Myanmar (sometimes still referred to as Burma) was one of the countries I knew the least about prior to my arrival. However, after seeing an episode of Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" where he visits the country, particularly the seemingly endless field full of temples in Bagan, I was hooked on the idea of visiting. When my buddy Jimmy mentioned wanting to pay the country a visit around the same time I would be in Thailand, I jumped at the opportunity to join him to explore for a few weeks.
The place was absolutely fascinating. After spending decades under a military dictatorship, the country is just now open to foreign investment, and tourism is starting to pick up. We occasionally spotted signs saying, "warmly welcome and take care of tourists", and we truly did feel welcomed by the locals. I've never met such friendly people, who stared at us in curiosity, giggling when they were caught looking, and those who were comfortable enough speaking English would take every opportunity to speak with us. Some just wanted to practice their English, others longed to share opinions on the state of the government that had long been oppressed. We found that monks tended to be the most outgoing and willing to show us around and chat with us, only managing one negative experience in the entire visit. As a whole, Myanmar was like a culture that has awoken after a long sleep, bright-eyed and mostly optimistic about its future. Now is really the perfect time to visit, as it's still relatively untouched by foreigners and tourists, and I truly hope that in a few years the people retain their overwhelmingly open friendliness towards visitors.
Here are a few other unique cultural observations from a few weeks in Myanmar:
- Longiyi - Both men and women wear these traditional skirt-like wraps. On women, they're very fitted and smooth, paired with a traditional blouse, or for the more modern ladies, a simple t-shirt. The men wear their longyis knotted at the front, and typically pair it with a button-up shirt with long sleeves, but in the hottest areas of town, it might be worn with a simple tank.
- Tanaka - Made from grinding a bit of wood, this paste can be found brushed across the cheeks of most of the women and children across Myanmar. Part sunscreen, part fashion statement, it's interesting to see how it's applied to the faces of the locals.
- Betel - Betel juice! Betel juice! Betel juice! Many of the local men chew this seed, sold on street corners wrapped in betel leaves. A similar habit to chewing tobacco, men are constantly spitting the bitter juice, leaving red stains on the ground in their wake. You can always tell who has a habit by the dark red color staining their teeth (and the generally poor condition of their dental hygiene.)
- Architecture - While there are some gorgeous examples of British Colonial architecture, these buildings are mostly surrounded with fences and barbed wire, rotting away from the inside out. The rest of the architecture is an interesting pseudo art deco inspired look - lots of shiny tiles, metallic rails, and colored reflective glass across the windows. And many, many satellite dishes. And of course…
- LED lights - They seriously love these things. They. Are. Everywhere. Outside your hotel, there will probably be an LED sign board, welcoming you in flashing, scrolling text. Inside the local pagoda, there will likely be a halo of colored LEDs surrounding the face of the Buddha image, and probably some more colored LEDs in front of the Buddha, in place of candles.
- Kissy noises - When getting a waiter's attention, patrons will make a very loud kiss noise. As a woman, if you aren't aware of this, and you hear it, you get a little offended… until you realize it isn't directed towards you AT ALL! I worked on perfecting this weird sound - in Mandalay as we were seated at an outdoor table and the child waiters rushed between tables, I tried desperately to make eye contact, say "excuse me", "hello", anything, but nothing worked. One loud kiss noise, and two kids snapped to attention, rushed to the table, and asked what we needed. It was pretty amazing!
- Monks and Nuns - It's common practice for men and women to spend a year of study in the local monastery or nunnery when they are very young, and again when they are older. The decision of whether or not a child will take this time is up to the family, but traditionally, this is a rite of passage. It is also a decision between parents and children as to whether or not the child will remain in the practice. We met one very kind monk who had entered the monastery when he was 5, and was now in his mid-20s, very happy with his decision. He had two very young nephews with him however, whose families had decided to keep them from the monastery. It will be interesting to see how this practice may change as the country becomes more westernized. For now, you will often see dozens of monks in their orange or scarlet robes, and nuns in their light pink robes, each with heads shaved, making their rounds collecting alms in large silver bowls, or visiting the local Buddhist sites. They are absolutely gorgeous, and one of my favorite parts about Myanmar (and Southeast Asia in general).
- Chinlone - Their version of hacky sack, but played with a small rattan ball. You'll spot little circles of men kicking this ball around everywhere, usually with their longyis cinched up around their legs.
- Hand gestures - Typically when giving something, locals will touch the inside of their elbow with the opposite arm (usually the left, while handing you the object with the right). After noticing this practice, I looked up proper etiquette for Myanmar, which dictates that items should be given or received with both hands, when that is not possible the other hand should touch the inside of the elbow.
- Photos - The locals aren't shy about requesting a photo with a strange-looking foreigner. I figured it was fair turnabout for as many photos I wanted to take of them, and they do at least ask permission first and are very sweet about it. My poor friend Jimmy turned into an amateur celebrity photog over the weeks, as random locals would occasionally request he take their picture. Of them with me.
- Reactions: A funny extra tidbit - as these were fairly consistent, especially amongst the younger set...
- "Where are you from?" "America." "Obama!"
- "Where are you from?" "Australia." "Kangaroo!"
- "What is your name?" "Jennifer." "Jennifer Lopez!"