Dispatch, Myanmar: The simple life or smartphones?

By Michelle Baran
Dispatches from MyanmarSenior editor Michelle Baran recently returned from Myanmar with Haimark Travel. Her third dispatch follows. Click to read Michelle's first and second dispatches.

“So you save the money first and then you use the bank card to spend the money?” my guide asked.

“No, that’s a debit card,” I explained. “With a credit card, the bank forwards you the money and then you pay the bank back.”

Myanmar Buddhist Lent CelebrationsMy guide look terrified at the idea of credit and its potential implications in a country that is still predominantly an all-cash economy.

I couldn’t help but agree that it’s often not the best idea to loan people money given our current economic and housing crisis.

As my guide and I delved deep into our discussion about the difference between debit cards and credit cards, I had almost forgotten my surroundings.

We were perched on small wooden stools at a makeshift snack hut in Pwe Sar Khone, a village on Inle Lake, eating a local specialty of brown rice, pig’s blood and what my guide referred to as “dynamite powder.” We were washing it down with 3-in-1 instant coffee, amid celebrations marking the end of Buddhist lent.

The scene was classic Myanmar, a clash of modernity with old traditions. And there were so many moments like this.

There were the young monks, or novices, huddled around a radio in front of the ancient teak monastery Shwe Yan Pyaynear Nyaung Shwe.

There were the neon lights “enhancing” the auras of centuries-old statues of Buddha.

And how about the free Wi-Fi service at the summit of Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the holiest Buddhist site in Myanmar? I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the sign. But hey, pilgrims need to get online too, no?

Myanmar Temple CellphonesOn Inle Lake, where the floating communities still rely on traditional fishing methods and tomatoes are grown along impressive floating gardens, teenagers mimic Korean popular culture with funky haircuts and faux-leather jackets.

The people of Myanmar may not have credit cards or even bank accounts, but they are on Facebook.

These contrasts are part of what makes visiting Myanmar so interesting and complicated all at once. As a traveler there, having these conversations and cultural exchanges, you wonder how much information you should be sharing. You are more aware of your cultural footprint here than in other parts of the world.

Was it a good idea to talk about credit cards with my guide? I don’t know. He asked. I told him. I also told another guide about Instagram. Did I open another can of worms with that one?

I’d like to think we were teaching each other. I was hopefully able to share some useful insights from my world. And they were teaching me about a relatively less complicated existence, about Buddhism and its traditions, and making me wonder if their simple life was better than the complex, technologically advanced world we live in.

Of course, there are many problems in their world, fraught with ethnic tensions and political divides. But visiting the quiet villages, you can’t help but wonder if these seemingly peaceful corners of the country were better left untouched by smartphones, Facebook and credit.

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