Exploring the Unfamiliar: Two weeks in Burma (Myanmar)

After travelling around Japan and spending almost three weeks in Vietnam, it was now time to head to Burma for one last stop before heading back to Sydney. Although admittedly not knowing what to expect from a country which, though in the midst of deep-rooted political and social turmoil, has rewarded the world with shining moral leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi; renowned political leader and Nobel peace prize winner, and U Thant; third secretary-general of the United Nations.

First impressions of Burma were unfairly low, tainted by eight hours of waiting time for what only was two hours of travel making for an uneasy and late arrival to Yangon (or ‘Rangoon’ as it’s also known). On the first night we were faced with the full realisation of being in a country heavily controlled and politically regulated by the military – after leaving our bags and heading outside in search of food from nearby markets we were suddenly plunged into absolute darkness. Being the only people on that particular stretch of road, standing outside eerily rundown colonial buildings made for a surreal feeling of nervousness – ‘its like we’re in a horror movie’ someone said.

After abandoning our mission for food we returned to the hostel and were informed that the government regularly turns off the power, ‘but only for a couple of hours or so’. Sure enough we were faced with this two more times during the trip, but we were prepared for it at least. After discussing the power outages with a few Burmese people a serious issue emerged in regards to the functioning of hospitals within the area. Yes many places have generators in case of the blackouts, but most of them are not automatic and require slow manual start-ups. When the government shuts off the power, at random times, then this can be potentially devastating particularly in the case of people seeking medical treatment in facilities which are already in abject conditions.

I wish the previous not to sound like complaints, but instead an example of the challenges that were faced by me as an outsider. Burma was, for me personally, the most intriguing place I visited out of the three countries, despite not having an established banking system or other things notoriously hailed by Western ideals.

The beautiful Inle Lake was next on the Burma journey; we arrived in the afternoon and were lucky enough to travel in a canoe just in time to see the sunset. The local Burmese man who guided us used the traditional method of foot steering to direct the canoe around the villages on stilts around the lake. This was a truly all-encompassing cultural experience, as it was visiting a group of people who have such a profoundly different life experience from myself even just on a day-to-day level.

After a stopping in Ka Law we then ventured onto Bagan, a hub of archaeological, spiritual and cultural attractions. Bagan is home to nearly 3,000 pagodas, with the landscape in Old Bagan – the historical centre – being quite flat, allowing for an expansive view of the pagodas from up high.

The pagodas are visited by Buddhist monks in their formal attire, and are used as a means of reflection and symbolism. Architecturally and aesthetically the structures are incredible; while many of the pagodas may look similar each has its own unique design, and each are internally very different. Hundreds of murals and low reliefs are scattered around the pagodas, as well as Buddha sculptures treated with gold-leaf which grants the temples a shimmering radiance when they are lit by candlelight at night.

….

Arriving home only three days before uni returns I am now in a strange state, what I can only describe as a sense of calm chaos. I feel renewed from the trip overseas however I have been spared no delay in being hit by the unstoppable circularity and progression of Sydney time. Deadlines, dinners, exact times and dates – something which was really only used as a rough guideline within Asia for everything other than our flights – is again the central focus of life back home. Only this time I feel more prepared, more able to adjust to the changing pace of life in Sydney after two months away with the knowledge that this is just one facet of one cultural experience of the vast amount that are within this country and this world.

It is certainly true that the experiential facets of travel (to name a few – communication, the altered sense of time, food, social queues etc) teach you a lot about the place through which you have travelled, but I have found that they also teach you a lot – perhaps sometimes even more – about yourself. How you function in different situations and how you see the world. And, perhaps best of all, travel gives an individual the opportunity to challenge this prism of viewing by showing them facets of the world they thought was hidden or did not exist. And for this, I must acknowledge and thank the UTS BUiLD program for allowing me, through their travel grant scheme, this very rewarding experience.

Rory traveled to Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos  in 2013 with  BUiLD General Grant to volunteer with young people.

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