Verfasst von: rbontour | Januar 31, 2011

Myanmar Culture, Authentic Stories & Travel Etiquette

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Myanmar Photos

January 17th, 2011 – Myanmar is full of a mind-blowing and diverse mix of cultures. Every day we are experiencing a mosaic of ethnic groups while exploring cultural treasures from a new and unique perspective. A known fact: There are certain cultural practices or behaviors that people do in other parts of the world. In our opinion, Myanmar has some very extraordinary behaviors to offer! Here are some basics as well as some authentic stories, which we experienced on our journey so far:

Two German Mafiosi & “Secret” Money Deals
Exchanging foreign currency is only possible on the black market and besides US$ (and increasingly the Euro) you cannot exchange any other currency in Myanmar. If you go to an official bank, you would currently receive ~450 Kyat (the local currency) per 1 US$. On the black market you receive around 820 Kyat per 1 US$. Big difference, huh?

The so called „Money Dealers” on the black market only accept certain serial numbers of US$ notes. They are extremely picky! The notes have to be crisp and brand-new – no breaks or folds. Conforming to all of these requirements was a bit challenging… back in Bangkok, we had to find several bank branches, which were able to give us new dollar bills with the correct  serial numbers. It was definitely not easy! And withdrawing money directly in Myanmar is also not possible. There are no ATM machines and credit cards are unheard of.

Once we arrived in Yangon, it took us several hours to find our “right secrecy traders” – we needed honest guys, as the dealers we met on the street corners were simply not trustworthy. They have their special tactics and all of them had one goal: to rip us off!! It was crazy and we could write one full blog about their cheating techniques, but there are more important things to discuss here…

Well, finally we found some shops and we started our money deals. Still, we felt like members of the Mafia!!! We changed smaller amounts of US$ in several different street-side shops. Once we entered the store, we were brought into a shady corner. They offered us three chairs – one for money stacks, one for Robert to sit and count, one for Brigitte to sit and count. (This scene must have been hilarious if we would have it on tape, but obviously this was not possible). The “corner”, in which we sat, was not a real hidden corner. It was still damn visible from pedestrians walking by, because all of these street shops (usually selling water, snacks or magazines) are tiny. By the time we sat down, around 4 to 6 men surrounded us. We negotiated, bargained and finally agreed on the rate. Then the counting and dealing began: Robert on one seat counting the Kyats (hundreds of 1,000 kyat notes for a couple hundred US$), Brigitte on the other seat piling 10,000 kyat stacks, separating them with a rubber band. The shop owner – alias “The Godfather” – sat only a few meters away from us. He constantly pulled out tons of money stacks from black plastic bags and handed them over to us. Of course, the entire gang (all of them were Indo-Myanmari guys) didn’t stop staring at us. They closely watched all our movements or actually, they stared. It was so annoying that we felt like punching them in the face, but after the dealing was over, they grinned over both ears and probably thought: „Ahhh, these meticulous German dudes!“ We didn’t care anymore. This was actually fun and we left their „secret corner“ with black plastic bags of money in our hands! Gosh, this was surreal almost… and for sure unforgettable!

Theravada Buddhism & Monk Encounters
Compared to Thailand, Buddhism permeates many more aspects of social life in Myanmar. We constantly see locals praying and meditating in the country’s beautiful and pompous pagodas (temples). There are also over 50,000 monasteries and we encounter monks literally everywhere. We like it; it’s something new for us and it’s interesting to watch them or their interactions with the people. They are treated respectfully and kind by everyone. For instance, when we travel with local buses, we notice that people usually give their seat to a monk if no other place is available. Although the population is so poor, the nation is very giving and generous towards Buddhism (or monks) as their belief promises the re-birth of your soul in a new body.

In every city we could see hundreds of monks in the early morning or shortly before sunset marching through the main streets. Every one of them carries a black bowl with both hands. Then, locals start to come out of their houses and they donate either food or money. In theory, monks are allowed 2 meals per day (only in the morning); meals after 12 PM until the next day are actually not allowed and every monk should basically live off alms only. Interestingly, all Myanmar Buddhist men are expected to live in a monastery for at least twice in their lifetime. At first we thought that this might be the reason, why we run into so many monks…

Well, but some truthful locals taught us better. Unfortunately, you encounter more and more “fake monks”. The reason for it is a simple act of survival. Hunger, poverty and a corrupt military regime are the population’s primary sorrows. Many parents don’t earn the money necessary to feed their children. Hence, families start sending their boys (or girls) in a monastery (or nunnery), hoping the community is “giving” enough so their children will survive. Others choose an undercover life as monks in their adulthood when there is no way out. It’s sad when a peaceful religion, such as Buddhism, is overshadowed by poverty and fake devotees. But somehow we can even understand this development. After all, we see the poor living conditions of the people around us with our own eyes!

Restricted Areas & Government Permits
It’s definitely not simple to get around in this country. Some small distance bus rides take forever. We remember one unique bus ride from Bagan to Mandalay – it took us 8 hours of driving on bumpy sand and dirt roads in order to cover a distance of about 150 km. In some places you only have a boat or bus leaving once or twice a week. If we wouldn’t have planned carefully, we would have easily got stucked in a place for too long. In addition, we researched in advance, which regions or states should be avoided by tourists, or let’s say, the government doesn’t allow tourist to go there… for whatever reasons – maybe some special plantations they don’t want us to see?! Especially the border areas to China and Thailand are not considered as safe. Some regions are only accessible by air and you need to purchase a special permit to get there – the money for the permission goes to the military and not to the ones in need – the people! Paying a fee to the regime seemed inappropriate and ridiculous to us, so we didn’t do it. And even more ridiculous is the waiting time to get this piece of paper – between 1 to 4 weeks. Hence, we always traveled on ‘normal roads’ and we used private transportation, which are buses, trishaws (passenger bicycles), horses- and ox carts.

Talks About The Regime
We learned that we really should not ever start a conversation about the junta or politics in a public area. You could seriously endanger a person’s safety. Military spies are common all over the country (reminder: 400,000 soldiers). Luckily, we never noticed somebody following us, which is good!

Still, the government is constantly mentioned in our conversations with locals. They always know a way around paying an entrance fee that goes to the regime. The people’s frustration about the situation in the country can be felt and we sense that people here must feel like in prison. We never take a standpoint though (reminder: spies); a simple nod and a short “aha, interesting” is enough.

In regards to foreigners, everything has to be reported. In whatever accommodation we sleep, we have to fill out a detailed form including our passport numbers, occupations, etc. Our hotel or guesthouse has to report it to the government every night (according to a guesthouse owner we spoke to). We even had to give our passport details when we jumped on a 1US$ / 15 minute ferry ride from Yangon to Dalah. There was one entrance for locals, another one for foreigners. We had to sit down with one official, show him our passport, answer some questions and after a 5 – 10 minute form filling procedure we finally received the ticket.

War Paint Or Sun Block?
Wherever we go in Myanmar, we always see women and children with yellow spots (paintings) on their faces. At first we thought this could be a Buddhist custom, although the colors also look like some kind of facial warrior painting. But neither of the two is true. The paint is locally grown thanaka (sandal-wood), grounded into a yellowish paste. People use it as a sun block and skin moisturizer… or maybe it’s just “Myanmari fashion” as we read that thanaka is only used with a lot of imagination as a sun block. Still, it looks interesting; it gives their faces a unique appearance – a cultural distinction which can only be seen in Myanmar (as far as we know).

Spitting – A National Phenomenon
We have to admit that it took us a while to get used to the look of people’s faces, especially men’s faces. Most Myanmari men have quite ugly looking red lips and discolored teeth. While you talk to them they always chew something and suddenly they start spitting out red saliva right next to you. You can see red spit on the streets literally everywhere. Let’s face it: it looks disgusting, but you get used to it. Different cultures, different habits!
What they actually chew and spit are red betel nuts, mixed with tobacco and calc (limestone paste). Limestone is spread on a betel nut leave, and then they add the chopped nuts plus some chewing tobacco and wrap it all together. You can purchase your daily “quid” or “betle nut dose” on nearly every street corner. The mixture is supposed to energize you (bus drivers chew it to stay awake), but most men are simply addicted to it. Bus drivers spit their red saliva in transparent plastic bags while driving… we often had a seat in the very front – just envision this delicious sight and the wonderful noise when you try to fall asleep on a 15 hours bus ride?!

Well, there are so many things to talk about the Burmese culture. We have some more stories for you in our next, and final, Myanmar blog entry. In the next report we will focus more on the people and families we met, their incredibly poor lives and customs, which in many ways changed our perspectives and way of thinking.

Read more about our experiences in Burma:
Understanding Myanmar – A Country Suspended in Time
Encounters We Will Never Forget

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Responses

  1. Hello R&B, great to read and I’m astonished as I was expecting more freighting stories but you have been smart and avoided all of this, was nice to read and I’m ready for the next report, take good care Dad

  2. Brigitte,

    I am working at a bank right now and its funny because I had a customer a few weeks ago who was traveling to this region and she made it very clear she needed extremely crisp, new bills otherwise she would not have any chance of exchanging money! Made me laugh when I read this. Im glad you are having a great time. You’re so fortunate to be able to experience all this! Take care and keep in touch.. I’ll be sure to continue reading your blog =)

  3. Great stories Brigitte and Robert! I’m glad you’re enjoying it and managed to stay away from the unsafe areas. Take care and continue to travel safe!

  4. Liebe Brigitte, lieber Robert, soeben habe ich die Bilder von Myanmar gesehen. Ich muss feststellen, dass ihr euch ganz schön was zutraut. Aber ihr seid ja zu zweit, was Gold wert ist. Man kann es nicht glauben, dass das alles echt ist und ihr mitten drin. Seid nur vorsichtig und passt gut aufeinander auf. Ich bete zwar taeglich für euch, aber wie es in der Bibel heisst: man soll nichts herausfordern, aber das wisst ihr wahrscheinlich selber. Ich kann nur hoffen, dass es euch gesundheitlich gut geht und immer die Kraft habt das immer wieder“Neue“ gut zu verkraften.
    Freue mich schon auf ein Wiedersehen, das wird bestimmt ein grosses Fest werden.
    Ganz viele Bussis an euch beide
    Eure im Gebet verbundene Oma

  5. Hallo Schwesterherz und Schwager in Spee… Tolle Berichte schreibt ihr über Burma und so echt super und endlich verstehe auch ich sie ganz weil sie halt einfach auf Deutsch sind… Und das ich noch erwähnt werde mit meinem Song Lungaharing… War übrigens net meiner sondern der vom Söllner Hansi… also schöne Reise wünsch ich euch noch schöne Grüße aus Bayern… Lg Chris and Family…


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