The people of Burma
23.10.2012 - 12.11.2012 38 °C
It's a big call, but I'm going to make it.... no country quite compares to the friendliness we experienced in Burma/Myanmar. If I can just slip in two qualifiers: I mean on an overall basis, as in not a single person we met wasn't pleased to see us or happy to help and; we rarely visit a country where we speak the local language and if we did, I am certain the welcome would always be warmer.
A population that has been living through 50 years of military dictatorship, repression and horrific human rights abuses welcomes with endless smiles, the foreign traveller. I had never really realised how infectious a smile can be, see one and you cant help responding with one. Everywhere we went, that's what we got. We just walked around on a smiling high. It happened in one-on-one situations and with groups of strangers. You might be cycling along a quiet country road when a ute overloaded with women in the tray and men sitting on the roof approach you. Before they have even passed you there is an enthusiastic cry of 'Mingalaba!' (Hello!). Passing wooden long tail boats where people sit in a single file row, they would look over at us in our boat a little curiously. Bust out just one little wave and in energetic unison everyone on that boat is waving, smiling and laughing at the sight of some foreigners.
It was mostly older men that spoke English, or at least approached us to speak with us, remnants of an English colonial past. They were open and forward about their country and genuinely interested in us and ours. They would approach us while we were sitting on the street or browsing a bookshop. While checking out an old church building we were swept aside by the Pastor, guided around, introduced to people and then taken back to his place for tea. Cycling along a country road one day (yes, it was a common activity, really pleasant thing to do) we were passed by many people on scooters. One guy spotted us, saw we were foreign, and slowed right down to a cycle pace so that he could chat with us for about 20 minutes. Awesome.
We didn't know it at the time but one of the most interactive things we did was when Dan purchased an NLD t-shirt while visiting their HQ in Yangon. The NLD is the National League for Democracy, the political party which Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader of, which has been pushing for multi-party democracy since the late '80s. Up until nearly a year ago showing any support, talking about, or being any way involved with the NLD could cost you any number of undesirable repercussions, one of the reasons there are currently thousands of political prisoners in Burma. But, getting close to a year ago, the military junta allowed other parties to participate in politics and in the following by-elections the NLD won a number of seats. So for the first time in decades there is a whiff of political freedom in the air.
The NLD has come to represent both the political party, but also the movement for change and that this foreigner was showing his support for this political freedom was intensely appreciated. Whenever Dan wore the t-shirt (and he tended to do so often) he got countless positive reactions. Many people wanted to shake his hand in gratitude (one guy even stopped his scooter as he spotted us while riding past) and made comments such as 'So you are with us.' Sitting in a busy bar one evening Dan was approached by some enthusiastic locals so pleased to see his support for the NLD a photo shoot ensued. I thought one of the more telling comments which he often got was 'Do you know Aung San Suu Kyi?' To me the answer is a resounding yes. She is an international icon of political freedom, her years of house arrest an example of the repression the Burmese military junta inflicts upon its population. But Burma has been so closed for so long, the people within the country have no idea what the rest of the world knows about it and how a lot of the world, through sanctions and beliefs, supports the freedom of the Burmese people.
It may sound cliched, but then cliches tend to exist because they are commonly true, but the people of a country really do make a tremendous affect to your experience there. We had an amazing time in Burma.