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!