Category Archives: South Asia

Young in Bagan

The Rapidly Changing Culture of a Modern Myanmar

Bagan is home to Myanmar’s precious “Valley of a Thousand Temples”. It is a place quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen, a landscape that is both barren, and vibrant, and host to an ancient culture that is in the midst of modernization.

All over Bagan, there are thousands of temples tucked away, hidden between trees and cliffs. These temples, though ancient, are made surprisingly accessible to the public, with some allowing people to climb through their dusty passages. A recent law by the government has now restricted this, in an effort to preserve these beautiful structures.

There are many questions left to be answered regarding this modernization, especially with regards to the new youth of Myanmar, many of whom are now working in the tourism industry, a business that didn’t exist when their parents were their age. Many Burmese people, both young and old, have acknowledged that as Myanmar opens itself up to the world, it is inevitable that change will happen. However, both have expressed sentiments that aim to preserve as much of their traditional culture as they can.  As I walked around the plains of Bagan, meeting with locals and travelers alike, I asked myself, how will Myanmar look in 10 years? It was then, that I met a young Burmese girl, who introduced herself as Ma (younger sister in Burmese). She approached me, with a stack of foreign money in her hand, and asked me where I was from. I told her the United States, and she promptly spoke to me in English. Perfect English, not a word wrong, her accent was impeccable. She reminded me of a highly intelligent young girl in junior high. So what was she doing with a stack of money from all over the world?

“I can speak all of these languages” she told me.

Ma showed me her collection of money from all over the world, which she has used as a means of educating herself about culture outside of Myanmar, and to make a living.

Every single one?” I looked at the stack, there were bills from all over the world. France, Brazil, England, Chile, China, everyone was accounted for.

I tried Spanish with her, she nailed it. French, again, perfect. Her Portuguese was good enough to get her a job in Rio. I couldn’t believe it. We walked for some time, and she told me how she learned so much.

Ma, like many Burmese youth, is proud of her heritage, and at the same time, excited to embrace new cultures from all over the world.

“Tourists are my teachers” she said with a smile. Ma has been a tour guide for 5 years, literally starting as soon as the borders opened. In that time, she has worked all around Bagan, hiking from one temple to the next, with a bag full of postcards, and foreign currency.  From sunrise to sunset, this has been her life.  As the tourists come in larger and larger numbers, Ma has seen more and more business. So, how is this influx of global culture affecting young people like Ma?

In a recent study published by Routledge, a publishing company that specializes in providing academic books and journals regarding humanities and social sciences, researchers went to Bagan, and conducted interviews with locals, who described the three biggest changes that they had seen since the opening of the borders. People of all ages agreed on three major areas; the consumption of alcoholthe way thanaka (traditional make-up of the Burmese people) is worn and the perceived importance of marriage (Rich and Franck 334-44). Although, tourism in not alone to blame for these changes. Free access to the Internet has also helped foster a developing mindset in the minds of many young Burmese people, especially with regards to drinking alcohol, and relationships. According to the study, it is in conjunction with modern media formats that Burmese people have been exposed to and have assimilated new cultural identities.

A Burmese boy working in the tourism industry. The new generation of children are experiencing something that their elders never had, the chance to make money in a growing economy.
A Burmese boy working in the tourism industry. The new generation of children are experiencing something that their elders never had, the chance to make money in a growing economy.

There are undoubtedly benefits to tourism, and most locals do agree that those benefits are very important to providing new opportunities for the next generation. Many young men and women are now able to afford luxuries that their parents could not have thought possible at their age, and many more are able to attend schools now. Whatever future these changes hold in store for Myanmar, it is important to learn from the successes and failures of nearby destinations like Thailand and Cambodia. Will Bagan’s Valley of a Thousand Temples someday have backpacker ghettos lined up across it’s plains? Will the environment suffer the way it has in some parts of Thailand? These questions are left to the people of Myanmar to manage, and to hopefully, resolve. Either way, it is a fascinating time to be young in Bagan ;a time when the new generation is setting out to define itself, and decide what direction it wants this new Myanmar to go.


Source Citation:
Rich, Anna-Katharina, and Anja K. Franck. “Tourism Development in Bagan, Myanmar: Perceptions of Its Influences upon Young Peoples’ Cultural Identity.” Tourism Planning & Development 13.3 (2015): 333-50. Print.

For anyone interested in reading more about Myanmar, here are some interesting books to check out:

The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Freedom from Fear, Kyi, Aung San Suu. London: Viking, 2009.

Yangon: Through the lens

There is undoubtedly an air of electricity in Yangon. Myanmar’s largest city is in the midst of an incredible growth spurt, brought about by foreign investment from countries like China, Japan and Korea. Ever since Myanmar opened its doors to tourism in 2011 the country has experienced a huge upsurge in the number of people visiting, giving the former capital of Myanmar, a breath of new life.
I ventured to Yangon in January of 2016 to see for myself what the city looked like beneath the surface of so much change. What I found were good people, great food and a city that was ready to embrace its bright new future.

Paolo’s Beach

By Rourke Healey


In Sri Lanka, January marks the high season for tourism. Running from the winters of the north or capitalizing on summer breaks in the south, visitors flock to Sri Lanka for the holidays. For the better part of December, January and Febuary most hotels on the south shore of the island are fully booked. Paolo knows this.

Paulo's BeachAs the owner of Eva Lanka hotel on the Tangalle coast, he relies on the winter months to make up for the empty rooms of summer. Each year guests return and new ones flood in for Christmas and New Years celebrations. Yet, each year Paolo’s personal beach for surfing has remained untouched by the influx of tourists.

In the offseason Paolo’s duties of managing client services decrease and he has more time to perfect his art.  Each morning at 7 AM Paolo straps his board to his scooter and rides fifteen minutes to a neighboring beach. After an hour and a few good waves he’ll return for breakfast and begin the day.


For years his small bay was occupied by a lone fisherman and occasionally graced by the local high school track team practicing their sprints. Even in the high season the beach was immune to tourism due to its remoteness.  Little changed when an Australian and several other surfers joined Paolo for morning sessions. After years of teaching himself the sport in the hidden bay, Paolo had become a seasoned surfer and a familiar face with the locals who frequented the beach.

All of this changed in 2014 when the Australian saw an opportunity to capitalize on what they found. During the low season summer months he began building a small hotel and beach bar. With no more than four rooms it posed little threat to the serenity of the bay.

IMG_1103Observing the Australian investing in the beach inspired the regular fisherman to do the same. Overnight the fisherman summed his savings and began building a ‘bed & beach bar’ next door. Though he started after the Australian, they both finished in late October – just in time for the high season. Each location had ‘tourist’ prices and an impressive amount of beach furniture.

In the two months between opening and New Years Day the number beach visitors ballooned in size. Now the sound of waves can barely be heard over the deafening dance music booming from the fisherman’s concert grade speakers. Trees lean over over to shade young guests in bathing suits while white foreigners littere the beach reading, swimming and surfing.


Teams of Sri Lankan youths can be found lurking nearby, ready to sell trinkets to unweary tourists. Cars, bikes and bajaji’s are crammed into the car park just a few meters from the sand. In the shallows children with inflatable tubes play and novice surfers use the hotel’s foam boards. Deeper out a surf school has claimed a patch of water. Next to them several bikini clad paddle boarders hog the bigger breakers. Interspersed in the mess are dozens of surfers all waiting, trying to catch the same wave.

Paolo sits on the beach sharing his overpriced Lion beer with me. He sees his hotel guests that he referred to his personal beach. As he eyes the family enjoying themselves he notes that they will probably stay here instead of his place next time. As more people hear about Paolo’s beach he loses guests and surfing real estate.


As we sit there the older Aussie walks past us, board in hand, still wet from surfing. “Remember the old days?” he jokes. Paolo laughs, remembering the days when he didn’t have to be mindful of who was in front of him on the wave. Though he never lets on, Paolo thinks to himself that the Australian is the main culprit.

Less than a decade ago Sri Lanka was in a civil war and its tourism industry suffered heavy losses because of it. The island was also devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and is still recovering.  But today the current revival has provided the hotels in the Tangalle area with more visitors than they can handle. As a first time visitor it is hard to believe that there was a time when the beach was not overflowing with tourists.

It is a blessing and curse. With each additional guest that visits his hotel, his beach floats farther from its pristine state. But the summer will attract fewer visitors, and with it a glimpse of Paolo’s old beach.

Rourke ProfileRourke Healey is a senior Diplomacy and World Affairs major at Occidental College. He recently returned from conducting research on middle class consumerism in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He has also recently completed work with a microfinance group in Kathmandu, Nepal and visited Tangalle, Sri Lanka to cover presidential election.

Kathmandu’s 90% Off Sale

By Rourke Healey


Most people who visit Nepal will tell stories of the snow capped Himilayas or the preserved old cities of Kathmandu. They may even detail the chaotic traffic or the alarming number of face masks found on pedestrians. But most will forget to mention the 90% off sale found year round in Nepal.

Travelers in developing countries often enjoy a discounted cost of living and lowered prices, but rarely do the deals get better than Nepal. The most impressive prices are on outdoor trekking gear. Patagonia jackets sell for as low as $15, while North Face backpacks sell for a mere $20. And this gear can be seen everywhere in the city. Not just on the backs of tourists. Every taxi driver, shop owner and fruit vendor has a personal winter jacket from a brand name company.

But how?

The secret of the constant sale in Kathmandu comes from the source and quality of products. Nepal is sandwiched between the worlds two most populous countries on earth, India and China. These also happen to be two of the largest consumers and producers of goods.

From conversations with shop vendors, I learned most get their products from China. Some mumbled that they have sources in Nepal, but could not back this up with more specifics. The vendors who had a hook up in China were not much more clear; many said they receive bulk shipments from ‘factories’ in southern China.

Assuming this, the cost of transportation to Nepal is likely lower than to the US. The low cost is aided by transportation on trucks and passing Nepali customs, which are notoriously more relaxed than other inter nation checkpoints.

Nepali backpack salesmen also said they buy in bulk. Some vendors were kind enough to show us their store house of the backpacks and jackets. In one instance, a two vendors shared a dimly lit room full of backpacks piled from floor to ceiling. A sea of backpacks filled the center of the room up to my waist with a small pathway cut through it for access. We spent over thirty minutes searching for the right size and style of backpack, wading through the unwanted ones.


Buying a large quantity at low prices helps explain the low sales price. But, as our tour of the backpack inventory was ending we asked the vendor if he paid for sea of backpacks up front. There were over 1000 backpacks in that store room, all from North Face, Mamut and the other big name outdoor producers. He mumbled something in Nepali. Basically he said he neither paid for all the backpacks up front, but also did not buy them on credit.


This got us thinking that maybe there was a larger supplier between China and the Nepali store fronts. Our imagination conjured up images of a big time backpack dealer; a kingpin with different store fronts. For a moment we thought this was the answer because every store front had the same asking price of 2,500 rupees ($25) and could consistently be bargained down to 1,700-1,800 rupees ($17-18).

The best explanation came from our program coordinator Santosh, who described it as a collective. A number of backpack stores will work with a single importer. That middle man will take the goods from China across the Himilayas to Kathmandu, where he might distribute the truck of goods between many different stores. Those that cannot pay for all the backpacks buy some on credit.


Toward the end of our stay in Kathmandu we wandered into the official North Face store and checked the prices. $200+ for the bigger backpacks. $150 for the smaller ones. The fabric and quality of the zippers differentiated them from the local products.

Returning to some of the local backpack shops, small defects were noticeable- A label was peeling off of one, a zipper was sticky on another. On some jackets the down was synthetic and the ‘Patagonia’ logos on some were clearly not from Patagonia. It became apparent that a portion of the local goods were knock offs.

Not all vendors were cheating their customers however, many of the local goods were simply cheaper because the cost to obtain them was cheaper. Some of the cheap backpacks were labelled as overstocked items from the company factories or just cost less to transport.

For those scammed by the eye-popping prices of Kathmandu consolation comes in the form of functionality. If a jacket keeps you warm and a backpack holds your gear, does it matter if its off brand? Whatever the secret, the deals in Kathmandu are hard to beat.

Cover photo by Jonah M. Kessel

Rourke ProfileRourke Healey is a senior Diplomacy and World Affairs major at Occidental College. He recently returned from conducting research on middle class consumerism in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He has also recently completed work with a microfinance group in Kathmandu, Nepal and visited Tangalle, Sri Lanka to cover presidential election.

Lose Yourself in Varanasi’s Ancient Alleyways

By Nick Neumann

There is one moment that stands out when I conjure up images of my gap year journey through South Asia. During my five month trip I lounged on empty Sri Lankan beaches, cruised the crowded streets of Dhaka in colorful rickshaws, and conquered the Thar Desert by camel, yet it was the crooked alleyways of Varanasi that left the most vivid and lasting impression.

Flower vendor in narrow old city alley at night. Photo by Q.T. Luong.
Flower vendor in narrow old city alley at night. Photo by Q.T. Luong.

It was hottest time of the year because monsoon season was just around the corner. The pungent 120 degree air was thick with humidity, spices and smoke. Gusts of fiery wind did nothing to cool my scorched face. Walker and I found our way to the Ganpati Guest House located deep within the labyrinthine Old City near the banks of the River Ganges. From the rooftop terrace you could see smoke billowing up from the Burning Ghat and hear the clamor from the Main Ghat a bit further up river. The debilitating midday heat made it impossible to do anything other than spent hours on the terrace sipping bhang lassis, an age old Sadhu yogurt drink infused with weed, chatting with grizzled backpackers, and taking in beating heart of the Hindu universe from above.

The view from Ganpati Guest House overlooking the old city as a sand storm approaches.
The view from Ganpati Guest House overlooking the old city as a sand storm approaches. Photo by Nick Neumann

Almost inevitably, every time I left the hostel I would get lost in the maze of ancient alleyways enveloping my hostel. Initially, I was overwhelmed, hot, and claustrophobic, however after a few days passed I began looking forward to getting lost. I realized that in the serpentine passages of the Old City, strewn with trash, cracked clay chai cups and the occasional dead animal, I could avoid the onslaught of beggars and touts who were more persistent and annoying than anywhere else in India. These alleyways were home to impossibly small silk, ivory, brass and gold shops. Many of the storefronts were simply small windows in thousand year old homes; in my favorite such window was a chai shop I often stumbled upon.

Chaiwala pouring his goodness. Photo by bnilesh

When I close my eyes I can immediately transport myself to the wooden chai shop bench. In my hand is a warm cup of delicious, sweet chai. I would sit for hours simply watching Raj, the chaiwala, mix and pour chai while life unfolded in the alleyway. Every so often the relative calm would be broken by stampeding water buffalo heading toward the Ganges for their cooling afternoon bath. As I finished my first cup of chai, I was not ready to leave just yet, so I tossed my biodegradable clay cup and asked Raj for another.

Buffalo cooling off in the Ganges. Photo by Nick Neumann
Buffalo cooling off in the Ganges. Photo by Nick Neumann

The buffalo were followed by a more solemn procession headed in the direction of the Burning Ghat. A group of elderly men shuffled past with a body draped in colorful silk, billowing beautifully in the breeze resting on their shoulder. The silent procession soon faded back into the maze. As more time passed, and more sweat dripped, I zoned out to the lonesome movements of Holy cows and Sadhus until the buffalo returned triumphantly.

While observing life ebb and flow in the unrelenting chaos I imagined myself being transported back in time. Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and it feels like it. It occurred to me that I could have sipped chai in this very same alleyway thousands of years ago and my experience would have been very nearly the same. I wondered how many cups of chai had been drunk in this very spot and how many pilgrims had passed by to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters of Ganges.

My favorite Indian sweet, Jalebi, deep fried wheat flower with sweat, lime juice and rose water syrup.
My favorite Indian sweet, Jalebi, a deep fried wheat flower with sweat, lime juice and rose water syrup. Photo by Nick Neumann

Varanasi is a enchanting city, but it is not for the faint of heart. If you can handle the dirt, smells, and chaos, then go lose yourself in the ancient alleyways of Varanasi and you’ll discover a strikingly beautiful amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim faith, man and animal, and above all life and death.