On Valentine’s day we do something very romantic (for us at least) and cross a new border together. On that day we go from Thailand to Myanmar through the remote border post of Phu Nam Ron. Before we reach the border we take the WWII Death Railway from Bangkok and pass through Kanchanaburi, famous for the Bridge on the River Kwai (pronounced Kwaeh). A very captivating experience if you take a moment to think about all that happened here (see e..g. The movies “Bridge on the River Kwai” and the more recent “Railway Man”).
Getting the stamp to exit Thailand turns out to be easier than obtaining the one we need to enter Myanmar. Between the border post is about 5 km of no-man’s-land without any obvious transportation options on offer. Not really ideal if you are covered in backpacks and melting away in the sweltering heat. Luckily some local entrepreneurs have filled in this hole in the market. One by one an older guy transports us with his motorcycle, not really a pretty sight nor very comfortable with all our luggage. In the meantime it becomes clear that in Myanmar they drive on the right side of the road, and that overactive passport checks are still really popular here. Cross the border, get the stamp, and we are ready for a new adventure: Myanmar.
It turns out to be the most noticeably different and surprising country in South-East Asia. Before we take you on our trail through the roads and sights of the old Burma, we want to give you an impression of the eye-catching differences we encountered moving through this long closed-off nation.
What immediately stands out when you cross the border, besides (1) driving on the right and (2) excessive passport checks, are (3) all the painted faces. Especially women and children have a type of white-yellow paint in all sorts of patterns on their faces. Dots, stripes, the whole face, it doesn’t seem to matter, but you can see it everywhere. The product is apparently called “Thanaka” and is a paste made from a.o. the ground bark of the Thanaka tree mixed with water. It is used as sunscreen or to cool down, but also as a type of make-up to “highlight” the face what it definitely succeeds in doing!
(4) Another important aspect of their different appearance is the distinct local everyday dress-style. This country not only has the most Buddhist monks and nuns per capita, but their clothes are also markedly different from their colleagues in neighbouring countries: monks are dressed in a deep burgundy coloured robe and the nuns are wrapped in flowering pink.
(5) For the common people there is also a very popular dress style. Men wear a type of longyi, a long piece of double cloth that is wrapped around the waist and tied in a dot at the front. Lacking pockets they all seem to manage to stick a cell phone and wallet in between the layers. (6) One minor negative point in the appearance of some men is that growing hair out of a birth mark or mole on an otherwise shaven face is considered lucky. This leads to patches of very long facial hair which are often twisted (continuously) into a type of vertical moustache.
(7) Women on the other hand mostly wear a narrow long skirt (htamein) with a fitting blouse on top. Very perky and elegant. Even when they are transported on the back of a motorcycle they manage to do so gracefully, riding sidesaddle with a straight back. The women of Myanmar are some of the most beautiful in the world, with full faces, high cheekbones, smooth skin, and slender but curved bodies. But they are invariably very modestly dressed. (8) This is also something you notice on the television, as soon as a knee is bared, it is blotted out. Even prudish Bollywood movies are censored here!
(9) The care they exhibit in their dress style, is also reflected in their houses. Quite differently from their neighbouring countries, there is clearly a lot of eye for decorations and aesthetics of the house. Be it a big wooden house or a simpler thatch home on poles, they are always very neat and beautified with little decorated shutters, colourful, little flowers, beautiful stairs, coloured glass, etc… Houses often also have a beautiful little window-sized shrine jutting out from one side. (10) Even the dogs on the streets are usually well cared for and healthy looking.
(11) One thing that is hard to reconcile with the effort they spend on their appearance, is the excessive chewing of paan. The Myanmarese chew this substance with even more relish than in the Indian subcontinent. Little packages with a mixture of, among others, limestone and areca nuts are being folded in green betel leaves by paanwallas behind their lime-covered stalls. After which the customers pop this betel quid in their cheek and masticate it like chewing tobacco (with which it is often combined). This just looks plain silly, firstly you look like some sort of foraging hamster and secondly you can barely open your mouth without red spit dribbling out. And that is before we take in account that awful sight when they spit the resulting red liquid in a steady gulp from their mouth permanently splodging the floor, walls or corners red. And last but not least, on the long term this stuff completely corrodes your teeth away while staining your lips, gums and remaining teeth stumps brown-red. We think this is pretty disgusting, but they see it differently, as they proudly bare their ghoulish smile as it is apparently considered some sort of a status symbol… To top the look all off it has a mildly intoxicating effect that makes excessive users look permanently groggy with dull and dazed eyes. In short, we really don’t get the appeal of this habit, but then again this is occasionally to be expected with foreign customs and usages.
(12) A major draw of Myanmar is the genuine friendliness of its people, which aways wins us over. Everywhere we are enthusiastically greeted with a “mingalabar” (hello/good day) and a smile. In some places (as in the deep south) where they have seen very few tourists, you feel like you are constantly waving and mingalabaring. We think we better understand how Angelina Jolie must feel.
(13) As far as we have observed they are also hard and efficient workers. Especially when you see the many construction crews upgrading the bumpy and dusty roads. They work systematically and turn barrels of pitch and mounds of gravel into new roads by hand at an amazing speed, be it in unsafe and unhealthy circumstances… They simply cook the barrels of pitch above a fire pit until it liquifies after which they scoop out the steaming smelly substance with improvised spoons and splash it on the gravel roadbed. All this without protection, without gloves or a face mask, often walking in flip flops over the hot and sticky pitch.
(14) You hardly see cars using these roads as yet, but better upgrade early than never of course. (15) Nonetheless buying a means of transportation is a booming business, especially scooters. Everybody seems to have the same type of scooter and most are from around the same year. Apparently this is due to the easy loans that became available in that year for this type of scooter. Which led to an immediate run on the stores to snatch one up. Then they scooted to the smartphone shop and loaned some more (always at extortionate interest rates) to get one of those newfangled things. Not that they already have proper cellphone reception, and of course no internet to speak of, but games, a portable camera, mirror, calculator, etc… all in one, who can resist that these days.
(16) We even asked ourselves where some of these people managed to charge their phones, because electricity has far from reached every household. Not to mention running water. This is one of the last countries in Asia were you can see a city’s woman and children gathered around the local wells to wash and do the laundry. And everywhere there are post-box sized stands with clay jars filled with drinking water as a Buddhist version of giving drink to the thirsty. (17) However, there is improvement on the way, at least infrastructure-wise they are very much busy building a new Myanmar…
(18) However, time will tell whether the political situation will continue to evolve in the right direction. We at least saw some things that we thought would be part of the past (you can read read about this in one of our later blogs about Southern Myanmar). If you would like to know more of Burma’s recent history you can watch the movie “The Lady” about Aung San Suu Kyi or the documentary “The Voices of Burma”, but don’t forget to have a look at its current controversies such as the persecution of the muslim Rohingya people under the leadership of genocide inciting Buddhist monks.
(19) And this leaves is with one of our favourite topics … the food. You probably were wondering when we would begin our food talk, but this turned out to be one of our least favourite things in Burma. It is a mystery how the Myanmarese stay so slender, because the food is usually very oily, and that means something coming from us. It also is rarely tasty, maybe that is part of the explanation. A standard meal is a plate of overcooked low-grade broken rice with a little bowl consisting of one part sauce and one part oil or grease and a tiny bit of meat. Often it is better to resort to some of the less sad looking prepared vegetables and rice instead of the disappointing curries. Not exactly awesome food, but at least edible. Furthermore, most of these dishes are scooped out of rows of pots that have not been heated in a long long time. (20) They probably are one of the world’s top consumers when in comes to onions and garlic, which while leading to smelliness at least gives the food some flavour. (21) You do get usually get an accompanying plate of raw vegetables and herbs and a bowl of watery soup, if that is any consolation. (22) They do like their sweets, but yet again not really anything we enjoyed. This might be one of the first countries were we dreaded going for dinner.
(23) However, as always it is not all bad, we did like the novelty of the tea leaf salad (laphet thoke) a mixture of locally famous pickled tea leaves, roasted peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, crunchy dried beans and fried garlic, and in a few places we did have some nice salads. We also had an occasional tasty mohinga, a typical rice noodle and fish soup, for breakfast. But if you really want to eat some delicious food, you are better off looking for a good Shan (Myanmar’s ethnic Tai) restaurant. Where you can have some great food, including noodle dishes, grilled fish, salads and the typical yellow tofu. Or just hunt for an authentic Japanese (e.g. in Yangon) or Chinese (e.g. in Mandalay) restaurant.
(24) But don’t let this detain you from having a seat at one of the small pastel-coloured plastic tables and matching stools, because you can bet on there being tea cups ready for a very drinkable local brew. (25) And if you prefer coffee, you could involve yourself in the coffee-mix culture. Ready-to-go sachets with a combination of coffee powder, sugar and milk powder. Rows of these can be found everywhere and everyone seems to have a favourite brand.
With a a few coffee-mixes every morning, you are up and awake to discover this country covered in golden payas (i.e. pagodas or stupas) and wonderful sights.
You can read more about our adventures in the north here and here for the south of Myanmar. Read our tips on traveling Myanmar here and have a look here for our love for Myanmarese train rides. For our pictures you can have a look here for Southern Myanmar and here for Northern Myanmar. (26) Make sure you read this blog before you leave for Myanmar though, because internet is very limited and often non-existent.