Our 9 interesting facts about Myanmar
We spent 3 weeks in Myanmar in January 2015 and instantly fell in love with the people.
The Burmese were very curious towards us foreigners but extremely friendly and welcoming. It was really endearing and you just can’t help but smile back.
As well as the friendly Burmese, here’s our favourite Myanmar observations and interesting facts that stuck with us.
#1 Aung Sang Siu Kee
Aung Sang Siu Kee is the popular opposition leader in Myanmar who was under house arrest in Yangon for most of 1989-2010 by the oppressive military government and has become a popular Nelson Mandela like figure internationally.
She won the Nobel Peace Prize for Peace in 1991 during her house arrest and the only winner not allowed to accept it in person.
We knew nothing about Myanmar before our trip and watched the Luc Besson film called “The Lady” about Aung San Suu Kyi’s life to learn more. We highly recommend it to anyone visiting for their first time.
Apparently, during the harsher days of the military Burmese government, uttering Aung San Suu Kyi’s name out loud in public ran the risk of getting you arrested and placed in a prison camp.
Whereas now in Myanmar, The Lady is everywhere: most restaurants, homes and guesthouses we visited displayed pictures or calendars of her.
#2 Thanaka face make up
The first thing we noticed when we arrived at Mandalay airport was the yellow thanaka powder on people’s faces.
The distinctive Burmese “thanaka” is a face cosmetic paste made from grinding water with the bark of a particular tree from central Myanmar. It is believed to act as a sunblock, anti ageing and prevent acne.
At our home stay at Yoe Yoe Lay guesthouse in Mandalay, we ditched our Boots Face Mask and replaced it thanaka:
We were also given a lesson about how the thanaka is created and then applied:
#3 Red saliva stains and Burmese men with bad red teeth
In Myanmar we saw many red stains like this on the roads and pavements:
…and quite a few Burmese men had red teeth like this guy (who sold us our pressed sugar cane juice in Yangon):
This is because many men in Myanmar chew betel nut and tobacco all day long, spitting out the red residue every few minutes (you’re not supposed to swallow it).
But not all Burmese men have red Dracula like stained teeth. For example, this sweet waiter in Kalaw was a shining example of the Burmese men with lovely teeth who don’t chew Betel nut and tobacco all day long:
#4 Blow kisses to the waiters
This is unique to Myanmar and really cute. If you want to get the waiter’s attention in a teahouse or restaurant, you need to blow them a few kisses.
Stefan absolutely loved doing this but made a bit of a fool of himself because it’s not technically a kiss, but more a sucking sound into your mouth which is very similar to a kiss.
Sebastien was a bit more shy about using this charming method to engage with Burmese waiters:
#5 Men’s fashion: the longyi versus tight fashionable jeans
If men don’t wears longyis, they instead wear tight, fashionable jeans, like these boys at the Shwezigon temple in Bagan:
This photo from the Shwezigon Temple in Bagan shows both styles:
#6 Quirky traditions: how to ‘ugly-fy’ your women
Myanmar is comprised of many different ethnic groups and tribes, each with their own unique traditions. One common one is to safeguard their women from neighbouring tribesmen who may try to steal them away. The answer? Ugly-fy them to make them less appealing.
For example, in the Northern Chin states, women used to have their faces tattooed, but this practice was banned in the 1960s. Also, the long necked women of the Kayan tribe in East Myanmar, wear brass neck coils around their necks from a young age. Over the years, the weight of the brass pushes the women’s collar bone down, compressing their rib cage.
At Inle Lake, the long necked women gather to make a living by posing for photographs for tourists. We didn’t like it as it felt like we were in a zoo watching them.
#7 Notes only: no coins!
Just like Mongolia, Myanmar is a notes only currency with no coins.
We visited Myanmar in January 2015 when $1 got you 1,000 kyats (and £1 around 1,500). As a keen currency collector, Stefan made it our mission to find a 1 kyat note (around $0.001 or £0.0006).
This was almost impossible as no one had anything smaller then a 50 kyats notes. But just at the very final moment before we were about to leave Myanmar at Yangon airport, we finally managed to get our 1 kyat note (along with a 10 and 20 kyats note):
#8 SIM cards and lack of international roaming
Myanmar was the only country we’ve visited to date on our travels where your phone’s home SIM card will not work. There is no international roaming here – yet. Myanmar is changing so quickly that hopefully by the time you read this this may have changed.
You can of course purchase a local SIM card to use which is advisable as most of the WIFI points throughout Myanmar were some of the slowest we’ve encountered in our travels through Asia.
In fact, the history of having a SIM card is also interesting. Around 8 years ago, this was a luxury only for the rich because a SIM card would set you back some $2,000! This changed to $50 in 2012 and since November 2014 it was revised to a more realistic $1.50.
#9 Festival mania!
The Burmese love their festivals and every month they have at least one festival to celebrate something. And cause we love geeky lists, here’s the run down starting with the water festival in April to celebrate the Burmese New Year:
– April: the Thingyan water throwing festival to mark in the new year and cleanse you from evil spirits to start the new year.
– May: the Bo Tree watering festival, when the sacred Bodhi tree of Enlightenment is watered to honour it.
– June: the Tipitaka scriptual examinations of monks and lots of food offerings are made to them.
– July: the Robe Offering Festival, marking the beginning of the Buddhist lent.
– August: the Taungbyon Nat Festival near Mandalay when thousands of worshippers gather to worship the spirits.
– September: the Regatta boat racing festival, an old traditional dating back to the days of the former Myanmar Kings.
– October: the festival of lights to mark the end of the Buddhist Lent.
– November: the Kahtein Thingan festival of offerings when new robes are offered to Buddhist monks.
– December: New Year for the Karen state (Southeast Myanmar) and other Nat festivals honouring the spirits.
– January: Equestrian festival to celebrate Myanmar’s Independence day (4th January 1948)
– February: the harvest festival when lots of “hta ma nae” (glutinous/sticky rice with sesame, peanuts and ginger) are made.
– March: Pagoda festivals, which centres on the mother of all pagodas: the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.