Verfasst von: rbontour | Februar 7, 2011

Encounters We Will Never Forget

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Myanmar Photos

January 25th, 2011 – For sure, Myanmar has a lot to offer. On the one hand, you have these beautiful landscapes with rice terraces and veggie plantations. On the other hand, you find yourself exploring ancient cities with temples that are over 2,000 years old, covered in gold or jade. Apparently, it can also be a very cheap place to travel, but only if you’re prepared to do without some comforts or luxuries you are used to in your life back home. But even better reasons to visit are the PEOPLE. In Myanmar, we had the most interesting conversations with locals, very unique encounters and, in general, several “eye-opening” experiences, which we will cherish and appreciate for a long time to come. Really, there was nothing more interesting than getting familiarized with the people’s culture and understanding more about their ruptured political situation.

People, Emotions… And The Feeling Of Helplessness
The hardest thing was to see the extreme poverty around us. It will take us a while to “digest” the extremely poor living standards of the Burmese population. All the families we met treated us with kindness, but often we felt so „powerless“. It’s tough when little children or mothers with their babies suddenly stand in front of you, they look into your eyes and the only thing you hear from them is: „hungry, hungry, please“. It is heartbreaking and it makes you want to cry several times a day! We avoided to give money to beggars (travel books advised not to do so), but more than once we took a child to the market to buy some warm food. We also tried to help while we hiked in the mountains. Whenever we stayed overnight at a hill tribe family’s place or visited a tribal school, we took some “thank you” gifts. Instead of bringing sweets, we thought it makes more sense to give them the medicines, which we bought back in Bangkok (paracetamol against fever, wound disinfection, etc.).

Please don’t get us wrong…. it’s not our plan to publish a list of heroic deeds on our website. Gosh, no! We only want to express the inner-struggles one may face in situations like this. When you are passionate to help, the biggest problem is that you won’t have the chance to help people all the time! It’s just not possible to, let’s say, buy food for all 20 begging children you meet in one day. That’s the time when you start have a feeling of „helplessness“. At the same time, you start wondering how you could ever lament so much about comparably tiny problems in the past… the circle continues.

Now, let us introduce you to some people we got to know in Myanmar.

A Trishaw Driver & His Sorrows
This is Sam, 29 years old, from Dalah/Yangon. Since his eighteenth birthday, Sam works as a trishaw driver (= a bicycle-taxi driver). He never had the chance to attend a proper school. “My parents could not afford it”, he told us. Now he has a family himself, but lost his mother and his youngest son when cyclone Nargis hit the country a few years ago. “This was very sad time… life in Myanmar difficult, very difficult, you know”, he explained further. The only thing Sam worries about is how feed and care for his family. He would do better if he would own a trishaw, but he can’t afford it. He says: “I have to go and rent Trishaw every morning. Costs about 1500 kyat (or US$ 1.80). “ For a short distance ride with a passenger, Sam earns ~100 kyat. For tourists (and for us) he can charge a bit more, but “so high competition, hard to find passengers” we heard from him. Yes, there is another problem Sam has to deal with at the moment. It’s the fact that recently they allowed scooters in Dalah, although the town never had any motorbikes in the city. “Nobody wants to use Trishaws anymore. Business so tough, big problem,” he sighed. Unfortunately, Sam shares his sorrows with 13.000 other Trishaw drivers in Dalah and Yangon.

Well, this was only a short abstract of the 2 hours we spent with Sam – 2 hours filled with his stories and his explanations about surrounding temples and a private tour through the local market.

The Palaung
A 2-day trekking tour around Kyaukme gave us the opportunity, to experience real hill tribe life. We spent most of our time with families from the Palaung tribe. The tribe consists of one of Myanmar’s most ancient indigenous peoples. Especially interesting are the older women of the tribe. They wear very distinct customs including hoops around their waist, which are believed to protect them from wild animals (or whatever else is out there).

All of the tribal families are subsistence farmers. They grow a variety of crops including tea, rice, grain, betel and probably also opium poppy in areas, which we didn’t get to. Palaungs live in simplest wood houses in the mountains, there is no running water, no fancy indoor toilets and they hardly possess any furniture (in one occasion, we saw one small cupboard). Each house has a wooden fire place in the main room (the only room!). This is where the family cooks, eats, talks, sleeps… and at this time of the year, they gather around the fire to stay warm. In the mountains it can get extremely cold. Only a few houses have (unstable) electricity and in many tribal villages in Myanmar, horse- and oxcarts are used as the only means of transportation.

While we were visiting the Palaung, we ate and slept with the family in the main „living“ room, which measured around 3 – 5 degrees Celsius. (Note: How smart that we sent most of our warm clothes back to Germany once we left New Zealand :-)). As everyone else in the house – grandparents, parents, children and a baby – we slept on bamboo mats on the floor with some blankets. It was not as uncomfortable as one thinks and we didn’t really have time to feel uncomfortable or so. Everyone was so kind to us, although we couldn’t really communicate with them.

The „Happiest“ Funeral We Ever Visited
After we had dinner with the Palaung family, our guide told us that someone died in the village and we would all be invited to the funeral. What?? We quickly understood that they would think we are rude if we decided not to show up. So we went. It was 9 PM, outside it was already dark, but equipped with our flashlight we walked to the other family’s house. Strangely, it was very silent once we stood in front of their door. We knocked…

A sleepy-looking woman opened the door, she saw us, smiled and waved us inside. Within seconds we found ourselves in front of the fire place next to about 20 sleeping women on the floor. Oh my god…what is going on here? Another second and all women were wide awake, sitting up straight on their bamboo mats while literally staring at us. We looked at the women, they looked at us and out of a sudden, everyone started laughing and smiling. A couple women ran towards us, grabbed us, and pulled us to the fire place. They couldn’t stop giggling, but they offered us tea and snacks right away. After a while, almost all women came closer and we built a big circle around the fire place. They were fascinated and the especially the “blond lady” in the middle of the room seemed to be the attraction of the night. They gathered around me, touched my hair, my skin, petted my hands and my cheeks and they always exclaimed: “so soft, soft”. Once they realized Robert had a camera, a 1 hour photo session began. They all wanted to see a picture of themselves sitting next to the blonde foreign woman. Wow, it was so exceptional… and obviously, we had no freaking idea what kind of funeral we ended up going.

When we left the place, we left with lots of “question marks” in our heads, but finally we started bombarding our guide. He explained that Palaung funerals, especially when elderly people die, are celebrated as happy occasions. Hardly anyone cries and the families usually hold a 2-week celebration ceremony. For 2 weeks, all tribal women come together after sunset. They meet in the family’s house and while they engage in some chit-chat they cook and eat together… after dinner, the women sleep over as a support to the family and leave the house shortly after sunrise.

Stepping Out Of Your Comfort Zone
The daily sorrows and challenges of people in other parts of the world are so much different from our sorrows in the Western world. We truly hope for the Burmese people that political CHANGE is coming… and we hope it is coming soon! We wish we could have helped more, but unfortunately international voluntary projects are limited and rare in Myanmar (and still partly restricted by the regime). Hence, the only thing we can do is to encourage our families, friends, acquaintances or any other readers not to be afraid of visiting this country – even if it means to step out of your “comfort zone”. We know the usual worries when traveling on a budget: hygiene, toilet conditions, what should I eat there, basic accommodations, cold showers, uncomfortable traveling modes. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone may be frightening or unpleasant at first, but at the end of the day it can be an empowering and rewarding phase of one’s life!

At this point we can confirm that we have never felt unsafe, endangered or intimidated. We really always felt welcome as foreigners. Conclusively, our time in Myanmar changed some of our views about the world or about our own life in general. It “shaped” us in a way we had never expected before. For sure, we will never ever forget about our encounters with the people and we will always continue their stories in our hearts.

Much love to all of you,
Robert & Brigitte

Read more about our experiences in Burma:
Understanding Myanmar – A Country Suspended In Time
Myanmar Culture, Authentic Stories & Travel Etiquette


  1. Toll toll toll….
    …bin absolut begeistert….

    ~ jetzt eine schöne zeit aufm river ~
    Alles Liebe

  2. Hello Brigitte and Robert, I’m continuing to read all your adventures, especially this one, in Myanmar/Burma, it seems that this life and understanding of new cultures and poor human beings is getting rather normal for you, therefore I would like to express my respect and explain my deep understanding and I’m sure I have no clue what it means to be in reality of all of this and see what it means to see all of this, btw; this is a typically long sentence of your dad, wish you all the best and a continues healthy journey, love Dad 🙂

  3. Ihr wisst gar nicht wie schön es ist Eure Fotos anzusehen….Ihr schafft es mit Euren Erzählungen mich in eine andere Welt zu holen und ich genieße es total. Ich denk an Euch! Fehlts ma fei scho 🙂 !Küsschen Strabs und die drei Jungs!

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