Four fascinating things in Myanmar

As you can imagine, we've come across lots of fascinating things over the last month. Here are just four of them, in no particular order:

Everyone wears skirts

There's an old Burmese saying that goes "Men who cannot read are like the blind. Women who cannot weave are like the cripple." There was a time (according to Wikipedia) when every household had a hand loom, and women wove "longyis" for all members of the family - both male and female. Now everyone gets theirs at the market, I suspect, but they are worn daily by most people - except the trendy young who wear jeans, despite the heat. Unlike a sarong, longyis are normally a circle of cloth, tucked in at the waist for women and gathered in a knot at the front for men. That way they can't flap open and reveal all - even when you are riding a motorbike with your dog (and your wife), or loading 50kg bags of rice onto a boat down a narrow wooden gangplank.

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And unlike other countries, where national dress has been mostly supplanted by ubiquitous jeans and t-shirts, Burmese people still largely wear longyis. This was helped by all-powerful former military dictator Ne Win, who decreed that only the army could wear trousers.

 Geoff gets a lesson in tying his longyi

Geoff gets a lesson in tying his longyi

Everyone has mud-looking stuff on their faces

I think I've mentioned thanaka before - the yellowish-white paste that so many people (most women and girls, plus some men and boys and virtually all school children) wear on their faces. It's made from ground bark - you buy a chunk of thanaka wood from the market and then grind it on a special stone slab, adding a bit water. You might smear it all over your face, or just on the cheeks and nose - often in a deliberate pattern. It's part sunscreen, part skin whitening, part a sign of beauty, like make-up. But we learnt another crucial thing about thanaka recently: young women who neglect to put thanaka on their faces every day (even if they aren't going outside) risk being seen as lazy - and therefore not a good future wife. Beware.

 Getting my thanaka done - and my eyebrows highlighted with betel nut. Thanaka does feel a bit odd - like having a face pack on in the street, but is stangely cooling too. 

Getting my thanaka done - and my eyebrows highlighted with betel nut. Thanaka does feel a bit odd - like having a face pack on in the street, but is stangely cooling too. 

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Everyone chews paan

Walk down any street in Myanmar and there are the tell-tale red stains from people spitting out kwun-ya, the Burmese word for paan - the addictive betel leaf/areca nut/lime paste mixture that has stimulant and psychoactive effects, as well as turning your spit and your teeth a scary shade of red (see photo above). In Burma, they tend to mix other ingredients in too, including tobacco, cardamon, and cloves (for fresher breath). Paan stalls are everywhere and are a veritable trove of potions and unguents.

 A street stall selling paan - and a stupid tourist taking a photo

A street stall selling paan - and a stupid tourist taking a photo

One Burmese man told us that chewing paan is good for your teeth, though the evidence from people's mouths here might not support that, and it's also a strong risk factor in mouth cancers. Our grossest kwun-ya experience was taking a taxi from the airport in Yangon, where the driver kept a used water bottle on the floor into which she regularly ejected her pan spittle. It was quite disgusting.

 Betel leaves for sale in the market

Betel leaves for sale in the market

Everyone/everything on the same motorbike

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I am constantly amazed how much you can get on one scooter. Four people? No problem. Parents, baby, toddler, shopping? Perfect transport method. A whole shop? Yup.

In Hsipaw, sellers would go to the early morning market and load up their bikes with an amazing amount of stuff - flowers, fruit and veges, meat, spices, cooked food etc - all in separate little plastic bags. By the end you could hardly see the motorbike and driving it must be so difficult. Then they'd go round the streets selling the produce off the bike.

 A bike shop, Myanmar-style.  Below, if you look carefully, you'll see this guy has two dogs, totally unrestrained, on the back of his motorbike. Apologies, it's a terrible photo, as by the time I got my phone out, the motorbike was heading away.

A bike shop, Myanmar-style.

Below, if you look carefully, you'll see this guy has two dogs, totally unrestrained, on the back of his motorbike. Apologies, it's a terrible photo, as by the time I got my phone out, the motorbike was heading away.

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