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Curiosities From…Burma

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What makes travel fun is noticing the quirky things that are unique or special to a place. Walking makes those things appear in slow motion and gives us more time to mull them over.

Here are a few of the curiosities we spotted in Burma, a series we started in Thailand and hope to continue with each country we pass through. Lluís and I often spot different things, so read/translate his list to chuckle twice as much (His post about Burma will be posted the same day as this one, and here is take on Thailand).

Water. There are several water-related curiosities so I’m dedicating a chunk of space to this category. We happened to be in Burma during dry season when much of the landscape, especially in north-central places such as Bagan and Mandalay were bone dry and desert-like. Still, water was in relatively ample supply in many places, including:

  • At gas stations. Lluís paid homage to gas stations in a recent post, and for good reason. Almost every time we walked up to a gas station for a bathroom break, one of the employees would run inside and bring us an ice cold bottle of water. Total joy on hot and sticky afternoons! They also let us fill up our regular, empty wafter bottles from jugs of purified water. They sometimes also gave us soft drinks, coffee or watermelon. Once in a while, we would come across a new gas station that had shower stalls. Those came in handy during long stretches when we camped for five or six days without a shower. It sucks putting dirty, sweaty and smelly clothes on, but those couple of minutes of having a clean face and body were nothing short of fantastic. We offered the gas attendants money, but they never accepted our cash.. “Present” is all they kept saying. Our hearts are filled with gratitude and we send good wishes and blessings to each of them and their families, a custom we have started doing with each act of kindness we’re extended.
Gas stations - our favorite place for a water stop.
Gas stations – our favorite place for a water stop.
  • Along the road in front of houses and shops. We noticed early on and found almost every step of the way clay and plastic jugs of water and a tin or plastic one, turned upside down. Thirsty? Just take the cup (don’t think about who drank out of it before you or if it was washed in-between different users’ sips) and fill up as much as you’d like. The jugs (we chose the bottled water jugs because we couldn’t always verify the source of water in the clay pots) are ubiquitous and are found outside shops, private homes, government buildings, temples, schools, at bus stops and on platforms circling trees.
Water jugs, a common site around Burma.
Water jugs, a common site around Burma.
  • In huge vats for showering. Because indoor plumbing is not everywhere in Burma and shower heads are a now and again find, many people shower outside. They basically throw buckets of water over themselves and the clothes they are wearing, and then soap up. Burma is a largely a conservative Buddhist country so men usually wear shorts and women have special shower wraps (I bought myself two of them because they are practical solutions in many places we pass through, including going to the shared bathrooms in the guesthouses we stay in and as a lightweight sleep sheet that lets me turn in a way my mummy-style silk sheet didn’t). This shower technique serves two functions, rinsing the dirt off their bodies and pre-rinsing the clothes they will wash when they finish showering. After the body shower, they pull on a dry wrap (women) or tie up a longyi skirt (men, which I’ll mention again later) and then soap up and wring out their dirty clothes.
The shower wrap and learning how to shower outside with a public vat of water and couple of buckets.
The shower wrap and learning how to shower outside with a public vat of water and couple of buckets.
  • In rice fields. Although it’s dry season, newish-looking, well-built irrigation canals along some stretches of the road allow farmers to do another round of rice planting. The spots of green were a welcome visual relief to the many shades of brown and yellow we walked by, but we were surprised to see people planting rice by hands. Big machines are too costly for this developing country.
Planting rice by hand.
Planting rice by hand.
  • As part of celebration. We ended our second month in Burma on New Year’s Thingyan and the country’s water festival celebrations. During the multi-day party (this year was officially five days but many places took the liberty of adding Sunday as a sixth day), everyone is wet and splashing water on each other everywhere. Walk down the street and someone will douse you. A Brit who spends a lot of time in Burma told us the goal, in Mandalay at least, was to empty the water from the moat circling the palace via hoses onto the streets; by the end of the week there was still water in the moat, but water levels on some streets rose calf- or knee-high. It’s a pretty crazy scene and worth seeing and participating at least once in your life.
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Happy New Year!

Tea. Since we are always thirsty in Burma’s +40 degree summer weather, staying hydrated and downing liquids is important. Luckily, besides finding frequent water jugs or buying one-liters for the standard countrywide price of 300 (now and again 400) kyats, about 25 US cents, we drank a lot of tea. Thermoses of hot tea and little tea cups (again ignore the fact that you never know when they were last used or washed) are on every table in nearly every restaurant. And, it’s free! Help yourself to however much you want. It’s hotter than hell and will make you sweat more, but every little bit helps.

Tea time.
Tea time.

Nail painting. Although nail painting is more of big-town thing for fancy occasions like weddings and not something I saw much in rural areas, the few times I saw it was consistently one-handed. Ladies only paint the fingernails of their left hand. The consistent answer I got from the multiple women I asked in different towns was that the right hand was their working and eating hand, and my take on the translation was that they wouldn’t want to chip the polish on their working/eating hand.

Skirts. Men and women here wear skirts down to their ankles. Women’s skirts are more colorful and decorative, and men’s longyis are usually a plaid pattern. Women either do a wrap and tuck tie, or tie a knot hip level; in grab the two corners of the one-size-fits-all, cylinder-tube cloth and tie a knot below their belly buttons.

Local fashion.
Local fashion.

Steering wheels and driving distances. Burmese drive on the right, like in the U.S. and Europe; Thais drive on the left like Brits. But, steering wheels here have not yet been standardized. Cars and trucks either have steering wheels on the right side of the vehicle or on the left side; both are common. When you ask people about distances, they usually answer in miles but the road markers we spotted along the way are marked in kilometers. I suppose they are moving gradually to the universally-accepted metric system.

Religious conservatism meets urban punk. Often in the early morning hours we hear Buddhist chanting. But it’s not always from monks in temples. Frequently, people turn up the volume of the morning Buddha TV program so the whole block can hear it. This is not too surprising in a country where we see pagodas everywhere. There is, however, a youth rebellion brewing. Many young people dye their dark hair red, pink, blonde or green and they sport hairdos that famous soccer players wear. Their arms, backs and chests are colored with tattoos, something the boys seem really into and that the girls are slowly following along with. Our strangest encounter was seeing these two worlds converge. During the last day of water festival in Mawlamyine, the last city we visited, about 20 or so soaking wet, goth-punk, tattooed kids wearing black studded jackets and black jeans, their faces smeared with black and white cream like extras in the movie Crow, bring their motorcycles and mopeds to a screeching halt in front of the street shrine we happen to be sitting near. Many of them get off their bikes, bow in front of the shrine, say a few prayers and then get up and light a cigarette. They hop on their bikes and continue their party mode, revving their engines and whistling as they pull away.

Festival de l'aigua, joves rebels però reverents
Rebels with faith.

Burma, you’ve certainly made an impression on us. We’ll be wondering where life takes you next as the world around you rapidly changes.

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