I know it has been a long time since I posted a blog and I would like everyone to know that I didn’t forget about it, nor did I get left in a foreign country; I did have to take a break from writing because the last half of the semester was crazy busy. I am now home on solid ground and have some more time (and better internet) to write and post. I’ll be writing about each country I visited as well as some extra posts but I’ll be doing it from home. So without further ado you can now read about my time in Myanmar, which feels like forever ago even though it was only a couple months ago.
I would like to start by talking about the Rohingyas crisis that is currently affecting Myanmar. There seemed to be a lot of concern from a lot of the shipboard community about visiting the country and I would like to provide a little backstory. For those of you who might not know, the Rohingyas are an ethnic group in South West Myanmar who have been rendered stateless people and stripped of their citizenship. Since 1951 the group has progressively been under greater pressure to evacuate the country; thousands of people have fled seeking refugee in neighbouring countries and North America, however neighbouring countries don’t recognize them as citizens either, thousands have been brutally tortured, raped and killed. The situation has been described by some as a genocide although the government doesn’t describe it as so.
The crimes being committed against the Rohingyas are horrific and unethical. There were many students who thought that the ship might not even stop in port and instead divert somewhere else due to the violence within the country. However, I want to share my experience in the country with you. My experience was positive, eye opening, and beautiful. It is important to remember that there is much more to a country than the terrible things that are occurring, or have occurred. It is important for people to hear the positive about what a nation has to offer in order for change to occur from within.
I went on a field program with SAS called “Buddhism: Cornerstone to Burmese life” where we went to a monastery and spent the morning with a Monk. After arriving at the monastery, we began with a Q&A session about Buddhism and what the life of a monk looks like. Buddhism is a philosophy that started in India and is now practiced by nearly 90% of the people in Burma. As we came up the Yangon River every town had at least one gold Pagoda which is a place of worship for Buddhist people. The monk that we visited with told us about the daily life of monks and what it means to be Buddhist. They live towards a better life and are always striving to become a better person; Buddhist people believe that you are supposed to live without excessive emotion; you are not supposed to experience deep anger or sadness, or joy or happiness. (…just supposed to be…)
After our Q&A session with the monk we practiced meditation for 20 minutes focusing on how our breath felt as it passed the tip of our nose. I have never been good at meditating because it is so easy for my mind to wander but that 20 minutes flew by and I found it so easy to let go of anything that was occupying my mind, allowing me to just be. We then had some tea and snacks before touring the school. There are different grades for the different ages of students who come to learn about Buddhism, both girls and boys can attend, and it is not mandatory for children to attend.
We had the opportunity to spend some time giving donations to the monks who are studying at the monastery; each got some rice, a snack bar, and a bar of soap. There are about 100 monks who study and were aged 18 to mid-40’s, all dressed in long brown robes. They all dress the same because they don’t want to place value into material items and instead focus their attention on meditating.
EXPLORING THE PAGODAS OF YANGON
I was very surprised by how developed the city of Yangon was, filled with skyscrapers and busy streets. The ship had to dock about an hour and a half outside of the city so there were shuttles to take us into downtown. The drive took us through smaller towns on the outskirts of the city filled with motorbikes on the streets and many small shops on the side of the road. The closer we got to the city of Yangon there were more sky scrapers and less motorcycles (motorcyclists are not allowed to drive in the city to help prevent accidents and clear up some of the traffic). We were dropped off at the central train station and off we went.
A couple friends and I ended up hiring a driver to tour us around for the day and take us to all of the important sights around the city. We got to see most of the downtown area, the colonial buildings that still stand from when the British ruled, as well as many temples and Pagoda’s.
The Karaweik Temple looks like a boat floating on the pond. From a distance, the large golden birds appear as if they are carrying the pagoda on their backs. The temple was absolutely stunning, with a great view of the surrounding park and city. There is a nice walking path that goes all around the pond; there were lots of people out for a walk or playing football (soccer) in the parking lot.
The Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple holds a giant statue of the sleeping Buddha which was unfortunately under restoration so we weren’t able to see all of it. Every 5 years they clean and repaint the statue so we were just unlucky with our timing. There was also a monk who got my attention and wanted to visit for a little bit, so I was able to talk with him about the temple and about the city itself. He wanted to practice his English with us for a bit. Many tourists stopped to say a prayer before continuing on for the day.
Just as the sun started setting our driver raced us over to the Shwedagon Pagoda. It was also under construction, but the atmosphere was the most memorable aspect of the visit. It was so magical to be there while people swarmed as the sun set. As the sky changed colour, so did the Pagoda. The pagoda built over 2,600 years ago and over time it has been built up, now standing at 326 feet tall. When walking around a pagoda (as with most religious sites) you walk clockwise, keeping your right hand closest to the structure. There were small groups of people praying together as well as some families teaching their children to pray. There was a line of candles that went around the pagoda for people to light for their ancestors, and others were laying flowers as a sign of respect. It was a very peaceful place and we walked around it in awe of the beauty of our surroundings.
There was one day that I had no plans so I decided to go and explore China town. I don’t even know if I made it all the way to or through China Town but I stumbled upon a crazy local market. It stared off in a warehouse with fabric stalls stacked 12 feet tall with every fabric colour, pattern, and material you can imagine. The isles were hardly larger than shoulder width and we were the only tourists in sight. Once we found our way out of the maze of cloth and back out to the street we realized that each road sold different items; one sold fruit and vegetables, one sold electronics, one sold freshly cooked foods, one sold mechanical tools and parts. China Town in Yangon was unlike any other China Town I had been to before but I also felt like I was getting a local experience.
MARKET AND MASSAGES
There is a popular tourist market in the city called Scott’s Market that has anything you could want from food and drinks, to jewellery and clothing. It’s in a large colonial building with cobblestone streets inside. Some friends and I spent hours walking through the streets (only getting lost a couple times) absorbing as much of our surrounds as we could. There were many art galleries and I purchased a few paintings.
After the market we wandered through the city to find a small spa to get a massage done; I ended up getting a massage 2 days in a row. I started off with a traditional massage where I was stretched, bent, and twisted in every way possible. At one point I was face down and the woman was standing on the back of my legs with my feet wrapped around her knees, and she pulled back on my arms until I thought I was going to break in half. Things were cracking that I didn’t know could crack. When I went back the second day I got an oil massage which was much more relaxing. One of my favourite things to do when travelling in Asia was to get as many massages as I could.
FINACIAL MARKETS AND INSTITUTIONS
My Financial Markets and Institutions class spent a day touring a small business and a bank in Myanmar. The first company we visited was Phandeeyar which is a company who is working to help tech start-up company’s get on their feet. So far, they have helped 11 companies get on their feet by providing funding and office space, with 6 more to start. Over the last four years there has been a massive boost in access to technology (specifically phones) in Myanmar and Phandeeyar is taking advantage to help create responsible users; and the program works because it is specific to the country, instead of trying to implement the plan from a developed nation. The office space that they used and provided to the start-ups was large with an open concept and lots of different colours. I was impressed with the optimism that the CEO has for the future of the country and his passion for committing to improving the responsibility to tech companies as well as consumers.
After lunch we had a meeting with the Corporate Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Performance Officer (CPO), and Chief Digital Officer (CDO) from one of the largest banks in Myanmar, Yoma Bank. All of the men were from developed nations and to say the least they were shocked at how the financial system functions in the country. I found our meeting with all the men very interesting and quite shocking actually. In 2003 Myanmar had a banking crisis, then until 2014 banks were only allowed to function as money transfers; for 11 years banks could only accept money to send family members in other parts of the country. This is completely opposite of how banks function around North America. There was no chequing or credit accounts, no debit or credit cards, and there was no possibility of investing funds into stocks or bonds. Without these functions there was no possibility for the financial system to grow. Since 2014 though, the government has allowed for the banks to do more than just money transfers; people can now put their money into a bank account, there are chequing and savings accounts, and there are now a few options for stocks. Although there has been a large growth over the past four years, there is still a lot of improvement and growth that has to occur in order for it to become a functioning and efficient financial system. Only 10% of people in Myanmar are estimated to be depositing money into banks because of the high inflation which is so high that people are losing money by depositing their money; people feel more comfortable spending money on gold and jewels to wear or hide in their walls. A factor in this that the government controls the central banks so they are unable to monitor interest rates. The bank is working towards creating a more efficient system that is available to everyone in Myanmar; this is being done by using the increase in technology to their advantage, and creating a cashless system. Although some are optimistic about the future of the financial system, until the government separates from the Central Bank and loosens up the regulations there isn’t much room for banks to develop.
Overall Myanmar was a fantastic port with a lot to offer. I learnt more about the country than I was expecting and would be happy to go and visit again. Hopefully one day I can go back to go ballooning in Bagan to watch the sun rise over the pagodas.
The next post is coming soon!
Thanks for following along,