In April, I went back home to Yangon for for the Myanmar New Year (also called Thingyan or the Water Festival), and I saw a few things that I didn’t see when I was growing up: a KFC, a Pizza Hut, several overpasses. I’ve heard several people who left Myanmar before the country ‘opened up’—as the media constantly refers to it—return and say that it’s almost as though they’ve come back to a different country. And while in many ways that is true, there are certain things that you see around the country that remind you of all of the goodness intrinsic to Burmese culture and daily life.
One of my favorite examples is the yay chan sinn. If you take a stroll (or an air-conditioned ride if it’s the middle of summer) around any city in Myanmar, you might notice that in front of a house or a monastery or a pagoda, there is a stand housing some sort of bowl with a cup on top—that whole structure is a yay chan sinn. A yay chan sinn (literally translated as ‘cold water stand’) is erected and maintained by the members of the house (or any other space) in front of which it stands, and is there for any tired passersby who might want some water but don’t have any, or simply can’t afford it. It’s such a small thing and one that not many, if any, guidebooks or websites highlight, and as a visitor, you might brush it off as some sort of ‘quirk’ or overlook it altogether. But the yay chan sinns are there, and they’re representative of the culture and attitudes of the Myanmar people, that is, of selflessness and the belief that you should help others as much as you can, even if it’s a stranger whom you’ll never meet.
I recently read about a restaurant in Yangon that had ‘Perrier Rich People Water’ (yes, literally) listed on its drinks menu. I laughed at the presumable mistranslation that had occurred when the menu had been written up, but I also couldn’t help but notice that Rich People Water cost 2,700 kyats, which is about $2.50, depending on the exchange rate. While $2.50 is not a lot in most countries, in Myanmar that is just a little under the daily minimum wage for an eight-hour work day; you can see why a bottle of water costing an entire day’s wage would be considered Rich People Water, especially when a ‘normal’ bottle of water is about 200 kyats (or 20 cents).
While I sometimes worry about some of the changes that I’m seeing, I’m not one of those people who fear that we are losing our culture. Sure, we now serve Rich People Water (I’m presuming Rich People refers to the recently increased population of expats), but we also still have our yay chan sinns to offer water to anyone who might need or want it, completely free of charge.