After traveling through Southeast Asia for winter break, just over 6 weeks, I had the opportunity to experience different cultures and countries through food, nightlife, human interactions, celebrations, natural beauty and historic sites. At the end of my journey, I had several peers ask me, “which one was your favorite?”
Before our Global Immersion Program (GIP), I would have had pros and cons for each country and said I loved them all. However, after spending two weeks diving into a country that was shut off for decades from the rest of the world, Myanmar has enthralled me. Through its benevolent people, mind-blowing advancement and beautiful townships, everything I had thought about this country has been completely turned upside down.
As a preface to what follows, I want to highlight an important fact that we often forgot during our trip. Our pre-travel and GIP were centered around the Bamar (Burmese) and Shan populations in the dry areas of the Shan State, Mandalay region and Yangon. Myanmar has been in conflict for decades, currently the longest running civil war. On the border states to the North and West, there are conflict zones with different ethnic groups that have been fighting the government and military since 1948. Particularly of interest, in the Rakhine state, there is a genocide occurring of the Rohingya people. Most Burmese people we encountered did not give the crisis much thought. Even the most intelligent of our speakers, local and foreign, seemed to defend the government’s actions at the very least calling the conflict complex and at most likening it to the Israel-Palestine conflict. I undoubtedly believe that the conflict is complex, therefore when I refer to the country and people of Myanmar in this post, I want to be clear that I am talking about the Burmese and Shan people, which comprise almost 80% of the population, and the development occurring within this area of Myanmar. Ultimately, the Burmese people are not directly involved in the conflict and the terrible burden lies on the government. Therefore, I want to turn the focus to the future of the country and the Burmese people.
Never in my life, have I felt so safe in a country so foreign. When I first stepped off the plane in Yangon to transfer to the Heho airport, I was cautious and reticent. I was mindful of everything I did, less I get locked up by the government for misspeaking or offending a citizen. These actions could not be more laughable now. The hope, love and optimism the Burmese people display is unmatched. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with admiration and politeness.
If asked if you wanted to buy something or a take a taxi, a simple “no thanks,” would suffice and the conversation would be done. No heckling. No pressure. If you’ve ever traveled in other parts of Southeast Asia, this is a complete shock.
Every single service counter, whether it was a convenience store, restaurant or hotel, you would be greeted with a genuine grin from ear to ear and a look that said, “how can I help you in any way possible?” Even when a mistake was made, YOU felt bad as they apologized profusely and immediately corrected the error. One classmate hilariously described riding in a taxi that was clearly cut-off by another driver and for the remainder of the ride the taxi driver would apologize sincerely about every 10 seconds.
When we asked a foreigner that had been living in Myanmar for several years why the people were so happy, he summarized it with one word: hope. Hope that Myanmar will become a better country. And every day their lives are improving. Four years ago, no one had a cell phone. Today, they are live streaming sports and movies on their smartphones at speeds faster than most of the United States. Yet another expectation shattered.
Throughout our company visits, we continuously heard the same phrase used to describe the technology and way of life in Myanmar. The Leapfrog Effect. It is an amazing case study of a country that had shut its doors for decades and finally opened them up to discover a world 50 years ahead of where they were. I have written in another blog post about how this amazing phenomenon has changed the lives of countless Myanmar citizens. Godfrey Tan, the CEO of Frontiir (the leading internet service provider in Myanmar), summarized it beautifully, “if they go out and buy cell phone service for 78 cents per person per day, and I sell them internet at 13 cents per day, I am giving them the opportunity to take that 65 cents and buy a meal. They no longer have to choose between food and internet.”
Godfrey was born in Myanmar, educated in the US, worked for many years and gained his citizenship, but eventually returned to his home country to bring technological advancement to the people of Myanmar. He saw an opportunity when he realized the country had only 1% landline penetration. Obviously, it would be incredibly costly to install lines in every single home to provide internet, so instead he developed a system of routers that line the streets of Yangon and Mandalay that give WiFi to those that sign up for his service. Through a box in their home, they can receive 4G internet at a price significantly lower than his competitors. This technology only exists in Myanmar, nowhere else in the world.
This example, and others like Wave Money, have revolutionized what was thought possible in emerging markets. With a cellular infrastructure to support apps like Instagram, YouTube, etc., one wonders why although their technological advancements are ahead, tourism is falling behind.
As we rode through Bagan and were surrounded by over 2,000 beautiful Buddhist temples erected during the 12th century, I wondered why there were so few tourists. At Inle Lake, when we stayed at a well-known hotel, we were baffled by the realization that we were 6 of maybe 15 people staying in the hotel that could hold hundreds of guests.
Although the Rohingya conflict is likely a major deterrent for tourists, it is still astounding to be in places with such natural and historic beauty and feel like it was carved out specifically for you.
The conflict aside, most people usually think of Thailand when planning a trip to Southeast Asia. I would make the argument that tourists should change or supplement their itinerary. Myanmar is a must-visit country in the region. It is a shame to see such a beautiful country lacking in tourism. Words and pictures cannot describe the adventure of hopping from village to village and shop to shop on Inle Lake with a group of close friends. As you fit into a narrow canoe , an Inthar native will drive you around a thriving population that lives on stilted homes and makes crafts like silver jewelry, cheroot cigarettes and lotus-weaved scarves. Fishermen pose for photographs in an iconic manner and Karen tribe women with long neck jewelry will peacefully wait while people come and visit them.
Even Bagan, the more popular tourist destination, felt like an adult playground that was abandoned long ago. After renting E-scooters you can bop around from temple to temple, climb on a few and become mesmerized by some giants. If you opt for a more expensive balloon ride on a clear morning you are stunned by the beauty of the peppered temples across the landscape. Unlike Ankor Wat or other temple compounds, there is a vibrant community of mainly farmers that live in the area and pray at the temples. The old and new represented and preserved in the middle of Myanmar.
As I reflect on ancient Burma and the present Burmese people, it is my hope that this country continues the path towards democratizing their government and advancing the lives of their people. The people deserve a country that will bring them wealth and prosperity. They deserve a future for themselves and for their children. My hope is that the world sees the diamond in the rough that is Myanmar, pulls it up from the ground and polishes it to demonstrate its brilliance.
I joked a few times with classmates that they might see my LinkedIn page in a few years and notice I’m working somewhere in Myanmar. After talking with several expats who have thoroughly enjoyed their lives there, the idea is becoming less and less far-fetched. Regardless, I truly hope that whether or not I’m living there in 5 years, Myanmar has earned what it deserves. In a country where Buddhism is so important, after suffering bad karma for so many years, good karma is finally due.
Oliver Salman (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School