“See my teeth?” Our taxi driver proclaims turning in his seat to smile broadly at us, “I brush after every meal! No smoking, no alcohol, no paan!”
Like in many Asian countries, Paan is commonplace in Myanmar (Burma). In short, it’s a psychoactive stimulant created from betel leaf and areca nut, and is most evident in the red toothed grins of the Myanmar people. Soon you’ll start to notice the red spit splatters on the side of the road, or experience your taxi driver wrench open his door mid-drive to add his own splash of art to the street.
Sounds gross, but it’s all part of the Myanmar journey.
The above conversation came about after Jack sampled paan at a roadside cart in Mandalay. The tender, who thought it hilarious that a tourist should want to try it, refused an offer of payment. Paan in Myanmar is legal, common and an age old tradition, but Jack’s enlarged pupils spoke of a stimulant stronger than the likes of caffeine.
The thing is, interactions with locals like these are a daily occurrence in Myanmar. We are made to feel welcome whether in taxis, at street stalls, or when being helped by strangers while lost after dark. We are encouraged to buy and wear a longyi (a sarong-like wrap around skirt worn by men and women alike) or to try applying thanaka (pale makeup applied to the cheeks). Where the locals of some countries might roll their eyes at the sight of tourists indulging in local culture, the Myanmar people find joy. Say a word or two in Burmese and be rewarded with big smiles (or a discount or two).
Myanmar forces the traveller to tour the old fashioned way. Less about ticking boxes – been there done that, got the ‘gram – and more about experiencing another culture at ground level, person to person. Travelling around Myanmar is easier than I expected, but it’s not without its challenges either. I mean, the logic surrounding money confuses me to no end. USD are widely accepted for most tourist purchases, but they HAVE to be pristine – don’t be surprised if a note or two gets rejected just for having a faint fold. However, pay for something with a used and battered, greased up, old kyat note (local currency) and nobody will bat an eyelid.
Myanmar launched their first ever tourism slogan ‘let the journey begin’ as recently as 2013 and the influx of tourists only increase with each passing year. So, Myanmar remains intrepid, but only just. Word is out, “Myanmar is A-ma-zing,” travellers enthuse. Even those who haven’t visited, but heard about over a Chang in Thailand, pass on these sentiments.
Still a long way to go before meeting its tourist potential, Myanmar keeps huge swaths of its country under restricted access, but I’m not going into that now. If you’re wondering if Myanmar is safe to visit with all the unrest and refugee movement at the borders, then rest assured you will be fine.
The people of Myanmar are still unaccustomed to seeing foreign faces and curious eyes follow us wherever we go (in Yangon and Mandalay at any rate). The tourist infrastructure can barely keep up with the influx of travellers – not enough budget hotels to match other Southeast countries, the internet chugs along at a frustrating crawl and the tourist taxes sting. But Myanmar is heading in the right direction, so I have faith that they will one day have as big a stake as Thailand does in the tourism industry.
Tonight is our last night in Mandalay, a city of British influence and Burmese royalty and jade markets and literary inspiration, compounded together to create something uniquely Myanmar. Tomorrow we hop on a bus for Bagan, for biking around temples and whatever else this delightful country throws at us.
So, let the journey begin.