Asia, Peace and Conflict, Reality Tours Blog, Spirituality and Religion, Trip Participant Stories

Nancy from Seattle Reports Back About First-Ever Reality Tour to Burma

NLD office- Nancy:KirstenThe following post was written by Nancy Penrose of Seattle about her recent trip to Burma with Global Exchange.

In April 2013, I was a member of the first-ever Reality Tour delegation to Burma.  I chose to go with Global Exchange to this country that is also known as Myanmar* because I wanted to get beneath the typical tourist surfaces; I wanted to learn directly from the people themselves about their launch on the road to democratic reforms. By the end of the trip, I had been rewarded with a wide spectrum of conversations and insights. I felt humbled by the time that many busy people devoted to meeting with us.

We  spoke with leaders of the Generation 88 Students, many of whom spent years as political prisoners and who now work to promote a peaceful and open society. In Yangon, at the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, the political party led by 1991 Nobel Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, we met with a woman who holds an NLD seat in Parliament. Others we spoke with on this trip included hotel owners and managers, professors and businessmen, a Buddhist nun who has founded her own school, medical doctors, leaders of micro-finance programs, puppeteers, and even comedians who have paid the price of imprisonment for making jokes about the government.  We chatted with vendors of tourist souvenirs and their children who were helping out during a school break.Kids as monks

Our delegation was small, only four of us, accompanied by our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Cho, who was also our translator. It seemed that everyone we spoke with has high hopes for their country even as they assess and acknowledge the great challenges that must be overcome to continue on the path of democratic reforms.

Myanmar is emerging from 50 years of dictatorships that have morphed through military juntas and socialism and a kleptocratic group of powerful and wealthy men close to the military and known as “the cronies.” Significant steps toward democracy were taken in 2008; a quasi-civilian government was established in 2010; and in April 2012, NLD members stood for election and won 43 seats in Parliament. Reforms are launched, but five decades of dictatorships have left what is often a crumbling or nonexistent physical infrastructure and a citizenry that often needs empowering and educating about a government’s responsibilities and duties to its people.

We visited four places–Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake–and were delighted by beauty in each. In Yangon, there was the gleaming gold zedi, or stupa, of Shwedagon Paya, a temple that every Burmese Buddhist tries to visit at least once in his or her life. We were there on a Sunday, a day of no work for many Burmese, and we were surrounded by worshippers, families picnicking in the shade of pavilions, and novitiate processions where young boys preparing to join the monkhood were carried on the shoulders of friends and families under golden parasols.Shwedagon Near Mandalay, we strolled the famous U Bein Bridge and watched a farmer herd his flock of hundreds of ducks, saw women bent to their task of harvesting groundnuts from fields exposed and planted as Taungthanam Lake retreated with the dry season. View from bridge We spent a day on the Ayerarwaddy (Irrawaddy) River traveling from Mandalay to Bagan and were grateful for the shade of the woven rattan roof. (Temperatures in Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan were hitting 40 degrees C (104 degrees F) or higher every day.) We watched the sun turn red as it cast its final rays of the day over the thousands of 11th- to 13th-century temples spread across the plain at Bagan. And finally, we admired the skills of the fishermen of Inle Lake who balance on the ends of their slender wooden boats and, in a delicate ballet, row with one leg wrapped around the paddle so that their hands are free to cast and retrieve their nets.

These indelible scenes are experienced by many tourists who travel to Myanmar, but as part of the Global Exchange delegation we added depth and context. We discovered the serene persistence and determination of a young Buddhist nun who runs a school in the suburbs of Yangon and who worries about the coming rainy season when the lack of drainage infrastructure may leave the school marooned by water for days at a time. We heard from Bagan’s Director of the Ministry of Culture about the challenges that arise owing to the limited funding available to preserve and protect this ancient and rich heritage site. We spoke with tourism officials who lament the lack of enough hotel rooms to serve the burgeoning numbers of visitors to Myanmar. We learned that in Yangon there are only 2,000 rooms considered tourist quality, even as tourist arrivals in Myanmar reached 1,000,000 in 2012, compared to some 800,000 in 2011. Toward the end of our trip, as we left the beauty and sweet cool air of Inle Lake, we met with the leader of the microfinance group Muditar, based in Nyaungshwe at the northern end of the Lake, who described their partnership with the Shanta project in Colorado and the midwifery, water, and coffee plantation projects they are undertaking with the Pa O tribal villages in the nearby mountains.Fishing Inle lake

For me the trip was a kaleidoscope of experiences in the company of fellow travelers who care passionately about equality and positive social change in our world. My photos, journals, and souvenirs are all attempts to help keep the journey alive. Now, when I read about events in Myanmar, I understand so much more, I care, I pay attention. And I watch for ways to help.

*Regarding the question of using Burma or Myanmar, I refer readers to this article  in Mizzima, a media organization formerly in exile that is now based in Yangon.


Would YOU like to travel to Burma and experience it for yourself? Join us in building people to people ties in Burma on an upcoming journey co-sponsored by Ethical Traveler.

Trip Dates: October 28, 2013 – November 8, 2013


  1. Hi Nancy, thanks so much for sharing your story with us! I love your last paragraph about learning more about Myanmar and linking that to activism here.

  2. Drea

    This is a fantastic post Nancy! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Pat R.

    Thank you for your article on Burmese life which provides a glimpse of the life that the average tourist might not see. I especially loved the fourth paragraph “Reforms are being launched but…crumbling physical infrastructure and a citizenry that often needs empowering about a government’s responsibility to its people.”After my recent trip to Myanmar, I have rented the documentary film “The Lady” about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I am anxious to lean more about Myanmar and its heroes.

  4. Erica Marcus

    This is really an incredible post. In a very short few paragraphs you have really provided a picture of a nuanced and in-depth experience that makes me hungry for more…..I might have to check out Global Exchange’s next trip to Burma/Myanmar!!!! Hearing about your meetings with Generation 88, the Mayor of Bagan and so much more…And the image of the fisherman on Inle Lake is breathtaking; pure poetry. Thanks so much!!!!!

  5. Betty L. Mclane-Iles

    Very beautiful

  6. Kirsten Moller

    Thanks Betty.. I went on this trip and found it an amazing, eye-opening experience. I highly recommend it to anyone willing to embrace complexity!

  7. Ray Doherty


    Your descriptive account of your visit to Myanmar is extraordinary. I’ve just signed up for the 2014 GX trip.
    Thank you for sharing your observations on this wonderful country.

    ~ Ray

    • Ray,
      Glad you enjoyed the report back, and exciting to hear you are planning to join the 2014 trip…it looks to be an amazing trip!
      Best wishes to you!

  8. Patricia DeBoer

    Did Generation 88 students or NLD representatives talk about the anti-Muslim violence that started in Rahkine state and has spread around the country? They have both been strangely silent and passive in the face of this violence, nor have I seen any evidence that they are willing to do more than make general pronouncements that ‘violence is bad’ in the face of what increasingly looks like a Buddhist majority led attempt at ethnic cleansing.

    • Comment by post author

      Hi Patricia,

      I was on the trip with Nancy, so though I hesitate to say anything definitive (we were only there for a week) we were shocked by the violence and the racist language about the Rohingya — who were consistently described as immigrants and refugees who didn’t belong in Burma, despite the fact that they’ve lived there for generations. The Gen 88 folks and the NLD were suspicious that the military was supporting the Buddhist monks who were fomenting the violence — that it wasn’t a majority Buddhist sentiment. That said they were also struggling to catch up technologically after 20 years in prison and testing the new political space for its openness. With the continued violence, the international community does really need to stay vigilant and pressure the government to protect the rights of minorities.

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