The years of isolation and unique culture have made Myanmar look different on several levels. The national dress of choice is a longyi, a type of skirt equally worn both by men and women. Even though some men wear Western clothes (read: jeans and a t-shirt), longyi remains widely popular and is worn on all kind of occassions. Another striking difference is the liberal use of thanaka, a light yellow paste made out of wood powder and mixed with water, which is used as a go to make-up. The most common use of thanaka is to apply it to one’s cheeks, but there are really no usage guidelines. Some go into lengths of spreading it all over them. The purported benefits of thanaka range from a sun screen and a skin whitener to an anti-fungal agent, but the most important reason seems to be the aesthetic one. Beauty is really in the eyes of a beholder.
The national drug of choice is betel leaf combined with tobacco and limestone. Betel leaf on its own does nothing apart from eliminating a breathe odour and promoting saliva production, but when combined with tobacco and limestone, it forms something similar to Swedish snus. Betel stations are found everywhere and most of the male population seems to be addicted to it. Other than that a prolonged use colours one’s teeth red, as well as walls and roads all over the country are coloured with red spit stains. Just lovely.
Another oddity about Myanmar that sets it apart from the rest of South East Asia is that there is no haggling. All attempts to haggle are returned with a blank stare and a plain no. In the worst case they just walk away, as it happened to us, when trying to negotiate a taxi ride price at 5AM in the morning in Bagan. This “no haggling” culture made me thinking that it must be weird to locals to see wealthy foreigners come to their country and try to get a couple of dollars off the items with a fixed price.
Buddhism is taken seriously in Myanmar. Meditation is taught in schools and students meditate every day for 15 minutes before classes start. Locals spent their holidays doing vipassana retreats and Buddha TV is a number one channel in Myanmar. Buddhist mantras are played in tourist buses, before they switch to Myanmar pop. Monks have celebrity statuses with their faces plastered over billboards all over the country and stupas are literally everywhere. Yet for such a Buddhist country, the government has been historically heavily intolerable to any opposition. This is changing too with democracy movements no longer being outlawed and some kind of democratic election process being set up. Still the army presence is clearly visible in the country. Soldiers and army bases were seen on multiple occasions during our stay in Myanmar.
I see little reason to visit Myanmar as a tourist again in the near future. After two and half weeks we ran out of things to see and got the impression that this was it. There are undoubtedly many other things to see and do in Myanmar, but due to poor marketing they are left to be discovered. Indeed, in the current form Myanmar is not quite a right country for a tropical vacation, especially when you compare it to its neighbours. Still if you like to see the country, which is something I definitely recommend, now is the right time before tourism industry really blows up. On the other hand, I would love to visit Myanmar again for meditation. Meditation centers are found all over the country and vipassana courses There is even a separate meditation visa available to simplify entering the country for meditation purposes. Who knows where all this tourist development will lead Myanmar to, but maybe they will be able to capitalise on their Buddhist heritage and promote a unique kind of tourism.