Random Observations From Burma

Some notes after my last stay in Burma/Myanmar.

  1. When ever I tried to use some basic chunks of Burmese, people usually started to laugh – especially when I talked to simple people who probably lacked direct experience with foreigners. This was quite confusing for me, since in my culture openly laughing about someone requires different reasons. People there, however, seemed to be partly amused, partly embarrassed, and partly flattered.
    There are many possible explanations: The most natural is my evidently funny pronunciation. Then, it could also be that a white foreigner is expected to make full use of his prerogative to sit back and let locals take the trouble of bridging the language gap. This positive (although unpleasant) discrimination of people who may be considered the successors of their former colonizers is a common observation. When a white foreigner, together with a Burmese, enters a shop, the staff often brings one chair – for the foreigner only. Also, we have experienced that you can cut down waiting times at offices by accompanying the waiting person by one white foreigner.
  2. When ever you dig a bit into living standards, living costs and incomes, you come across unbelievable differences. A road-side cobbler demands for a (very decent) repair job – one of which took several days to complete – around €0.2 to €0.3, while an interpreter for international meetings allegedly takes US$200 per day. You can get a warm meal for just a few hundred Kyats, while at some places the price can go up several hundredfold. This is still cheap for foreigners who therefore tend to turn a blind eye to the fact that they enjoy something that huge parts of the population could never reach.
    I found particularly surprising that most customers at these way-over-average-expensive restaurants and shopping malls are locals. At least in Yangon, their is a well-established upper class that enjoys a (very American-style) living standard that is only limited by the availability of products. And what they cannot obtain in Yangon, they simply buy in Bangkok or Singapore.
  3. Many members of middle-class families are not used to any physical work, let alone activities that are considered inferior like cleaning, because they employ a maid and other staff. One Burmese friend even told me recently that these families often don’t even pay salary but merely provide a room and free food instead of remuneration. Class differences are notably entrenched also in people’s mentality. I don’t think that anyone there seriously counts with a trickle-down effect of foreign investments. Rather, they seem to bet on a system where 90% of the population will continue being low-qualified and with a sense of natural inferiority, while the upper 10% gradually adapt to international standards.
  4. In Yangon downtown (particularly between Sule Pagoda and the Central train station) you are still approached by people offering you black market money exchange. After the government has canceled the official exchange rate, there is no reason for a tourist to risk getting banknotes with wrong values hidden inside the bundles while you can safely exchange for a perfect rate at the airport.
  5. Burmese prefer to push into a packed escalator rather than taking the few steps of the empty stairs next to it. That’s a funny impression when you later arrive at a European airport and half of the crowd happily jumps at the stairs.
  6. Internet is available at decent speed in tourist hotels and at tiny speed via mobile even in many remote areas. Apart from the speed, only the costs are discouraging – not so much the 4 Kyats per minute rate, but the initial purchase of the SIM card. Especially for the numbers with 30-day-limited validity where you pay a hefty deposit and several dollars for every day you keep the card, no matter whether you use it or not.