When we first looked at Myanmar, we knew so little about it that we were unsure where it ‘fitted’ in the world….was it part of the sub-continent or part of south-east Asia? But after 1 hour in the country it was very clear to us that we were in south-east Asia in every aspect…how the people looked, the food, the landscape. Another surprise to us was how much we liked it…we had envisaged it would be an transit destination on our way to Thailand and as such a bit of a chore, but it has been quite the opposite. We have really enjoyed it from start to finish and it’s somewhere we would like to come back to. The one thing that we agree it lacked for us was the people interaction that we have had everywhere else…the restrictions on foreign visitors to stay at specially designated hotels means we have missed out on the home stays and local hosts that we experienced in India and Bangladesh…and as such we feel we haven’t learned as much as we would have liked to about the people and their culture. Saying that, the people that we encountered along the roads, in shops and in hotels have been amazing…big friendly smiles everywhere we go. It’s like someone switches a light on when they smile – their whole faces light up, especially the kids!
One of the first things we looked up when we arrived was when and why did the country change names from Burma to Myanmar. Burma is considered to describe the ethnic Burmese people, which is the largest ethnic group in the country. In 1989, after an uprising the previous year, the military government changed the name to Myanmar, the supposed more politically correct term to encompass all the country’s ethic groups, of which there are 135. It was also a way to rid the country of Brisith colonial influences and cities like Rangoon became known as Yangon. But from our time here Myanmar and Burma seems to be used interchangeably, with no negative connotations.
Some of the other things we have learned and observed from our time here are:
1. They drive on the right hand side of the road, which was an immediate transition coming from India. Nothing strange in itself, but what is strange is that the majority of the vehicles have their steering wheels on the right hand side…as if for left hand driving. Very confusing for cyclists as we never know what side the driver is on. It also means that when the steering wheel is on the “wrong” side, so is the exhaust pipe… so instead of pumping out fumes into the middle of the road, they are pumped into the faces of pedestrians and cyclists. And it also mean bus doors are on the wrong side, so they let passengers off into the middle of the road. Something we had to watch out for when overtaking stationary buses!
2. Roads – we had expected the roads to be pretty awful, but apart from the stretch where we crossed the border and took transport, the roads have been surprisingly good, often better than what we encountered in Europe, and the drivers very considerate. Coming up to a junction for example, in the U.K. or India a driver will almost ignore a cyclist and pull out, but here they are happy to wait until you have passed. Maybe they just want to look at the unusual spectacle of a fully-loaded bike, but we like to think it’s because they are nice! And they don’t do the crazy horn-blowing that they did in India and Bangladesh.
3. We have seen fewer bicycles on the roads than we expected – but we loved these bicycles with back-to-back passenger carriers!
But the vehicle of choice is definitely the scooter, which is used by males and females of all ages. We were surprised to see lots of brand new shiny ones, both on the road and for sale, which would give the impression of growing wealth in the country.
4. Food – in the same way the quality of the roads surprised us, so has the food. In our view it’s not anywhere near as good as Indian food, but it has been good. Lots of unusual fruit and vegetables that we have never even seen before and although we tried everything we were given the opportunity to, we can’t say we enjoyed it all. They seems to have a taste for bitter foods…some of which did make us wince a bit! It’s also generally very very oily and they seem to use fish sauce in so many dishes….even if it’s a chicken dish, which gives it an odd taste.
They serve a consommé-type soup with every meal…all of which have been different and most of them really tasty! And for green tea drinkers like me, it’s bliss…pouring flasks available free of charge everywhere we went – just help yourself!
5. Eating out – the Burmese seems to eat out much more than people on the sub-continent and we often saw groups of girls in restaurants enjoying an evening out together, which we definitely haven’t seen for a long time. They don’t eat with their hands here and surprisingly few people seem to eat with chopsticks….spoon and fork are the utensils of choice!
6. Western dress is very common with men and women although they both also wear their traditional “longyi” as well. I thought the women and the girls look very glamorous in their dress as they go about their daily business. And I think they are all very beautiful as you can see from the photo of this lovely lot who we met in Sadan cave in Hpa-An a few days ago.
7. Everyone, regardless of sex or age wear Thankha, which is the sunblock which is sunblock you see on their faces of these lovely market ladies….
8. Beer and alcohol – there is more alcohol for sale in Myanmar than we’d have seen anywhere else in the world we think. Every shop and stall all over the country either sells beer and whisky or has a sign to advertise it – but it’s only the men that we have seen drinking. For what we thought was an “oppressed” nation, we found this quite surprising. But perhaps even more surprising is that we haven’t seen any drunken or rowdy behaviour anywhere. Only for the fact that we have actually seen people drink beer or whisky in bars, you really wouldn’t know it.
Dagon is one of the main brands, with a very strange lion as its logo….check out those crazy eyes!
9. Chewing paan/betel leaf – tobacco, nuts and spices wrapped in a leaf and chewed. It’s the horrible red stuff that they spit out everywhere and gives them terrible red/black-stained teeth. We commented on how common it was in India and Bangladesh, but nothing like what we have seen here. EVERYONE in Myanmar seems to do it – men, women, youths. And although the spitting isn’t as disgusting as it was on the sub-continent their teeth are much much worse here….and it’s such a shame because as a nation they are quite beautiful people..until they smile unfortunately. Even worse is that when they are travelling or somewhere they can’t spit it out, they spit into empty plastic bottles and then dump the bottle. The sides of the roads are littered with the stuff. Absolutely disgusting!
10. Fashion hair – we were quite surprised at the men’s fashion hair styles…proper styling and bleaching, and it’s a big business as there are lots of men-only hair salons.
11. Tattoos – we haven’t seen these for a while but there are a lot of body tattoos around – again something we didn’t expect to see.
12. European football is huge here with Chelsea and Liverpool appearing to be being the most popular. The Chelsea team are official sponsors of an energy drink and Real Madrid sponsor Nivea shower gel range for men…and there are posters of them everywhere.
14. For a country that has a fledgling tourist industry, hotel staff are obviously well-trained and very professional. The standard of accommodation has been excellent for the price. We had expected to pay $25-30 a night, but our average price for a double room with breakfast was $15-18. Granted we are out of season, but it was still incredible value for what we got! And they had no restrictions on how early we could check-in. It was absolute godsend to be able to check in at 9:30am if we needed to, at no extra cost.
15. Although everyone seems to have a smart phone there are still very traditional and old-school sights and sounds in every day life, especially in rural areas. Oxen working the fields or carrying heavy loads are a very common sight.
16. Dogs – the viscous feral dogs are back with a vengeance! We have been chased on our bikes more here than anywhere else, but that’s nothing compared to how the dogs fight among themselves – truly terrifying to watch!
17. There is a TV channel called Buddha specially dedicated to all things Buddha with live chanting and rotating images of pagodas….and it’s continually on in every restaurant.