A Tale of Two Travelers… by Jeff Buscher

Temple_resizedCarl and Paula, two graduate students, traveled with their cohort to study in Myanmar. They shared most of the same experiences since their group traveled and studied with students from their partnering school in Yangon. Unfortunately,  “Culturally Un-Cool Carl” struggled with his surroundings and had a tough time understanding life in Myanmar. “Prepared Paula” on the other hand, reaped the benefits of her studies about the history and culture of this Asian gem of a country. Let’s take a look at their travel journals and see how things went for our travelers.


Day Before Trip…

They say I’m supposed to keep a journal, so here we go… Bought me a new camera for the trip. Can’t wait to use it! Checked out Myanmar on Google Earth. No wonder it takes 30 hours to get there. Holy cow! This is going to be quite a trip!

Travel Day…

Wow, these are the longest flights I’ve ever taken. I should have brought a book to read or something. I need to figure out what to call this place. Is it Myanmar or Burma? Why would one country have two names? I guess I’ll ask one of our friends when we get there. We finally arrived at 11:30pm. Man, am I beat. Get a load of this… Its 11:30 on Wed. night here, but when I called home it’s actually 11 a.m. in Kansas City. I understand being 12 hours apart, but what’s with the extra thirty minutes? We must be in some kind of time warp?

Day One in Myanmar…

It was tough getting to sleep last night. And today, the guy at the hotel didn’t even speak English. I don’t know how he expects to get much business that way.

We headed out to see some Buddhist temples. They have some pretty odd customs.

They expected me to take my shoes off every time we went into one of their pagoda thingys. I feel like I spent most the day tying and untying my running shoes. And one guy in a red robe looked real upset when I took his picture. I didn’t think he would mind. I mean, he was just sittin’ there with his legs crossed and his eyes closed. I wonder how he knew I even took his picture. Oh well, live and learn.

Day Two in Myanmar…

Today we got to go to a market and buy souvenirs. You would not believe all the cool stuff I bought and it was so cheap. I mean, I think it was cheap. Their money is like play money, I’m not really sure how much I spent. But I got some cool jewelry and bracelets made out of Jade. I also bought some amazing teak wood boxes.  After my first couple of purchases, one of our hosts told me I should try to haggle with them to get a better deal. After that, I started makin’ some serious deals. In fact I don’t think those folks at the market even know how to make money. I ended up paying about half price for everything the rest of the day. Maybe that’s why they are so poor.

And finally, The Last Day in Myanmar…

Well it’s been a wild time, but get a load of this. After spending all my money on souvenirs, (Did I tell you I had to buy an extra bag just for all my stuff?) we were getting ready to leave at the airport. Would you believe they wanted $10 for something they called a “Departure Tax?”  And these guys didn’t seem to be in the mood for haggling over that price. Thank goodness one of my friends had a ten spot she could loan me until we get back to the land of ATMs. Then the guys in customs asked to see my receipts for all the jade I had purchased. I never save receipts! Can you believe it? They actually took some earrings I got for my girlfriend. I was pretty upset, but like I said, these guys seemed pretty serious. Well, I guess after being here nearly two weeks there are some things I just don’t understand. Maybe these folks will learn how to treat visitors better in the future. It’s going to be another long flight. Maybe they’ll have some real food on the plane…


Day before the Trip…

Paula is making a quick stop by the bank today to get cash. She learned that the money exchanges in Myanmar only take only pristine bills dated after 2006. While driving to the bank she practices a few phrases she has learned in Burmese. Her favorite, “Min-gala-ba,” which means hello, but what she really likes about it is the literal translation, “Auspicious Greetings to You!” And finally this afternoon she will double check the contents of her checked bag and her carry on. With such long flights, she wants to be sure she has everything she may need in her carry-on.

Travel Day…

Paula has done all of her required reading for classes before the trip, and packed her books. She did see a book on the recommended reading list that interested her, so she brought that along to read during the flight. During the trip, one flight had a slight delay. Paula packed an extra toothbrush and toothpaste, so she was able to freshen up a bit in the Hong Kong airport after the long flight. Much of her time in flight was spent in conversation with her fellow students. Everyone is very excited about the trip, and many were sharing the things they have learned about Myanmar in preparation for their experience. She did notice her friend Carl was either sleeping or learning how to work his new camera.

Day One in Myanmar…

Today we visited the Shwedagon Paya, a remarkable temple and a site where many Buddhist pilgrims from all over Southeast Asia come on pilgrimage. In fact,  in just a few days there is a major annual festival celebrating the full moon of Tabaung. The temple had an interesting atmosphere. There were the contemplative religious activities mingled with the peripheral cacophony of a small amusement park. I was so glad I wore my sandals since we had to take off our shoes whenever we entered the most revered sections of the temple. I remember reading the long history of this site. Tradition states that 2,600 years ago the original temple was built on this site. In the year 588 CE, two brothers met the great Gautama Buddha and brought 8 strands of his hair back with them and they are enshrined on this site, which is the oldest Buddhist pagoda in all of Myanmar and the world. Amazing!

Day Two in Myanmar…

Today was amazing! We went to the Bogyoke Aung San Market, a building that dates back to the British occupation, when it was known as Scott’s Market. I picked up some beautiful lacquerware bowls for my family and a Shan shoulder bag for me. I also bought a couple of very pretty jade bracelets. I saved my receipt to verify my purchase when I go through customs on the way home. It was so much fun to do some bartering. The shop owners were very friendly and appreciated it when I tried to speak some of the Burmese phrases I had learned. We all laughed when instead of saying the word for less, I said the word for more.  The look on the vendor’s face was priceless. It really is a very unique place. For the most part, prices were very reasonable. Thank goodness our staging hosts helped us understand the difference between the private merchants and government run businesses that support Myanmar’s ruling military.

And Finally the Last Day in Myanmar…

I can’t believe our time here is coming to an end. Our hosts have been so gracious and we have learned so much about this remarkable country in transition. All the books and websites I visited before this trip were helpful, but they could only hint at the amazing sights, sounds and smells of this incredible country. The Yangon airport was very nice as international airports go in developing nations. And their exit fee was very reasonable compared to other countries I have visited. It was only $10 U.S. dollars. I saved a couple of crisp ten dollar bills. We had to pay this before we could check-in at the ticket counter. Thank goodness I had an extra! Poor Carl only had about 2 kyats (chets) left to his name. I’m kind of excited about all the great pictures I took while I was there. On the long flight home I think I’ll get them organized and start working on my  PowerPoint presentation for church… or maybe I’ll try to catch up on some sleep on the trip home. It always takes me a few days to re-adjust to life back in the States. These international trips really get me thinking about how God works in so many different ways around our world.

Our friends seemed to have had two very different experiences.

… In an effort to be culturally sensitive and genuinely engaged with our friends in Myanmar, may I suggest it’s never too late to do some web-surfing and learn as much as you can before your trip!

Here are some movies available on Netflix:

Burma VJ – This movie is about the Saffron Revolution of 2007 –  80 mins

They Call it Myanmar – An excellent overview of the country.  82 mins

Burma: Encounters in a Forgotten Country – Vistas from balloonists traveling the country, along with interviews of stagings. 58 mins
Jeff Buscher is a Central DMin Student (2012 Cohort) who is preparing to journey to Myanmar in a few weeks. 


My Experience:

Thawng Hnin Zam

My name is Thawng Hnin Zam. I come from Chin State in the most western part of Myanmar, near the border with India. Presently, I am serving as the Principal of the Union Theological College, a member of the Association for Theological Education in South East Asia. I received a B.Th. degree in Madras, India, as well as a B.D. (Bachelors of Divinity) from Serampore University, also in India.