10 Things you didn’t know about Myanmar

Stray New Zealand travellers digging at Hot Water Beach, Coromandel.

As Myanmar has opened its doors to tourism we’ve been able to get a glimpse at the life of the Burmese people.

You probably know that watching the sun rise over the temples is Bagan is a ‘must-do’ and that you can’t miss visiting Inle Lake. You may even know that a lot of the architecture is British Colonial style, but did you know these things?

1. Men and women wear traditional Burmese dresses called a Longyi which is essentially a long piece of fabric. Learn how to tie your own and fit in with the locals!

Traditional Parade in Kalaw, Myanmar
Women wear their best, brightly coloured Longyi to the full moon festival parade in Kalaw

2.  Kalaw is a town that shouldn’t be missed! This cross roads town is a fascinating place where many different ethnic minorities come to trade and it’s a great place to go trekking because of all these different cultures. There are more than 135 distinct ethnic groups in Myanmar and over 100 languages spoken!

Roadside markets in Kalaw
Roadside markets in Kalaw

3. It still hasn’t changed. Despite the steady increase in tourism since Myanmar opened its borders in 1992, the effects still remain to be seen. The number of tourists remains minimal and is still much less than neighbouring countries, including Laos. Tourists have been respectful of the Burmese culture and way of life and it still maintains it’s magic.

4. The common greeting “Mingalaba” loosely translates to “Have an auspicious day”. For those who’re not sure what ‘auspicious’ means, it means ‘optimistic’, ‘successful’, ‘prosperous’ and ‘full of promise’. How nice is that!

Novice monks collecting alms in Bagan
Novice monks collecting alms in Bagan

5. The Myanmar people are very religious. Buddhism is the main religion and about 90% of Burmese people are Buddhist. As part of Buddhism in Myanmar, people worship ‘nats’, or spirits. The most important nat pilgrimage site in Burma is Mount Popa, an extinct volcano near Bagan. The people of Myanmar hold festivals to honour the nats.

6. Family is very important, and in Myanmar, most homes will have three generations living together under one roof. Children stay at home to help support the family and look after older family members, or if they leave home they will send money home to support their parents.

Chinlone is the traditional sport of Myanmar. Source: Economic Times

7. Chinlone is the traditional sport of Myanmar. To the foreign eye it could look like football training – any number of players form a circle and keep the chinlone (small ball made of woven bamboo) in the air for as long as possible by kicking it soccer-style from player to player, using any body part except the hands. However, there are no opposing teams – instead the focus of the sport is on how beautifully one plays the game so it is a combination of sport and dance.

8. When the locals in Myanmar want to get a waiter’s attention, they make a kissing sound, usually two or three short kisses. It’s the sort of sound you might make if calling a cat.

9. Chewing betel nut is a national pastime. Small street stalls sell the palm-sized green leaves filled with betel nut, spices and sometimes a pinch of tobacco, then folded and popped in the mouth and chewed. There is lot of spitting involved, turning the pavement a dark red colour.

betel seller, Yangon
A betel seller sorts leaves at a wholesale outlet near in Yangon. Source: Asia Times

10. The locals are just as fascinated by you as you are by them and would love to learn more about your world! Myanmar’s borders were closed for decades and few have had the chance to travel. You’re there to experience how the Burmese live, but the locals are equally as curious to see what your world looks like. Carry a picture of where you live with you – they’d love to see it.