Locals are a perfect source of information about a country.
I learned some information about Myanmar through the three men I met: a lad in his teens, a guy in his mid-twenties and a man in his late thirties to early forties. Names have been changed to protect their identities.
I and my brother agreed to separate for a day. My feet slowly led me to the Mahabandoola Gardens facing the city hall where I met Lin Maung, a gentle, tall and good-looking young man in his mid-twenties. The meeting started with me randomly asking a stranger the name of the garden before I saw the landmark description. He approached me as I rested for a while after walking around the park. He apologized for the wrong information he gave me about the park, and corrected it afterwards. Then the conversation started.
He accompanied me to a small restaurant to sample a famous local noodle soup. Then we walked around the city while sharing thoughts about his country.
He started talking about Myanmar Politics and how the youth today are actively revolutionizing traditional thinking and norms. I saw that firsthand when I attended an underground punk concert and open garden concert to celebrate New Year’s Eve. While it is true that majority are still wearing longyis and thanakas, there are a growing population of young people who are slowly opening up and setting trends through fashion, music and ideologies. He wore jeans, chequered top, rubber shoes and a cap. It was far from the longyi-clad young men I saw around. He said he didn’t feel comfortable wearing longyi that day due to the heat.
I initially hesitated to ask further about politics as I read about how sensitive the topic is inside the country. It becomes disadvantageous for the local should they get caught by the government. Lin assured me it has already become an open topic. I presumed, in Yangon at least.
He also had good command of English. The Burmese, surprisingly, despite being isolated and sanctioned for several years, are better at speaking English than its South East Asian neigbours. He informed me that he learned it by reading English books. Some learn it in the monastery, and by watching English movies and talking to foreigners.
We saw sparkling jewelleries traded in the Bogyoke Market. He told me that the jewellery area in the market place also doubles as a meeting point for secret rendezvous. Older women looking for affairs with young men come here. When they see someone they like, they drop a red rose. If the young man is interested, he would pick up the red rose and follow the woman. He said it was hearsay and will remain as is until proven true.
We walked past a cinema full of movie goers waiting in line. An enticing comedy movie poster hung in an old theatre. Lin told me they are also fond of comedies.
The train is a popular mode of transportation in Myanmar despite its age. The cars and rails needed a whole lot of repair and maintenance. We saw families waiting for their scheduled departures as we entered the area.
The conversation shifted to religion. Lin told me eye-opening facts about Buddhism in Myanmar. As with neighbouring countries with Buddhism as their major religion, boys and young men enter the monastery to get free education while they serve as novices or monks. He became a monk for seven days. That is the shortest time that someone can enter the monastery. He only wanted to experience life inside the monastery.
He also told me that anyone, including tourists, can wear a monk suit in Myanmar. Locals use this strategy to ask for alms on the street. An outsider can identify a real monk through hygiene. Real monks have clean face, hands and feet as part of their vow and practice. They also do not ask for money from the community; instead, they ask for food or other non-monetary alms.
I thanked Lin for the company. My perception of Myanmar changed after sharing stories with him.
U Ye is the manager of the cheapest accommodation in Old Bagan. He manages a three-storey guesthouse in the heart of the dusty heritage zone. His wavy black hair complimented his wrinkled, gentle-yet-commanding face. Despite wearing a longyi, his stance is like that of a rugged warrior when he stands with arms crossed on his chest.
We visited Bagan for the temples. Our arrival timed with their Moon Festival; thus, it was a busy week with hundreds of locals flocking temples to pray, and foreigners riding e-bikes visiting the large expanse of the site.
Mr. U remained calm as he addressed the staff to clean up immediately after check out of guests in anticipation of tourists arriving anytime. He also had that friendly demeanour that made foreigners comfortable to talk to him.
I struck a conversation with him on the day of the main festival. I and my brother chose not to go around in e-bikes due to the traffic and daredevil driving of the locals. Everyone honked continuously and raced past each other on the narrow roads. Driving alongside them meant possible accidents and we didn’t want to risk it.
I asked if he was going to the temples. He said he won’t be able to due to the busy guesthouse. He wasn’t able to attend the celebrations for two years ever since he managed the guesthouse.
We talked about education in Myanmar. All of their subjects are taught in Burmese. They are starting to teach English in high school more thoroughly than before. Girls and boys use white tops and green bottoms as their official uniform until high school. Even teachers wear the same colors to identify them from the rest. Women teachers are required to tie their hair. They are not allowed to wear any make up nor heeled shoes. This is to set an example to the students to be decent while in school. They can wear anything they like when they are outside school premises.
He also gave me some insider information about marriage. It is a known situation in high schools that high school boys sometimes get attracted to their young lady teachers. If they like a lady teacher, they wouldn’t hesitate to court her. The same is true for male teachers courting their female students to whom they’re attracted to. Most of these courtships end in marriage. According to him, student-teacher relationships are accepted in their society. Despite having romantic relationships, these partners don’t show it in school. However awkward, there were situations where the teacher had his boyfriend/girlfriend student in his class.
Mr. U also speaks Japanese fluently. It is one of the reasons why many Japanese tourists choose to stay in the guesthouse than in the nearby hotels. He told me he learned it by initially listening to their conversations and picking up some words. It took him more than a year to start conversing fluently but it paid off. It is one trait I’ve observed from locals in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar who wanted to venture into the tourism industry. They want to learn other languages to gain advantage by being tour guides to foreigners.
He sent us off well to our next destination before catering to the rest of the travelers occupying the guesthouse.
We rested for a while on top of one of the tallest temples in Old Bagan when Kaung approached us. He is a lanky boy with a cheerful smile. He also spoke good English which again, he said he learned by talking to foreigners visiting the temple.
He initially tried to sell us postcards with the famous landmarks painted on the covers. We have already been sold these kinds for the nth time so we declined. Setting aside his business, he drew some paper money out of his pocket to show us. He said it was his collection. He individually told us the countries and currencies in his collection. Foreigners gave it to him as tokens, maybe because of his bright personality. I was also drawn to his sociable attitude. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any Philippine Peso on hand. After a few conversations and photos, I gave him a key chain I bought from Thailand while my brother gave him a Thai coin. He delighted on his additional collection as he thanked us before leaving.
He said he wanted to study outside of Myanmar when he grows up to better his English. We encouraged him to. For now, he continues to study in his place while earning some cash from selling postcards to foreigners.
I hope he makes it someday.