Homeward Bound

I had two and half weeks to kill in Melbourne before flying home, and my plan had been to relax, catch up with friends, and visit all of the things in the city that I didn’t have time for before. This worked well for the first week, but then I got ill and spent the second week in bed having nightmares about making the 24-hour journey home with a cold and a stomach bug. Thankfully I got over it in time to go snowboarding for the day at Mount Buller and to do a few other bits and pieces in my last few days, and it gave me a bit of time to evaluate my time here.

The main thing I’ve learned about Australia is how little I knew about it before I came here. If someone tells me they’re going to the USA for a holiday, I would immediately ask where; New York, California, Florida, New England, different parts of the US have different implications in my head, and I have a sense of general cultural context that tells me that there is a lot of variety in the country, even only ever having been to one part of it. But despite being roughly the same size as continental USA, my knowledge of Australia a couple of years ago was incredibly vague. I knew the names of the cities but couldn’t have placed them, and my mental cultural map of the country would have included the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru and the Sydney Opera House, with the rest filled in with beaches and deserts and vague notions of vineyards and sheep farms.

My ignorance, in which I’m sure I’m not alone, made me subscribe to the ‘just a hotter version of Britain’ view of Australia; the fact that I didn’t know what was here made me certain there wasn’t much to draw me here, and four years ago Australia was really very low on my destination wishlist. Even when I did decide to come here, I was more drawn by the prospect of visiting friends than of seeing the country itself.

But of course I was wrong and ignorant and if you think you’re not bothered about visiting Australia then you’re wrong and ignorant too, because Australia is the most interesting and diverse places imaginable. It’s got everything, from rainforest to desert, pumping metropolis to barren outback, every kind of beach you can think of and literally hundreds of national parks.

During my six months here, I have worked in the big city and on a farm; I’ve surfed, hiked, snowboarded, sea kayaked and scuba dived; I’ve slept under the stars, swam in waterfalls and hot springs, and been to a concert in the Sydney Opera House. I’ve made spectacular road and rail journeys and experienced every season and weather system there is; I’ve seen wild kangaroos, emus, quokkas, camels, koalas, kookaburras, dolphins and seals; I’ve eaten Anzac biscuits, vegemite, kangaroo, shark, Tim Tams and enough flat whites and smashed avocado to last a lifetime; I’ve learned about Aboriginal culture, convict history and even the mysterious world of Aussie rules football. And most of all I’ve learned that there are many different sides to Australia, and that every corner of this country has its own character, reputation and feel about it. There’s a lot going on here and there’s a lot to see; it’s a pretty big country after all.

I’ve also been reminded, in a more personal way, of one or two things about myself. One of my hopes in working in Australia was that I would find my ‘dream job’ and be inspired in a particular career direction. That hasn’t happened exactly but what has happened is that I have remembered some of the things that I really value and enjoy and seemed to have forgotten about at various points. Being outside and being active, reading great books, my family, being on and in and around the sea, and of course writing. Rediscovering all this and exploring this wonderful country has left me feeling much calmer and relaxed about all sorts of things, almost as if I’ve had a big long holiday.

But I’m ready to go home now, and I can tell because as well as missing my friends and family, I’ve started missing other things as well. Proper bacon, having my own bedroom, the BBC, normal plug sockets and road signs, familiar accents, the furniture in my parents’ house, people tutting. I’m looking forward to going home (although not the journey to get there) and to getting back to real life.

So thank you for reading and for all the lovely comments I’ve received through various avenues, it’s been a pleasure.

“Then the wind will set me racing

As my journey nears its end,

And the path I’ll be retracing

As I’m homeward bound again.”

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Touring the Outback: Uluru

After one night in Alice Springs, I was picked up for my trip to Uluru at 6am, and I saw my second consecutive sunrise from our four wheel drive tour bus as we made the [how far] drive to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The vast majority of visitors to Alice Springs are there to see Uluru, and the handful or tour companies operating there offered broadly the same package; a three-day trip to see the three geological sites of Uluru, Kata Tjuta (or the Olgas) and King’s Canyon. As Alice Springs and Uluru are so closely associated, a lot of people assume they are close together, which I suppose they are in the context of outback Australia, but they are still a good five hour drive apart. To break up the drive, we stopped along the way at a few roadhouses, which are rural, remote service stations (sometimes doubling up as caravan parks), and in this part of the outback they all had some kind of additional purpose to entertain visitors. First was Stuart’s Well, a camel farm where for $7 you could ride a camel around the yard; second was Mount Ebenezer with a nice aboriginal art gallery; and finally Curtin Springs, which as well as having a small aviary and an emu scratching around, also had the distinction of being the last place to buy alcohol before Uluru.

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Camels at Stuart’s Well

The resort settlement near the Uluru National Park is called Yulara and has pretty much every kind of accommodation you can imagine, from fancy hotels to glamping sites, hostels to caravan parks, as well as its own airport. After a quick lunch at our campsite we picked up the rest of our group from the airport and headed to the Big Rock.

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Uluru in the late afternoon

The traditional owners of Uluru are the Anangu people, and it was to this group that official ownership of Uluru was returned in 1985, after 65 years of enforced ownership by the Australian government. One of the conditions of this return was that the land would be leased back to Parks Australia, so the park is now managed by a committee comprising members of both groups. The Visitor Information exhibition focuses seeks to educate tourists about the importance of the site in the Anangu people’s tjukurpa; the collection of folklore which makes up the history, education, religion and laws of the Anangu culture. Our guide told us more about this as we walked around parts of the rock, and he told us some of the stories associated with Uluru. Interestingly, the education structure of tjukurpa is layered; children are told the simple, most basic version of a given story, to teach them a simple lesson, and as they grow up they are given more details about that same story, teaching them additional lessons as they become more mature. This process continues throughout adult life as well, so that the oldest in society have the most knowledge and wisdom, are therefore treated with a great deal of respect. As non-Anangu, we were only allowed to be told the child-level stories, but it’s fascinating to imagine how much more detailed the stories could be.

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Cave in Uluru

Also fascinating was the tjukuritja, the physical evidence on the landscape that back up the tjukurpa stories. All of the stories in Anangu culture have a very specific location setting, so the culture is extremely closely tied with the land and the space that people traditionally lived in. As I understand it this applies to most if not all Aboriginal cultures, which must have made the European invasion even more traumatic and culturally destructive. But it was also interesting just to look at the rock up close and notice all of these physical irregularities. As well as the fact that the outback is not barren desert but covered in tough but green plants, the texture of Uluru was a huge surprise for me. In photos I had always thought it looked quite smooth, albeit with some soft creases, a bit like a pile of books covered in a table cloth. But there’s so much more going on than that; it’s covered in interesting things to look at, from round hollows and black trails left by waterfalls in the wet season, to strata lines to wave-form caves swept out by the wind. There are valleys where you can walk into the rock, caves where you can walk under it, and I only saw a small section of it. For what is essentially just a big bit of rock, there’s a lot to look at.

Sadly, however, some people are not content just to look. When the land was given back to the Anangu people in 1985, one of the other conditions was that visitors would still be permitted to climb the rock as they pleased. This is problematic for three reasons. First, it causes environmental damage, not just in the form of erosion from thousands of footprints (a pale scar is already visible where the red top layer has been worn away to reveal the grey rock underneath; this will take thousands of years to heal), but also water contamination; for some reason people urinate (and worse) on the rock while walking up, and when it rains everything on Uluru is washed down ending up in the waterholes for miles and miles around, sometimes making them undrinkable for animals. Secondly, more than 30 people have died and many more have been injured doing this walk; as well as placing a burden on the Park authorities to rescue people, the Anangu people consider themselves personally responsible for the well-being of visitors, so it causes them unnecessary distress when accidents inevitably happen.

Finally, and most importantly, it is incredibly disrespectful to the Anangu people to climb Uluru. Not only is the whole area of extremely high religious significance, climbing the rock itself is part of a specific Anangu ritual; Anangu people do not climb it unless taking part in this ceremony. Treating such a serious and spiritually important place as a jolly jaunt to get a nice photo is akin to stomping around a cathedral, laughing, shouting and taking photos during a service. And it’s worse because, although they ask people not to, the Anangu have no choice, under the terms of the 1985 agreement, but to allow people to do it.

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People walking up Uluru

Sadly, despite the explanation in the Visitor’s Centre, and the sign at the base of the rock where the climb begins, thousands of people still climb up Uluru every year. Whether through ignorance or pig-headedness I don’t know, but it broke my heart a bit

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Uluru at sunrise

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Living in Melbourne

When I told my friends in Melbourne that I’d be arriving there in late February, a common reaction was that it’s a shame that I’d be missing most of the summer. Summer is when stuff happens, I was told, when the weather’s good and there’s a lot going on. I joked that I probably couldn’t handle Australian summer, and that the temperature of winter down under would probably about the same as the average English summer. And I wasn’t much wrong.

Autumn in Melbourne is like a movie version of autumn; autumn as it should be, without the sludgy leaf mulch and wind of autumn at home. When they were building cities like Melbourne, the British transplanted hundreds of oak, ash and other European trees, so the foliage is familiar, but it’s drier and warmer so the leaves turn a more intense colour and the leaves stay crunchy when they fall. It rains sometimes, and it is a bit breezy, but the norm at this time of year is crisp, fresh air, bright, clear skies, and temperatures staying in double digits.

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The city from Treasury Gardens

Melbourne in general is a bit like being in a film. London lite; less frenetic, less sprawling. My walk to work takes me through city gardens modeled on Hyde Park, along the Yarra River and across Sandridge Bridge, and I barely ever get stuck in crowds or behind slow people dragging their feet. Trying to walk somewhere briskly at rush hour in London makes me want to elbow people out of the way, and makes me feel stressed even if I’m not running late; in Melbourne it’s quite relaxing. I’m not saying it’s a utopia – public transport is usually delayed, some parts are spectacularly ugly, property prices are high and rising – but it does have the feel of a city that knows how to enjoy life.

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The walk to work along the Yarra River

There’s a bewildering amount going on in Melbourne, even in the cooler months; food festivals, music and theatre, museums and culture, film festivals, nightlife. And sport, in a big way. Think about this statistic for a second; the Australian Football League – that’s Aussie rules rather than soccer – attracts the fourth biggest spectatorship of any league in the world. Of all the internationally popular sports, all the major games in the world, a sport which is only played in, and barely known outside of, a country of 23 million people, is only beaten in in-person viewing numbers by three other sports. Consider also that game is only really popular in the southern part of the country (Queensland and New South Wales are all about rugby), and that half of the eighteen teams in the AFL are based in Melbourne. Conclusion: people in Melbourne are really into their footy. I experienced this in May when I went to the Melbourne Cricket Ground to see the Sydney Swans play the Hawthorn Hawks, after some enthusiastic tutoring from my work colleagues. It’s essentially like an anarchic version of rugby without the scrums, and you can more or less do whatever you want. As if to highlight a chaotic feel of it, when the ball goes out of bounds, instead of being given to the opposing team the linesman chucks it back into play backwards over his head. It all makes for a fast paced game without much stop-starting and lots and lots of running, which makes it easy to get into. Added to the fact that the crowd was much more diverse in all senses (age, gender, ethnicity) than a football game in the UK, it all made for a very enjoyable time.

What I like so much about all of this, is that Melbourne is essentially an inward-looking city. It doesn’t get the international attention that Sydney does, and so you get the feeling that, rather than being designed to bring visitors into the city, all of these events and festivals are there for the benefit of Melbournians themselves. If other people want to come and enjoy it then great, they’re very welcome, but there is enough of an audience in the city and its suburbs to sustain an endless array of culture and entertainment regardless. It’s a kind of quiet self-confidence, a humble satisfaction, and a real willingness to enjoy life, that makes Melbourne an excellent city to live in.

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Flinders Street Station

But, my work contract is ending, the temperatures are dropping and it’s all beginning to feel a bit much like real life for my liking. Melbourne has become home, to a certain degree, and I’ve become lazy; I’ve stopped exploring and trying new things.

Perfect timing then for a new trip, to see what else Australia has to offer. Time for some trains.

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Mekbourne from Princes Bridge

Melbourne Culture: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Melbourne is not really a tourist city. It doesn’t have iconic must-see sights like Sydney, and it’s quite difficult for the newcomer to orient themselves in the city centre as it doesn’t have an obvious central focal point. But where the city comes into its own is in its offerings of culture and lifestyle; it is home to a thriving restaurant scene, world class museums and galleries, and iconic sporting events like the Australian Open and the Melbourne Cup. During my first few weeks here I sampled as much as my time and wallet would allow, and I experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of what Melbourne has to offer.

The Good: the Paris Cat

Melbourne has a lively music and performance scene, which I sampled at the Paris Cat, one of several jazz clubs in the city. It was exactly what you’d imagine a small jazz club to be; a basement room with soft lighting, small round tables with red candles, and portraits of jazz greats on the walls. The bar along the back sold fancy cocktails and the small stage opposite was simple and intimate; it was, as the Fast Show would put it, nice.

I was there to see ‘In Our Own Words’, a one-off set of Joni Mitchell songs reinterpreted by a local jazz quartet led by Melbournian Erica Bramham. I tend to think of Joni Mitchell as a folk musician and hadn’t really appreciated how jazzy some of her music is, so I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, but it was a bit of a revelation. The quartet revisited some of more well-known tunes adding new harmonies and smooth and interesting solos, as well as some songs that were completely new to me. It was a really nice combination of familiar and new, classic and innovative and, like any good cover or reinterpretation, it gave me plenty to think about when I re-listened to the original material.

The Bad: the Melbourne International Comedy Festival

A few weeks before I went to a slightly less impressive show during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I don’t mean to say the whole festival is bad by any means; it has a very good reputation, drawing huge audiences with big names including Brits Al Murray, Tim Vine and Ross Noble (who incidentally is married to an Australian and lived outside Melbourne for several years). But I didn’t go to a big-name show with an audience of hundreds; I went to see El Jaguar in a tiny room with a capacity of about thirty, because tickets were buy one get one free. This should have been my first clue.

I should say at this point that I’m not a big fan of live comedy, because I feel so much pressure to laugh when they tell A Joke. As a fairly awkward person I can’t think of anything more excruciating than the horrible silence after a joke fails, so I find myself awkwardly laughing when I don’t find it funny, which makes me feel like a crazy person and makes me feel sad for the comic. In addition, this is all unpinned by an intense, crippling fear of getting picked on by the act to talk or god forbid come up on stage.

So imagine my horror when my group of six walked into the room to find that we made up half of the audience, and that the one-man show was made up primarily of audience interaction and improvisation. The comic, dressed like a Mexican wrestler in a mask and leotard for absolutely no reason, spent most of the hour talking to the twelve audience members and trying to make the conversations funny. If you’re thinking it seems like a high-risk strategy to rely on your audience to provide the material, you’d be right. It was occasionally amusing, often awkward, and totally excruciating. And for reasons I cannot fathom, the rest of the audience seemed to really enjoy it.

The Ugly: the Melbourne City Dumpling Walking Tour

Much more my kind of thing was my birthday present from my sister, a walking tour of the city tasting dumplings at four Asian restaurants. My guide was Monique Bayer, writer, tour guide and general foodie, who lead us around the CBD telling us the history of Melbourne generally and Chinatown specifically, interspersed with foodie recommendations and anecdotes. I spent a lovely evening trying to use chopsticks and making a mess, dropping dumplings into the sauce, eating dumplings whole and generally being an ugly, messy eater.

Thanks to Victoria’s gold rush in the 1850s, Melbourne has the second largest Chinatown in a western country after San Francisco, so the Asian food options in the city centre are many and varied. Monique took us to four restaurants, three Chinese and one Japanese, each serving a different kind of dumpling from a different region.

First stop was North East China Family where we tried steamed vegetable dumplings, reportedly the best veggie dumplings and Melbourne, which we ate with black vinegar, as is traditional (dumplings and soy sauce is a Japanese custom apparently) and chilli sauce. At our second stop, China Red, we had pork dumplings served in a Szechuan chilli sauce, and learned why food from the Szechuan region is famous for being the hottest in China. People often think the Szechuan peppercorns provide this heat, but in fact the peppercorns have a numbing, almost anesthetic effect on the mouth, allowing the tastebuds to cope with that much more chilli.

Our third stop was Shanghai Street, a small local chain where we tried Xiao Long Bao, large steamed dumplings filled with pork and a clear soup. These were definitely the most difficult and unattractive dumplings to eat; holding the dumpling on a spoon, you bite off a small corner of the dumpling wrapper and slurp out the soup, before dipping the rest in chilli black vinegar and stuffing it in your face. We ended our night in Gyoza Douraku, listening to J-Pop and eating fried Japanese dumplings filled with duck and aubergine.

I had been expecting the tour to be full of visitors like me, but it says it all that the other four participants were all Melbournians. People who live here are all about getting out and enjoying and learning about their city, and their enthusiasm is quite infectious. I came away with a lot more recommendations to add to my list of restaurants to try, as well as a comprehensive explanation of why Melbourne is far superior to Sydney. As I was heading there the next day for a weekend trip, I was looking forward to seeing for myself.

Kuala Lumpur

The contrast between Malaysia and Thailand was clear, as it had been when I entered Thailand from Myanmar, and the most striking difference is the people. Ethnic Thais make up more than 85% of the population in Thailand, but Malaysia is a mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians, who were encouraged to work in the rubber and tin industries in colonial times. These groups are culturally and religiously distinct; the Malays are largely Muslim, the Indians Hindu and the Chinese Buddhist or Christian, which makes the people-watching in Malaysia much more varied than earlier in my trip. The landscape was equally diverse on my bus journey to Kuala Lumpur, passing through flat acres of palm plantations, steep limestone mountains, and dense rainforest.

Kuala Lumpur is a city on an international scale, with skyscrapers and communications towers and a sense that Important Things happen here. It’s also very, very hot and humid and nowhere near a beach, which was tough for me. And like a big city should, it has lots of green space. Next to the Petronas towers and surrounded by gleaming glass skyscrapers is KLCC Park, a well-kept, landscaped park with fountains and a playground, always full of visitors to the city’s business district. Smaller and less manicured is the Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve, a slice of rainforest in the centre of the city, complete with a canopy walk, nature trails and the Forestry Information Centre. It is dense and hilly and attracts fewer visitors than it should, making it an excellent place to escape the big city for a while. KL’s main green space however is the Lake Gardens, towards the west of the city centre. A huge piece of land covering over 200 acres, it includes a deer park, aviary and butterfly park, as well as gardens devoted to orchids, rare trees, medicinal plants, and hibiscus. Its playgrounds, picnic benches and boating lake make it popular with families and there are a range of museums at the edges of the park.

The main attraction of Kuala Lumpur for Malaysians is not the green space, but the shopping; KL boasts more than fifty ultra-modern shopping centres selling luxury and high street brands. The majority of these are in the Bukit Bintang and KLCC areas, and in this part of the city, full of skyscrapers and designer labels, you could be anywhere in the world. I found a more uniquely Malaysian experience walking around the west end of the city; Chinatown, Little India and the former colonial centre, with it’s clock tower and intricate civic buildings that reminded me of the Brighton Pavilion. The international skyscrapers still form the backdrop in this part of town, but the foreground is all Malaysia; street hawkers, open sided canteen-style restaurants, and small bazaars in the alleyways

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Malaysia’s multi-culturalism everywhere, from the people to the religious buildings and monuments, like the Batu Caves, a cave complex designated as a Hindu place of worship for over a hundred years, with gigantic status and a 200-odd step gold-painted staircase leading up to the main cave. The language also reflects the strongly preserved cultures here; although Bahasa Malaysia is the only official language, most signs in shops and businesses are also written in Chinese and many are in English as well. A lot of advertising is in English only, and the general level of English in Kuala Lumpur is very high to the extent that I didn’t even manage to learn my ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Bahasa Malaysia; when I visited a bookshop I even found that almost all of the books on sale were in English.

Despite promoting itself as an example of multi-cultural harmony, KL is not without cultural tensions, as I learned when I was invited to a barbecue and pool party in a block of flats on the edge of the city. I chatted to a former political journalist, who explained that the political system maintains cultural divides, as the political parties are each directed at and financed by different cultural groups. In addition, he said that racism is more prevalent in cities, because the urban neighbourhoods each tend to be dominated by one group, rather than everyone being mixed together as they are in small towns.

At the same party my western companions and I caused a minor diplomatic incident when we went for a swim in the pool; we were aware of the Malaysians sensibilities about dress – respectable people are expected to have their knees and shoulders covered – so when we went for a swim we wore t-shirts and shorts over our bikinis. As we got into the water, the pool security guard told us that t-shirts were not allowed, only lycra ‘swim shirts’, and after a short discussion with our Malaysian friend, we were permitted to swim in our bikinis only. A little while later, after a complaint from one of the residents, a different security guard came over and told us that bikinis were not appropriate attire and that we should leave the pool. The caused a great deal of argument between the security guards and our party, to the embarrassment of me and the other westerners. Eventually the issue was resolved and the guards apologised to us, which was even more embarrassing. The other party guests, exclusively Indian and Chinese Malaysians, later said that the complaint had probably come from a Malay couple sitting by the pool, because it’s only the Muslim Malays who care about that sort of thing. They told us wearily that it is common for the Malays to make this sort of complaint towards other Malaysians and Westerners alike, characterising the Malays as killjoys and zealots. So much for multi-cultural harmony.

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Petronas Towers

Thanaka, betel and more

Burmese Culture

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.

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Male longyi

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;

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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…

Burma or Myanmar?

My cursory and inaccurate preliminary research suggested that Myanmar is simply the Burmese-language name for the English-language country of Burma. I don’t call other countries by their native language names like ‘Deutschland’ or ‘Italia’ therefore, so my logic went, I may as well call it Burma, which is easier to say anyway. But of course it’s much more complicated than that.

The military government changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 and this remains it’s official name, despite being unrecognised by many countries including the UK. Aung San Suu Kyi and other opponents of the government also do not accept this name, as they do not consider the military government to have the democratic authority to make this change. The majority of citizens however have accepted the name change and choose to use ‘Myanmar’.

But. One massive drawback, for me at least, is that there is no adjectival form for Myanmar (i.e. there’s no ‘Myanmarian’ as an equivalent to ‘Burmese’). I don’t think of myself as a grammatical pedant but I still can’t bring myself to use phrases like ‘Myanmar language ‘ or ‘Myanmar food’ because it just sounds wrong.

On the other hand, there’s the problem of what ‘Burmese’ is actually referring to; it comes from the ‘Bamar’ ethno-tribal group which makes up around 70% of the population, distinct from the Shan people for instance who live mostly in the north-east of the country. There are dozens of non-Burmese tribal groups living in the country, some of whom have there own states, like the Shan state which contains my destinations of Kalaw and Inlé Lake, so if you talk about Burmese culture or food you are doing so in contrast to and exclusion of any other group in the country. Similarly, these groups also have their own languages which are totally different to the country’s official language, Burmese. Myanmar is derived from the same majority ethnic group, but is considered more inclusive of other ethnic groups.

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Traditional fabrics from the Kayan tribe, and a Kayan woman with neck rings

 

So obviously it’s a bit more complicated than just two words than mean the same thing. With this in mind, I try (and often fail) to use ‘Myanmar’ when talking about the country itself, the general history and geography and borders, using ‘of Myanmar’ as the adjectival compliment if possible, but sometimes saying ‘Burmese’ if I have to use an adjective. But, I use Burma or Burmese in terms of the language, food and anything else that is specific to the Burmese people, as opposed to any other tribal group.

But usually my brain is lazy and the first word it reaches for in any situation is usually ‘Burma’.