Myanmar: The Friendliest People in the World?

Fisherman posing while putting out a net onInle Lake, Myanmar
I always do my research before traveling. As much as I enjoy spontaneity, it’s better to be prepared so I can maximize the often-brief time I have in a country.

For my first trip to Myanmar, a country that was in the midst of change, I relied on an exchange of emails with some friends that had recently been there. One particular piece of advice stuck with me: “These people will blow you away! Spend your money there. ”

My intrigue grew from not knowing exactly what this statement meant. How will the people blow me away? How does that relate to me spending money there? A few days in the country and it all started to make sense. The friendliness of the Burmese people was extraordinary, and I was happy to open up my wallet for them.

My first ever conversation with a Burmese man came just minutes after leaving the airport. I chatted up the taxi driver, who was delighted to practice his English. We were on our way to Inle Lake, one of the most majestic places in Myanmar. I mentioned how it must have been nice growing up surrounded by beauty. He said it was, but there isn’t much work, so he thinks Yangon would be a better place to live. At the time I didn’t realize it, but this says a lot about what it’s like to live in Myanmar. A Burmese person has to focus on making enough money to support their family. Beautiful scenery isn’t worth anything if you’re hungry or sick.

Inle Lake, Myanmar farmer on floating farm.
In Burma, the minimum wage is about $2.80 per day. It’s estimated that 2% of the national GDP is spent on healthcare – only 1.2% on education. I could spend the majority of this article listing atrocities that the country has been through, and are still going through, but my point is this: life isn’t easy in Myanmar. There are plenty of reasons not to smile, and plenty of excuses why they should try and make a few extra bucks off of a tourist. And yet, huge grins greet you everywhere you go, and honesty runs rampant through the streets of Yangon.

A common question in almost any tourist area in the world: “Where are you going?” In India, answering this question will probably be met with an offer for a ride, but only after visiting a friend’s tailor shop. In Myanmar, it led to friendly conversations. To smiles. To points in the right direction. Whenever a look came over my face that said, “Where the heck am I?” someone always seemed to be there to help, and only help. I remember one time in particular when Sara and I were on a day trip to Pyin Oo Lwin. We needed to catch a pickup back to Mandalay and the sun was starting to set. We couldn’t find a ride. We frustratingly searched up and down the streets. We tried asking people, but couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. A mixture of panic and annoyance swirled inside us. And then I remembered, “We’re in Myanmar. Let’s just stand here and look confused.” Sure enough, in less than 5 minutes a smiling local came to our rescue. He happily pointing us in the right direction, and wished us luck as we went on our way.

There are no taxi-meters in Myanmar. That statement brought chills to my spine when I first read it. Taxi drivers are notorious for scams. Negotiating a fee is difficult when you aren’t familiar with the area, and you don’t speak the same language. I expected to be ripped off, but not a single driver even tried. In fact, one even charged us less than what he quoted. “Traffic wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” he said after giving me back some of my money. I picked my jaw up off the sidewalk and thanked him.

Another time, I needed a computer to copy some files to my external drive. When I arrived at what was once an Internet café, I was told that it had closed down. However, the shop, which now sold cell phone accessories, had a computer in the back that I was invited to use. After completing my task, I offered the owner 2000 kyat ($1.50). He refused, saying that 1000 was a fairer price. His honesty was admirable. Knowing that I wasn’t being ripped off made me want to spend more money.

Relaxing on a bus in MyanmarIn our two weeks in Myanmar, we discovered that there are good ways to spend money and bad ways. Most major tourist attractions are not free. To visit Inle Lake, you have to pay a $10 Inle Lake zone entrance fee. In Mandalay, if you want to visit the palace it will cost you $10. The ancient town of Bagan has a zone fee of $20. Yangon’s famous Shwedagon Pagoda is $9. These fees go to the government, and are examples of bad ways to spend your money. Hiring a local driver, sleeping and eating at small family-owned establishments – these are good ways to spend your money. You’ll know the difference by the gratitude of the person you hand the money to.

When one reflects on a place they’ve been, they often picture a scene. Maybe it’s a sunset over a mystical lake, or a bustling town square lined with cafes. When I think about my time in Myanmar, I picture all the smiling faces that I met on my journey: the waitress that showed me which sauce to dip my eggplant in; the hotel owner that was ecstatic to hear that I was feeling better; the random man who joined me for a warm glass of milk and offered me his English newspaper. In a place that has been through so many hardships, it’s amazing to see such joy for life. The positive energy, the warm feelings, the sense of appreciation – it’s all priceless – and it blew me away.

For more on Myanmar, check out my video series
The People, The Culture, The Food – Myanmar