Last Updated on May 5, 2021 by Soumya
One of the many reasons I loved Myanmar was its people and the exotic Burmese culture.
Apart from the stunning temples of Bagan, the pristine white beach of Ngapali and the undiscovered ruins of Mrauk U, the people of Myanmar fascinated me. They always had smiles to welcome me into their land.
In this post, I intend to write about Burmese people and touch upon bits and pieces of Myanmar culture and lifestyle.
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How to experience Myanmar culture: 8 meaningful things to do
I know Burma has been in the news quite often in recent years for not-so-good reasons. Life has been unfair to many. Yet, when you look into the eyes of a kid in Ngapali, the restaurant-owner in Bagan, or the vegetable vendor in Yangon, you realize that the common man wants to smile at you. He wants to live his life in peace and he wants to spread happiness. This post is a tribute to that indomitable human spirit that keeps rising from the ashes. This post is a tribute to the amazing people of Myanmar.
Thanaka – The Omni-Present Facial Mask
When you arrive in Myanmar, the first thing that will strike you is the ubiquity of Thanaka. Thanaka is a creamy-white paste made by grinding the bark/roots of the thanaka tree and is applied on the face and arms to prevent them from sunburns. It is also believed to provide a cooling effect in the hot Burmese weather.
Thanaka is something similar to the sandalwood paste (Chandan) of India. However, unlike the limited use of Chandan in matters relating to God, Thanaka is quite commonly used by the Burmese: men and women alike. Thanaka has been used by the Burmese for centuries and is an essential part of their daily lives today.
Longyi – Traditional Dress of Myanmar
The traditional Burmese longyi is worn by literally everyone in the country: old and young, men and women. The longyi is a long piece of cloth that goes all the way to the ankles from the waist. It is wrapped around the waist and tied securely by a knot. I know it sometimes sounds a little illogical about how such a long piece could be held together by just a simple knot! But it is possible. And the experts know how to do it.
When you look closely you will notice subtle differences between the longyis of men and women. The male longyi, called the “Paso”, usually has stripes or checks whereas the female one, called the “Htamein”, has floral prints. Men can wear their pasos upside-down too, it will not make a difference. But htameins need to be worn only one way because of the presence of a belt on the top. Different Burmese ethnicities have different styles too.
Local Markets – The Veins of Myanmar
Local markets of Myanmar are the lifelines of this country. Here you can find anything starting from nondescript pieces of kitchenware to really gorgeous pieces of wedding attire. There is a separate area where fresh vegetables and fish are sold. Whenever you need anything at all you just have to make a trip to the local market near you.
You will see a million different colors in these markets and lots of smiling faces. The shops are typically managed by women and kids can be found running small errands or playing on the market floor. Markets can be permanent or temporary. Permanent ones have covered shops assigned to vendors whereas temporary ones are usually open and on the ground – mostly used for fresh produce. Temporary ones meet a few times during the week.
Art & Handicraft
The art of Myanmar fascinated me. I could see evidence of Burmese love for art and handicrafts everywhere we went on our 2-week trip to Myanmar. Paintings like the ones above were only too common in Bagan. At each of Bagan’s pagodas, you can a spot a few (sometimes even more) artists selling their beautiful paintings. While it is easy to appreciate them, it is quite difficult to fathom that these are actually made by sprinkling sand on paper. Yeah, you heard it right! These are called Bagan Sand Paintings. These paintings usually depict murals found within the temples of Bagan and are a big draw for tourists here.
Another interesting art form of Myanmar is that of Pathein Umbrellas. These beautiful, colorful pieces are apparently the most sought-after souvenirs in the country. People of Pathein started making these umbrellas first out of paper more than a hundred years ago. Cotton, silk, and satin followed. Even though you can see these umbrellas at many tourist sites today, the industry is dying. Inexpensive, nylon variants have replaced the original, graceful designs. Hopefully, this post can do a little in spreading awareness about these pretty things.
Spirituality and Religion
Religion is a big part of the Burmese way of life. The predominant religion is Theravada Buddhism practiced by nearly 88% of the population. The remaining 12% are religious minorities. Religion has been a controversial topic of late in this country which is why I prefer not to delve too deep here into the distribution.
Monks are highly revered by the people of Myanmar. There are special ceremonies when a young child is given up for monkhood. You will see a number of these younger monks at the pagodas where worship is still offered.
People of Myanmar love their food. A meal in this country is not a small affair. A lot of effort goes into the cooking and then a good bit of time is spent eating and appreciating the food. My favorite dishes from the region were some of the salads and a delectable shrimp curry from the state of Rakhine. The tea leaf salad and the samosa salad are really tasty dishes that you should not miss when in Burma.
People in Burma eat with their hands as in most South and Southeast Asian countries. Spoons are used for salads while Chinese-style spoons are used for soups. I have a whole post on Myanmar Traditional Food if you are interested to dig into some of the local specialties.
Means of Transport
Of course, people drive cars in the country and Yangon is a pretty modern city in that respect. But trains, buses, and tuk-tuks are common means of transport. It is interesting to ride the Yangon Circular train when you are in the city. You will be witness to the true spirit and flavors of Burma in this train. Myanmar people are fond of boats and rafts which are also commonly used on the River Irrawaddy, which flows from north to south of Burma.
Fish and Fishing Villages
Burmese love their fish. It is an important component of all meals. Both freshwater and seawater fish are used in abundance. Fish are eaten fresh, dried, or in the form of a paste in other curries. According to Myanmar Times, a total of 520 freshwater fish species have been recorded in the country, 21 of which were discovered earlier this year in 2018. Myanmar has a long coastline and hence, a number of fishing villages. Early morning fish markets are filled with a lot of activity. You must visit one if you wish to experience authentic Burma.
If you wish to find out more about the fishing village of Thandwe and other activities surrounding it, click here.
Myanmar is a culturally-vibrant country. And the fact that it was closed to international influence for a very long time makes a lot of the customs and traditions unique.
I loved the time I spent in this adorable country. The people of Myanmar were only too friendly and made a lasting impact on us. I would love to go back on a culture tour of Myanmar and discover some more of its hidden gems.