Having spent the past 4.5 months travelling through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, we didn’t think there were many culture shocks left to be had in Southeast Asia. And then we arrived in Myanmar, with its gleaming golden temples and iconic hot air balloons.
This unendingly charming country feels totally different to anywhere we’ve visited previously, and – even though we’ve only been here for one week so far – there’s already been a variety of strange yet delightful culture shocks along the way.
Here are some of the most unexpected – and endearing – aspects of travelling in Myanmar:
1.People just unrestrainedly belt out songs at random
Myanmar is a musical country, it turns out. My first, startling, introduction to this was when I was in a mini-mart in Yangon in (futile) search of a Diet Coke. A woman stacking shelves next to me just suddenly burst into song. And I don’t mean she was singing under her breath, or quietly humming. She went for it as if she was an X Factor hopeful set on impressing those sociopathic judges in the first round. Loudly and tunelessly. After the initial shock I quickly dismissed her as an uncontrollable extrovert and went back to my shopping.
And then. We were getting off a night bus at one of the many scheduled toilet and food stops. It was 4am. And the bus driver was stood by the wheel, waiting for all his passengers to disembark, dispassionately belting out a ditty as if it was the most normal thing in the world. And none of the local passengers looked as if this occurrence was at all out of the ordinary. Which led me to believe that, in Myanmar, it isn’t.
Since then, I can’t stop seeing it. Hotel staff sing as they clean – only solos, never together; taxi drivers will, every now and then, burst into song. People walking down the street will sometimes be singing as they stroll and shopkeepers will give you a tune as they serve you. Sometimes you’ll just be chilling, and a disembodied solo will float towards you on the breeze. It is endlessly endearing.
2. Women and girls (and some men) wear Thanaka on their faces
This really took me aback when I first saw it – clearly I’d not done enough research on Myanmar before our flight landed in Yangon. The vast majority of women wear a yellow-white cream on their faces, most commonly applied in circles on their cheeks, and sometimes a stripe on the nose. This is Thanaka cream – a cosmetic paste made of ground bark that has been worn by the women of Burma (now Myanmar) for over 2,000 years.
I immediately assumed this cream was used to protect from the sun, and while this is a beneficial property, it turns out it’s not the main one. Women apply the paste in attractive designs – so its usage is largely cosmetic, much like how I wear lashings of (read: too much) eyeliner. It’s also believed to promote smooth skin and fight acne.
3. People have red teeth and there are red stains on the ground
If you’re travelling through Myanmar, you’ll notice many of the locals – especially young men – have red teeth. But this isn’t due to some vampiristic tendency – it’s all down to betel nut, which many of the locals chew.
This concoction is made up of betel nut (more officially known as areca), slaked lime, and catechu. This is wrapped in a betel leaf and secured in place by a toothpick. Depending on personal preference, your betel nut leaf can also contain flavourings such as chilli, tobacco, and jam.
Betel nut is also the culprit when it comes to all the bright red stains spattered on Myanmar’s pavements. I was very happy to find out they weren’t bloodstains. After chewing to their heart’s content, locals will simply spit the stuff out, which brings me to…
4. Oh my god the spitting
Myanmar certainly isn’t the only country in Asia where spitting is A Big Deal. China is notorious for it, and we saw (and heard) it a lot in Vietnam too. But it does certainly happen here with awful regularity – and I don’t mean the spitting of betel leaf, which seems tame by comparison.
Let me paint you a rather visceral picture. It’s 2am, you’re on a night bus. The elderly Myanmar man sat in front of you decides it’s prime time to get out the plastic bag he brought on board for this very purpose, and just spit his guts into it until your bus arrives at your destination at 6am. The sounds are otherworldly in a lovely, stomach-churning sort of way.
I realise that the very reason I find this disgusting is because I was brought up in a country where spitting is considered – at best – rude. I am also aware that many people in this part of the world also think it’s pretty rank that Westerners tend to keep all that bad stuff inside them instead of simply getting it out. This didn’t make the soundtrack to our night bus journey any easier to deal with. Wherever you are in Myanmar, you can usually hear someone hawking up – although it seems like more of a trend among older people rather than the young. I’m hoping to develop a de-sensitivity to it soon.
5. You can live a champagne lifestyle on a backpacker budget
On one of our first nights in Myanmar, Phil and I decided to go out for dinner and a couple of drinks in the big city of Yangon. We looked first for the type of places we’d been eating during the rest of our time in Southeast Asia – roadside restaurants where you can get a good dinner and a couple of drinks for £2-ish. Failing to find any of these places, we did a quick Google and a whole new world opened up to us. A world where we could eat our favourite foods (pizza and pasta) and drink our favourite drinks (wine and beer) in high-end restaurants crammed with expats for pretty much the same price we’d been eating noodles for in Thailand.
We started at a high-end Italian with a full security detail on the door – bag scanners, metal detectors, the whole shebang. Our DELICIOUS pizza inside this upmarket joint cost £3, and my glass of Sav Blanc – which would have been at least £8 in Thailand – came to a steep £2. Our evening ended with a nightcap at a swanky rooftop bar that looked out over all of Yangon, with a cracking view of the Shwedagon Pagoda. The entrance fee was an eye-watering £2.50 – but the bouncer quickly assured us we’d be entitled to a drink equalling the same price once we got inside. We sat on a table overlooking the city, nary a money-worry in our minds, and reflected that this must be what rich people feel like all the time.
6. Most men wear Longyi, not trousers
This is another one that surprised me. Most men in Myanmar wear Longyi – a traditional cloth wound around the waist. Longyi measure almost 7 metres in length, and are not only seen in traditional areas. In Yangon, you’ll see many businessmen walking the streets, tablets in hand, having paired their Longyi with a crisp shirt. They come in many colours, as well as in chequered and striped patterns.
Strangely, the Longyi only came into fashion during British colonial rule in the 19th century. Before that, men would either wear the longer (9 metres) Paso, or the 1.4-metre Htamein, which included a velvet strip and opened at the calves. The amount of material in the former was indicative of wealth and social status.
7. There’s a national obsession with fairy lights
Pretty much everything in Myanmar is decorated with fairy lights. This isn’t so unexpected at a bar or restaurant, but when you’re driving past a national water plant at 2am and it’s absolutely covered in fairy lights, or arriving at a service station in the middle of the night to find it decked out from top to bottom in twinkling multi-coloured bulbs, it’s a little more surprising. Everything from pharmacies and hotels to government buildings and overpasses seem to have got in on the action. As a huge fan of fairy lights, I’m very much into this romantic approach to decor.
8. Think drinking can’t get any better? Beers come with prizes here
Remember in the 90s, when you could win stuff in Walkers crisps, but you basically never did? In Myanmar, you win stuff ALL THE TIME. Well, if you drink enough beer.
In Yangon, we caught up with Ben – one of my old friends from work – who is living that sweet expat life there. He quickly informed us that if you take a toothpick to the plastic in the lid of Myanmar lager, a prize will most likely be revealed underneath. You can either win money, a free beer, or nothing. More often than not we’ve won money or a free beer – roughly two out of every three bottles seems to contain a prize. Our biggest prize so far has been 1,000 kyats (roughly 50p before you get too excited).
We have, however, taken Ben’s advice of claiming the money and then leaving it as a tip for the bar/restaurant staff. The high of winning all the time is more than enough for us.