December 2, 2023 | Rome, Italy

To Myanmar

By |2018-03-21T20:05:46+01:00January 27th, 2017|"American Girl"|
The city of Yangon, once known as Rangoon, is on the Irrawaddy River.

onging makes fruition sweeter. Or so it was with my trip to Myanmar in December.

Five years ago I met a globe-hopping couple. Over a shared dinner, they gave me some advice.

“After awhile every place starts to look the same. But there’s one place you must go now before it’s too late. That’s Myanmar. It’s still authentic. It’s just opening up to the West after years under a military regime. Right now there are no McDonalds or 7-Eleven’s, but it won’t be that way for long. Go as soon as you can.”

That was all it took. I wanted to take advantage of the secret I’d been given. But life got in the way. Years slipped by. Yet all the while, I longed for this far-away land.

Most people know Myanmar as Burma. Named by the British who colonized the country and held it for more than a century. The Burmese tribe was the majority when the crown took over and the name stuck. The locals now insist it’s Myanmar, which means strong and fast.

When my guide told me this on my first day I laughed. She laughed with me. “Yes, we should be called weak and slow! But at least now we are moving.”

And moving it is. The capital Yangon — formerly Rangoon — is in full development with tall 20-story hotels rising next to single-story cinderblock homes and roadside vendors. New cars idle bumper to bumper in the street while the infrastructure struggles to keep pace. Crumbling colonial buildings in the city’s center stand testament to the rise and fall of global powers and the passage of time.

And most telling, the greatest item of local desire was a smartphone. I watched as curious faces peered into the great abyss of the Internet and logged onto their first Facebook page. They want the connection we have.

I came to find the simplicity we’ve lost. And simplicity appeared with a lack of self-consciousness. Bodies moved with grace and comfort. They weren’t endeavoring to “be someone” or “become someone.” They simply were who they were, completely in their skin.

Shy smiles arose easily as they looked up from selling vegetables at the market or steering their cattle down the dirt road. They found my tall stature, fair skin, and blond hair intriguing. More than once I was asked to pose for a photo.

I found them just as striking with white patches of thanaka paste applied like rouge on soft cheeks to protect their skin. Although they were without many first world conveniences, they looked to be living without first world psychological stress. Older faces were lined with wrinkles from the sun and not from worry. It was all a wonder to me.

The land of the golden pagodas is aptly named. Like church steeples in Italy, glowing pagodas glisten in the tropical sun and occupy the center of villages and community. Living a life of merit in the footsteps of Buddha is their lifetime goal.

I wondered if their belief in the wheel of life, lived with many births and rebirths, gave them the sense of calm I sensed in them. Or was it that full-throttle capitalism with its endless hunger did not yet exist here. Or that life under the former military regime had left them accepting life as it was, knowing it was of no use to ask for more.

“More” of everything is certainly what we have in the West. But while I was there, more felt decidedly less. Too many choices mean a life of confusion rather than the beautiful simplicity of living.

Fulfilling my longing of traveling to Myanmar taught me many things. Mainly that who I am and what I have is more than enough.

About the Author:

Madeline Klosterman wrote the "American Girl" column from 2008 through 2019.