Tourism, mass tourism, is a relatively new concept in Myanmar (Burma). Gone are the days of dead bodies laying in the streets of Yangon, and rolling black-outs that seemed to last for days on end. Life in Myanmar is evolving – and hopefully, after the elections this month, the country will continue to grow.
When I returned to Thailand in September it took me a little bit to get used to the locals staring, it wasn’t a constant thing, but it happened enough that it was hard to ignore. As per usual, I adopted my technique of saying hello in Thai and smiling, in an effort to charm them, and most of the time it worked. So when I told an expat friend in Bangkok that I was going to Myanmar she was thrilled, “Oh, you’ll love it. The people are so friendly. I think you’ll find it easier than Thailand” – she was referring to the staring as she knew it sometimes made me crazy.
Let me tell you, Myanmar is not the place to go if you don’t like people to stare at you. Myanmar is relatively new to mass tourism, and while locals see white people on occasion, they rarely see bigger white people, and I am pretty damn sure they have almost never seen someone with boobs as big as mine. It sounds crass, I’m sorry, but the fact is, in a country like Myanmar, the size of my ‘twins‘ becomes very apparent.
I’m not going to lie, I was annoyed my first day in Yangon. I wasn’t expecting every single person to stare, and I sure as hell wasn’t prepared to have a couple comment on my size in English. And, like a princess, I messaged my friend in Bangkok to tell her she was wrong about people in Myanmar. Not my finest travel moment, but I feel like I should be completely honest here.
Did I want to pack-up and go back to Bangkok? No, but I was annoyed and there were a few moments when I wanted to stay inside – I’ve had some anxiety about being around people since my Dad passed away earlier this year, which also played a role in my mood, but that’s for another post.
**note: I generally hate staring, and it’s not specific to Asia. I know a guy in Québec City who does the same thing, he’ll just look right into my eyes without saying anything, and it unnerves me, every time. I am constantly asking him what he wants.**
The next morning I awoke with a new point of view. Yes, locals stare and sometimes giggle, but it’s generally not malicious. In most cases, they have rarely seen someone like me. It’s something I reminded myself over and over until it solidified in my mind. Soon, I began to understand the Burmese people a little more. For one, the young ones like to giggle. They giggle about everything. The Burmese people also like to sing. It doesn’t matter where they are, or who is around. I passed so many people singing out-loud, to nobody in particular, and when they saw I noticed, they didn’t care, they kept on singing.
And they have struggled as well, including discrimination based on skin colour; something that I became aware of on my second day in Yangon. I was outside Scott Market buying some rambutans when a local woman offered me a stool to sit on. She was busy setting up her stall – she sold fried tofu, which she would stuff with shredded cabbage, chillies, and a type of sauce – and proceeded to open one of my rambutans for me. She didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Burmese. It didn’t matter. After some time a man stopped and spoke with her, then curiously turned to me and said, “She says you are her friend, is that true?”, I smiled and said “Yes”. He looked at each of us, then replied, “But she is black and you are white”. It took me by surprise, but I reached for her hand and responded, “That doesn’t matter, she’s my friend”, smiled, and he left.
It wasn’t something I had expected to happen in Myanmar, and to be honest, I’m still trying to understand the reasoning behind it.
In Yangon, later that afternoon, I decided to spend three hours riding the circle line around the city. As I wanted to take photos the guys at the station suggested I ride a commuter train, rather than the air-conditioned train; as this would give me a better view of what life is like in the city. Settling on a hard blue bench, I spent the afternoon observing local life, taking photos, and doing my best to be friendly and social. I adopted my ‘Hello’ technique, greeting everyone who looked my way with a big smile, followed by “Mingalaba” (hello in Burmese).
For the most part, it worked, practically every person returned my smile, and responded with “Mingalaba“. There were a couple who didn’t crack, no matter how wide and bright my smile was. One woman in particular, who sat beside me for a few stops, was so mesmerized by the size of ‘the twins‘ that she stared straight at them for 15 minutes solid. It was hard to not laugh, I’m used to men ogling, but Myanmar is the first country where the women seemed more fascinated by the size of my boobs.
In Nyaung Shwe I was visiting one of the floating villages on Inle Lake, wandering through a morning market when a local woman walked into my path, stopped dead in her tracks, stared right at my boobs, and said “Wow” in perfect awe inspiring English. Once again I tried my hardest not to laugh.
I can only image what stories the women were telling their friends.
On the upside, nobody tried to touch my boobs on this trip.
Well, there was the tiny Burmese man who rubbed my upper chest, but that was because I let him. And before your mind ends up in the gutter, it was to run Thanaka paste onto a severe burn I had sustained during my boat ride from Bagan to Mandalay.
Travelling as a bigger person will always have its challenges, but approaching it with humour can be rewarding. Whenever someone commented about my size and they were bigger themselves, I just smiled and said “You too!”, to which they would smile, agree, and laugh. If they were small, I’d smile and shrug my shoulders as if to say, “Whatcha gonna do, it is what it is, yo”, and again they’d smile and we’d both continue on on separate paths.
Like you, I am not perfect. And I never want this blog to look like my travel experiences are perfect, because they’re not. I get frustrated and annoyed. I have days when I allow my grief to take over for a few hours or a day. I even have anxiety attacks on occasion. I’m human, I have faults and I make mistakes, no matter how long or how far I’ve travelled. But, despite all those things, I am still pressing forward and making a life for myself, one that makes me happy.
I didn’t have the time to see and do everything that I wanted in Myanmar, and that’s okay. I can go back.