glad to tell us that he considers himself from Burma, rather than Myanmar, as he proudly references his home state (Burma is one of several states within the country of Myanmar — each having many unique cultures and traditions of its own).

When asked how they felt about tourists in their country all of these people expressed gratitude. They explained that tourism has created so many valuable jobs for themselves and their families that would otherwise not exist. Artists are now more easily able to sell handmade goods, higher demand for taxis and buses has allowed more drivers to make a stable income, new restaurants and hotels have opened, creating a variety of new jobs for people. Of course, it would be naive to assume that changes due to tourism have all been positive. But it was refreshing to hear that many great people are benefiting from tourism. 

Speaking of these great people, here are some of our favorite moments with them:

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Ye Min, our lovely tour guide, is such an inspiring young man. He told us that when he used to work on European cruise ships he learned to speak English by reading books that guests left in their rooms after disembarking. His favorite author is Leslie Pearce. 

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Htun was such a ray of sunshine in our days. He is happy and kind, and was excited to show us pictures of his family. He has four sisters who live in Bagan. He is working hard on his English and we enjoyed getting to know him. We’ve kept in touch with him and hope to in the future. 

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The students, principal and teachers of the school in Pha Hto village were so excited that we visited. They were incredibly proud of the songs and dances they performed for us. 

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Soe performed all kinds of magic tricks for us. Our favorite involved a toothpick and a dish towel. He also taught Jeff a handshake that ended with “I love you.” It was interesting getting to know about the years he spent living in Thailand and how he is adjusting to being back in his home country.

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We encountered the most hardworking woman when we visited a post office in Tha Yet Myo . She sat on the wooden floor sifting through a canvas bag filled with letters. 

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Sar was the sweetest guy, and a talented pianist. He was so kind and generous that he gave us a parting gift. A lacquerware box that we can’t wait to display when we have an apartment again one day. We’ve also kept in touch with Sar, sharing texts and photos. 

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This group of young women were finishing up their after school program when we passed by, so we stopped to say hello. They attend school all day and then come to this center for extra tutoring. The program was created and funded by Aung San Suu Kyi. 

We are grateful to have met these people and to have the opportunity with some to stay in touch. We will always remember Myanmar for its proud, delightful, and generous people.

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