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Traveling through Myanmar

By Cathy Singer, Dateline Producer

I'm thinking a lot about Myanmar these days.  The cyclone that struck that country, also known as Burma, has been devastating.  The images from the aftermath make me heartsick – and while I, like many people around the world, would have paid attention to this disaster because the death and destruction are so vast and shocking and sad, I am especially fixated and upset by the news because I was in Myanmar just a few months ago.  

I went to Southeast Asia on a four-week journey with my sons in December and January and the last country we visited was Myanmar. I loved being in that country, a country that is largely closed to the world. The last time Myanmar was in the news was in August and September, when dissidents and monks led peaceful protests in the country, initially against the increase in the price of fuel, but escalated to protest the military rulers' oppressive control over the country, which has impoverished its people and crushed human rights (but not the human spirit). The government killed protesters, including monks.  It is unclear how many people actually died - the United Nations calculated the death toll at 31. The junta also jailed hundreds - some say thousands - more to slap down and silence the rebellion.

But I'm not here to talk about politics in Myanmar.  I want to share a bit of what we experienced there so that people will know a little more about the country than the headlines about a repressive government and now a natural disaster with suffering beyond comprehension. While most tourists cancelled their trips to this exotic Buddhist country in the months since the protests last fall, we decided to stick to our initial plans – and I am so glad we did. For a week we were allowed a peek into a country filled with gentle people, half who live as they have for generations in villages without electricity or indoor plumbing.

Our first stop was in the more or less modern city of Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. It's the country's largest city and former capital with a population of six million. I'm not sure what I expected of Yangon, but what we found was a lovely city with tall leafy trees, wide boulevards, lakes, colonial buildings and the gloriously gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, the most spectacular Buddhist temple we saw in the four countries we toured.

In the center of town, we walked through crowded open-air markets and past men enjoying late-afternoon socializing at outdoor cafes, most of whom wear what we would call skirts. The women also wear long skirts, although they are wrapped and tied slightly differently. Many women (and children) also spread "thanaka" on their faces, a yellowish-white paste made from wood which functions as both make-up and sunscreen, a practice that dates back more than 2,000 years.

We also went to the port of Yangon, which bustled with men carrying heavy loads over their shoulders to and from ships. It was a scene we could have seen a hundred years ago.  Now that city is littered with battered buildings, uprooted trees, a port in shambles and a population shocked by a disaster that will turn the clock back even further in a country already behind its Southeast Asian neighbors.

We traveled down the Irrawaddy River, far north of the Irrawaddy Delta, which bore the brunt of the cyclone and where most of the people died, possibly as many as 100,000. Our boat ride took us from Mandalay, in the heart of the country, where we saw people working in rice fields just outside of town and blankets drying in rows along the river bank, to Bagan, where we explored some of the 2200 ancient pagodas and temples by day and then viewed them from a hot-air balloon ride at sunrise. What we thought was early morning haze was actually smoke rising up from fires that families used for cooking.

What captivated us most about Myanmar was the village life we saw. Many people there live in simple fragile wooden structures – each family has its own home but men in the village get together to help each other build the houses. We saw people picking peanuts off branches, which were then ground in a small animal-powered mill to create peanut oil.  We watched clay water jugs formed on a pottery wheel by one woman while another pumped the machine with her leg.  We saw young women carrying buckets as they collected water from a local watering hole for their families and other women walking down the road hauling large bundles of straw hanging from poles over their shoulders. We saw people washing their clothes and bodies along the banks of the Irrawaddy River. We observed men who stand on their dugout canoes paddling with one leg as they look for fish to catch. We watched elderly women roll big fat cheroots, large cigars they love to smoke. We went to five-day markets, open-air affairs that meet every five days, in which people, many of them from hill tribes, can buy and sell produce and fish, eat noodle soup and get haircuts.

Our guide, a man in his 40s and fluent in English, grew up in a primitive village but now lives in Yangon so his sons can get a better education than they could in the countryside. As he took us to the various villages, where the people were friendly and gracious to us, I asked him which life he preferred. I expected him to say he favored city life, but instead he said that he actually would move back to his village, where his parents and siblings still live, if his children's education were not a top priority. What he loves about village life, he said, is that the people there happily help each other, they have plenty of time to spend with their family and friends, and while they have little materially, they don't yearn for more.  They may be poor, he said, but they are not hungry or wanting and, as a result, do not beg.  I found our guide's preference for village life interesting, especially because this wasn't the naïve view of a pampered, idealistic American on vacation, but of a man who has lived in both worlds.

I don't want to overly romanticize the life we saw in Myanmar for I know that what we found so exotic and charming is also the result of an impoverished country lacking in many important basic needs. And now those key deficits -- as well as the government's perplexing response -- are turning a horrendous natural disaster into an even worse calamity for so many gentle people of this fascinating country who are now suffering so very much.

Click here for a photo gallery from Cathy Singer's trip through Myanmar.

Dateline producer Cathy Singer with her sons, Josh and Ben Petuchowski