Monday, 13 August 2012

An Introduction to Myanmar

This blog is a lot of things: a travel journal, a backpacker resource, a food diary. An outlet for self-indulgent narcissism and questionable grammar. 

But there is one thing this blog is not. 

This blog is not Wikipedia.

As much as I would love to inform you all about Myanmar’s history, political situation and human rights controversies, I have neither the time, nor the energy, nor the knowledge to do it justice. If you know as much as I knew about Myanmar before going there- that is to say, nothing- I urge you to Google it to get a basic background.

That said, I wouldn't be much of a travel blogger if I didn't give you at least some of the essentials on the country before diving into my personal observations. 

Myanmar, formerly the British colony of Burma, is still under the political control of a military dictatorship. While the country seems to be slowly moving towards a more open, global, democratic political model, there remains serious oppression of its people by the government, which inhibits free speech and dissident ideas, spies on its citizens and does little to ameliorate the severe economic disparity that is rampant throughout Myanmar. Some people even question whether it is ethical to travel to the country, fearing that tourist dollars only support the corrupt government. While I'm not an expert on the debate, I will say that in our experience, a conscientious tourist armed with a little knowledge and awareness on the issue can ensure that the vast majority of the money they spend in the country goes straight to the local population, rather than to the junta.

It may be due to increased tourism or the small political advancements of the past few years, but after only three weeks in the country, one can plainly see that Myanmar is on the brink of massive change. You can feel it everywhere. Although the country has only been open to general tourism since the nineties, there are more and more tourists every year. Current economic sanctions and foreign investment restrictions have kept the country largely unspoiled by globalization, but that too is changing. There are not yet the 7-Elevens and McDonalds found in other Asian countries, however there are brand new hotels, shopping malls and cell phone stores sprouting up in the big cities.

Despite recent development, tourism is still very limited in Myanmar, with certain areas completely closed off to foreigners unless they have a special permit and are traveling with an approved tour group. Members of foreign media are not given visas, and foreign bank cards and credit cards are not accepted anywherein the country. There are no ATMs for visitors: if you want to come to Myanmar, you must enter with all of the cash- in new, perfect condition US Dollars- that you will need for your entire stay. You cannot call into Myanmar from abroad, and international SIM cards are blocked while in the country. Power outages are extremely common, even in cities, and a decent internet connection is a rare luxury. This isn’t Thailand, with its beach resorts, pancake stands andcocktail bars.

This is Myanmar. And it is fascinating.

When we travel, the first thing we notice about a new culture is how it is different from our own: how people look or dress, the different forms of transportation, the different habits. In terms of  “differences,” Myanmar is in a category of its own; it’s by far the most “foreign” of the countries we have visited during this trip.

To take a superficial example, very few people outside of cities wear Western style clothing: here, men and women alike wear longyis, or long skirts of colorful fabric, instead of pants.

Instead of make-up, women paint their faces with a pale yellow paste called tanaka, which is not only decorative, but also protects from the sun and nourishes the skin. Children also wear tanaka, however most boys abandon the practice when they become adults.

Getting my tanaka done by a woman we met in Bagan
The finished product
Even though men generally don't wear tanaka, Vincent couldn't get out of trying it

The population is devoutly Buddhist and we saw red-robed monks, as well as nuns cloaked in pink and orange, walking the streets and riding on the back of motorbikes everywhere we went.  

In the countryside, all agricultural work is done by livestock rather than farm equipment. Men carry heavy loads across their shoulders on bamboo sticks, while women balance their loads on their heads.

The transportation, too, is unique. During the British colonial period, traffic drove on the left side of the road in British-style cars, with the driver on the right side of the car. Then, in an effort to distance the country from British rule, the military junta decided that all cars would drive on the right side of the road. This change happened in the span of one day: at exactly midnight, all of the traffic changed to the other side of the road. The cars remained the same, the crazy driving style too, only now those cars weren’t adapted to the flow of traffic. They still aren’t. Since most of the cars are from the seventies and newer models are from Japan, the driver still sits on the right side of the car. It’s insane, especially when you see the drivers trying to pass on the highway, with no idea if there is oncoming traffic before pulling into the other lane. We even witnessed a car driving down the wrongside of the road as if it was completely normal- on the highway.

To make the road even more hectic, the lanes are clogged with a hodge podge of other, even less traffic-friendly vehicles: ancient trucks and buses; scooters, usually carrying entire families; bicycles and trishaws (a kind of rickshaw/ sidecar hybrid); carts pulled by oxen; even a sort of tractor with the engine on the outside.

It’s chaos.

There are other distinct cultural particularities that we noticed immediately. In no particular order of importance, the following are random things we learned about Myanmar over the three weeks we spent there.
  • Most men and some women chew betel nut, which has a slight narcotic effect and produces a bright red juice which is then spit indiscriminately onto the ground. The telltale red stains of betel juice are splashed all over the streets, as well as on the population’s red mouths and rotten teeth.  In restaurants and tea houses, each table has a little metal pail on the ground next to it for the patrons to spit into.

  • There is a bizarre (to me anyway) prevalence of throwing up in public. People, it seemed, were always puking. I just can’t get over it. We were taken aback in other Asian countries by the amount of loogie-hawking we hear- seriously, SE Asians are always loudly clearing their nasal passages in public by hawking loogies- but it seems the Burmese take it a step further and are prone to throwing up in public in a way that I have never seen before (and hope to never see again).

  • Myanmar is LOUD. Between the constant honking of traffic, the pollution spewing diesel trucks from the 70’s, the Buddhist prayer recited for hours over loudspeakers, the recorded chiming of bells that is played every hour, the packs of homeless dogs barking, and the Burmese music videos, soap operas and variety shows that are turned up to maximum volume on every TV, life in Myanmar is an assault on the ears, no matter what the hour.
  • While men and women are relatively equal in Myanmar, there is still a strong men-only culture in tea houses and bars.There were times when we would step into a smoky, dimly lit bar to find a table of shirtless men in nothing but their longyis drinking whiskey and water at 4:00pm. As soon as I was spotted, everyone in the bar would go quiet and stare at me before sullenly putting their shirts back on. Although children seem to be a regular fixture at Burmese drinking establishments- we were often served beers by twelve-year-olds- I never saw another young woman in a bar.

The last, most powerful impression we had about Myanmar was the people. 

In over seven months of traveling in more than ten countries, we have never met a population as kind and welcoming as that of Myanmar. The people there are incredible. Everyone we met, or even saw on the streets, was smiling and curious and happy to see us. We had several people thank us just for being there. When we would walk on the street, random people would wave to us, smiling shyly; children would yell “Hallo!” from windows, hoping to catch our attention; street vendors would nod their heads to us as we walked by; the younger generation would approach us to practice the few words of English they knew. 

True, in the more touristic areas of the country we were seen as tourists and treated accordingly, but mostly we felt like we were guests and the entire population were our gracious hosts. For the first time in our trip, we felt like we were in a place so isolated and unfrequented by tourism that the locals were more curious than jaded, more happy to have us than resentful. People often stared at us as we walked by, but it was obvious that they are doing it out of curiosity rather than malice. We had a truly memorable experience getting to know the wonderful people of Myanmar and our interactions with them will remain one of the highlights of our trip.

A random family that asked to take a picture with me
A random woman who didn't speak a word of English, but who wanted me to take a picture with her
Checking out the pictures we took together. I also showed her pictures of other places I had been.
The little kids we met loved seeing themselves on camera

And with that belated Wiki-esque introduction, I will leave you, but rest assured that this isn’t my only Myanmar post. Three weeks in such a beguiling country can’t possibly be satisfactorily explained in just one blog post.

Or two posts, for that matter, but I’m not promising anything…


  1. Great post, thanks guys. Gee i would love to go there, the country seems amazing. What do people have to say about aung-san tsu kii?
    The puking thing also stroke me when i was in the region, there seems to be a social mimetism also, i remember being in a bus and all the passengers puked at the same time... Help us understand this!
    Great to see vincent with make-up and a beard - at last. Next step will be hair, no doubt.
    Have a safe trip! Tristan

    1. T, you HAVE to go and soon. You would love it. Next vacation you take, make it Myanmar. Three week is enough time to get a good feel for it and not be rushed. RE: Aung San Suu Kyi- people LOVE her. Her picture is in most homes, shops and restaurants and often people would point to her and ask us if we knew who she was. We even saw several ASSK t-shirts!
      So, you have no more excuses- GO!