Throughout our trip, the blend of modern technology and old way of life was striking. We visited bamboo hut villages where everyone shared a communal hand-pump well, yet every home had a television set with satellite dishes cobbled together from junkyard scraps.
For us, it was a bizarre feeling to go for days without internet access. One morning, we rode in a horse-drawn cart to the only hotel in town with WiFi (slower than dial-up) for our first access in days.
In both Laos and Myanmar, which are primarily Buddhist countries, we joined in the local tradition of alms giving. In Luang Prabang, the event was geared for tourists and was quite entertaining. The monks leave their temples at dawn to collect alms as they’ve done for hundreds of years, but while it was once a quieter tradition, now tour groups line the streets, giving them rice, candy and small bills. When their collection pots start to overflow, they dump them into bags and boxes carried by young locals. The monks then give much of this overflow to the poor. We spoke to a brother and sister who trek each morning (on one bike, no less) to get food to feed their family.
In a village near Mandalay in Myanmar, the scene was much more organic. The monks lined up to receive food provided by a local business and then spread out around the small town to visit homes and store fronts where they are given rice and other bites. All the monks then return to the temple to share the food for the main meal of the day. There was a gaggle of “baby” monks aged 7-14 at the back of the line who were all very sweet. It’s amazing to think they’ve left home to live in a monastery where the last meal of the day is served at noon.
As the monks dispersed, the morning market picked up steam. The entire town seemed to turn out to shop for vegetables, meat and their daily supplies. One of the unique customs of Myanmar is the use of thanaka—a beige paste made from tree bark that women and young children apply to their faces. It does double duty as sunscreen and a light cosmetic.
The country is opening up remarkably fast. An expat based there told us that two years ago, Yangon had almost no cars and you could get across the city in just five minutes. Now, there’s bumper-to-bumper traffic, and 40,000 cars are being imported each month. Still, those who haven’t traveled out of the country have never seen a Starbucks, KFC or McDonalds—brands common throughout the rest of Asia. We met many locals who, after leaving to work in Dubai or Singapore years ago, had returned to stake their fortunes in the new Myanmar. However, they all had a sense of trepidation about what the future might bring because things have moved forward and back so many times in the last fifty years.
Myanmar seems like a patchwork of a number of tribes and groups who are unsure about how to form a cohesive country. The military repression is due in part to the lack of interest a number of the states have in being grouped together. Without repression, the generals would never be chosen to rule. In fact, one state has managed to amass enough strength that the central military doesn’t intervene anymore. You usually don’t hear about this stuff, but we were incredibly fortunate to have a guide who shared some details.
In 1988, our guide partook in the student uprising at Yangon University. The school is next to a lake, which the students were backed up against when the army opened fire, leaving nowhere to run. Hundreds were killed in that single incident, but our guide survived by swimming across the lake and hiding on a small island overnight. When he made it home, his friend told him the police had a photo of him burning a Burmese flag during the protest. With his brother’s help, he fled north and ended up across the border in China. He spent three years working at a small restaurant earning a few dollars a week plus room and board before he was able to return to Myanmar (albeit through some extraordinary circumstances).
His life story vastly contrasted that of a young woman we met in Inle Lake. Her family owns a gold and silversmith business they started when the restrictions on private businesses were lifted in the 1990’s. The saleswomen, many of whom were teenagers, spoke excellent English and were making the most of the economic opportunity that tourism has brought. There was a lottery board on the wall, and guides receive tickets based on how many guests they bring in (our guide’s friend won a moped last month!). This young woman’s future seemed full of promise and opportunity, and compared with our guide’s life, we saw the remarkable difference between just one generation.
It was also amazing that this commercial hub operated in the middle of a lake. Inle Lake is home to thousands of villagers who live in huts on stilts above the water. Their homes, schools, stores, temples, restaurants and even hotels are all out on the lake. They get around by skiffs, and spend their lives on the water. The floating gardens were an amazing feat of technology; the locals have engineered a system where weeds from the lake, supported by bamboo poles, create acres of hydroponic gardens that grow all sorts of produce.
The fishermen themselves are an attraction in their own right. Because they need both hands to use their nets, they’ve figured out how to row by wrapping one leg around a long oar while balancing on the stern of the skiff with the other. It’s beautiful to watch. When you visit a place where people spend most of their time just trying to feed themselves and their families, gratitude for division of labor, specialization and technological advances that arise through entrepreneurship are practically overwhelming.
Here are a few more of our most memorable moments:
- Watching a group of little boys gleefully splashing and playing in a murky pond by the side of the road with not an adult in sight. They giggled when our guide asked if they’d found any leeches yet. No!
- Being graciously welcomed into a Hmong family’s hut by a deaf-mute woman who was taking care of her elderly mother and a small child. The dirt floor, open-fire cooking stove, dim lighting, and cramped quarters were overshadowed by their vitality and excitement at our visit.
- Stumbling upon a mama goat that had just given birth to two kids. A young boy, maybe 10 or 11, was overseeing the procedure.
- Discovering that cock-a-doodle-doo is a universal expression–at least it was between us and some Kamu children. The Kamu are of the same tribal group as the Khmer people in Cambodia, and they make up 40% of the population of Laos (another legacy of the absurd political boundaries from the colonial era).
- Receiving words of wisdom from a 106-year-old village elder who was making a fishing trap out of reeds when we met him. He’s outlived three of his five children and was surrounded by five younger generations of family. He hadn’t left the mountain village in over 30 years. When we asked his secret to longevity, he said it was a combination of not drinking alcohol, eating meat only a couple times a week, going to bed early and rising early and, most importantly, “keeping a quiet heart.”
There were other major highlights like visiting the Schwedagon Pagoda at sunset, picnicking on the banks of the Mekong river next to a herd of water buffalo and delicious local meals too numerous to recount. We feel lucky to have experienced the culture of both countries during their transition to modernization.