8 Ways Myanmar Is As Strange (& Wonderful) As You Imagine

For nearly 50 years, Myanmar (once known as Burma) was under a brutal, isolationist, socialist military dictatorship cut off from all outside contact. Although Myanmar held its first democratic elections in 2011, and trade opened up with Europe at that time, the U.S. to this day maintains a number of restrictions. When we visited in May, we were unable to withdraw local money from our HSBC accounts or use our debit/credit cards AT ALL. Just picture that: No plastic, anywhere, for a week. Definitely a first for my husband and me.

Indeed, a country isolated from the rest of the world, including American imperialism, for most of the 20th and 21st centuries, which is in the process of opening up: That makes for an interesting cultural study. Here are 7 observations we had while visiting Yangon and Bagan in Myanmar–a country with two names:

Cars with drivers on both sides. As soon as we landed our first cab from the airport, I noticed that our driver was driving on the right side of the road, the first time we’d seen that on our trip (drivers are on the left in Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia). BUT. He was seated on the right side of the car, like in countries that drive on the left. I started to check other cars, and they were a mix of both right- and left-side driver cars. Then I got curious about the brands of the cars. Mostly Toyota, some Hyundai, some Mazda. All Asian.

Which led me to one conclusion, confirmed by local media: During their many years of isolation, Myanmar took whatever cars they could get their hands on. That meant that although the country drives on the right, they got some vehicles from places that drive on the left (like Japan). And then, even with the country open to imports now,  many people are too poor to buy another car, so the government kept regulations loose.

No Starbucks! This didn’t come as a surprise as much as a shock: to actually be in a place where there is no Starbucks and there is no McDonalds. I have never in my life been to a city where there isn’t a Starbucks or McDonalds. But as I looked around, I realized there weren’t hardly any American or European brands in the country. The only brands we saw advertised or in person were Nestle (Nescafe) and Red Bull. Which makes sense: of course the companies with no principles or standards, that sell junky sugary crap that makes Americans fat, would be the first to adventure into the country to take advantage of this new market. (Not sure what that says about us, either…) This, of course, gave us even more opportunities to check out the local fare:

street food Myanmar bugs and durians

Street food in Yangon, Myanmar: fried bugs and durian fruit

A traditional take on makeup. Nearly all women and children wear yellow makeup on their faces, especially their cheeks—it’s known as thanaka, a paste made from sandalwood tree bark that helps protect their skin from the sun, we were told…but also is used as a style statement (I saw one teenage girl wearing hers in the shape of bunny ears).

thanaka face paint in Myanmar

Non-western clothing. In every country we’ve visited so far—Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong—people more or less dress the same as Westerners: Jeans, t-shirts, maybe a collared shirt. But in Myanmar, most men wear traditional wrap-around sari-like skirts, known as longyi. Women wear the same skirts and conservative, loose-fitting tops to their elbows—more skin showing is almost unseen. Seeing people wearing brands like Nike and Abercrombie, which are ubiquitous elsewhere in Asia, was rare.

traditional Longi skirt from Myanmar

Olivier wearing a traditional longyi skirt at Shwedagon temple

I tried to fit in as much as possible (though I still found many people staring at me, a blonde albino as far as they were concerned, with a mix of what I can only describe as awe/terror) wearing loose-fitting clothing to my elbows and knees. On the day we visited Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s main Buddhist pagoda, in Yangon—a spot where many local tourists make pilgrimages—Olivier wore a longyi and I was wearing a tea-length wide white skirt and loose grey top. Our tour guide told me that a group had looked at me curiously (probably from the countryside who had never seen someone from outside Myanmar, she said) and explained to each other that I was a woman and Olivier was my man, probably because they were confused since I was wearing a simple solid-color skirt, and local women all wear printed bottoms.

Poverty and opulence live side by side. Shwedagon is known for its huge gold-plated cone on top that’s covered in diamonds, rubies and emeralds:

Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon Myanmar

But next to this, there was searing poverty, with people living in homes with dirt floors, clothing lines doubling as walls, no running water, selling food from pavement littered with uncollected trash. This, unfortunately, is not necessarily unusual in a such a poor country, and certainly not wonderful…but it was at times heart-wrenching to witness in person.

Myanmar food stands

apartment building in Yangon Myanmar

Despite less than desirable living conditions, people in Myanmar were incredibly kind, warm and welcoming. They made a point, too (or at least according to expats we met there) that as they brought in more tourists (and money), they did not want to become like Thailand and lose their identity.

Flashy Buddhas. Shwedagon was surreally beautiful; in Bagan, there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 rustic 12th-century temples covering the dusty desert plain. Despite their beauty, in all of the temples in Yangon and the main temples in Bagan, statues had flashing colored lights forming halos around the top of each Buddha’s head (to show the power of Buddha, our guide explained).

Again, isolationism might be to credit: When the country finally opened up to the outside world and discovered these lights, they possibly were impressed with their beauty and comparative affordability, so they went wild. Which is an unfortunate result, since the temples require nothing to boost their charm.

Obama love. Every other time I told a local that I was from the United States (and especially with kids and teenagers), they responded, “Ohhh, Obama,” and smiled while nodding approvingly. “You like Obama?” I would ask, and they would invariably say “Yes!” No matter what you think of Obama (and let it stand that both my husband and I really respect and like the guy), it is purely uneducated to say that he has made our country less respected in the world.

The opposite was true: Every place I have ever visited, including France, shares a newfound respect for the United States (and Americans) after we elected (and reelected) a black man as our president—especially one who has a rational approach of negotiating with other countries. Quite a relief after the havoc that Bush wreaked on our international reputation. Now if only we could maintain that perception…oh wait. Thanks, America, for Trump. (Universal reaction we’ve gotten to Trump…disgust.)

Everyone’s got a cellphone. Much of Myanmar is incredibly poor—as in no walls at all, walls made of tarp, clotheslines doubling as walls, rusted tin roofs, cheap plastic chairs for furniture, beds in the kitchen, dirt floors. Yet everyone has cellphones—usually smartphones—and is busy taking lots of selfies. Even the monks:

Myanmar monk with cellphone

This, I think, is fantastic…or is if you’re a believer in technology. Cellphones hopefully mean access to the internet—or it will soon in the smaller towns. And call me an optimist (I would call myself a pessimist or, at best, a “realist”), I think access to information online has the potential of being a great equalizer.

photo with monks in Bagan Myanmar

These monks approached us in a temple in Bagan, Myanmar and asked to take a photo!

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