Tag Archives: breakingborders

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.

Camping in Southern Chile (Pictures)

Southern Chile is simply stunning. Nestled between the snowcapped volcanos and the Pacific Ocean, this region of South America is a paradise for lovers of the great outdoors. One of the best places to appreciate what this region has to offer is the El Cañi Sanctuary, a 1,500 acre reserve containing some of the oldest trees in the world, as well as spectacular trekking with views of the surrounding volcanoes. We spent three days camping and trekking here, sleeping under the night skies and appreciating the best of nature.

10582904_10152710407396469_4292822206649074376_oBorn and raised in San Francisco, Walker then majored in International Relations and Chinese at the New School University in NYC. He began traveling during a high school exchange to Argentina, and hasn’t stopped since. Walker has always sought out the more unusual and off the beaten path locations and is combining his love for photography and travel to kickstart a career as a journalist, striving to redefine the profession in rapidly changing world.

Santiago, Chile (Pictures)

By Walker Dawson

Santiago has come a long way in the last 25 years. It was once considered a rather drab, conservative city, known more for its dictatorial oppression and smog than anything else. Today, however, the Chilean capital is in the midst of a renaissance. On sunny summer afternoons, Santiago’s parks attract musicians, joggers, painters, and tourists.

Santiago is a city of diverse neighborhoods. There is Barrio Brasil and Barrio Yungay, two bohemian neighborhoods west of downtown where improv Salsa classes take place on the art covered streets. East of downtown is Barrio Lastarria, an upscale neighborhood full of narrow streets, small apartments, classy restaurants and bars and a magnificent hill, Cerro Santa Lucia, will views of downtown. And the list of incredible neighborhoods keeps going on, from artsy and gritty to historical and low key, Santiago has it all.

Most residents of Santiago are shocked when a foreigner actually likes their city (local opinion is that Santiago is a necessary evil, a place you must come to make money, but not a place to enjoy). With easy weekend trips to the Pacific or the snowcapped Andes, it’s easy to see why Santiago is becoming one of Latin America’s hottest cities.

Finding Familiarity in the Land of Anarchy

A Guide to the Capital of Somaliland

By Karsten Potts

Hargeisa, Somalia

Tucked away in northern Somalia, Hargeisa is truly a hidden treasure. Whether your want to explore the vast, vibrant markets, or chill at a coffee shop this city has something for you.

2015-03-16 10.49.52

Hargeisa is the capital of a breakaway region called Somaliland, which is located in Northern Somalia.  When Somalia collapsed in 1990, Somaliland declared independence from the rest of the country and formed its own government.  Although Southern Somalia is still ravaged by war, here in the north, the war ended 20 years ago.  Although the government of Somaliland is not internationally recognized, it has managed to keep the peace, provide public services and hold elections which were widely considered free and fair.

2015-03-20 09.45.41

The city of Hargeisa offers much of what one would expect when traveling in the Horn of Africa. If you feel like exploring the classic aspects of Hargeisa, there are markets, local restaurants and a livestock bazaar. In the central market travelers can find anything from exotic desert goods such as frankincense, myrrh and handcrafted items to everyday clothing, furniture and modern products like cell phones and TVs. It’s a good place to practice your bartering skills.

2015-03-18 16.47.49

If you are feeling more adventurous, you can venture out to Saylada where livestock is traded. There are hundreds of animals, mostly camels and goats, and dozens of traders bartering as the animals mill about. Closer to the city there are many small restaurants and tea stands, where you can sit for hours talking to locals and relaxing in the warm desert air. The tea they serve here tastes like the chai lattes sold at Starbucks, but one cup costs only $0.25. Some of the more familiar dishes are chicken or goat served with rice or pasta, and some of the bolder options include camel liver, and cow stomach. Keep in mind, while some venues do have silverware, it is much more common to eat with your hand–so why not give it a try!

2015-03-18 11.36.34

The Unexpected

The most shocking thing about Hargeisa, however, is not the exotic allure of the unknown, but the surprising familiarity of some of the features of the city. The first and most important is the peace. Technically, Hargeisa is located in Northern Somalia, which has been a name synonymous with war and anarchy. You will find neither in Hargeisa. The war here ended 20 years ago. I felt safe walking around the city until around at least 11:00 pm in downtown,  It is so safe that money changers leave piles of cash at their stands when they go to pray at the Mosque. As long as you practice basic common sense, you will be safe. One time, when I was walking down the street a man asking for money became very persistent and grabbed my arm. Immediately, five other people around me started shouting at him and came over, not leaving my side until he left and they were sure I would be safe.

2015-03-14 11.09.34

This leads to the next treasure of the city, the people living there. The people in Hargeisa are incredibly friendly. Don’t be surprised if people call out to you while you are walking down the street. Ninety nine percent of the time, they just want to talk, practice their English, and want to know what you think about the city. If you need directions, people are more than willing to give them. If they do not speak enough English to help you out, they will find somebody who does. The next surprise is the relative prosperity and obvious economic potential. The growth here is staggering. You will see modern office buildings and hotels under construction, the first shopping malls are beginning to open in the city (not anywhere near the scale of the Mall of America, but shopping malls nonetheless). They even sell frappachinos and paninis at some of the new coffee shops.

2015-03-18 20.47.47

This growth is all the more impressive considering it all happened mostly the last decade. Toward the beginning of the war Siad Barre flattened the city in a series of bombing raids. Instead of sinking into despair, the people of Somaliland built a new city from the ruins and Hargeisa is now one of the safest places in East Africa. Beyond the physical signs of prosperity, the telecommunications infrastructure is on par with the United States.

2015-03-16 11.17.07

There is amazing cell phone coverage that is affordable. You can buy a SIM card as soon as you get off the plane, and as a result of the competition between coverage providers in the country, minutes are very cheap. I spent around $5 the entire trip for local and international calling and texting. You can buy a phone or bring your own unlocked one, insert your SIM card and be on your way.  As far as internet, you can choose from 3G or internet cafes, and almost every hotel has free wifi. If you are wondering what currency to use, don’t worry, almost everyone accepts dollars. Even if they don’t, there are dozens of money exchange booths in the city center.  There is even an electronic payment system that you can access through the cell network. Shoppers can buy things at most stores without even using cash.  If you prefer to use Somaliland Shillings, however, just keep in mind that you might need to bring a backpack, a day at the market may require a few bricks of currency.

2015-03-14 10.26.23


• It is nearly impossible to transfer money directly from the United States to Somaliland. You must bring all the cash you need (bring small, new bills)

• Dress modestly. This means no tank tops for guys (even if you see locals doing it) and longer garments for women.

• Sometimes it is necessary to barter at smaller vendors