My semester at sea: Singapore and Burma

Martha Bawn/Courtesy
The Marina Bay Sands hotel.

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In the past week, I’ve been to one of the wealthiest countries in the world and one of the poorest. Both Singapore and Myanmar (Burma) were occupied by the Japanese during WWII, but since then they have followed very different paths. The contrast was absolutely striking and not always in ways I expected. Predictably, Singapore feels like a city straight out of a science fiction movie. The architecture and gardens throughout the tiny island/city/country are very fresh and interesting, and everything is perfectly clean and well maintained. But I found Singapore to have a strangely sterile feeling that detracted from its beauty. For such a densely populated place, I saw very few people on the streets. It’s also extremely expensive to own a car there, so the streets are nearly empty. I found it hard to feel at home in a place that feels almost like an abandoned movie set. Yangon in Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma) is almost the polar opposite. The city is dirty and ugly but very crowded and intensely lively. Myanmar is in the middle of a rapid transition away from its oppressive military government and has only recently seen any tourists at all. Although my group of Americans certainly was a novelty, the Burmese people made us feel as welcome as possible and couldn’t wait to show us their beautiful country.

In Singapore, as far as things to do, I feel like I barely scratched the surface in my two days. It’s very easy to get around the city on the metro, so I did a lot of exploring. The Marina Bay area in the south is full of amazing architecture and strange gardens with huge tree-shaped structures that light up at night. I’ve never seen anything like that before. I also went to the Singapore Zoo, which is one of the best in the world. It’s completely different from any zoo I’ve ever been to because you don’t really see any fences. Large moats or ditches separate the visitors from the animals, and monkeys and orangutans (the zoo’s specialty) just climb around on the trees above you. I’ve never seen zoo animals looking so active and happy. I also hear the science center is amazing — kind of like San Francisco’s Exploratorium taken to the next level. That’s definitely on the agenda if I ever come back. And neighborhoods such as the Arab Quarter and Little India were very interesting and colorful places to walk around and get a bite to eat. One of the most interesting things about Singapore is the unique blend of so many different cultures combined with such wealth and prosperity.

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Gardens by the Marina Bay.

In Myanmar, I spent a lot of time on the beach. It was absolutely beautiful, but I feel like it took away from my time experiencing the history and people of this country. The highlights for me were visiting the amazing Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, riding an elephant through the jungle, helping out at a local middle school and participating in a Buddhist novitiation ceremony. This particular ceremony was donated by the Semester at Sea community, because the young boys becoming novices at the monastery were from very poor families.

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Buddhist novices dressed as princes.

The ceremony began with a long parade around the village, with the boys riding horses while dressed as princes in beautiful jewelry and make-up. Then we got to present them with gifts that they would use when living as monks, and they took off all the riches, shaved their heads and changed into robes. Afterward, we served all the monks and novices their lunch, which they accepted without asking for thanks, because they cannot desire anything. I had expected this whole ceremony to be very subdued and serious, but the whole community came out, and it was much more of a celebration and social gathering than anything else.

And then the novices dressed as monks.

And then, the novices dressed as monks.

This was a very interesting time to be in Myanmar, because the country is in a time of transition. Next year, it will hopefully hold its first free and fair election, and only a couple of weeks ago, the military gave up complete control of the government, although most current government officials still have a military background. The country is just now being opened up to the world, seeing more tourists and entrepreneurs every year. In many ways, the future looks bright for Myanmar. On the other hand, while I was there, the government kicked out the Dutch branch of Doctors Without Borders and is trying to severely restrict activity of other nongovernmental organizations, which is a severe breach of international law. The violence against the Rohingya population in the eastern regions is considered by some to be genocide, yet the government is denying that anything is happening. Talking to the Burmese people in this critical time made me optimistic about this country, but the truth is that the future for this country is very uncertain. Hopefully, one day it will feel a little more like Singapore, but that’s certainly a long way off.

Shwedagon Pagoda.

Shwedagon Pagoda.