Every country has a unique character that leaves a long lasting impression for the visitor. For example, Vietnam - it’s the ao dai dress, millions of motorbikes and challenge of crossing the street.
For Myanmar, I’ll always associate it as a place of diverse peoples; men in longyis; thanaka faces; and betel nut chew.
Upon my arrival in Yangon, one of the first things I noticed were that the people looked Indian, moreso than Thai. Once I left Yangon though, I began to see more variety of people.
Myanmar sits at the crossroads between the Indian continent and Southeast Asia and is bordered by 5 countries (India, Bangadesh, China, Laos, and Thailand) which explains the ethnic diversity of the country. Apparently there are roughly 135 ethnic groups!
The various ethnic groups are mainly from the highland areas near the Thai and Chinese border. In big cities like Yangon and Mandalay, there is a dominant mix of ethnic Chinese and Indian influence.
GQ Casual-Relax Style
I haven’t been to India and I don’t know if the same applies but I have never witnessed a country where more men than women wear a ‘longyi’, a sarong-like attire. They actually make it look stylish without much effort. However, I think only the Burmese men can carry this off. I’ve seen a western man wear one of these – not a good look.
The male longyi are always checkered patterns. I was amazed to see how many varieties of longyis there were – cotton and various grades of silk – and a whole range of color combinations. There are certain styles for formal wear and daily wear. So it’s not as simple as it looks!
Thanaka Beauty Secrets
Another distinctive feature of the Burmese people is the use of thanaka, a yellowish-white paste produced from the bark of an acacia tree. It is normally applied on the face, particularly the cheeks, and is used predominately on women and children. Thanaka is used as a type of sunblock and for cosmetic purposes.
Betel Nut – A Natural High
If you’ve done a walking tour of Yangon or walk anywhere for that matter – no doubt you would have come across a red splat on the ground. It could be easily be mistaken for blood stains but having seen them everywhere, I started to doubt that that was the case. It wasn’t until I made the connection between the stained red teeth and actually witnessing someone spit on the ground that I learned it was the betel nut chew!
Betel nut chewing is common in Southeast Asia but mainly is seen among elderly folks whose teeth have now turned black. I was amazed to witness such rampant betel nut chewing in Myanmar! And it’s not the elderly or just men – it’s young adults and both men and women. A real shocker!
I think one of the more pleasant outcome is that there are less smokers. This is one Asian nation where you won’t be experiencing second-hand smoking! Betel nut chew is basically the alternative. Instead of cigarette machines – you’ll find betel nut chew stands – nearly at every corner.
The betel nut chew consist of areca nut, betel leaf, lime, and unique to Myanmar is the additional flavored tobacco. The ingredients are placed on the betel leaf and wrapped into a small finger-size bundle which is popped into the mouth like a piece of gum.
It will be interesting to see whether these characteristics will remain a dominant part of the culture especially as the country begins to open up. I hope they embrace their tradition because it’s these cultural differences that makes the country and its people so interesting.