A Peek Inside Burmese Culture

“Nice laptop,” says the manager of my guesthouse in Bagan.

“Thanks,” I reply, suddenly feeling a little hesitant about having my MacBook Air in plain view.

“How much you pay?” He asks (with no qualms)!

I cock my head to one side and look up at him, puzzled.

Welcome to Burma. You are more likely to have your laptop stolen in Paris or San Francisco than here, but not a single person is shy about asking you what you pay for anything – from your shoes to your apartment. Burmese are curious people. And direct. If you are wearing something they like, they might just ask for it.  Not because they are greedy, but because many things are still novel to them. They are gracious people, too. Willing to give you anything they have to offer in exchange for smiles.

People in Burma live modestly. In the villages around Inle Lake, the houses are wooden and square, often on stilts to protect from flooding. Many people leave the doors open to let in air, and as you walk down country roads it’s easy to get snapshots into the lives of families here. On one occasion, I saw three little girls braiding their mother’s hair in the doorway and giggling as I walked by them. On another, I saw an old man watching the road from the upstairs while a woman was below brewing tea and making a soup.

Burmese homes in a village near Hpa-An
Burmese homes in a village near Hpa-An

There is something very organic looking about the houses. Inside one of them I walked by, I noticed that the electrical outlets appeared to come out of nowhere… as if the whole wiring system was through a branch on a tree. (Yes, I realize it’s probably not polite to stare into people’s homes, but I’m curious, too!). Some of these houses have T.V.s, but more often I saw crowds of people watching television programs at local restaurants in the evenings. And every little village I visited was a little different. In some areas, houses were more solid/concrete in appearance (likely to accommodate colder weather in the mountains), and in other places houses were little more than tents where you could see people were truly working the land and living off of it.

One such place I saw was on the last stretch of the train ride into Bagan from Yangon. Tall palm

Boys playing, Inle Lake
Boys playing, Inle Lake

trees with coconuts lined square areas of land, appearing to mark off property. Small thatched-roof houses popped up here and there. Men and women were working in the fields, and one man was climbing a tall, skinny wooden ladder up a tree to get the coconuts. (I was nervous just watching him!) As we neared, children dropped their activities and started running with excitement to wave at the train. You could see that it was a ritual. The train passing was a joy to them in a way I could have never comprehended. But the joy was infectious. I waved and smiled to them feverishly while shouting “Mengalaba!”

In my earlier post, “The Seat with Holes,” I had written about the overwhelming kindness of the Burmese in Hpa-An and how many people helped me to find my destination when I was a bit lost on my bicycle. There was another occasion when I was riding my bike around Inle Lake and it started to rain that a very kind local woman rescued me. She was arriving home with her baby and saw me standing under a small shelter waiting for the storm to pass and motioned for me to come with her.

The kind woman who invited me to her home.
The kind woman who invited me to her home.

When we arrived to her home, I met her sister, mother and grandmother! They were all smiles and made me tea and gave me some cookies and fruits. The grandmother was a wide-eyed, curious woman and did her best to communicate with me with the help of her youngest daughter, who spoke a little English. Much like my own grandmother, she kept telling me to “Eat. Eat.” ☺. Bit by bit, I answered her questions about where I was from and what kind of work I do. She would wait for translation and nod and smile. Their kindness was so genuine it nearly brought me to tears.

Some travelers have told me that Burma (Myanmar) is the way Thailand was 30 years ago. Bloggers write that you should go to Burma now, “before the 7-Elevens take over” (And there is probably some truth in that.) Others talk about how it will change when too many tourists start to come. I suppose like many counties, the Burmese may wish for tourism until tourism starts to take over and change their way of life. But I like to think a culture of such kindness is more resilient than that. Irrespective of all this, I cannot say enough good things about Burma and my experience there. I was moved to tears on more than one occasion merely by the kindness, the innocence, of others. If that isn’t enough reason to travel to a foreign country, I don’t know what is.

3 thoughts on “A Peek Inside Burmese Culture

  1. Was in Burma earlier in the year – a fascinating country with lovely people. Agree that tourism is both an opportunity and a problem. Enjoyed this post!

  2. Just reading your story made me feel as if I were there with you Sweetie.Your heart is geniue and and that comes from both you parents. We love you so much just for being you…..

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