I finished up my three-month trip across SE Asia a few weeks ago and now the question: Which country was my favorite? (hint: title) I don’t shy away from it or like to give a BS “They are all so different!” answer (seriously, that annoys me so much). It was Myanmar, no doubt about it. There were definitely things I liked about Thailand and Malaysia, and of course, Cambodia will always have a special place in my heart, but Myanmar, just wow!
The country also known as Burma is so different from its well traveled neighbors. It has not been spoiled by millions of tourists every year and the culture is proudly and passionately unique. The incredibly friendly locals and interesting customs make this a must for any adventurous traveler.
While I was there, I took note of anything interesting or unusual that I noticed. This list grew pretty quickly and to be honest, I couldn’t really decide on how to relay this information to you guys until now. Here is that list of those tidbits with an explanation of each.
Many Work Abroad in Thailand
When you think about foreign workers looking for a better life, we think of people coming to a western nation. However, in the region, Thailand is big brother where many Cambodians and Burmese people go to earn some big bucks. It was very interesting how we see Thailand as still a developing nation while in SE Asia, it is the regional land of opportunity.
While in Thailand, I met a Burmese guy who let me try ‘konya’ for the first time. It is a kind of chewing tobacco that turns your teeth a variety of nasty colors and induces the need to spit every few seconds. Personally, I hated it, but it was interesting to try. Almost every male in Burma chews it (and many females do too). You can clearly see every corner of every street turning a very distinctive orange color as you walk around and it is very obvious it is incredibly addictive.
Aung San Suu Kyi is Displayed Publically
One of the most shocking things was how open people were of their love for Aung San Suu Kyi. As of this year, people can publically display a picture of her or her father and you can see it everywhere in Myanmar. I had to have a political pep-talk with Sidney before boarding our plane in Bangkok and felt silly after a single day.
Begging is Rare
On our way down the Mandalay Hill, we got lost. The rain along with a nasty fall I had caused us to wait until the sun was long gone and navigating that labyrinth in the dark turned out to be quite a task. Whenever we hit a dead end, a local quickly found us and showed us the way. Then, they quietly went back to their slapped together tents on the hill itself. Most of these people were what we would call ‘homeless,’ yet none asked us for money for their troubles. It was quite amazing compared to places like Cambodia where the tourists zones are just bursting with beggars.
Fishermen Row with their Feet
On Inle Lake, the fishermen have developed a way to row their boats with a single leg while standing. They wrap their leg around an oar and push, leaving both hands free to throw and pull up fishing nets.
The Ball Game
On the streets, you often can catch a group of 4-8 men in a circle tossing a grapefruit-sized ball to each other. The game is very similar to hacky sack, but many times, requires you to hit the ball a certain way, such as with the back of your foot or just with your heel. It is really quite amazing to watch and impossible to master as I learned the hard way.
Pagodas Shine from the Sky
One of Myanmar’s nicknames is “The Golden Land.” The name seems fitting given that most of their pagodas are adorned a bright golden color. However, if you ever get to fly anywhere in Myanmar and look out the window, the view is just spectacular. Hundreds of pagodas as far as you can see glisten and shine right back at you on a sunny day.
Everyone is Curious of Foreigners
In South East Asia, if someone walks up to you claiming that they just want to chat it up and be your friend, you would be wise to proceed with caution. Scammers are a dime a dozen, but you would also be wise to give Burmese people a chance. The vast majority ARE just seeking friendship and are quite confused when people assume the worse.
Power Outages Were Common
About 4 times a week, the power goes out throughout the day. This is a normal occurrence and besides the initial shock as no one knows when it is coming, it is more expected than not. While visiting an English school we were invited to our second day, everything suddenly went dark. One student started giggling as the rest of us scrambled to find a flashlight. “Sorry,” he declared, “I work for the power company, we do this all the time!” He went on to explain how there simply is not enough power and apologized.
They Drive on the Right, Despite the Cars Designed for the Left
Most of the cars have the driver sitting on the right, thus, you would think they drive on the left. They don’t. Myanmar is a right driving nation which makes whoever is riding shotgun earn their spot as they dodge traffic to get to their seat. This doesn’t matter outside of Yangon though as most roads seem to be built for a single lane anyway. And with that…
I Thought They Drove on the Right?
While in major cities, driving on the right is no problem. However, the roads from one town to another were clearly built before the era of automobiles. A road designed for a single car is shared with oncoming traffic. This is fine and all, until you hit those windy roads.
On our trip to Loikaw, we took a local bus on a very small road. Only the bus fit so on every turn, it had to honk to warn oncoming vehicles that it was coming. Every time it crossed paths with one, it had to get on the ‘sidewalk’ as the two squeezed by each other. Suffice it to say, it was a very noisy and slow ride. And while on that subject…
Mandalay Has No Sidewalks
While the facilities are there, it is nearly impossible to use the sidewalks. There will be a car, truck, fruit stand, pond, or growling street dogs preventing you from using it for more than 5 meters at a time.
Toys on Street Stalls
Despite being technically a conservative nation, I was quite shocked at street vendors selling a lot more than a colorful contraceptive on the streets. Things you would assume are confined to tinted rooms and the fetish shops of Tokyo are laid out on the street for anyone to buy. The boxes looked a big worn, but for the sake of my sanity, I will assume all products were new.
They Don’t use the Metric System
If anyone ever tells you that America is alone in using the US Customary System, they are wrong! Myanmar (and Liberia) uses miles and pounds just like the good ol’ US of A.
They Seem to Love The US
While abroad, I usually tell people I am Mexican. Not only do I think it is a little safer, but people seem to be confused when I say ‘American’ as I don’t look like what they see on TV. In Myanmar though, I decided to stick to American and see what happened. Everyone was incredibly pleased and I must have heard that Obama came to Myanmar about a hundred times during my trip.
The Newspaper Clip in Yangon
In Yangon, some tall buildings have a string hanging from the window from apartments on the higher floors. No matter how tall a building was, there were rarely elevators and as you can imagine, getting the morning paper must really suck for the guy on the 8th floor.
In comes this clip! Anyone coming by with a newspaper simply clips it on to the correct clip (they are marked) and the owner just reels it up. Some apartments also have baskets to reel up food and other supplies and of course, to reel down money in return.
People Still Use The Traditional Clothes
Very inexperienced me used to take this one for granted. While I certainly didn’t expect everyone in China to be wearing a qipao, I was shocked that virtually no one did outside of special occasions. In fact, globalization has caused T-shirts and jeans to infiltrate even some of the most remote places on earth.
While times are changing, almost all Burmese still wear the longyi. This traditional skirt for men and women is incredibly versatile and fits well as jeans are way too hot for the humid summers. If you want to try one yourself, here is my step by step guide! Speaking of Longyis…
Longyis Have Meanings
On top of just being comfortable wear, the patterns on the longyi also point to the specific ethnicity of origin of the wearer. Checkered longyi’s are also strictly for men while flowered designs are only used by women.
Mandalay is The Town of Monks
There are more monks in Mandalay city than the rest of Myanmar combined. Those are strong numbers from a country that requires monastery service. Indeed, everywhere you go in Mandalay, monks seem to be the majority. One particular monastery we visited (and coincidentally, where I saw the professor I mentioned earlier) boast over 1500 residents from small children to adults. There is even a free elementary school where I had the great pleasure of getting a tour from one of the monk teachers.
Monk Children Offer Prayers For Donations
While not unique to Myanmar (witnessed this in Cambodia too), it is still very interesting. If you happen to be up early in the morning, you will see monk children walk around door to door offering sunrise prayers to children. Usually, they offer a small snack in return which is placed in a large bowl that is returned to the monastery. It was truly a special moment when while shopping for a quick snack at the crack of dawn, the boy helping his mother in a small show stopped everything to pray with the monk. It was obvious he had done this a million times and his devotion was unquestionable. I didn’t feel right being ‘that guy’ and snapping a picture. Some moments are better left to memory least you ruin them.
All Data Plans Come With ‘Facebook Time’
One of the things I thought I needed while in Myanmar was a sim card with a data plan. While signing up for Ooredoo, I was constantly told how every single plan had “free Facebook time.” Facebook is so popular with the young these days, that they separate data into “Facebook” and “everything else.” My 1GB came with 600mb of FB.
It’s A Deeply Religious Country
I don’t know how true this is, but it is said that every single Burmese person has to be a monk at least once in their life. It really shows as you can’t go 10 minutes walking around anywhere in Myanmar without seeing a monk. In the words of a professor I overheard in a monastery in Mandalay, “Buddhism is Myanmar, and Myanmar is Buddhism. Buddhism and secularism are stronger here more than anywhere. But they are not separate, and we must never forget that.” I really wish I head heard the rest of his speech.
Taxi drivers, buses, hotel owners, and anyone with a business proudly displays flower prayers that they renew every day to show their devotion to the teachings of the Buddha.
Breakfast is Always Included
To be allowed to take in foreign guests, one must have a special permission for the tourism board in Myanmar. I have a feeling part of the training to get this license states, “Always give complimentary breakfast.” I haven’t heard of a hostel or hotel in Myanmar to date that doesn’t offer breakfast on the house as part of the accommodation deal.
Bike Turn Signals Beep Very Loudly
This is problem only motorcycle riders will understand, but how many times have you made a turn and forgotten to turn off the turn signal? Cars automatically shut off when you turn the steering wheel. Motorcycles on the other hand, are usually leaned, which can’t be detected in the same way by the internal components of the bike.
In Myanmar, when you turn on the blinker, it makes a very annoying turning sound. After you turn, you regain a little bit of your ear drums back as you are forced to turn it off to stop that wretched sound. Simply brilliant!
Myanmar is a single country on paper, but ethnically quite diverse. Some of the most fascinating cultural minorities such as the Kayan (or long-necked people) and the Tattooed Chin people live in two separate states in this country (Kayah and Chin respectively). Another minority whose name I can’t remember are identifiable by wearing a large towel on their head (like a colorful beach towel). They are also indigenous to the Inle / Kayah regions. It is important and amazing to recognize that not every culture in the world has their own ‘country’ and many places we consider nations are actually a boiling pot of ethnicities. If you are as fascinated by cultural minorities, check out the photography of Jimmy Nelson.
Burmese Spontaneously Sing
I remember thinking while witnessing this for the first time, “Wow, Nate would love this.” One of my best friends Nate has a dream to one day get a whole group of strangers spontaneously sing in unison. While it was not that dramatic, sole Burmese people do tend to just break out into full blown singing in the middle of streets, in crowded market places, and even while waiting for the train.
Modern Convenience Store Clerks Are a Bit Too Attentive
One of the things I miss most about Korea right now are the convenience stores. Open 24 hours, tons of products, and right around the corner, they are the epitome of why they are called “convenient.” With well lit modern shops like this being somewhat of a novelty in Myanmar, it seems like the clerks who work there take “service” to a whole new level.
You walk in and someone immediately starts following you with a shopping basket. Pick something out and they grab it, put it in the basket, and carry it as they continue to follow less than a meter away. While some might find this incredibly uncomfortable, I found it so cute for some reason. They are trying to hard to be helpful that I hardly have any space to move around :).