One of the nicest things about visiting Myanmar is how much of its tradition and culture are still present in everyday life, in a very natural and unselfconscious way. It’s refreshing to see people embracing the things that are unique to their own culture, not in an effort to save it or counteract some kind of cultural threat, but just because that’s what people do and they don’t feel any need to change it.
The longyi is the dress of choice for most people, particularly the over 30s in the cities and almost everyone in rural areas. For women the longyi is basically a long wrap-around skirt secured tightly without any kind of fastening, which is incidentally much easier to achieve properly on a slender Asian figure than a curvy European one. For men, the fabric is sewn together to form a continuous band, which is arranged using some kind of witchcraft in a kind of culotte/trouser shape with a big knot at the front. The fabric comes in all kinds of patterns and colours, usually dark-coloured check or subtle patterns for men, and colourful often floral patterns for women.
Women and children also often wear thanaka, a beige paste made of tree bark, on their cheeks. It is part cosmetic, part sunscreen and women often draw patterns, often leaves and flowers, into the paste for extra decoration.
A less visually appealing cultural feature is that almost everyone seems to be chewing betel a kind of aniseed flavour chewing tobacco wrapped up in a leaf. Chewing betel produces a gory red colour which makes many people look like they’ve got bleeding gums.
Food in Myanmar is also quite different to anywhere else. Before my trip I did a bit of research which suggested the food would be bland, oily and generally not particularly appealing to foreigners. This thankfully turned out to be very far from the truth. Less spicy than Indian food, and less rich than Thai, Burmese food is usually served to be shared between a group of people, with lots of rice, mild but aromatic curries, stir fried veg, beans, dried fish, hot chilli sauces to be eaten eat with salad, and lots of soup. I found it varied and delicious, and the only time my food was greasy was when I ordered a Chinese-style dish. I kept forgetting to take pictures of the food until after I finished eating so all I can show you to give you the idea is this;
The food in the Shan region, where I took a cooking class, was something else entirely but I’ll save the details of that for my post on Inlé Lake…