“You have a floor, right? Good. Having a floor is key.”

Min-găla-ba! (hello in Burmese/Myanmar language).

The first two weeks in Myanmar have been great and we’re slowly getting used to the very hot and wet season here (as opposed to Myanmar’s other seasons, being very hot and very wet, and hot and very wet … seriously, that’s how the Lonely Planet describes seasons in Myanmar!) The monsoon season is starting and it’s becoming increasingly unusual to have a rain-less day.

In our first week here, we had an amazing opportunity to travel around Myanmar with some visiting SIPA / Earth Institute professors – Glenn Denning, Jessica Fanzo and Shiv Someshwar – in what felt at times a combination of field work and the Amazing Race. The road trip took us to places we would probably never had got the chance to visit (Shwebo), places we’d love to go back to (Mandalay and the magical pagoda city of Bagan) and places we’re kind of hoping to never have to go back to (Nay Pyi  Taw, the new capital). Nay Pyi Taw is undoubtedly the strangest place I’ve ever been to – a half-constructed city of mansions and hotels, part Las Vegas and part ghost town, with six or eight lane highways but almost no cars on the road, and no street lights but A LOT of Christmas lights … everywhere. It will be very interesting to see what Nay Pyi Taw is like in 10 years time.

In Shwebo we interviewed rice farmers who are part of an irrigation scheme in the middle of Myanmar’s central dry zone. They use water brought from a far away dam by gravity and via a series of ever-narrowing canals to grow (if they’re lucky) two rice crops per year, making them relatively more secure than those farmers with no access to water outside of the monsoon season. In Mandalay we met with commodity traders trading rice, sesame, mustard, groundnuts, pigeon pea and many other crops, and toured Myanmar’s oldest commodity trading floor. And somewhere between Mandalay and Bagan we spent some time with a family who live off sugar palms – the father climbs the palms to harvest the fruit (as his father did, and no doubt his grandfather before him) and his wife makes jaggery from the palm’s sugary sap for commercial sale. Here we all are outside their jaggery processing shelter, with the palm trees that they rent in the background:

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Bagan, the city of pagodas, was our final stop on the trip, and watching the sun set behind the pagodas was truly breathtaking.

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Our host organisation is a sub-division of the Myanmar Development Resources Institute: the Centre for Economic and Social Development. You know it’s a great organisation to be based with when their wifi password is “senstiglitz2015” and there is a continuous supply of really good coffee! There are a number of visiting grad students and academics at CESD, including a very funny Italian economist. One of the first questions he asked us was whether our apartment had a floor: “You have a floor, right? Good. Having a floor is key.” We were very confused, obviously assuming that all apartments would have a floor (even if not a proper one)… but apparently it’s not something to be taken for granted in Yangon!

We have been welcomed into the circle of friendly researchers at CESD, going to yoga sessions (taught by a SIPA grad nonetheless!) and having a couple of beers on downtown Yangon roof tops. We’ve all been given very interesting projects to work on during our time here (more on that at a later stage), which I for one am very grateful for.

In many ways, Myanmar is a country of contrasts right now, due largely to being part-way into its transition process. Western influences clash with local Myanmar influences everywhere you look – which is sometimes sad as you can see the loss of local culture happening before your eyes, but it comes across in funny moments too, such as an elderly commodity trader’s B.O.B ‘Nothin’ on you’ ring tone ringing in a meeting (it was SO hard not to laugh!)

Yesterday, an international human rights and dignity film festival opened in Yangon, showing mainly locally-made short films on different human rights themes. What a great testament to the change happening in this country! We tried to get in to watch a few of the films, but were not up to joining the long, winding queues of people waiting patiently for tickets, so we’ll give it another try in the remaining days of the film festival. It was great to see so many people coming out to support the film festival – and hopefully it will be the start of many more such festivals to come in Myanmar.

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