Local Culture in Myanmar: Yangon and Bagan
Visiting Myanmar poses many ethical questions. We thought long and hard about it, weighing up the situation. In the end, I think particularly after visiting Cambodia, and seeing how much locals are in need of our valuable tourism money, we decided to go and see Yangon and Bagan. We were aware some of our money would ultimately end up in the military’s pockets (as 25% of the government is still under military control), and we felt uneasy about it. We tried as much as possible to buy local to ensure our money went to help those who need it. Most transactions are subject to a government tax, but if paying cash in hand this is likely reduced.
We love to seek out authentic experiences with locals when travelling. This is what drew us to Myanmar. As soon as we got to Yangon, we were hooked. There were locals everywhere, in traditional dress, with traditional Thanaka on their faces. In Myanmar, both women and men wear this traditional fabric as a skirt, called a Longyi. They also spread a paste made from rubbing bark from a Thanaka tree, and mixing it with water, onto their faces. They say it has sun blocking, anti-acne, and anti-ageing properties. It was rare that you’d see a local not in this attire, and even more rare to see a fellow fair-skinned Brit walking around.
We had heard about the Yangon circular train that does a loop around the outskirts of the city. This is a local train, not one aimed at tourism travel, and so passes through local areas, with local people on it. We discovered (eventually) it wasn’t running due to construction on the line. Communication can be harder in Myanmar due to lack of tourism, but the friendly locals are always willing to help and it can be fun trying to interact when neither of you speak the others language.
The platform alone was fascinating, so much going on. We decided we couldn’t miss out on this insight into local life. We bought a ticket to a station on the route (20p each), and decided to get off here, and head back on the next train going to Yangon. On the platform, we waited amongst the ladies selling different foods (including bugs!). These ladies would then get on different trains to continue selling.
Chatting with the Locals
Minglabar! The single most important thing to know when visiting Myanmar. This word means hello, and I think it’s the happiest word I’ve ever said. The minute you say it to a local, their face lights up, and an amazing exchange will happen. Whenever we saw a local staring at us on the train, we would smile and say it. They would enthusiastically try to communicate, either practising their English or through some form of charades.
We interacted with many usually after they asked for a picture with, or of us. So we would ask to return the favour, to keep interactions going, and to keep a memoir of these people. This lovely man even shared his fruit with us!
We got laughing with a family who brought their chickens onto the train. We were in stitches, and in turn they thought this was hilarious too, as for them this is just business as usual.
The train ride was eye opening. It was like having a window view (literally!) into many different aspects of Myanmar life. We saw locals hosting cock fights, farmers at work, and many different villages. It wasn’t all a laugh a minute though. We saw gut-wrenching poverty in all villages. Our eyes pricked with tears as we saw children being bathed outside in a bucket, next to their single room homes made from scrap metal.
Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda
We visited the must-see Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset (which I’d definitely recommend – it’s beautiful!). Unlike some other main temples in Asia, the locals to tourist ratio was definitely more local heavy. There were 8 different corners to pray at, according to the days of the week (Wednesday was split into morning and afternoon to coincide with the importance of 8, in their view of cosmology). You pray in a certain corner relating to many complex factors, but mainly according to the day of the week you were born. We had more pictures with locals here, and chatted to two lovely students who were trying to improve their English.
You can also help locals out just by choosing where you eat, and shop. In Yangon there are several handicraft shops you can get great souvenirs from and give the people who make it fair money (Chu Chu, Pomelo, HLA day). In Bagan we also visited Mboutik, and ate at social enterprise restaurant Sanon, who train underprivileged people in cooking, and hospitality.
From Yangon, we headed to see the ancient temples Bagan on a night bus. We loved the freedom of whizzing around on our scooters in between the temples.
In order to get ‘that instagrammable picture’, some people climb on the pagodas, damaging them, and being disrespectful (as feet are seen as the dirtiest part of the body in Buddhism). We chose not to do this, and headed to the viewpoint mounds. Yes, they are a bit busy depending on which one you get to, but at least you can have a clear conscious. TIP: If you want to see the balloons rise over the temples, time your visit between October and March, as at other times they do not fly due to the high heat.
Along with the stunning views, a real highlight in Bagan was meeting Nway Nway! We came across her local guide services and had the best day with her. She taught us more context and history about the temples, but more than this she shared Myanmar culture with us. If like me, you travel because you’re a huge culture junkie, and love hearing peoples stories she is the girl for you. We chatted about everything, from her village upbringing to her past life (yes, you read that correctly!). Her WhatsApp is + 95 945 455 2519 (you’re welcome!).
We left Myanmar with full hearts, and many memories that all started with that one word (all together now!) – Minglabar!
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