Expectations Vs. Reality

First weeks in Yangon, Myanmar
By: Andrea Lloyd

Andrea at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

As Cuso International’s new Sustainable Tourism Development Advisor in Yangon, Myanmar, I am responsible for researching best practices to support the building of environmentally sustainable tourism businesses in Myanmar. In preparation for this internship, I kept in mind that I wanted to have the “tourist experience” in my free time to give some perspective to my research. I began to look up tourist attractions and activities, finding there would be many beautiful Pagodas to see, restaurants to visit, markets to browse and wait…did I read that correctly? Squat toilets!?

My internship preparation research suddenly took a turn for the worse. It turns out the four months I will be in Myanmar is monsoon season where I will witness something like 2000 mm of precipitation, I will be living far enough from my office that I will need to order a taxi every morning in a language I have never even heard spoken and I can never eat meat or have a cold drink with ice for fear of visiting those squat toilets too often. This new knowledge in combination with the numerous case-studies of poverty and hardship that come with being a master’s student in international development led to items ending up in my luggage such as hidden money belts, and a ton of sanitizer and bug spray. Sadly, my in-case-of-earthquake helmet could not fit after all the three-ply toilet paper. Priorities!

Some of the goodies found at the Hledan Market.

I am writing this in the third week of my stay in Yangon, after two weeks of in-country orientation (ICO), which included Burmese language lessons, presentations about Myanmar’s history and politics, as well as how to navigate the city. I have found that the case studies from school weren’t far off in depicting the deep poverty and inequality that is a daily reality in less developed regions, but these images never really sank in until I saw it in person. My first encounter of the astounding clash of income levels was at the major intersection of Hledan, the neighbourhood I am living in. At this intersection, there is a large road island where young street children beg for money in an extremely busy intersection. Directly across from this road island is the Hledan Centre, an air conditioned upper-scale mall with restaurants, high-fashion clothing stores. Kitty-corner to the Hledan Centre is the Hledan Market, where street merchants sell their fabrics, produce and personal care items. The street backing onto the Hleden Centre is comprised of upper-class family homes and business which are lavishly decorated and gated for privacy. All of this is within one square kilometer.

The Bride Thu Thu and myself.

A newcomer like myself would think that they would need to protect against theft, or mentally prepare for being treated as an outsider by locals. In Yangon, so far, there has been absolutely no need for these preparations. In my first week, I was invited to my language teacher’s wedding, which I happily attended and where I was warmly welcomed. In the beautiful Hledan Market, I experienced kindness when I mistook a larger bill as the proper payment amount, but the merchant gracefully explained my mistake; this has actually happened a few times and it is clear that I really need to learn the Burmese number system. These kindnesses are also evident between Myanmar locals, where young children in public areas will be fanned to be kept cool by complete strangers, or seemingly low-income people will hand food to the even less fortunate. My favourite observation that I will tell anyone who will listen is watching the staff of the Junction City Mall all leave work for the night, 300-plus people walking down the stairs of the five-story building, punching out for the night and assisting each other into flatbed truck taxis that were waiting for them in the parking garage. I have been inspired by this sense of community which is something that will reflect in my recommendation report. I may also add something about installing sit-down toilets, but the report is still in the works.

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