Myanmar is a magical place full of wonder and intrigue.
Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is also somewhat mysterious after decades under the previous dictatorship, but has since opened up and become more accessible for visitors.
Myanmar was a place that I had been aching to visit for at least 15 years, but it was only recently that the stars aligned and I was able to go. I didn’t know much about it except for its history of oppression and its beautiful temples. Aside from that, I assumed it was much like its Southeast Asian neighbors that I had visited, so I didn’t go in expecting any real surprises. Fortunately, I was very wrong! There were so many things that struck me about this country that I hadn’t encountered anywhere else. Those fun and curious facts about Myanmar are what I’d like to share with you today.
1. Thanaka is a common cosmetic
One of the first things that I had heard about upon arriving in Myanmar was Thanaka (Pronounced as Ta-nä-ka). My hostel friends were talking about it and gawked at me for not having noticed it yet. They said it was a light yellow paste that people, namely women, applied to their skin.
Having arrived that night and delivered straight to my hostel, I hadn’t yet encountered anyone wearing Thanaka. However, the next day as I wandered around, I understood why they were shocked at my ignorance. Literally every woman was sporting a face with Thanaka! Some had applied neat circular patches while others had created designs. Often it was just sloppily spread all over.
It’s a beauty cosmetic and sunblock made from ground bark that women will wear on exposed skin. It’s a very distinctive feature in Burmese culture, and just one of those things you won’t be able to miss.
2. The Betel leaf addiction is hard to get used to
The second thing that I learned in Myanmar was one of the most appalling things I’ve ever experienced in any culture – chewing of Betel leaf. Specifically I was disturbed by what happens to this red chew as it is released from the mouth. That’s right folks, red spit!
I had heard of these kinds of mildly stimulating chews in other parts of Asia and I may have even seen it before without taking much notice. Unfortunately, the frequency with which I encountered the betel leaf spitters in Myanmar was something that I could not miss, however much I tried. There was one point at an overnight bus stop where I was surrounded by the hacking and spitting of people who needed a betel leaf break, and I almost lost it! What’s a disgusting habit in your country can be a very common and accepted occurrence in another, so just try to keep that in mind if you ever visit Myanmar!
The worst part for me was most certainly the spitting, but it was always still a little disturbing when people would smile at you with red teeth covered in the stuff. Even long after the person has gone you will see evidence dried up in the street. A friend noticed that before she encountered the spitting and thought it was patches of blood. That’s why it’s nice to know these things before you go! ;)
3. Locals like to talk about their new government
I arrived shortly after the very important election in the fall of 2015. People were still buzzing about the results which gave them hope for a more promising future. It didn’t come up often on its own, but when asked, people were happy to talk about it. You could see the relief and excitement in their faces. I wish them all the best for a peaceful future. They deserve it!
4. “Where are you from?” will lead to “buy something” 99% of the time
At first I thought locals were just being conversational when they asked where I was from. It seemed to be the only English phrase most people knew, so I wanted to encourage that by responding appropriately. It was only after the 10th time or so that I was asked before I began to suspect it only as a ploy to buy something. Sadly, it made me a little less friendly, putting me on my guard to avoid people asking that question. Occasionally though, someone would ask out of pure curiosity or in an attempt to practice their English, so that was always a welcome relief. Just beware of cute kids on temples… they are not immune to this ploy!
5. Horses and carriages are more common than you would expect
New technology was only recently introduced to the common people after the long reign of terror in this country. Things have been slow to change and antique remnants of that time are still in use today. Myanmar has no lack of cars (especially evident when stuck in the traffic of big cities), but you will still find locals taking rides in horse drawn carriages and carts of cargo being pulled by horses. While primarily used for tourists, this is still a very effective mode of transportation for people.
6. Getting the attention of restaurant staff with a “kissy” sound
One of the most amusing things I learned was how the locals called over restaurant servers to a table. They make a “kissy” sound, which carries surprisingly well over the noisy buzz of a crowded restaurant. It’s hard to embrace something like that when your own culture would consider it rude, however I did eventually try it and had great success! I think we should introduce this into our own culture. Who wants to try it out?
7. It is rare to see a man or a woman in pants
Burmese culture is rich in tradition, possibly due to reduced exposure to the rest of the world, but the people still embrace those old cultural norms. You won’t often see an adult man or woman wearing pants. I mean maybe, if you really looked, you might spot one or two renegades defying ancient traditions, but it’s a rare sight. And that brings me to my next point…
8. Men wear longyis
You’ll see men in longyis more often than not. These are much like sarongs, but with a different cut. Both men and women wear them all the time. Men tie theirs with a big knot in the front, somewhat fallic looking if I might add. The women tuck theirs in. They can be very pretty and worth picking up as a souvenir.
9. Female monks wear pink
I have been all over Southeast Asia, but the only time I have ever seen a female monk is in Myanmar. Maybe I have seen them before without realizing it though… when both sexes wear the same clothes, have bald heads, and are young and slim, it could be hard to tell. But in Myanmar the distinction is made obvious because female monks wear pink, while the males wear red.
10. Myanmar is safe, pleasant, and travel-friendly
For those of you who haven’t been to Myanmar, this may be the most surprising point, but it’s a wonderful place to travel! Sure, there are still dangers in some areas, but travelers are restricted from visiting certain places for that reason. Transportation goes from every major tourist destination in the country to the next, including to and from Thailand. Just double check that your intended border crossing is open before you go and you shouldn’t have a problem.
I found most of my travel in Myanmar to be easier and more pleasant than some other countries in the region, and this surprised me more than anything else. The only major travel issue I had was in getting from point A to point B within the city of Yangon in a timely manner. Traffic there can be horrendous!
Armed with a few fun facts about Myanmar, you will be way ahead of where I was when I arrived. This will ease you into your visit, opening you up to new experiences that only come from immersing yourself in another culture. Enjoy!