Myanmar: a photoessay

Myanmar is going through yet another transition.

After a tumultuous history in the shadows of three different harsh regimes - the British Raj, the Japanese and the military junta - the country is now beginning to break out of its cocoon, chin up and eyes forward. It is beginning to understand its values, its assets and its place in the world, after being cut-off for far too long. The decades-long isolation managed to squander the country's potential but did not break its people. They are ready and open. 

Significant progress has been made since the military stepped down in 2011 in almost every area - tourism, economy, telecommunications, education.

But, in playing catch up, Myanmar has to confront some major hurdles including ethnic tensions, poverty and the education of an entire generation that has so far received sub-par schooling (learn more about the country's education system and literary scene from my piece for CNN here)

A thanaka vendor uses her phone. Women use thanaka - the tree barks - as natural sunblock.

According to the Oxford Business Group, as of 2013, Myanmar has the world's lowest mobile penetration rate at just 10 per cent compared to the region's average of 78.2 per cent. The reason is mainly due to a monopoly held by MPT, the only network provider in the country resulting in inefficient infrastructure and extortionate prices; a regular SIM card would cost up to US$200, which is too expensive for the majority of locals living on meagre incomes.

Internet adoption is also extremely low at just 1.5 per cent of the population. Due to the previous government's censorship and determination to control the flow and availability of information, internet access was never expanded.

But things are about to change very quickly - two new foreign telecoms players (Telenor and Ooredoo) have been granted access to this untapped market riding on the backs of a government target to increase penetration to 80 per cent by 2015.

I believe something extraordinary is going to happen in Myanmar. The opportunities that will appear over the next one to two years are going to create some of the most important memories that the country is ever going to have...Young people plus technology equals prosperity. Myanmar has the young people and the technology is coming.
— Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, Oxford Business Group

A deity in the sunlight.

Grandiose temples, intricate architecture.

The city's greatest landmark - the Shwedagon Pagoda - is estimated to be worth almost US$2.4 billion because of the gold plating (approximately 60 tonnes) and the gems (diamonds and rubies) at the top of the dome, making it the most expensive temple in the world. Every five years, the gold is removed and the dome is plated with new gold. 

People visit the Shwedagon Pagoda for many reasons from finding their life partners to newly weds praying for children. Buddhists place great importance on the day each person was born as that would determine their Burmese zodiac sign. There are 8 signs for seven days of the week and therefore there are 8 posts at the pagoda that people come to worship frequently.

A visitor basking in the beauty of the Shwedagon pagoda.

Across Myanmar, monks are revered as the highest human life form. Every man has to go through at least a minimum amount of monk training at some point in their lives and many locals hope that their own sons go on to become monks because of the prestige associated. 

Monks survive only on donated food and money. Every morning, at the crack of dawn, they'll glide down the streets in their saffron robes for donations and the remarkable thing is they will never come up short - everyone is willing to give a little, even if they don't have much themselves. In a country where just under half the population lives in poverty, the fact that monks can survive on mere donations is a remarkable and inspiring reflection of the people's generosity overall. Giving is their way of life; as George Orwell proclaims in his book Burmese Days, "the Burmese won't let anyone starve."

A monk's words and actions hold a lot of sway with the people of Burma, more so than the words and actions of politicians. At times of suffering, the monks will put aside their stoic demeanor to speak out against the status quo and the people will listen. George Packer writes in the New Yorker:

Monks have been politicized throughout modern Burmese history. The sangha led demonstrations against the British rule and has played a part in every eruption of protest since 1962. ‘When Burmese people suffer, normally they don’t dare to speak out,’ a monk who later fled to the Thai border town of Mae Sot said. ‘So we express their suffering for them.’

After Typhoon Nargis made landfall in Myanmar, bringing widespread destruction in its wake, Packer reports that it was the monks that helped distribute aid and supplies; "not through the local authorities, whom no one trusted, but through the monks." 

Monks will emerge from their monasteries at dawn to collect offerings. 

Female monks wear pink.

Like the media and literature in the country, art in Burma was strictly controlled by the military regime. Only safe and bland paintings of landscapes or temples made it past the censors. Any nudity was frowned upon and paintings of opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were forbidden. Even abstract paintings could hardly get through the regime since the board preferred realist and traditional styles. 

A recent exhibit in Hong Kong titled Banned in Burma: Painting Under Censorship shone a light on the works by artists during the oppressive regime. Ian Holiday, a co-curator of the exhbition, told the New York Times the painting "should be helping people understand something about what Myanmar has been through in the past few decades."

But the art scene has been growing fast since 2012 with more galleries opening up and art works are being sold freely at almost every street corner although none of those artworks are really provocative or pushing the envelope. 

Colourful local art in Yangon

Until recently, images and paintings of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were strictly forbidden.

Local crafts sold outside temples in Bagan.

When it comes to transportation, Myanmar is surprising. It already has a vast network of local flights and railways even if they are in desperate need of an upgrade; their functioning existence - despite the country's tumultuous history - is remarkable. 

At present the country has eight domestic airlines taking visitors and locals to every corner of the country. Yet, the system is incredibly - charmingly - antiquated. Domestic carriers, for example, still use the old fashioned booklet tickets, each page separated by carbon paper. In other parts of the world, that would only be found in aviation museums. 

And, there's always the trusted bicycle. 

Cycling through Bagan.

Burmese food is the most underappreciated and undiscovered cuisine in the region, particularly when compared to the hugely popular cuisines of its neighbours - China, Thailand and India - all of which have now reached every corner of the globe. In fact, in George Orwell's book, Burmese Days, the protagonist proclaims "almost the worst thing in Burma [is] the filthy, monotonous food."

That perception of the cuisine is based on vast misunderstandings because it only considers one fragment of the cuisine - the thick, greasy curries. But there's more to Burmese food than first meets the eye.

Since Burma was once a major trading hub drawing people from around the region, its street food and authentic home-cooked meals consist of eclectic hybrid mixes of food items found in the neighbouring countries.

For more, read my piece in Crave Magazine's November issue here.

A man stirs hot vats of soya bean paste at a small cottage industry in Bagan