Semester at Sea: Burma
Editor’s Note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is on Semester at Sea this spring and has agreed to blog about her experience. Catch up with her previous entries here.
Three years ago, the government of Myanmar opened a country that had been closed (or semi-closed) for close to 60 years. As Burma transitions from a military-controlled state to a democratic one, it has experienced a surge of changes, including the sight of foreign visitors – like Semester At Sea students – that pour into the country. Because tourism is all so new, SAS travelers faced some amusing/sketchy stumbling blocks while exploring a place where the difference between a luxury bus ride and a bus with lawn chairs for seats is about $2. But I think those challenges were all part of what makes Burma itself, and it made visiting this developing place an adventure.
Pagodas are everywhere. Burma is known as the “golden land” for the color of the pagodas that you can find on literally all the roadsides. When you visit the buildings, you see scarlet-clad Theravada monks meditating in front of Buddha statues, visitors lighting candles and incense, and people pouring water over the statues to bring good fortune for themselves. I visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest pagoda in Myanmar’s largest city, where many monks would show non-Buddhists around and explain the various rituals that Buddhists perform during their visit.
The priority that people place on religion is reflected in their daily lives. I was told that it is safe for women to travel in Myanmar (which I did, with three other girls, without any real problems). And if you forget your bag, no one will steal it – a phenomenon I witnessed for myself, on accident…twice.
Money matters. One of the unique things about Semester At Sea is that it takes you to countries where you would never study abroad for a full semester, like Burma. It’s one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with a GDP per capita of less than $2000, and its university system doesn’t support American study abroad students (to my knowledge) just quite yet.
Poverty is such a complicated issue, and this trip has revealed how relative the idea of being “poor” is. When you’re fed, clothed, and have an income, you have a lot to be thankful for – and so many of the Burmese people I met were undeniably content, happy people. At the same time, developing countries are places where basic medical care, good schools, and good jobs just aren’t available, and I think seeing it firsthand – when a man wrecks his motorcycle and has to drive an hour to the nearest hospital, or a father you meet tells you that he sends his wife and children 400 miles away so his kids can attend a decent primary school – you start to understand how different your life and your opportunities are.
It’s a complicated issue, and all I can really say is that this type of travel helps you understand how privileged you are. I saw people that don’t have anything by Western standards, and they’re not sad, bitter or feel like they need to beg for help – but if a person comes and spend money in their shops, it really makes their day.
The people are excited to have you. Like I said, this is partly because you’re spending money, but also because Burma is a place where most towns didn’t see foreigners for years – and your presence is a sign of wealth and open doors for them.
SAS kids went all over the country in Burma. To the beach; to Bagan, where 1400 temples are scattered across a desert plain; to Bago, where Golden Rock hangs off a cliff and defies gravity (because Buddha’s hair is apparently keeping it upright). I travelled to Lake Inle, a shallow, blue 45-square mile lake with small villages lining the coast. It’s surrounded by mountains on either side, which I hiked after spending a day visiting the lakeside villages on a motorboat. The town of Nyaung Shwe, where I stayed with three friends, was small, with buildings on almost every street that each offered the same plethora of services: lake tours, hikes, bikes for rental, horse back rides, tuk-tuk bicycle rides, bus tickets, and plane tickets. Though it’s all thrown together and a little unorganized, tiny Nyaung Shwe represents the country well – excited that you’re here, and ready to show you around.