7 Things You Should Know About Myanmar
Photo By: Owen Franken
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Photo By: Kathleen Rellihan
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Mohinga, It’s What’s for Breakfast
If there’s one thing you can’t leave Myanmar without eating, it’s Mohinga, a fish broth soup with rice noodles and an array of seasonings and toppings to add per taste – boiled egg, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, chickpeas, you name it. You’ll find Myanmar’s national dish is served from street hawkers to hotel buffets, and while Mohinga is mostly eaten for breakfast, it’s such a hearty dish that it’s a welcome comfort food any time of day.
Burma VS. Myanmar: What Should You Call This Country?
Myanmar became the official name of the country after the ruling military junta changed its name from Burma in 1989, and the capital Rangoon also became Yangon. This was a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising. Myanmar is the name of the country the United Nations uses as well. Also important to note: Myanmar is a very ethnically diverse country with 135 distinct ethnic groups – so all people that live in Myanmar are not Burmese, or Bamar people, even though they account for 68 percent of the country. The official language is Burmese, though.
Men Wear Long Skirts and So Should You
Buddhism is the predominant religion in Myanmar – a whopping 90 percent of the people are Buddhists. Like other Buddhist Asian countries, there are certain cultural dos and don’ts visitors should take note of. One of the biggest dos: Travelers should dress very conservatively, especially while visiting pagodas, Myanmar’s scared places of worship. Both the men and women in Myanmar wear traditional longyi, a long sarong-like piece of cloth that is wrapped around the waist and tied with a knot. Donning a longyi like the locals is not only great for covering up at the pagodas, but also very comfortable in Myanmar’s muggy climate.
Not only should both men and women cover their knees and shoulders before entering a pagoda, but footwear should also be removed, and it’s also polite to take off your shoes when entering a home. Also, in the Buddhism belief, a person should not point his or her feet at anyone. And don’t touch people on their heads for this is considered a sacred area of the body in Buddhism. So a playful pat on a child’s head isn’t definitely a don’t, too.
The “Monks” in Pink Are Nuns
One of the most striking and defining images of daily life in Myanmar is the splash of color on the streets as the pink-robed Buddhist nuns collect their alms. Just like their orange-robe counterpoints, Myanmar’s 75,000 Buddhist nuns shave their heads and spend their day studying and meditating, as do the monks. But while Buddhist males are expected to become monks twice during their lifetime (as boys and as men), there is no cultural expectation for women, so becoming a nun is ultimately the choice of the girl or her family.
What’s With the Face Paint and Red Teeth?
You’ll notice the women and children in Myanmar wearing a thick powder on the their face. It’s called thanaka, and it’s a make-up/face cream that is unique to Myanmar. A paste made from ground bark and used for sunblock and self-expression, thanaka is used mostly by women and children, with teenagers especially sporting more intricate drawings on their cheeks.
And the red-stained teeth? Men mostly and some women have a betel nut chewing habit, which gives them a buzz, like downing a cup of coffee, and ultimately, a reddish-brown smile. Take care to avoid the red betel spit you’ll see splotched on the streets in Myanmar, too.
How to Stay/Not Stay Connected
A trip to Myanmar might turn into an unplanned digital detox. Although it’s becoming better, accessing the Internet at times can be difficult, especially as you stray from the urban confines of Yangon and Mandalay to more remote areas like Inle Lake. While most guesthouses and hotels on the tourist trail will offer Wi-Fi, don’t expect the speed of the West nor neighboring countries like Thailand and Malaysia. Our advice is to forgo the frustrating wait for pages to load, and instead connect with the locals who are just as curious about you as you are curious about them. So put away your phone, find a teahouse, pull up one of the tiny plastic chairs and strike up a conversation, even if the only word you know is “Mingalabar”, the traditional Burmese greeting that literally means, “May you have an auspicious moment.”
Now Is the Time to Go
Tourists are still a novelty in Myanmar, for now at least; you’ll feel as if you're setting foot on uncharted territory – uncovering an exotic culture that's been preserved and closed off to the rest of the modern world for so long. So visit this mysterious land before it gets as tourist trodden as its neighbor Thailand, as Myanmar is what Thailand used to be 25 to 30 years ago before hordes of tourists made it a mainstream travel destination. And as it transitions to a democratic nation and an open society, there isn’t a more exciting time to be in Myanmar, as it pulses with a new hope and energy. No betel nut chewing required.