Myanmar – The land of Pagodas and Gold
Myanmar, a not-so-common destination, holds several surprises for a new traveler. Here is what to look forward in the land of Pagodas and Gold
Looking for inexpensive air tickets is one of my favourite pastimes. From Skyscanner, an app to look for cheaper tickets, I recently found that Indigo has started a new flight from Kolkata to Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar which was previously called Rangoon. (It's not just the Indians, the Burmese have also been renaming their cities after they gained independence from the British in 1948). I could get a return ticket for twelve thousand rupees.
Myanmar is quite an inexpensive country. The costs are less than half for similar services you find in India. It is also very clean. People are friendly. Not many Indians have started visiting Myanmar, so you are likely to stand out, but that’s okay because you are likely to enjoy the attention the local population pays you.
The Burmese culture and language have evolved over the years and they have a strong Indian influence. Myanmar was a vassal state to many Indian empires especially the Mauryan empire, the Pallava empire, and the Kadamba empire. We can still see the strong influence these empires have created in the local life.
There are many cultural similarities between the culture of Tamilnadu and Myanmar. The men wear longyi (like the lungi worn by Tamils and Malayalees); women apply turmeric or Tanaka to their faces in the morning, local people eat dosa for breakfast, and jasmine flowers are offered in temples and pagodas. There are also many Murugan temples in Myanmar. The people are obsessed with gold and the colour of gold.
People seem to have some amount of discipline in Myanmar. Traffic is a bit orderly in the big cities. Even construction workers eat their lunch in a disciplined way, at least in big cities like Yangon.
For those who enjoy seafood, Myanmar is a little heaven. Many eateries suit all budgets and the prices are comfortable for a backpacker. Myanmar has a long coastline and the Rakhine (a coastal state) food is very popular among the locals.
The religion in Myanmar before the advent of Emperor Ashoka’s Buddhism is difficult to guess. There are still some temples dedicated to the early pagan or tribal religions in the remote parts of Myanmar.
Even though a British colony, vehicles in Myanmar drive on the right; there are only a few British colonies in the world where they drive on the right.
There are very few educational institutions in Myanmar. Most of the learning used to happen in Buddhist monasteries. Western education that is science-based is a recent phenomenon. Salaries for teachers are good and the teachers command a lot of respect.
The Myanmar national museum in Yangon has many historic artefacts which are not normally found in Indian museums. There were prehistoric fossils of many sea animals, Stegdon tusks, bones and teeth. Some of the fossils are dated from 55 million years.
There is a majestic Lion Throne in the main museum. The British had taken (looted) it to their imperial capital (Kolkota) once they conquered Burma in 1885. It was returned to Myanmar by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1948 when Myanmar gained its independence from Britain.
VIP culture is quite prevalent all over the country. You can see VIP areas and priority seats marked in public areas -- a possible British legacy. Safety is sometimes taken for granted in Myanmar. The buses occasionally meet with accidents on long trips to the northern cities from Yangon.
It was interesting to find that there aren’t any safety demonstrations on domestic flights. Everybody boarded, and the flight just took off.
The banking system in Myanmar is just developing. Cash is still king. Credit and debit cards are only accepted in modern shopping malls.
There are still no more than a 1000 ATMs in the country. At the beginning of 2012, there were none. Since the Burmese are keen on gold, most of the Burmese families keep some amount of gold at home. It won't be a bad idea for an entrepreneur from India to start a gold lending business. There are some microfinance companies in Yangon.
Myanmar has some of the purest gemstones and oldest forms of amber available in the world. Amber is an ancient tree sap fossilized and crystallized into a precious stone. It is used in jewellery and traditional medicine. Some amber stones have insects embedded in them. There is even a little amber museum in Yangon for you to check out.
There is no tipping anywhere in Myanmar. People just don't expect it. They give you change back to the last kyat. There are still many villages in the country without electricity. Solar lighting is provided in most of the tourist areas. If you are going off track, it's a good idea to buy a battery-based torch. Also, in the dark, it is a great way to look at the naked sky to see the stars and sometimes even the milky way.
People in Myanmar are obsessed with cleanliness. While travelling in Bagan (a northern city where there are many ancient monuments), my guide was seen cleaning the pagodas which were made dirty by the visiting tourists.
Wearing slippers and longyi to offices or public areas is accepted and even encouraged by the locals. So if you are travelling from South India, do not forget to carry your lungie. You can easily merge with the local population and become one among them.
(Edvin Varghese is a Bangalore-based entrepreneur. Travelling to remote places to understand its culture and people is his passion.)