Well, those last 3 weeks went really quickly!!!
I blame my lack of blog updates on a number of factors.
1) the internet connections in Myanmar suck.
2) Google has conspired against my blogger account and made signing in more difficult and time-consuming than it was worth.
3) sheer laziness.
But, I have been posting lots of photos on instagram for you (#jillgoesbackpacking), and I find myself with a decent wifi connection and a lovely balcony overlooking the river and mountains of Hpa-An on my last evening in this beautiful country...so I will take some time to relect on some of the most memorable and unique parts of Myanmar.
1. The Longyi (pronounced "LON-jee")
One of the first things you notice when you walk off the plane into the airport is the Longyi, which is essentially a traditional skirt worn by both men and women. The men wear more subdued hues of blue, green, brown, etc, and usually it has a plaid or striped pattern, while the women wear vivid colors and floral or more abstract designs. The Longyi is about 2 meters long and sewn into a tube shape. Whereas the men gather the fabric in front and tie it in a knot, the women tuck it to one side to make it more fitted, and slightly more restrictive.
It is quite a beautiful peice of clothing, and its easy to buy in the markets for very cheap. An economical longyi might be anywhere from 2000-3000 Kyat (roughly $2-3 CAD), but a better quality one made with silk or other expensive materials will cost you a lot more.
My Dutch friend bought herself a longyi in Bagan and the friendly guesthouse matron enthusiastically showed her how to wear it. I have also seen many male tourists embace the cool, breezy comfort while traveling through Myanmar! I asked one if he had someone show him how to tie it, as there appears to be different methods, and the men frequently undo the knots to straighten and adjust the cloth. He said yes, but when they showed him how to tie it by demonstrating on their own, he saw a lot more than he bargained for, since they don't wear any underwear underneath!
This is a thick yellowish paste made of some kind of bark. It is worn on the face primarily by women and children, and often in different designs (such as circles on the cheeks, or dots/stripes on the forehead and chin). Thanaka is multipurpose, used as sunscreen, a cosmetic, and as it is apparently very good for clearing the skin of blemishes! Some men do wear it, but our guide in Hsipaw explained that it is generally less socially acceptable for males (they might take some heckling about being gay, apparently) so they often only wear it at night to cleanse their skin under the cover of darkness!
3. Green Tea...with everything
Tea is a big part of Myanmar culture. It is grown here, and while you might have a tough time finding a bar or any kind of restraunt open past 9pm, tea shops are found on every corner at every hour. These adorable local establishments are easily spotted due to their tiny red plastic stools and wooden tables underneath an open-air shop with an awning covered in plastic advertising the local beer or whisky (which is kind of funny, since the real draw is the tea...). There is a thermos of green tea on every table, and it is generally free and served with absolutely everything. My friend and I ordered cappuccinos once, and we were served green tea while we waited!
4. Fermented Tea Leaf Salad
While we are on the subject of tea, there is a unique dish here in Myanmar made of tea leaves that I have grown quite fond of! It doesnt look like much more than some mushy green leaves mixed with a few random ingredients, but the flavor is great! Its a bit sour, but its kind of nice, like pickles. There are crunchy dried peas and beans, small diced onion, and sometimes tomato or other veggies. Its really tasty when mixed with rice...I might try to recreate it at home, if I can find the ingredients!
5. Betel Nut
One of the first things I noticed was a common habit the men (and some women) have of chewing some kind of (what I assumed was addictive) substance wrapped in a leaf. I have since learned that this is an areca nut, which is wrapped in a betel leaf painted with limestone and sprinkled with tobacco. It is chewed as a mild intoxicant/stimulant. The limestone is used to basically lacerate the gums to allow the stimulant to more easily enter the bloodstream, and it is easy to spot the heavy users. They sport a mouth of rotting red-stained teeth, and constantly have a cheekful of betel nut. And they spit everywhere. The streets are stained red...with betel juice. I'm not a fan.
The national sport in Myanmar is known as Chinlon. I first saw this in Laos, but its obviously much more popular here. This game is played by two teams with a total of 6 players, and a high net dividing them, similar to a volleyball court. However, each side attempts to knock a small woven rattan ball onto the opponents side using any part of their body except their arms and hands. Its quite amazing to watch, as they are very flexible and nimble, hitting the chinlon ball very hard with their feet, knees, and head. I have seen some female tourists (who have experience with soccer) join in, much to the amusement of the locals, since Myanmar girls dont play much (at least not in the small towns. The country does have a very good women's national team, though).
7. The Trishaw
The trishaw is a contraption I have seen everywhere in Myanmar, from the small villages to the big cities. Its essentially a huge tricycle with two side passenger seats; one facing forwards, one backwards! These look extremeley uncomfortable and slow, and the poor men who push them must have killer strong legs because there is certainly no gears of any kind on those things.
8. Christmas Lights...all year round.
I do not know what the Myanmar fascination with bright, colorful lights is about...but they are EVERYWHERE! In almost every temple, the Buddha is surrounded with a halo of gawdy, flashing lights like the circus has come to town, the clocktowers or landmark buildings in the center of town will almost certainly be lit up like a Christmas tree at night, and even the local buses have rainbow colored lights flashing around the windows (on the inside!). Its like a tacky trailer park that leaves up the holiday decorations year round. So ridiculous...but kind of hilarious and loveable.
9. Guesthouses and Breakfast
Tourism is relatively new in Myanmar, and compared to places like Thailand and Vietnam, its a lot more expensive for travelers. This means hostels haven't really been established here yet, so accommodation options are usually limited to guesthoues and hotels. The upside of these slightly pricier digs is that 9 times of out 10 you are served a free breakfast between 7-9am. Sometimes this means toast and tea, but most of the time we have had our bellies pleasantly filled with piping hot omlettes, shan noodles, samosas, or pancakes, and there is almost always some fruit served as well! I actually quite like starting my morning like this, rather than trying to scope out a cheap breakfast option along the road somewhere. I know...I'm lazy.
Myanmar is probably the most intensely religious SE Asian country I have been to. Buddhism permeates every aspect of the culture, and it is evident everywhere you look. From the monks and nuns of all ages that walk the streets, sometimes collecting alms, to the elaborate temples found on every corner, the morning readings of the Dhamma on the radio and tv, the random trucks with huge speakers blaring Buddhist chants, and the golden stupas spotting the countryside. Merit-making, or the performing of good deeds to improve your karma, motivates everything from keeping good hygiene to giving to the poor. Morning rituals of offering food and drink along with prayers at household shrines occurs regularly.
Most SE Asian countries profess Buddhism as their primary religion, but this is the first place where I have seen it taken to seriously by the general population. It has been very interesting to witness!
Unfortunately, tomorrow I leave Myanmar. It has been a marvellous 3 weeks here, and I am sad to leave, though I have a lot of look forward to in the next 3 weeks! Myanmar was certainly a one-of-a-kind experience, and I hope these 10 points gave you a little taste of what I have been seeing and living recently!