As we spent five hours driving back to Mandalay this morning, there was a lot of time to think about what we’d seen as we wind down our Myanmar trip.
There’s no question Myanmar has a lot of poor people. But what really makes it stand out is the contrast between the poverty in which the poor live and the wealth enjoyed by a few at the top of the economic tree. The equally disturbing contrast is between living conditions and the amount of gold lavished on Buddhist temples.
Those are local problems. The guilt-inducing element for us as tourists is how picturesque the poverty is.
WOMEN ROAD WORKERS
Everyone we’ve seen working the roads – and that means doing everything by hand – is a woman or a child. The Government issues contracts for a fixed price, the way to maximize profits is to use women and kids for labour as they get paid a lot less than men do.
SMILING AND POLITE
it’s striking how many people smile at us in passing and how even the hawkers peddling goods to tourists are only minimally pushy. Part of that’s cultural, part of it is that the tourist industry is only now picking up and so competition is not yet cut-throat.
This isn’t the sort of thing you take photos of but you often have to work to cut the piles of rubbish out of shots even at significant sites. There’s no rubbish system to speak of so trash just piles up everywhere. While it’s generally ugly, the disturbing thing was that the village midden heaps are right beside, or sometimes under, houses.
The rubbish issue has a corollary, the entire country smells of smoke from people burning off rubbish. If you’re lucky the smoke smells of paper and wood, all too often though it has the acrid sting of burning plastic.
In spite of the poverty, mobile phones are everywhere. You’ll see a small shack at the roadside that’s little more than a bamboo floor and some reeds to keep off the wind and the will be someone sitting in it on a mobile phone. Someone driving an ox cart will have a phone. At first this was bewildering, especially when we knew that most of the country is without electricity. It turns out that cheap solar cells are bought from China, so a phone is practical even if you’re otherwise completely living much as your ancestors did several hundred years ago.
Advertising for mobiles is absolutely everywhere – you cannot turn without seeing an advert. It’s so pervasive that many people use the PVC signs as waterproofing or sun-shades on their shacks.
BUT ON THE OTHER HAND
All that said, it was noticeable that people looked clean and healthy. I don’t think we saw any torn clothing even in the poorest places, and hardly even any faded clothes. The markets are full to bursting and the only sign of ill-health was lots of people with bad teeth. The schools are full and it’s a very safe country. Myanmar has a lot going for it.
Myanmar is beautiful, picturesque and all set up for significant changes with the new government about to take power. If we were to come back in 20 years there’s every chance that the people will be living richer, better lives. It won’t be so picturesque without over-loaded bullock-carts and manual labour and smiling kids still seeing tourists as a novelty – but it’ll probably be a lot better life for the people living here.