Progress shouldn’t make us strangers to each other

Progress shouldn’t make us strangers to each other

I recently made my first trip to Myanmar, a place I’d been wanting to visit for years, and I’ve come back with fond memories that I will keep for a lifetime.

Even before the country began opening up to the outside world, Myanmar held a fascination for me, so this trip was an eye-opener for me and the photographer who accompanied me. There was no group, no tour guide, just the two of us.

I did not set my expectations high and my intention was to go and experience things as they came along. And what I found was that most of people I encountered were really kind and hospitable.

My photographer colleague, of course, was keen to build a portfolio of diverse images to illustrate the Myanmar way of life and various livelihoods. He had plenty of material to work with, even during routine walks along the street, where sellers of various sorts offered us their wares and he got in close to record their pictures.

My initial reaction was to worry that we were violating the vendors’ privacy. If we did this in Thailand, some people may get angry. But the sellers we encountered were cool about us working close by and some were willing to share their experiences about their occupations with us as well.

We spent nine days in Myanmar: six in Yangon and three in Dawei. In the latter city, I experienced some impressive moments with people living there.

During our stay in Dawei, we had a chance to experience traditional performances at a temple fair. As Dawei is not a tourism destination, we were the only foreigners, and our dress gave us away.

While I stood alone, thinking of either walking to the front of the stage or waiting for the photographer, a girl smiled and walked up to me. She asked me in Thai if I was Thai. She told me her name was Mi Mi and that she had worked in Thailand for five years, which explained why she was able to converse with me.

Seeing her smile, I could feel that she was very glad to meet Thai people. She asked me to sit with her and her sisters in front of the stage.

While I waited for Mi Mi to lay down a plastic sheet, another old woman waved her hand and called to me to sit on her mat. I ended up chatting with her as well, with the help of Mi Mi, who also explained to me in Thai ch performance.

The performances were excellent. But what impressed me the most were not the shows, but people. Thai people have long looked down on our western neighbours, their lower standard of living and development. Hearing a Myanmar native speak Thai is a source of amusement for some. How many Thais speak Burmese or other local languages?

Throughout my conversation with Mi Mi, it was her kindness and not her accent that impressed me. Maybe it was my good luck to meet with good people.

I started thinking of how life has become back home in crowded Bangkok, where tempers fray easily and rudeness is on the rise. I thought of two such incidents in the past few months.

In one, I had given way to a woman in a narrow soi in a temple, only to have her shout at me.

In another case, I was involved in an accident and a motorcyclist shouted at me to move my car to the side of the road and not block traffic. I agreed with him but he could have been more polite about it.

I started to wonder, are development and urbanisation to blame for the loss of civility? No question, Thailand is more developed when compared with Myanmar, and urbanisation makes people strangers to each other. Being a good friend or being kind to other people seem to matter less.

Dawei these days is on the world stage because of the huge industrial development taking shape there. In the future Dawei will be like Thailand, for better or worse. The city will be home to lots of foreigners working in the growing industrial estate.

This makes me wonder how urbanisation in Dawei will affect the people and their attitude. Will they still be as kind as the people I experienced, or will they become more like the people of my country?

I just pray that the development in Dawei and Myanmar in general will not change the way people are. We in “advanced” Thailand could learn some valuable lessons from our good-hearted neighbours, funny accents and all.

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