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The smiling faces of magical Myanmar

It was the smiles of the Burmese people that I remember most vividly. The artifacts of colonialism were fascinating, the statues and the lovely red brick British buildings. Once upon a time Rangoon was one of the exotic gems of the East; now it stands as a crumbling city where life is lived on the sidewalk. The religious practices are intriguing; people living in dire, endless poverty worship and celebrate life by rubbing 24 carat gold onto statues. The pervasiveness of the religion is stunning; Buddha is everywhere, in every style and size, in the pagodas, in altars nailed to trees, in homes, in shops. This is an exotic, largely unknown country with a history as old as time, fascinating and elusive. But it was those smiles, those warm, spontaneous, genuine smiles that have me dreaming of a return to Myanmar.

Pagoda scene, MyanmarMyanmar/Burma is a country emerging from 50 years of isolation preceded by many years of war. The reception of travelers has been relatively recently, and the infrastructure is not yet conducive to widespread tourism. In spite of the obstacles, small scale capitalism is flourishing in the old city of Rangoon, now Yangon. Sidewalks are crowded with makeshift tea houses. Open air “restaurants” furnished with tiny plastic tables and chairs manufactured for preschool children have “dining rooms” expanding into the street. Bookshops magically appear on corners, created from piles of ancient paperbacks and copied manga magazines. Fruit and vegetable stalls stake out prime areas of public real estate, fulfilling a daily need for housewives going home to make dinner in a kitchen without a refrigerator. Though there are no civic sanitation services, residents can frequently be seen sweeping clean their doorsteps and sidewalks with handmade brooms or palm fronds. Large, once beautiful turn- of- the-century buildings stand behind strands of barbed wire, empty and dilapidated, while modern life takes place on the sidewalks nearby.

Pagoda scene, MyanmarModern life? Myanmar was a vibrant, burgeoning democracy until the 1962 coup d’état. With a national life expectancy of 66 years, its oldest citizens were only about twelve when the military took over, which means that for the vast majority of Burmese this is the only way of life they have even known. Due to the government’s policy of near-complete isolation and the accompanying lack of technological development, most people have had no idea of how life is lived in the outside world. In Myanmar it is normal for young children to work in their family’s sidewalk tea house or food stand, waiting tables, cooking over open fires. People from the outside see poverty and child labor; the people of Yangon see life as it has always been. For the majority of Burmese, life is stable, families are close, relationships essential, and hard work keeps the children fed. They lead authentic lives without comparison to lives lead in other places. If one can define satisfaction as the meeting of essential needs then, without other expectations, these may be lives of quiet satisfaction. Having enough and being happy with it, seeing outsiders more as an interesting curiosity than a measure of comparison may be what lie behind those authentic smiles. Go now, before the outside world sows its seeds of material desire and dissatisfaction. The warm, genuine Burmese people welcome you to Myanmar.
Reclining Buddha, Myanmar
All photos by Peter Divine

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