Editor’s Note: Mero Geesey is a recent graduate of the University of Florida, where he studied biology and served as a leader in countless student organizations. In August, he will begin studying towards an MBA at Florida Atlantic University, where he has been hired to start an outdoor recreation program for students. He is a frequent traveler, who enjoys experiencing others cultures, interacting in foreign tongues, and going on spontaneous adventures.
On a recent trip to Southeast Asia, I wanted to visit a place that I knew very little about and that isn’t on the regional tourist circuit. I found Myanmar to fit both of these criteria. My first impressions of Myanmar pegged it as a scary and dangerous place, since my parents had claimed that it was full of crime and not a place for tourists. Going in, I knew that the country had been controlled a military dictatorship for nearly 50 years, up until last year. As a result, Western influences were few and far between in Myanmar.
Traveling affords an insight into places and cultures that you can’t get any other way, and I think that experiencing a place first hand is the best form of education, allowing you to learn in a unique way. Myanmar was no exception, and traveling there debunked any misconceptions that I had and provided an insight into a fascinating country.
Going to Myanmar was almost like a trip back in time. ATMs were nowhere to be found, credit cards are not accepted, Coca-Cola is smuggled in from Thailand, and traffic jams include oxen and horses. My favorite destination in Myanmar was Inle Lake, located in the center of the country. It was fascinating to see how the locals coexist with their environment in their everyday lives. The lake is more of a highway, a source of transportation between the various villages, some of which are built entirely on stilts in the lake or on the shore. The lake is their livelihood, a place to collect water, to bathe and wash clothes, to catch fish, and my favorite innovation- to grow food.
Above: Typical pagoda at Inle Lake.
The people who live in the area harvest reeds that grow in the lake and take them to shore to tie them together to make a floating island of sorts. On top of these rafts of reeds, they will then grow crops, especially tomatoes. The rafts are anchored in the lake by bamboo poles so they don’t drift away, while allowing them to float on the surface, rising and falling with the water levels so that flooding isn’t an issue. This innovative form of agriculture provides an almost constant source of food without using wasteful irrigation systems like those so frequently found elsewhere in the world. The attachment that the people here have to their environment is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, they truly depend on the immediate landscape around them. This geography plays such a vital role in their lives, with the lake serving as a lifeline for all of the surrounding villages. Hardly anything goes to waste, from using old broken rubber sandals to help make roads and sidewalks to eating the intestines and other parts of animals that would never be sold in the US.
Tomatoes growing on reed islands at Inle Lake.
Another reason why I loved Myanmar is the friendliness and curiosity of the people. The entire world seems to follow U.S. politics and events, yet how much do we know about other countries? Myanmar is home to Aung San Suu Kyi, perhaps one of the world’s most famous (former) political prisoners. Suu Kyi’s political party was elected with 59% of the vote in 1990, yet she was subsequently imprisoned by the military and kept under house arrest for over 15 years, never having been allowed to lead her country. She served as a beacon for democracy, a symbol of strength for the people. She continuously denied the offer to be exiled to another country, opting to instead stay in Myanmar and fight for the rights of her people despite the military’s unwillingness to allow her to preside over the country.
Typical Burmese stilt housing.
While visiting a pagoda in Yangon, a Buddhist monk approached my friend and I, asking us to visit his English class. Apparently there are not many native English speakers who visit Myanmar, and they loved the chance to speak with two Americans. The monk led us to a side street, where we went into an unmarked doorway and up a narrow, dark stairwell. If we had been with anyone but a monk, I think we would have turned around, afraid of where we were going. Eventually we arrived at the classroom, which consisted of some desks and about 15 students, some were university students, some wanted to learn English so they could work on cargo ships, and then of course the monk. Their teacher was an eccentric man named Roger, who had learned English by talking to American tourists years ago. The students were full of questions, wanting to know how we heard of Myanmar, if Americans had heard about the situation with their government, if foreigners knew about “The Lady” (Suu Kyi), and what we thought about their country and their current political situation. The students were all younger, 17-25 years old, and represented a generation full of hope for the future of Myanmar. After talking to them and learning more about Suu Kyi, I was awed by her strength and courage, and reminded of how so many of us, myself included, take democracy for granted.
Tomatoes being loaded up and shipped off for sale.
Myanmar definitely provided the off-the-beaten-track experience I was looking for. I never felt unsafe, the food was delicious, the scenery spectacular, and the people some of the friendliest I have met. This was indeed an exceptional learning opportunity for me. Parts of Myanmar are still off limits to tourists, but what I saw left me wanting to explore and learn more about this intriguing country.
— Mero Geesey, guest blogger to National Geographic Education
All photos courtesy of Mero Geesey.