Observations About Myanmar
Many people say that going to Myanmar is like taking a step back in time. This was made clear while we sat on the balcony of our guesthouse reception on the 5th floor. Just across the street was a woman on the 4th floor. She lowered a small rope along with two clips over her balcony. On the street, a boy of about 14 years old waited. When the rope and clips arrived, he clamped on two bags of food, and the woman slowly pulls the rope back up to her 4th floor balcony for a classic yet efficient delivery system. Many little things like these that you see around Yangon and around Myanmar give you the sense that you have went back to a different time.
Our three weeks in Myanmar proved to us that it’s truly an incredible country to travel. It’s very different from neighboring and well-traveled Thailand. Myanmar has been off of the main backpacking route in Southeast Asia, but word seems to be getting around about the beauty and uniqueness of the country. I have no doubts that Myanmar’s tourism industry will continue to grow quickly as it has over the past decade. Let’s just hope that it is done in a responsible manner, allowing Myanmar to keep its personality and not be overtaken by foreigners.
There are many things I noticed that were different about Myanmar, so I wanted to write a blog post just about these funny/different/interesting things that I saw. So here goes:
Myanmar is much more diverse than I had imagined. Religiously, a majority of the people are Buddhists. But there are also a good amount of Hindus, Muslims, and we even saw a few churches. Because of British influence in the 1800s and first part of the 1900s, there is also a big Indian population.
Myanmar is not as expensive as people say it is. When researching the country, I always read that it’s very expensive compared to other Southeast Asian countries. The Lonely Planet guidebook says that you’ll need at least $50 per day to travel there. But really the only expensive part was the guesthouses and hotels, which typically cost between 25,000 and 35,000 kyatts ($25-$35) for the cheapest double room. So on average, we paid about $15 per person per night, compared to $5-$10 per person per night in Thailand. However, the quality was typically very good and always included a western breakfast. Other than this, everything was just as cheap as or even cheaper than Thailand. A meal will cost from 1,500 kyatts to 3,000 kyatts ($1.50 – $3.00). A 10-hour overnight bus on a VIP bus costs about 14,000 kyatts ($14). We took overnight buses almost every trip which saved us hotel costs. One big saver for us was that we could access almost everything by bicycle (1,500 or $1.50 per day), and entrance fees were relatively small for the main sights. After all was said and done, we spent about $30 per day over the course of three weeks. Compare this to the $36 per day we spent in Thailand!
The average age of the traveler in Myanmar is much higher than the rest of Southeast Asia. Whereas Thailand and other countries in the region are filled with backpackers in their 20s, Myanmar is popular with a bit older crowd. I will take a guess and say that half of all travelers in Myanmar are over the age of 45. It’s very distinct from Thailand, and this may be a reason why hotels and guesthouses are generally much nicer and costlier than the typical dorm room that backpackers are willing to stay in.
Tea culture is very much alive and well in Myanmar. Also from the British Indian influence, teashops are everywhere. You can get a tea on the sidewalk on almost every city block in Yangon. Or you can step into a crowded teashop where locals sip their black tea while reading the newspaper and snack on Indian sweets. The black tea, usually costing about 300 kyatts ($0.30) is served with plenty of condensed milk, giving it a very sweet flavor. Most teashops will bring plates of sweets and fried goodies (like Indian samosas, fried dough, etc.) to your table when you sit down. You are charged for whatever you eat. I almost never had any intentions of eating anything, but it became all too tempting as the vegetable and curry samosa looked me in the eye. Another funny thing is that each table is equipped with a thermos full of green tea, which is bitterer and a great offset to the sweet black tea. So you are essentially having tea with your tea! The sidewalk tea shops always have tiny sets of plastic tables and chairs. The chair sits about 6 inches off the ground, always making us feel like we were at the kids table. The tea culture is a huge part of Burmese life. The quantity always made it easy for us to stop, have a tea, and enjoy the surroundings.
Filtered water jugs are all around the city, giving locals a source of water no matter where they are at. In Yangon, they were almost always plastic 10 gallon jugs of water. As we worked our way north, they turned into clay jugs. The interesting part is that each jug has a cup on top which is used by anyone who wants to take a drink of water. Because of this, I decided not to test my luck with the germs and bought my own filtered water.
Kun-ya, the betel leaf that is chewed with areca nuts and slaked lime, is a very popular in Myanmar. People here seem to chew it much more than smoke cigarettes. The problem with this is that it really does bad things to teeth, turning them purple. And it is spit on the ground, making a paintball sized reddish purple stain on the streets and sidewalks. Although I tried not to let it bother me, it was difficult to see so many people spitting it.
The Burmese typically wear longyis, long skirts. The women usually wear very colorful longyis and oftentimes have matching shirts. Men seem to usually wear a darker color with a lighter colored t-shirt, tank-top, or even a business dress shirt. They say the longyis are much more comfortable than jeans in the heat. However, it’s clear that the younger generation is starting to wear jeans more. You have to wonder how many people will be wearing longyis in 50 years.
Thanaka, the Burmese makeup, is extremely popular, especially for females and kids. It is made simply from grinding tree bark and mixing it with a small amount of water. Most women put a small amount on their cheeks, while others do their cheeks, nose, and forehead. Thanaka is very distinctive and unique to Myanmar, making it easy to recognize Burmese in other countries such as Thailand.
English in Myanmar is surprisingly good, mainly because of the former British rule. I believe that everyone we met knew at least the basics, including numbers, making it easy to get around. Many people spoke the language very well, giving us more insight in the country. I can’t speak for Laos, Cambodia, or Vietnam yet, but the English in Myanmar is much better than the English in Thailand.
The Burmese are very curious about foreigners. We were oftentimes asked where we were from by an interested local. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s not uncommon to be stared at. I guess it’s from the years of no tourism in the country that makes the Burmese so curious of foreigners.
Now in Thailand, I always recommend Myanmar to other travelers. Most others seem to be surprised when we say how much we enjoyed the country. I know it has already changed significantly in the past five years, and it will no doubt continue changing is more people visit. Now is a great time to visit.