Sorry I haven’t posted in a while – with another month of volunteering, my birthday and returning to Indonesia, time has flown by. Because of this, I’ve managed to get a tiny bit behind on my blog. But have no fear; I’m sure I’ll catch up (eventually).
Before I move onto my volunteering adventure in Cambodia, I would like to conclude my time in Myanmar with some interesting cultural traditions. As a country new to tourism, it is certainly learning to embrace elements of this trade, however at the same time, it is refusing to lose its heritage. To me, this is what makes Myanmar so magical and I really hope in the future tourism doesn’t stamp on this sparkle.
On arrival in Myanmar, driving through the streets of Yangon, the first thing that struck me was the clothing of the locals. Travelling around Asia, you come to realise how Western society has shaped fashion. However (luckily) Myanmar has steered away from this.Modelled by my amazing guide and his wife in Hsipaw, the longyi, which looks like a long skirt, is in fact a two metre by eight-centimetre sheet of cloth that is sewn into a cylindrical shape. Originally I thought that there was a zip to hold it in place, however the large piece of cloth is placed over the head, then tucked in at the waist for women or an elegant knot for men. It appeared that the male versions were more simplistic in style, usually one or two colours, while the women’s were more complexly patterned with zigzags, lines or even flowers.
Personally I thought the longyi’s were beautiful and ingenious items of clothing to keep its wearer both cool and stylish. I’m sure the Burmese people thought the same, as it was rare to see them in anything else.
Beauty is an interesting topic of discussion across the world and it’s been fascinating learning different countries interpretation of it. In Western society people spend hours fake tanning to achieve darker skin. In Asia, it is the opposite; beauty is to be fair. I’ve noticed women and men being covered head to toe, to not catch the sun, as well as whitening creams in shops and at spas. It is believed this derives from class – the poor worked in the fields, so were dark, while the rich kept away from the sun. In Myanmar, this is again no different, however the Burmese people have their own mark – thanaka.
Thanaka is actually the name of a tree grown specifically in Myanmar. It transitions from a plant to a cosmetic product through the grinding of the bark on a flat stone, which combined with water, makes a smooth yellow-white paste. It is then applied as circles on cheeks, lines on forehead and occasionally on arms and legs. Interestingly thanaka has been used in Myanmar for more than 2,000 years, with the understanding that it protects and cools the skin from the sun, as well as lightening it. I tried the product and it certainly lightened my skin!
Unfortunately I was unable to get my personal images, as I am a strong believer that you should always ask permission from people before taking photos. However, I went to an incredible art gallery, where artists portrayed Myanmar life and people (including thanaka).
Betel nut chewing
One thing you’ll notice in every city, town and village across Myanmar is the colour of its streets – stained with random red blotches. The cause? Betel nut, which is an extremely popular (and controversial) guilty pleasure.
Vendors sell betel nuts in leaf parcels, known as ‘kun-ya’. Within the parcels are betel nuts, a dash of slack lime paste (calcium hydroxide), catechu (extract of acacia trees) and sometimes tobacco. Watching locals popping these parcels into their mouths, sucking or chewing them, before spitting out a red liquid, isn’t exactly enticing. However to walk anywhere in the country, you’d find it hard to avoid it, or instead miss it’s chewers with red stained and even missing teeth.I was interested to understand why the locals loved this rather obscure product, so did some digging. The responses I got were firstly kun-ya was good for their teeth, which I (obviously) questioned. On further research, it came to light just how bad the leaves are for the teeth and additionally health (there is a strong link to oral cancer). The second was that it helped concentration. I of course had to try kun-ya to truly know this. My verdict – after coming to terms with the bitter taste and constant spiting of red liquid, I can’t quite say it helped, it instead made me relaxed, but not in a sleepy way. Thirdly, plain and simple, people were addicted to it.
Despite the government stepping up and trying to ban kun-ya, because of its health issues, it is still widely used across Myanmar and honestly I can’t see this changing in the near future.
In my final observation of Myanmar culture, political correctness was the most interesting to me. To start, female and male interaction in public was openly frowned upon – you would never see a couple holding hands, or in fact being slightly loving. However, this was compensated amongst men, by being affectionate with other males instead. I saw groups of men sitting on each other’s laps, hugging on the bus and even holding hands. As being gay is frowned upon in Burma and in Western society boys aren’t particularly loving to one another, it was interesting to see this contrast.
Another cultural opposite to England, which at first threw me off, was that in restaurants and in fact sometimes in the street, if men/women wanted to attract another person’s attention, they would make a loud kissing noise. It actually appears to be quite an art to kiss so loudly (I tried and failed).
I’m conscious of the length of this post (apologies), so my final and last point, which terrified me the most, was that it was extremely rude to point your feet at another person, especially the sole. Trying to keep this at the forefront of my mind on a regular basis was actually quite tough. However the last thing I wanted to do was insult anyone, so made a conscious effort to keep an eye on my feet.
There are of course many more cultural traditions across Mynamar, however I wanted to share some of which I personally found interesting. For me, it’s these strong customs, which makes Myanmar so special and despite leaving the country with exhaustion and food poisoning, I still loved every minute of exploring it and more importantly meeting it’s people.
Jessica Storm ✌️