Myanmar, also known as Burma, is one of the most ethnically diverse countries I’ve visited in South-East Asia. With a size of 676,578 square kilometers and a population of about 54 million inhabitants divided into more than 130 ethnic races, Myanmar is predominantly a rural country. Approximately 70% of the population lives in rural areas – 70,838 villages. I had the chance to visit some villages from Myanmar in two of its seven states: Kayah State and Shan State, which ironically are the smallest and largest states of the country.
The political context of Myanmar becoming a state, is ruthless. After a harsh monarchy ruling, Burma was governed as a British colony for more than half of a century and then was occupied by Japan during World War II. After gaining its independence in 1948, much of the country faced ethnic insurgencies, being known as the country with the world’s longest ongoing civil war. During all these disputes, Myanmar passed through a long period of extreme poverty.
Being born in the countryside, for me, it’s natural to find opportunities to explore the rural areas in the countries that I visit. That’s why I found my way into the rural life of Myanmar and the experience was spectacular. I believe that the authenticity and the real core of a nation are found in the village’s life.
Approximately 70% of Burmese people are farmers, agriculture being the major occupation in Myanmar, followed by services – 22% and industry – 8%. With more than 200 different species, the main agricultural produce is rice which covers about 60% of the country’s total cultivated land area. I was in Myanmar in March and I was lucky to see the women planting the rice and give them a helping hand.
I was traveling to villages around Loikaw, in Kayah State, so after the work, they invited me to taste their special rice wine. The Kayan rice wine, or Khao Yae, is made by mixing sticky rice, millet, natural yeast, and water and steaming it before storing it in a large clay pot to fermented for around three weeks. The taste is sweet plus a little bit sour and it flows easily.
Due to different agro-climatic conditions, Myanmar has rich sources of plant biodiversity and it grows more than 60 kinds of different economically important crops. Among the major crops that remain important for local consumption and as potential exports are chilies, onion, garlic, ginger, potato, banana, mango, and melons.
I was trekking on the famous route between Inle Lake and Kalaw with a local guide and I could have seen their plantations. Even if it was the beginning of the summer and the temperature reached 30 degrees, the locals were in the fields working their land, mostly planting ginger on this period of the year.
We spent the night in one village in the house of the former mayor and we were nicely welcomed. We received a delicious dinner including rice, eggs, and vegetables at the candle’s light. It seems that most of the villages are not connected to the national grid. Some villagers are having solar panels but the use of electricity is limited, that’s why we couldn’t charge our phones. However, nature, the beautifully clear sky, and the silence from the village made me feel at peace. I totally, recommend doing this trekking journey between Kalaw and Inle Lake.
The rural life has different timing, it seems that everything is going slow but it’s an illusion because people are working all the time and nature is following its way. I believe that this different perception of time is because people give more meaning to the things that they are doing. When you put the soul in your work and you are connected with the land and nature, the time stops and everything seems everlasting. One of my favorite Romanian poets, Lucian Blaga, has a famous quote about this: “Eternity was born in the village”. Myanmar’s rural scenery mesmerized me and for a while, I felt that I was part of the countryside’s eternal world.