Here’s an excellent guest post from my mom about our travels together in Myanmar.
My first impression of Burma was a ride in a dilapidated minivan taxi from the airport into Mandalay city center. The road we traveled was a brand new, concrete, 4-lane divided highway. Go Burma! I was expecting much more modest infrastructure. One thing that bothered me immediately, however, was that the steering wheel was on the right side. Of course! Burma was British when automobiles were invented; but we were driving on the right side of the road (as invented in the USA)? Wasn’t the British tradition driving on the left (the wrong side 🙂 )?
When we were driving on the way from the hill station town of Kalaw to Inle Lake the road was narrow and had two-way traffic. The taxi driver, sitting on the right side often had to overtake other slow-moving vehicles on the road such as large buses and trucks, tractors, and even oxcarts. It was a bit nerve wracking to watch him lean left into the passenger seat to try and see when it was safe to pass. I read in the tour book that this convention started in 1970 when the government abruptly decided to “distance themselves from the British colonial masters” and started making cars drive on the right. I asked a shopkeeper why Burma didn’t change the cars also. She said because Burma traditionally could only afford to buy inexpensive cars from Japan (British tradition). Kimberly did notice, however, that some taxis in Yangon are now being imported from China. They are electric and the driver sits on the left. Hopefully buying more cars from China will help Burma get their driving conventions sorted out!
People watching was fun such as meeting friendly people on the street in Mandalay who were quick to smile, but their teeth were coated in some black material. In advanced cases, the teeth were quite rotted looking. I had read about the custom of betel nuts/chewing but to actually see this first hand in an urban (as opposed to hill tribe) setting surprised me. It wasn’t just one or two people either. I hope I didn’t stare too badly or openly cringe.. Apparently, this is still a common custom all over Burma; called “betelmania” by one guidebook.
Betel is actually the leaf of a vine related to pepper. It is a mild stimulant and also has medicinal properties as an antiseptic and breath freshener(?). One evening we stopped to watch a vendor prepare betel quid by taking a leaf, brushing it with a lime paste, sprinkling it with some cracked areca nut pieces, and folding it up into a small green pouch. Tobacco or spices can be added to the pouch also. The areca nut (mistakenly referred to as the betel nut) is also a mild stimulant and promotes salivation; without mincing words— chewing the betel quid gives you a buzz and mouthfuls of blood red saliva. The immediate effect is red teeth, gums and lips… and profuse spitting. I guess overtime the red on the teeth then turns black. (Do a google image search for “betel stained teeth” for a visual!)
I have lived in China so public spitting is not new or shocking to me. However, I did notice splashes of red liquid everywhere, even dripping down the side of buses underneath the open windows. They need to start with the youngest school children and start teaching this practice is uncool!
Burmese people also set themselves apart by their traditional dress. Both men and women wear a longyi (lowngie). I was fascinated with how simple but stylishly these unisex cotton sarong-type garments are worn. Not just in the city but in the rural areas. It is odd to see a man or woman in long pants. Even businessmen wear an ankle-length, cotton plaid longyi with a crisp, white, and long sleeve shirt. The cloth is sewn in a tube so it was fun to watch how often men would untie their longyi, hold it open in a wide circle around them for some brief ventilation and then retie it snuggly around their hips and waist.