Thursday, March 6, 2014

16 Things I Learned About Myanmar on my First Day Here

The plane crossed the Thai-Myanmar border somewhere north of the Isthmus of Kra. Looking out my window seat from 6000 meters, I saw a brown, dry, parched land. Riverbeds were dry. Acre upon acre of what looked like rice paddy lay fallow and dead. These were my first impressions of Myanmar.

As we approached Yangon, river deltas appeared, and the brown of the slow moving waters replaced the browns of dormant agriculture. Bits of green began popping up here and there. Irrigation was working. See, it is the height of the dry season here in this part of Southeast Asia. It hasn't rained in Bangkok in months and I'm sure the same conditions apply here... but it was so visible from up above.

Yangon Airport itself was surrounded by green, and not much else. I had just flown out from Suvarnabumi International, Bangkok's glittering brand new airport and as fine, big and modern as any airport I've been in in my life. Yangon Airport was a single terminal. There were four other planes on the tarmac when mine landed. In America, it was the kind of airport you might see servicing a small city of 200,000 or so. A Reno. A Sioux Falls. A Lexington. Yangon has somewhere between 2 and 3 million people (no one is quite sure as there hasn't been a census here in 31 years).

Mind you, I'm not complaining about this dinkiness. I found it quaint.

What did I know about Burma? Myanmar? Not much. In my adult lifetime, the country has been closed, known for its dictatorship. It's been a 'rogue state', doing things their way and not giving a hoot about the rest of the international community. I was thinking my attempt to get a visa on arrival might end up like something out of the movie 'Argo'.

Far from it. I breezed through immigration and customs. There were no lines. I was one of the last from my flight to pass through the check points, and the ladies sitting at their stations (there were plenty) were already beginning to sit idly or gossip with the lady at the next check point. It might be a while before the next international flight arrives.

My first real sensory experience of Myanmar was the odor, the smell, the fragrance. Even domestically, one thing you'll notice coming out the sterilized environment of an airplane into a new place is a difference in the air. Myanmar smells Indian. I've never been to India, but I know that fragrance from Indian restaurants. I've also had many encounters with Indian people who themselves exude this particular scent. It is by no means an unpleasant scent. It doesn't stink. It is very distinctive, however, and here, it is everywhere. It's like a mix or turmeric, curry and patchoulli, but like none of them individually. In any case, I'm sure I'll simply get used to it after a while and stop even noticing it. I took a shower just now at the end of my first day. Smelling my pits, yup, I'm already starting to smell that way too.

Now this blog is at risk of becoming far too rambling if I explore each of my observations in detail. Time for bullet points.

Things I learned on my first day in Myanmar:

  • The world's tiniest chairs are the standard seating for street food vendors here.
  • It is true: there are no motorcycles on the road in Yangon (inconceivable for a Southeast Asian city).
  • People drive on the right side of the road, but 80% of the vehicles have the steering wheel on the right side.
  • Power outtages phase no one. I was in a supermarket with another foreign teacher today when the power went out in the store. It was the middle of the day, so there was still plenty of ambient light to see by, but my companion didn't even look up from the shelves. No one in the store even seemed to notice that the power went out (it came back on in about 20 seconds).
  • Myanmar does not use coins and stores just round up or down. It's all paper money here. The smallest denomination is the 50 Kyat bill, about six cents. At said supermarket, I bought a Sprite marked on the shelf at 380 Kyat. I gave her a 500 Kyat bill and got 100 change. Thank you very much. What the?
  • Later, at that same supermarket, I bought something that was 870 Kyat, gave her a 1000, and got 150 back. I guess it all balances out.
  • You have to haggle with the taxi drivers here. There are no metered taxis.
  • Had two meals today. One was Indian street food (very greasy and delicious), and the other was at restaurant where the menu had no pictures and was all in Burmese. The head waiter spoke very good English, and he suggested fried chicken with vegetables. It was 100% Chinese-style stir-fried chicken with vegetables. I'm sure the Burmese have their own cuisine, but they also happen to border three countries (Thailand being the third) with some of the best food in the world.
  • Homosexual sex is a crime and punishable by up to ten years in prison (not something I learned about first hand, but read in the English daily newspaper here).
  • They like to spit. There are signs in the hallways of my school that say “No Spitting”. At the restaurant, I noticed that underneath each table were small bins with plastic liners. Spittoons.
  • Teaching adults who are paying to be there is easier than teaching school children (I observed a class today).
  • Burmese are far more outgoing and direct than their Thai neighbors. Ten people asked me where I was from today. Twice while driving about with a taxi driver who was a little lost, he pulled over and yelled at a random passer-by “HEY YOU! WHERE'S THIS PLACE?!”, whereas in Thailand, it would be “Good day to you...(wai)... Would you mind, if you're not too busy, please help me find this place if you know where it is?”
  • The women here are gorgeous.
  • It's 11:34 PM as I sit here and type this, but to my body, it feels like it is 12:04. Burma is half an hour behind the Thai/Jakarta time zone. Like I said, they do things their way here, and they're one of a handful of countries who have eschewed the international norm of sharing the same minute readings on their clocks. Myanmar is +9.5 hrs GMT. 
     *  In the cab on the way from the airport, I asked the Burmese lady from the school who was greeting me to please tell me some cultural stuff... Stuff I need to know as a foreigner here.  She stressed the importance of patience.  Things don't work the same way here as they do in the rest of the world, and if you let the frustration that might result from the bubble up in the form of being visually bothered by it, you'll create even more problems (my words, not hers).

    * This blog was originally going to be called '15 Things..', but I found out as I tried to connect to Blogger and copy and paste it from Word, the internet here is indeed akin to dial up speeds from 20 years ago in the USA.  I'm back to 2800 baud.  Patience.  Patience. 


And on that note about time, I will call it a night. Tomorrow, it's time to get up early and start my apartment hunt.


  1. Patience - a wonderful attribute to learn. Especially before you get old. And gorgeous women just might make it easier to have patience. lol

  2. Nice to hear you had a safe landing and are into local food.


  3. That would work for me, but I thnk Dad would be very bothered by it. He wants evrything to be fast, NOW. I remember when I had an Italian boyfriend in Highschool. He always smelled a little like garlic. You are probably smelling the spice mixture in the foods the people eat. Could be worse.

  4. Glad to hear the transition-travel is done, without major snags. A new country!.. Kool beans! So, I'm thinking if you don't get a job as a travel writer in your future -- if/when the teaching gigs are up -- then I'll be surprised ;-) 2800 bps on the internet.. yeowww! I remember my dad, circa 1994-ish, showing me this thing with his new hobby in computers. He showed me, "See, I can go through the phone line and tie into places that gives you information." (I think it was government libraries, etc.) and I remember he showed me this device called a "modem" that made it all happen ;-) and I think back then it had 2800bps written on it. Youzza.. that was state of the art! lol Great job and being resourceful and finding access so quickly though on your first day. Good luck in Myanmar!! John, Seattle


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