Published on May 5th, 2014 | by Damien Currie
6 things you’ll probably learn in Burma
Read time: a bit over 3 minutes
Burma (Myanmar) is a South East Asian country totally unlike any of its neighbours. If you’re looking for culture, adventure and an epic travel experience, then Burma should be at the top of your list (or at least in the top three).
Traces of the British colonial past are scattered around the country while at the same time you can see 21st century culture start to creep in as the nation opens itself up from years of solitude. Now is the time to visit before the swarms of tourists flock in and the magic of what Burma is today starts to fade.
The Burmese locals are quick to welcome you with the warmest smile you’ve seen in your life and can offer an experience unlike anything you’ve probably seen before. So here are some things you’ll (probably) learn on your next adventure there:
1. Dressing like a local is the only way to dress
The art of dressing appropriately for the searing heat as well as modestly to respect the conservative culture can get real tricky. One easy way is to do as the locals do and whack on a longyi – a male skirt-like item that you’ll find almost all men wearing. Pick one up from a market for a couple of dollars and not only will you always be appropriately dressed, but locals will appreciate you embracing their culture.
Expect a lot of smiles from them and the occasional photo request. Sometime they’re just as fascinated with you as you are with them. Practice tying it before you leave the hotel and until you master it you should probably avoid going commando.
2. Don’t mention the government
Unless a local brings it up with you first, it’s a good idea to steer clear of this conversation. Even discussing Aung San Suu Kyi and her party could potentially get a local in trouble if the wrong person overhears.
3. How to avoid the crowds
Although a lot of Myanmar has been left untouched by Western culture there are still some popular hot spots where you’re sure to find overpriced souvenirs and busloads of tourists. An early morning walk along the ‘suburban’ backstreets is a great way to get a glimpse of authentic Burmese lifestyle.
4. How to beat temple fatigue
One Burmese town, Bagan, can brag about having more temples than you can probably deal with – around 3000 of them. Even if you tried you probably couldn’t hit all of these up in the one visit. Take suggestions from your guide of the best ones to visit and try to get there at sunset for that perfect Instagram. Jump on an electric bike (E-bike to the locals) to get around easier.
If you’re looking for a way to see all these temples in one hit then Bagan has just the answer: a sunrise hot air balloon ride. Do your homework and book well in advance to ensure availability. It will probably be the most expensive thing you do in Myanmar, but also one of the best.
5. The local produce is delicious
The Burmese nightlife is tame in comparison to nearby Thailand and Cambodia (places that serve alcohol all basically close at 10pm, even earlier outside main cities) but there is still booze to be drunk after hours. A small bottle of Mandalay Rum can cost anywhere from 40c to a few dollars. Stock up during daylight and take the party back to your hotel room when the Myanmar Beer stops flowing in the bar. Mix rum with tamarind juice for the perfect nightcap.
6. History is better with a cocktail
Start by tasting the gin-based Pegu Club cocktail at the colonial Strand Hotel down by the river in Yangon. If you know where to look then take the chance to check out what’s left of the original Pegu Club just out of the main city centre. Built in the early 1880s, the Pegu Club was the place to be seen in Colonial Burma and home to the birth of the Pegu Club cocktail in the 1920s.
The building still exists today, albeit a derelict shell at risk of collapse. It’s one of those places you need to know where it is to stumble upon it. Burmese squatters now call this place home but if you keep a low profile you’ll have no trouble wondering though this old building and letting your imagine run wild.