The Clock That Went Backward

April 25, 2011

Most people dismiss the concept of "time travel" as an impossibility. They consider it a fantasy of science-fiction; one that will likely never be achieved by man, at least in our lifetime. No one could hope to suddenly surge into the future, and most certainly we cannot leap back into the past. Six weeks ago, I was inclined to agree...but not anymore. 

I have been to Burma.

Arriving in Yangon, the major city in Burma (also known as Myanmar) is a jarring experience, and not just for the numerous potholes that greet you on the taxi ride from the airport. Nearly every vehicle you pass (and the one in which you are riding) is over twenty-five years old and looks like it belongs in a junkyard. You also observe pickup trucks, doubling as local transport, which are perilously overcrowded, leaving passengers hanging off the rear bumper and even crouching on the roof! 

The 1960's Mazda B600 is omnipresent in Burma

In addition to the antiquated automobiles, many of the buildings in Yangon are in a photogenic state of decay. After only being here for a short time, I was beginning to realize that this country would threaten to fill my camera memory card several times over.

Not sure I'd feel safe saving my money in THIS bank...

My first foray into the city center was an absolutely exhilarating blast of culture shock. So little was recognizably Western, and everything seemed as if it had been frozen in time for the last fifty years. Faded billboards advertised strange and unfamiliar products. Everyone was dressed in traditional clothing called longyi, with nary a pair of jeans to be seen. Many men, women, and children alike sported a yellowish tree-root paste on their face. Small-scale commerce overflowed into the alleys, where robed monks browsed along with people of all shapes and colors.

Show me a mountain bike-riding Burmese couple, and I'll show you a flying elephant

My host in Yangon was a good friend and former DC neighbor, Michelle. Michelle has been working in Burma for the better part of the past four years. In doing so, she has witnessed firsthand much of Burma's tumultuous recent history, including the monk-led protests of 2007, and the devastating aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. She is one of the most courageous and inspiring people who I know, and I was grateful to be comfortably set up in her apartment in a place where comfort is hard to come by. And not only was I comfortable, I was in the best location in the city: right next to the legendary Aung Thukha restaurant, serving the best Burmese food in Yangon!

Michelle showing off the feast at Aung Thukha
Burma is the second largest country in Southeast Asia, and has an estimated population of over 56 million. According to the latest UN report, there are only thirty-seven nations less developed than Burma, the vast majority being in Africa. It is also one of the most isolated countries on Earth. Despite sharing land borders with five nations, the only easy way for a tourist to enter and explore Burma is by flying into Yangon; heightening the feeling of being "on an island." In 2010 the nation received just 300,000 foreign tourists during the entire year. To put that in perspective, Thailand, Burma's neighbor to the south, received 15 million visitors last year, 50 times as many!

Burmese Trishaws
Because Burma sees so few foreign visitors, I felt curious eyes staring at me everywhere I went. Even in Yangon's center, where a melting pot of races, religions, and backgrounds collide, I was an object of fascination. One boy in particular, could not hide his surprise at seeing the tall, white, blonde giant approach. He proceeded to gawk at me unabashed, even as I withdrew my camera to capture his priceless expression.

His face was frozen like this for at least 20 seconds!

Visiting Burma presents some challenges, and warrants more preparation time than the measly four days I gave myself. For one, there is not a single ATM in the whole country, and effectively no one accepts credit cards. This means that before flying to Burma, you must withdraw, in cash, all the money you will need, and travel with it on you the whole time you are there. I can't say that I felt too comfortable traveling with over a thousand dollars either on me or stored in my bags. In addition, you must bring only US dollars, because all other foreign currencies are virtually unchangeable. The bills must not have print numbers starting with CB or several other letter combinations (I'm not joking)! And the dollars must be in pristine, crisp, condition, or they will not be accepted. As if that weren't enough of a headache to deal with, when you get to Burma and you wish to change dollars for Burmese kyat, you must do it on the black market, as the official government exchange rate is over 100 times lower than than the unofficial rate! The kyat has undergone periods of serious inflation, meaning that their highest 5000 note bill is only worth a little over five dollars (but that still can't compete with Zimbabwe). All of this means that while in Burma, I was constantly dealing with some serious wads of banknotes!

In Burma, everyone can be a rubber band man!

Why is Burma so isolated, so undeveloped, and so little visited? Since 1962, the country has been run by a ruthless and incompetent military regime. Their harsh rule has devastated the local economy, terrorized the Burmese population, and drawn condemnation from the rest of the world. International sanctions have been largely ineffective in loosening the military's stranglehold on power, and while visiting I couldn't help but question if the local population suffered more as a result of the regime's isolation. This is a place where the average person is fortunate to earn 50 dollars a month, and corruption, top-down economic mismanagement, and preposterous import taxes have made items which are common in most of the world inaccessible to nearly everyone.

In Burma, this old car costs $40,000 cash!
You would think that these conditions would create a population filled with misery. But I was awed to discover that nothing could be further than the truth. Yes, nearly everyone lives in fear of their government and suffers because of their actions. Yet through it all, many find a way to be happy and get on with their lives. An intoxicating positive energy filled the air most everywhere that I went. I've never been to a place where people smile so often, so easily, and so genuinely, even to complete strangers! It's difficult to explain, but occasionally someone would smile at me so openly and so candidly that I felt as if they were reaching into the depths of my soul. While in Burma, I was constantly on an emotional roller coaster, oftentimes falling into despair at the poverty around me while feeling furious at the government for what they have done to their country. But soon after, I would catch a beaming smile from a stranger, and be lifted up into the stratosphere.

Perhaps the country's adherence to Buddhism helps to explain the positive way in which people have responded to adversity. Religion forms a core of most Burmese' lives, and the teachings of the Buddha are pacifist in nature. In Burma, it is customary for males to enter a monastery and become a monk during the formative years of their youth. In case you were wondering, that translates to a LOT of monks. Every morning, I would look out of the window of Michelle's apartment and observe rows of red-robed figures walking the streets amidst the atmospheric fog of the dawn.  

Monks receiving morning alms at Aung Thukha

Buddhist temples are plentiful throughout Burma, but none is more sacred than the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. This gleaming edifice is covered in so much gold that it would be impossible to calculate its material value. Perched on a large hill, the Shwedagon shines like a beacon over the city, and Burmese travel from all over the country to visit and worship here.

But as impressive as the architecture of the pagoda is, the Burmese people visiting the Shwedagon steal the show. My camera was always gravitating away from the shimmering gold and towards the faces around me.


I've overheard Burma referred to as "the country of nostalgia", and for a Western visitor that can certainly seem true. There's something deeply soothing about visiting a place where few people are distracted by cellphones, cars come from a different era, and most people get by on necessities instead of pursuing luxuries. It harkens back to a romanticized, simpler time. To a foreign eye, interactions among people in Burma even seem somehow more authentic, as if in our rush towards capitalistic progress we have lost a bit of our humanity in return for what we have gained. But the Burmese with whom I spoke likewise professed a romanticized view of "America", as a place where everything is perfect and everyone is rich. Despite their government's strict control of media, they keenly sense that the modern world has left them behind. As I prepared to travel away from Yangon, I would soon gain greater appreciation for their concern. 

I was about to travel even further back in time.



  1. Very interesting and beautiful, Adam. What is the purpose of the yellow tree root paste on the faces of so many people?

  2. Thanks for reading Dan! Thanaka (the name of the tree root paste) is used to cool down the skin (Burma is hot!) and the Burmese also believe that it helps to protect from the sun and promote smooth skin.