Experiencing Myanmar like a local
I’ve been writing about a lot of the sights you can see in Myanmar – but one of the most interesting aspects of the country is the local culture.
This is a part of the world which is only slowly coming into the modern age and it hasn’t been as corrupted by globalisation as a lot of the more popular tourist destinations.
And, of course, one of the best ways to understand the local culture is to experience it yourself.
When it comes to Myanmar, you’re in luck because the local people seem to love showing you how things are done and getting you involved with some of the more interesting aspects of their lives.
Here are my top five suggestions for things to do in the country to get a quick sense of some of the local customs and experiences.
Unlike the main photo of this story, which is me cramped into a pickup truck with 30 sweaty local people, these ideas are all easy, cheap and fun. Enjoy!
Chew some betel nut
You’ll notice pretty quickly that the national pastime of the Myanmar people seems to be chewing betel nut (not to be confused with beetle’s nuts, which would be hard to find and probably not very tasty).
On almost every corner there are little stands or trolleys with people making and selling the packages of betel, which are called ‘paan’.
The whole thing is made from a betel vine leaf which has slaked lime spread on to it and then wrapped around areca nut and whatever the individual person prefers (usually tobacco or cloves or something like that).
I decided to give it a go myself and was more worried about staining my teeth than anything else. There are a lot of folk in Myanmar who will proudly display their permanently red teeth to you.
Anyway, it was a strange experience. The nut actually tastes quite fresh and organic (I didn’t have any tobacco or other additions to my paan). But your saliva quickly gets mixed up with it and I found myself spitting more than the locals.
I also had trouble holding it properly in my mouth and had to keep licking out tiny bits of crushed nut from my teeth. It was fun, though, and did give me a bit of a buzz. And no stained teeth!
Drink a glass of sugarcane juice
Sure, lots of water will keep you hydrated in the sweltering parts of this country, but for something local and delicious you can try some sugarcane juice.
These little stalls are all over the place and they make it right in front of you. The sugarcane goes in the machine at one end, the vendor then turns a handle to push it through and crush it, and the juice flows out the other end.
In some parts of Myanmar, especially in the winter, there’s sugarcane growing everywhere so this is a really easy thing for people to sell.
Also, it will only cost you about 30 cents so it’s a super cheap way to refresh as you walk between the hundred pagodas you’re probably trying to squeeze in that day!
Wear a longyi
Sure, clothing is partly about fashion – but it’s also about practicality. And that’s why the longyi is so popular in Myanmar.
It’s a long piece of cloth that’s worn around the waist to cover the lower half of the body. Both men and women wear them but there are slight differences.
The male longyi is generally sewn so it’s like a cylinder (although it’s still large and needs to be wrapped), while the female longyi is one long piece.
In the hot days, it lets air come in and circulate – but it’s also very versatile. Guys can tuck them up and turn them into shorts when they’re doing physical work or playing sport. Although, to me, it kind of looks like a big nappy.
They don’t have pockets, though, so you see a bit of ingenuity. People will often just tuck their wallet into the back of it. Or, if they’re feeling clever, they tie a little pouch at the front and put their money and paan in there.
Paint your face with traditional sunscreen
I hadn’t heard of it before, so I got a shock on my first day in Myanmar when I saw all these women and girls with their faces painted yellow. I thought maybe it was a religious thing so I asked and, no, it’s just the local form of makeup.
It’s called ‘thanaka’ and has been worn by the Burmese for more than 2000 years! It’s partly just for cosmetics but it’s also believed to be good for the skin and protection from the harsh sun.
It’s normally just used by women and girls but you do see boys with it and, to a lesser extent, sometimes men.
The thanaka is made from the bark of several local trees and is ground up on a stone dish and mixed with a little bit of water. It’s then painted on in different designs – usually circles or flowers or stripes. I was kind of hoping to see someone with a Spiderman design… but alas.
If you get to know some of the local people they will enjoy letting you try it and will paint your face. You can also buy it at shops and do it yourself.
Eat at a local restaurant
You read a lot of things about the food in Myanmar – not much of it complimentary. A lot of people seem to think the meals here are as tasteless as a dead baby joke.
Well, the good news is that anyone who tells you the food is bad in Myanmar clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about and probably didn’t wander far from the restaurants with English menus in the same block as their guesthouse.
In the Shan region, for instance, you’ll find some of the freshest and juiciest fish you’ll ever eat – plucked straight from the lakes and rivers nearby.
More generally, though, if you head to the local restaurants in any part of Myanmar you’ll get some huge and delicious meals.
Take this one in the photo from Mandalay, for example, where I just wandered in and pointed at a couple of things and was then brought a smorgasbord of meat, vegetables and soup.
If you’re unsure, just point at what the locals are eating… or just smile and nod and eat what you’re given!
33 thoughts on “Five ways to experience local Myanmar”
I love this! We were just in Myanmar about a month ago and we loved it. We were spending our time volunteering so we didn’t get to do the typical “tourist” trail, but instead spent our time with the local people. We were also confused by the local make-up/sunscreen but thought it looked really cool and the children loved it!
Oh, I’m very jealous of you spending your time volunteering! I felt like I rushed around so much trying to see everything. If I get a chance to go back one day, I’ll definitely try to do it like you!
Totally agree with you on the cuisine! Everything I had read about it before mentioned a blend of various ethnic dishes, but I found it truly to be unique and really tasty. Everything was fresh, and the importance put on agriculture is quite evident; visiting markets or seeing the abundant and fertile landscapes.
We also had a lot of fun being the attraction in the streets of Yangon wearing longyis and thanaka. The locals seemed to really appreciate foreigners simulating their practices and culture.
I think the complaints about the food must come from people who didn’t leave the hotel or just went to the first thing they saw.
It’s true, I had a couple of pretty uninspiring meals, but the good stuff easily outweighed them!
Looks fantastic. A good lesson for people to get out of their comfort zone and experience the place they visit. I am a big proponent of getting of the tourist path and going local for a true travel experience.
I don’t understand how you could go to a country and not want to see the local culture. Sure, some places you travel to more for the sights than others, but why would you not want to experience and learn a bit more while you’re there?
I loved Myanmar and did just those things you mentioned. I went in March of 2012.
Awesome! I bet it’s changed a bit even just in the year since you were there! Thankfully things aren’t going so fast that it’s losing the culture, but certain parts of the country now have big tourist presences.
Very interesting look into the local culture! The first thing I thought when I saw the suncream make-up is if the other parts of their face get burnt or tanned leaving the painted shapes?
Yes, I wondered that too! But it doesn’t work the same way as our sunscreen. Because the Myanmar people have darker skin they don’t really get burnt, as such. This is more about stopping the skin getting dry and wrinkly over time, so the thanaka kind of spreads out gradually.
Normally when we apply thanakha, thin layer of thanakha will spread all over our face first. And then the think one on Cheek, nose and sometime on forehead for children. So it wouldn’t leave painted shape on skin.
Well, may be bcoz we have darker skin that it couldn’t be seen. I don’t know. But even some of my friends who has fair skin, doesn’t really have painted shape on their face.
Thanakha has a fragrant scent somewhat similar to sandalwood. Apart from cosmetic beauty, thanaka also gives a cooling sensation and provides protection from sunburn. It is believed to help remove acne and promote smooth skin. It is also an anti-fungal. Also it’s good for oil control for my face.
Whenever i got acne, I will apply one dot on it and it will goes away in 2 or 3 days. Even if I use some modern moisturizer and skin care, it takes longer than applying thanakha.
Lovely! Were you comfortable wearing Longyi? 😛 The food looks delicious!
I didn’t cope so well with the longyi. I think it takes a little while to work out how to wear it without it always falling off!! 🙂
Another great one Michael…love the first picture:)
Ha ha – you just like the first picture because I look like an idiot! 🙂
Well you’re gamer than I am trying the betel nut – I’ve seen too many stained teeth on my travels but I guess it takes years of dedication to achieve that look. Great post!
Ha ha – I tried it once but wasn’t willing to give it another go. I wasn’t sure how many times it took until your teeth turn red but I didn’t want to find out! 🙂
Hope to see your photo of wearing Longyi. 🙂
Can’t believe you actually tried betel nut. It wouldn’t make your teeth turn red with one betel nuts as you say.
May be a week of constant eating for about 4 or 5 betel nuts wrap per days?
But anyway it can easily brash off with tooth paste if you don’t eat again. ( I mean for one week eater, but don’t try it coz you might get addicted.)
Personally I don’t like about people eating betel nuts. Coz it dirty our country. More worst is people who put tobacco inside. Not good for health.
Thank you for writing about how you see on our food. I found many of tourist complaint about how oily and not fresh our food are. Glad that you actually tried out of tourist route. But you might get stomach problem at least one day. After that your stomach will get used to any food.
I have to confess, I did have some problems with my stomach – but it seemed most people I met did as well. I guess it’s just a bit different to what we’re used to (particularly the preparation methods, probably).
And that’s good to know about the stained teeth – perhaps I should have tried a couple more! 🙂
I wouldn’t mind trying betel nut – as long as my teeth don’t get stained! Isn’t it supposed to be addictive though?
Yeah, I think it is pretty addictive. You get a bit of a high from it… like natural crack!
Great post! Here in Taiwan betel nut is a biiiig thing as well. Mostly cab drivers and construction workers looking for an extra energy boost. Terrible for your teeth over the long term and the juice makes you look like a vampire :-p Haven’t tried it myself though. Thanks for sharing!
Oh, go on – give it a try! It was a weird sensation that wasn’t what I was expecting. I can actually see why it would be a bit addictive, even if I had trouble doing it correctly the first time! 🙂
ohh they wear longyi too! so before we get to see Bangladesh, i’ll be able to see longyi in Myanmar. Going there with the husband in April next year, on my birthday, can’t wait! I hope the culture wouldn’t be so corrupted by that time yet. 😀 u think 3 days is good for Bagan, u know before i get templed out. 🙂
Myanmar will still be fine next April – just try to avoid going on a package tour, otherwise you will be taken to the shops and areas that are focused just on tourists.
3 days in Bagan would be fine too. I would recommend doing a sunrise and then half a day (followed by an afternoon rest). Then try to do a full day on the second. Then on the third you’ll know what you’ve missed and you could just go to a couple of places rather than spend the whole day out in the heat. The third day might not be necessary at all if you’re short of time – you’ll see lots of temples everywhere you go!! 🙂
Another great post! I was in Myanmar November 2012 and I loved it. Especially the people! I did try wearing the longyi for a day and I must say I did quite well. The locals told me that it needed constant adjustment especially after walking, sitting, etc. One of my favourite dish in Myanmar was the Shan noodle.
The shan noodles are delicious! But I couldn’t always find them. I quite liked the variance in the cuisine across the country. And I’m impressed you lasted all day wit the longyi. It’s not the most natural thing if you’re not used to it!
Great blog, love the photos and well written. I’m currently researching for my little family (we have a toddler) to go to Hispaw next August. Hoping travel with a 3 year old won’t be too difficult, but I like the sounds of a more local and off the tourist track place so thanks for your write up.
No, I don’t think it’ll be too difficult. There are lots of different ways to get there. I went with local transportation and I probably wouldn’t recommend that with a 3 year old because it can be pretty hot and uncomfortable if they cram lots of people in! But you could organise a driver in advance, perhaps, or just ask at your previous hotel and they’ll have a friend or a cousin who can get you there. Once you arrive, it’s all very easy and a really special place to explore away from the big cities!
Great advice! I haven’t been there yet, but this could help to understand and have more fun in Myanmar 🙂
Oh, it will definitely help you. The local people are so friendly and will try to involve you as much as you let them. So I’m sure you’ll learn all these things yourself – but it’s a bit of a head start! 🙂
Love your articles!!!! great stuff!! I’m heading to Myanmar for 17 days. Looking forward to it. 🙂 thanks for sharing your experiences.
Why do you call Paan? I call it kun. Ask any Burmese what kun is.