yangon travel myanmar

The Myanmar Diaries: Culture shock in the motherland

In December 2015, I departed Sydney with my parents to discover the country that I had been born in for the first time. Upon arriving in Myanmar, I was surprised to find that the country wasn’t as developed as I thought it would be. In my mind, I had been imagining a place that was as developed as Thailand.

Yangon: A city with no road rules

My stepfather had remarked to me that we were coming at an exciting time, just after the elections. As such, the country is going through a time of massive upheaval. This was apparent, as we drove through the streets of Yangon every day. Sounds of construction are heard everywhere you go, even very early in the morning. In addition to the loud noises of construction, there is constant beeping on the roads. In the West, people generally only beep to signal an angry expletive. In Myanmar, they beep to signify every possible thing. A beep could mean ‘make way for me’, ‘I’m coming through’, ‘don’t bump into me’, ‘there’s someone behind you’, ‘I’m indicating’, and so on and so forth. I heard more than one person here saying that if you can drive in Yangon, you can drive anywhere in the world. As for me, I can barely even drive in Sydney, so if I were to drive in Yangon, I’d probably be dead or have totalled the car within 30 minutes.

Truck life
Truck life

The main form of public transportation in Myanmar is by car, bus or truck. The trucks in Myanmar are a popular option among locals for cheap domestic travel- sometimes they have bench seats, but often they do not, which means that you have to sit as comfortably as you can on the back of the truck floor, which may or may not be covered with a rug. They also have these vehicles called ‘sidecars’ which they have all around the country, but I didn’t see as many in Yangon.

yangon sidecar
Sidecars in Myanmar

Often you see people spitting out red things onto the ground, regardless of location or others around. Someone had greeted me with ‘welcome to the land of red saliva’. I didn’t understand why there was a need to spit onto the ground, until I found out about what they were chewing. In Myanmar, they chew something called ‘betel’, which is a maroon-ish colour, and stains the ground red. It’s bad for your teeth, but they chew it anyway, because it’s an addictive substance, similar to nicotine. I’ve seen many men with teeth stained black from the unfortunate habit of chewing betel.

Betel for sale at roadside vendor
Betel for sale at roadside vendor

The country is starting to modernize, meaning that they have Western toilets in many places, but squat toilets are still prevalent. When I was growing up in Sydney, it was clear to me that my grandmother never used toilet paper. In our bathroom next to the toilet, we kept a small bowl. It was apparent that my grandmother filled the bowl with water and washed herself with it after she had used the toilet. This became clear to me when I touched the front of her robe one day and found it to be wet.

I never clearly understood why she did this until I travelled to Burma and saw the sprays on the side of the toilets. I found this to be very similar in function to Japan’s bidet, except that Burma’s sprays are attached to a cord next to the toilet and connected to the wall, not a part of the toilet. I tried using this spray while in Burma but can’t say that I found the sensation to be a pleasant one.

Recommendations: If you are a delicate flower petal, do not think about ever coming to Myanmar (at this point in time anyway). One reason: squat toilets. In the filthiest squat toilets here, the floors are covered with puddles of blackish water, and perhaps worse. In most restaurants in the big cities, they have Western toilets, but for the most part squat toilets are the norm. And even when there are Western toilets, supplying toilet paper is not a given.

In addition to the squat toilets, you’re also required to take off your shoes at every pagoda/temple you visit and walk barefoot on the grounds. This can include walking on dirty, betel-stained cement, dirt, and even mud.

myanmar travel pagodas
Exploring sans shoes, at a pagoda in Mandalay

Another thing I went into culture shock over is the crazy traffic here. In Sydney, there are strict road rules, one way streets, seat-belt laws, drink driving laws, speed and red light cameras. Sometimes I feel it’s a bit too much. Myanmar exists on the other side of the spectrum. There are basically no road rules here. It’s heaven for anarchists of the road. Being driven around every day, even crossing the road, sometimes makes me fear for my life. In most places in Myanmar, there are no traffic lights, and people basically drive however they want. The traffic is bad enough to make you wish you never left home.

Growing up in Sydney, because of my distinct ethnic appearance, I never felt truly ‘Australian’. Add to that, my family spoke Burmese to me at home and my mother tried (unsuccessfully) to raise me with traditional Burmese values. Even now, I never really call myself Australian, except whenever I travel, the locals will refer to me as Australian. I identified ethnically with Burmese people and referred to myself as one but it wasn’t until I travelled to Burma that I realised just how much I wasn’t Burmese at all. It’s a common source of shame for my family when their friends come over and ask if I can speak Burmese, to which they reply that I can’t, but that I can still understand. Our trip to Myanmar was filled with social visits to extended family, mother’s high school friends, and dinners with my stepfather’s colleagues, so this sense of shame increased tenfold as why I didn’t speak Burmese came up in conversation at every house we visited.

Sometimes I feel ashamed for not being interested in my own culture and for not speaking the language anymore. I feel like I’ve rejected my own culture and embraced others like Western and Japanese. I always preferred things that were exciting and different, and as a child, I didn’t care for Burmese culture or continuing to speak the language because it was already a part of me- I grew up with it, and it didn’t excite me. It didn’t help that I had a painfully strict upbringing, which further tainted the way I saw Burmese culture.

Local price/Foreigner price

In developing Asian countries I’ve been to like Philippines and Thailand, the locals will often charge foreigners much higher prices for transportation than locals. This is also the case in Myanmar, but it is much more openly acknowledged here and referred to as ‘foreigner price’. Myanmar implements foreigner prices for more than just transport, including entry fee at some pagodas and sights, as well as accommodation. For transport such as taxis, it’s advisable to ask the fee for the destination from accommodation staff, or asking a few different taxi drivers to get the best rate.

Clothing

Burmese people dress conservatively for the most part, and traditional dress is still worn much more than western clothing. University students here are also required to wear traditional dress when attending classes. Although not required unless visiting temples and pagodas, dressing modestly is recommended, unless you don’t mind stares from the locals. While walking down the streets, most of the time I would be the person showing the most skin, which attracted stares every day. On one occasion, I made a spontaneous trip to a temple in Monywa and hadn’t dressed the part, but was still allowed in (temples outside of Yangon are less strict with clothing requirements) and overheard some children saying that my skirt was short.

2015-12-23 10.18.10
Dress codes for pagoda visits

Food

Burmese food is sort of like an amalgamation of Indian, Thai, and Chinese food. I’ll say ‘sort of’ very hesitantly, because in fact, it’s difficult for me to really describe what Burmese food is like. In a nutshell, Burmese cuisine incorporates a mix of sour, spicy and salty flavors and can vary highly depending on the region you’re in, due to every ethnic minority having their own distinct cuisine.

In Myanmar, a lot of noodles, dried fish, rice, and cold salads are eaten. A ton of oil is almost always used. Western restaurants can be found easily in big cities. Cafeteria style restaurants are common here, in which ready made food is kept on display, and customers are able to pick which ones they’d like.

Eating out in Myanmar is relatively cheap, the average being about $3-$4AUD for a main dish in a restaurant, and cheaper for street food.

myanmar travel food
Myanmar’s national dish- Mohingar: vermicelli noodles in a fish based soup
myanmar food
Food on display at a Burmese cafeteria style restaurant

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myanmar food
A traditional Burmese dessert ‘shwe yin aye’

Things I missed about Sydney (that I never thought I would miss):

  • Toilet paper
  • Flushing toilets
  • ROAD RULES
  • hot showers
  • TRAFFIC LIGHTS
  • Not having to worry about mosquitoes

And despite the initial culture shock, there was a certain je ne sais quoi about Yangon, that made me not want to leave. I met a few foreigners both living and traveling in Yangon, and everyone was much more enamoured with Myanmar than I was. Everyone I met here said that they found the country exciting because it was developing and changing rapidly.

Looking back now, I think that I went through culture shock because I was unprepared for the harsh reality of traveling in a developing country. I’d never truly felt Australian in my life, but oddly enough, traveling in Myanmar made me feel Australian for the first time in my life. The smells, both unpleasant and pleasant (but mostly the former) had me wrinkling my nose in disgust for the majority of the trip. Witnessing the plight of poverty is something I don’t really have to deal with in Australia, where the rate of homeless people is comparatively low, and it was extremely confronting for me to see things like this in the country where I’d been born. Seeing Myanmar made me feel really lucky to have grown up in Australia, which I had taken for granted all my life.

I didn’t really fall in love with Myanmar until coming up to the end of my trip. Suddenly, everything that everyone had said to me finally clicked, but it took awhile. People say you never know what you have until it’s gone, and it was this that had me crying at the airport because I didn’t want to go home. I felt like a spoilt brat, because I didn’t appreciate it when I had it, and there I was at the end of the trip, crying because I didn’t want to go home anymore. It was then that everything everyone had said to me about Myanmar really started to click- it was an exciting and dynamic place, which I had unfortunately looked at critically for the majority of my trip.

4 thoughts on “The Myanmar Diaries: Culture shock in the motherland

  1. Looks extremly enjoyable! While Myanmar definitely is not comparable to any other country on this planet, it is somewhat fascinating. Definitely a place I have to see with my own eyes and review it for my blog 🙂

    • It definitely is! I highly recommend it 🙂 There are also some beautiful places in Shan state, like Hpa-An, that I never got to visit, and which I will be returning for in future.

      • There seem to be a lot of amazing places to explore in Myanmar. Definitely have to put the country on my itinerary sometime soon! 🙂

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