Most people’s first stop in Southeast Asia is Thailand. Next comes Malaysia or Vietnam, and way down that list is Myanmar. Well, although the two countries share a border, a long one at that, Myanmar is no Thailand. In fact, it’s totally different from anywhere and everywhere I’ve ever been, which brings me to this post, an informal list of first thoughts, observations, and random musings on the country formally known as Burma.
Guys wear Skirts
The longyi, as they’re called, were literally the first thing I noticed after getting through immigration. What seems like every single man wraps a sheet around their waist which reaches to their feet. They do look quite comfortable, but I’m curious if they free ball it or also wear something underneath.
They Chew and Spit, Everywhere
If skirts were the first thing I noticed, then betel chewing and the accompanying spitting was a close second. At first, it seemed like all the men participate, causing their teeth to rot and their mouths to be permanently stained red. As you can imagine, this makes for a pleasant smile, but what isn’t so pleasant is the spitting. If a trash can isn’t present, the ground works just fine, where it sometimes splashes onto your feet.
The Driver is on the Wrong Side
They drive on the right side and the driver is also on the right side. Something isn’t right here. A little research reveals the reason for the peculiarity. Being a former British colony, drivers once drove on the left hand side, but a 1970 government decree changed all this. Unfortunately, most people can’t afford new cars which would have the driver on the correct side, and second-hand cars are largely imported from countries which also drive on the LHS, such as Thailand and Japan. Probably makes passing on the left difficult since you can’t see around the car in front of you.
A Kissing Noise is not Offensive
My first reaction was surprise. Coming from the States, a man making a kissing noise at a female would be considered a cat call. I realized fast, however, that my street vendor chef was not making a play on the women but simply getting her attention, a completely normal practice.
The Color Gold is Super Awesome
The Burmese love it and cover what seems like every religious object and building in it. Pagodas are found in every city and 9 times out of 10, they’re golden. Sometimes, it’s real gold, the Schwedagon Pagoda for instance, but more often, it’s some fine gold spray paint over concrete.
Male Monks wear Maroon Robes, Female Nuns wear Pink
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, monks typically wore bright orange robes, but not in Myanmar. I won’t pretend to be knowledgeable on Burmese Buddhism, so I’ll just say that they are slightly less easy to spot.
Electricity is a Luxury
It can’t seem to stay on. The military government once promised 24 hour electricity in the capital. Sounded great, considering Yangon loses the lights multiple times a day. But alas, it was a trick as they simply moved the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw, a previously nonexistent city.
Restoration over Preservation
They rebuild temples that fell down long ago. Not so original and hard to classify as ruins. In some ways it’s great that the temples are still being used, but on the other hand, it takes away from the effect. I absolutely loved Bagan, but restored temples aren’t as fascinating as ones that stood the tests of time.
Everything needs a Paint Job
Cars, Buildings, Walls, Curbs. You name it, it needs some freshening up. Except for the golden pagodas of course. I think gold’s the only color spray paint they sale, which would explain a lot.
There is a lot of Indian Blood, particularly in Yangon
British control originally brought most of them over when many worked directly for the ruling colonizers. Surprisingly, their numbers are nothing compared to what they were before World War II, when almost half of Yangon was of Indian blood. While many fled Japanese rule, the military junta took their citizenship and forcefully expelled many of those who remained. It’s sad considering the influence Indians have had on Burmese culture and religion.
Cars Don’t Get Retired, Ever
They get repaired to the point of minimum functionality. Every Southeast Asian country had cars of this quality, but they didn’t constitute 95% of the automobiles on the road. This also contributes to the lack of cars with a left hand side driver. Even some of the buses have non-functioning doors on the left hand side. An odd site indeed.
Giant Golden Bird Boats like this Exist
I swear I saw one while on a bus, but it was just as I was waking from a slumber and I wasn’t quick enough with the camera. The things are huge. I’m pretty sure there isn’t anything like them in the known universe.
Living on a Dollar a Day Makes Sense
…if you grow your own food and collect your own rain water. The hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake was an eye opener. People woke up before the sun rose and road their buffalo drawn cart to the fields where they’d spend the rest of the day. I’d read the cliched brochures about people living the same way they had for thousands of years, but to see it before me was a different story.
Tourism is Still in it’s Infancy
The people are shy, amused and glad to see you. You can still find this off the beaten track in other Southeast Asian countries, but it’s not sitting out in the open like it is in Burma. The perfect example occurred when I was exploring the temples of Bagan. An eager group of Burmese each wanted an individual picture with my French travel companion and myself. Possibly the longest photo-shoot I’ve ever been apart of, but we couldn’t say no to any of them.
Exploitation is also in its infancy
I’m glad I went when I did. What are you waiting for?