Myanmar Facts – The country of Myanmar is full of surprises. You will be blown away by Bagan temples or by Inle Lake landscapes. But there is another side of Myanmar that you need to discover, a bit weird, funny and sometimes… crazy! 🙂 I remember when I travelled to Myanmar, I kept asking myself many questions I couldn’t find answers to. So I did my research and will now share with you what I found. You’ll definitely be surprised by these interesting facts about Myanmar Burma!
1. Myanmar Facts – Do I have something on my face? Why is everyone staring at me?
No you don’t! It’s just that the people here are not really used to seeing tourists often enough. In fact, they’ve been through quite a long stretch of political isolationism imposed by a military dictatorship. When the Burmese junta got officially dissolved and the financial penalties suspended, Myanmar reopened its borders to millions of eager tourists in 2011.
Like I said, it’s just a matter of not being used to strangers and stranger faces that look so different from their own. If you happen to like showing off and being the center of attention, you will get that and more! You will feel like a famous star hanging out in the streets of Myanmar, being spied on and having your picture taken. And it’s not something you will experience only in the more rural parts of the country, it’ll happen to you in Yangon and Mandalay as well!
2. Myanmar Facts – What about all those red spots everywhere I go?
You’ll notice those spots almost everywhere and the more you see them, the more it becomes intriguing. It’s actually what is called the betel. It’s like chewing tobacco only this time, it’s vine leaves. It’s very common for Burmese people to chew betel all day long. They don’t swallow it but then they would drink water to spit it out… everywhere they go. Red spot mystery solved.
Yes, I know, it’s gross. But it’s the cheap stuff that’s available to everyone, even to the youngest. It’s kind of sad, I agree, but as a poor people, it’s their only way to unwind.
3. Why do some local people have red or even black teeth?
Now you know what the red spots are, I’m sure you guessed the answer to this question. Chewing betel will eventually get your teeth in bright red trouble. The lime present in betel attacks the gums that become black and diseased. I hope this description will deter you from trying betel but don’t try to talk the local people out of that chewing habit. It’s a deeply ingrained addiction for most and no matter how well-meant your advice is, some will be offended by it. You can take my word for it!
4. Myanmar Facts – Why am I seeing monks everywhere?
Because one in a hundred Myanmarese people actually is a monk! If you do the math, that’s like 600,000 monks and nuns in total! In Myanmar, there’s like a rite of passage where most people get to spend some time in monasteries when they’re children and later at the age of 20 so no wonder you’ll have the impression that everyone is a monk there.
Monks’s responsibility is to pass on Buddhist teachings but they also play an important role within their own societies. They are deeply respected, their opinion is highly sought-after and they can work to draw senior government officials’ attention to certain social issues in order to facilitate their resolution. They also have a considerable political clout, they led the 2007 non-violent protests (you’ve probably heard of the Saffron Revolution) and the military government made a bloodbath out of it all.
5. Myanmar Facts – Are those right-hand drive cars in a right-hand traffic country?
British settlers brought right-hand drive vehicles to Myanmar when they colonized it so people would normally drive on the left side of the road. In 1974 however, General Ne Win’s astrologist warns him against the rising communist power and suggests, as the faithful and clever adviser she was, that people should start driving on the right side of the road to counteract the increasingly popular communist “trend”, arguing that driving on the left side of the road works in favor of the communist movement. Genius!
Do you think Ne Win needed more logical arguments? Of course he did, but that doesn’t prevent him from changing traffic regulations overnight. So now, we’re in a right-hand traffic country…with right-hand drive cars. I’m sure you can picture the mess it created. If you don’t, you’re probably asking yourself this next question!
6. Why is everyone honking all the time?
In some cultures, horn honking is a way of communicating various degrees of negative attitudes towards fellow drivers. It could be understood as a kind and harmless “move, asshole!” or as less forgiving insults. In Myanmar however, drivers honk like American snow skiers warn the skier in front of them that they’re about to pass them. It’s more like a “I’m coming!” kind of horn honk. It’s nothing offensive really, it’s just a very unique… driving etiquette let’s say.
As you might have guessed, honking is a habit that became part of the Myanmarese everyday life since Ne Win decided to change traffic regulations. And since everyone drives right-hand drive vehicles, it’s a bit of a challenge to see what’s going on on the road. Overtaking other cars suddenly seems so much fun! You can imagine how handy horn honks can be in these situations. Somebody should be thanked for that!
7. Myanmar Facts – Why were there 90 and 45-kyat bills during the Burmese dictatorship?
I’m not kidding! Those bills are (or were) real. Myanmar can thank the General’s astrologists again for this nonsense and the confusion it caused. It was because they let him know that 9 was his lucky number. With lucid determination and from then on, he decided to issue bills that were multiples of 9. Can you imagine the mess it made? It didn’t (or couldn’t) last long anyway; it was quick to take its toll on the local economy and the military government quickly restored the usual bills. Crazy, right?
On a less absurd (but equally comical) note though, a demonstration led by monks on the 27th of September 2007 was suppressed by the government because it was thought that if you add up the date’s numbers, you’d get 9. Like in 2+7=0+9=2+0+0+7=9. Seriously.
8. Myanmar Facts – I saw many mosques in Myanmar, aren’t Muslims persecuted here?
This is a controversial topic. Long story short, the genocide that is actually taking place in Myanmar is more of an ethnic than a religious problem.
The whole issue revolves around the Rohingya people who live in the western part of the country and who happen to be Muslims. It all started when a Buddhist monk, who couldn’t possibly be less Buddhist, called for the extermination of the Rohingya people. Pretty crazy for a monk, I’d say.
Anyway, outside of Arakan where the Rohingya people live, Muslims and Buddhists get along very well everywhere else in Myanmar. There are Muslim neighborhoods in Yangon and in Mandalay and nothing seems to be going wrong there. For the moment…
9. Why do they all apply a yellow paste on their faces?
That’s Thanakha. It’s used mostly by women and by younger men to protect their skin from the sun or to avoid heavy sweating. It’s not meant to whiten their faces. Or at least they don’t mean to do so by using it.
The name Thanakha comes from the name of the tree it is extracted from. The yellow paste is obtained by grinding up the tree’s bark or wood. The trees used to produce Thanakha grow abundantly in Myanmar.
10. Myanmar Facts – Why are motorbikes banned in Yangon ?
They are! It’s probably meant to ease traffic flow, you’d say. That’s also what I thought at first, but then I had a conversation with a taxi driver. The real reason for the ban turned out to be a darker one.
You see, Yangon used to be the country’s capital so all the Army generals lived there. With the increasingly more powerful political opposition, the military government was struck with severe paranoia. It saw conspiracies everywhere and in everyone, and even feared an organized attack against it where motorbikes could come in handy, especially in downtown Yangon.
It took a lot of time and effort to radically ban motorbikes in Yangon. The thing is, the ban is still effective even after transferring the capital to Naypyidaw. It is absurd and funny at the same time but the people of Myanmar are not likely to laugh about it any time soon.
That’s it! I hope you know more about Myanmar’s everyday life city quirks or that I answered some of the questions you might be asking yourself. Please share this blog post with your friends to let them know about this unusual yet very beautiful country!
If you thought of any other questions, please share them in the comment section below. I’ll answer them as soon as I can!
See you around,