Traditional Myanmar Attire

 

It is such a pleasure to see the sense of pride with which Myanmar folk wear their traditional attire. Even as the country takes rapid strides towards modernization, there seems to be no desire to adopt western clothes, till now. The lungyi is worn by both men and women though the styles and the top shirts are different. What strikes outsiders at first glance is that it seems to denote a classless society, at least in their daily informal clothes, since everyone, from the top executives to the service staff, wears similar checkered lungyis in dark shades with collared shirts. Women wear blouses with lungyis that are plain, printed or embroidered. For the outsider, the tourist and the expatriate, it is difficult to differentiate between different styles worn by the 135 ethnic groups from the various states and division of Myanmar.

The origin of the Lungyi

The Lungyi is believed to have come with Indian migrants into the country. A Lungyi is the lower garment worn in Myanmar, and is actually a long piece of cloth wrapped around at the waist, and knotted up or folded in, to keep it in place. It is similar to a full length skirt, and forms a pleat in front since it is around two meters long. The lungyi was worn by the Indians who came to Myanmar in the 19th century, though their style was similar to the sarong. Over the next two centuries, thanks perhaps to British rule and its influence on every aspect of life, the Indians especially the men, adopted western attire and took to wearing trousers and shirts, and formal suits. But Myanmar folk have continued to wear their lungyis with aplomb.

Pasoe-Lungyis for men

The lungyis worn by men are slightly different from what women wear. Called the Pasoe, the two meters of cloth stitched at the ends, falls till the ankle, and is tied in a knot in front to hold it in place, with a shirt tucked in. It is a little unnerving to see men undo and re-tie the knot of the lungyi every now and then, in public, but then we get used to it. There is some difference in the style of lungyis worn by the numerous ethnic groups, and often in the designs. The shirt is also sometimes substituted for trendy western style t-shirts, but the bottom garment is still the ubiquitous lungyi. On formal occasions, a Chinese collared white shirt is worn with silk lungyis is more subdued shades. A Manchu Chinese jacket is worn on top.

It is interesting to notice men’s wallets tucked at the back in the lungyi band, and seemingly safe there. During the rainy season, an umbrella is added, and they continue moving about without either of these proving to be obstructive.

Footwear always is the plain black velvet slippers across classes of people. They are considered part of formal attire as well.

Htamein –Lungyis for women

The Htamein or lungyis worn by Myanmar women, are among the most graceful dresses I have seen. From plain hues to ornate and embroidered ones, they drape closely around the waist and fall till the ankles, with generally a single pleat falling on the side where it is tucked. Modern variations include the zipped lungyi, which is more secure and not needing to be adjusted time and again. Short blouses are worn on top and are cover a bit of the lungyi at the waist.

Cottons and georgettes are commonly used fabric, with formal wear being made out of silk, silk, net and lace. High heeled footwear, stone studded jewelry and flowers, make the Myanmar ladies look ethereally beautiful.

Sightless but Smiling-My Experience at a Blind School in Yangon

As one blessed with the gift of sight, through eyes that reveal to us the beauty of the world, and every product and creation on it, I am sure no one can even fathom what it means to live in a world of darkness, not knowing what things look like, which they can touch but not see. Such is the world for the blind-those who were born without the gift of sight, or lost it somewhere along the way. While it is wrong to feel so, but in terms of comparison, to have seen once or for a while is better than not having seen at all.

My first close encounter with the blind had me stunned-they existed on the periphery of my world, I had seldom spared them much thought, even though I felt sorry for them. I felt they were there somewhere far removed from my world. Till I came face to face…and got an opportunity to reach out to them. Facing fifteen children with smiling faces, was a shock that made me feel guilty for being complete…with a perfectly normal body and every possible gift life could have bestowed on me. My mind was in a state of turmoil with this close encounter, not being able to understand…would I be able to get close to them, would I cringe away from them, would I be able to look them in the eye?

After the first time, I had a choice…I did not need to go back, no one was forcing me, and the easiest option in front of me was to stay away, rather than push myself to try and teach them English…I knew my own limitations of not being a qualified teacher…would I be able to do justice? But all they needed was a bit of hand holding, a bit of support, and a bit of loving comfort as they picked up a few words of English.

And as I began to look at these innocent little beings, oblivious to their surroundings, I thought for a moment about what must be going on in their minds, and these words came up:


I opened my eyes into this world, but darkness enveloped me
I heard those soft endearing voices, but the faces I couldn’t see
As I grew, I knew my life would be a dark hole
To feel and touch, hear and speak, but sight was not mine to be

I hear sounds but the source remains an enigma
I taste and smell, but how things look I may never know
But still I feel the joy of being alive,
And know my way around to go.

I don’t know how many in this world can see
Who talk about the beauty seemingly surrounding me
All that I know is that I live with many like me
We bond due to our disability, and together we survive happily

The gift of touch helps me imagine
The sounds also have a story to tell
And with these I try and visualize
And I am told, the picture I draw comes out well.

Perhaps life is not fair, but I must not complain
I will have a tough life, but it might be without pain
I may not have much, but I will be untouched by greed
Because what I cannot see, I will never crave.

I can survive with simple joys and pleasures
Grow with the genuine warmth I discern
I wish I get not sympathy or pity
Only some care and genuine concern.

I live for today, thinking not far ahead
I should be able to build a life for myself
It will not be easy, but a path will open up instead
And who knows, one day, sunshine and light might just appear itself.

Is Myanmar Tourist Friendly? …Well, Almost

For a country that has been rated as the ‘World’s best tourist destination 2014”, one would expect tourist facilities to be adequate and a well established network to provide tourists with the comfort and convenience other Asian nations like Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia offer, which make them some of the most tourist friendly countries.
But Myanmar is a tourist nation with a difference. Lagging far behind in terms of development, poor infrastructure and communication facilities, but abundance of natural beauty, hundreds of pagodas and a taste of life difficult to find elsewhere, Myanmar beckons. Its enigma is bound to fade once it merges with Western ways and modern lifestyles that push away nature and leave yet another country exposed to the ills of advancement, more material than spiritual. With all these on offer, Myanmar is inching closer to the ‘tourist friendly’ label, and there are thousands of enthusiastic tourists who are happy to not have such an easy ride as they explore a country moving ahead slowly and steadily.

What makes a country tourist friendly

Scores of reviews are published online about most friendly and least friendly countries, which lead to preconceived notions about the place, the people and all that they have to offer. While a few general features help define the level of comfort tourists can expect in a place, we all know that developed and even many developing countries, which would be found to have all these features, are ranked unfriendly according to surveys. Venezuela and Bolivia are typical examples of this. They may have the physical attributes that make a place welcoming to tourists, but obviously security and soft skills must be lacking.

Safety and security– Travel and tourist activities are ideally possible for the common man in a safe and secure environment where there is no threat, at least to life. It is probably for this reason that countries like Nigeria and Afghanistan lose out on tourism as an industry and the earnings that come with it. Neither is life safe, nor a guarantee of being able to leave.

Myanmar scores since it is one of the safest countries and Yangon widely regarded as one of the world’s safest cities. With the decades of military rule, fresh in the minds of the people, not even a handful would venture towards the other side of the law. The condition in Myanmar prisons is horrific, to put it mildly, and that serves as a major deterrent.

Infrastructure– Tourism gets a whole new meaning in a country where the infrastructure is well developed. A country will be inviting enough for tourists if it has connectivity and is accessible through airports, railways, roads and seaways, besides public transport for commuting locally. Accommodation at multiple levels from hotels to hostels, dormitories and guest houses is imperative. Communication networks with telephones and internet are always sought to stay connected. Decent power and water supply, availability of food at restaurants and markets, medical aid and hospitals are some of the other conveniences that tourists consider essential.
Myanmar scores low on infrastructure facilities though cities like Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw are much better than smaller towns and villages. However, progress is evident and infrastructure is being given top priority by the government.

Food and other amenities– The international traveler is often quite flexible where food is concerned, with enthusiasm for a taste of the local cuisine, and open to anything edible for sustenance. But increasingly, many tourists look for gastronomic delights. Cities generally do have restaurants big and small, cafes and roadside stalls, besides ready-to-eat foods available in supermarkets.
Myanmar has a distinct Asian cuisine that is an interesting blend of Indian and Thai cooking styles…at least from the taste of it. Big cities offer a wide array of eating places offering both local and International cuisines, the most famous being the tea shops, which are found in rural areas as well. Villages have limited local fare sold in very simple outlets.

Attitude of the locals– The international traveler looks for acceptance and approval when he visits a new place. A friendly word, a bit of information, and assistance in finding places, make him feel welcome. Most tourist friendly places have a friendly populace who go all out to help tourists, and this adds to their charm.

The nicest thing about Myanmar is its people, who are so simple, warm and friendly. Their smiling faces put you at ease and the lack of aggression is what strikes newcomers. The only drawback is that very few people speak English, but they always look for a fellow citizen who does. Conversing and understanding, hence becomes a bit of a frustrating experience.

The route to economic progress for Myanmar depends a lot on tourism before other industries take over, since this can be the quickest revenue earner. This fact is well understood by the government and efforts are already in place to make the place more tourist friendly, to attract more people and ensure that they have a good time in the Golden Land.

As You Land in Yangon

As the aircraft begins its descent towards the Mingladon International Airport of Yangon, a breathtaking view of lush greenery, multiple lakes and hilly terrains enthralls. The city of Yangon seems spread out and vast, but with very few tall structures, and residential areas having sufficient greenery around them. Sparkling gold pagodas are eye-catching and the number is awe-inspiring too. The aircraft glides towards a small airport with just a handful of aircrafts parked, and one feels like having landed at a small hill station somewhere in India. But this is the commercial capital of Myanmar, its largest city and a gateway to exquisite natural sights, untouched wonders not yet ravaged by modernization.
Thankfully, the airport is well equipped and quite modern albeit small, having recently been renovated. It is amusing to cross the aerobridge and see the crowds waiting as you come down the escalator for immigration. The queues are gradually getting longer as the number of tourists increases steadily. Europeans, Americans and others, are enthusiastic to catch a glimpse of this last frontier of Asia before it becomes like any other modern, Westernized country.
The airport is located around 15 kilometers from the downtown area and easily available taxis take you to your destination hotel. Most hotels offer pick up facilities and private taxi drivers hovering around in the arrival lounge offer their mobile phones to stranded passengers to make calls. This is a boon in a country where phones with international roaming may not always work.

Airport facilities

Though small by international standards, the Yangon International Airport does offer all essential services. The two terminals, Arrival and Departure, stand next to each other, a mere five minute walk away, each quite complete in offering the requisite services. Bank ATMs, a money exchange counter, mobile phone SIM rental service, taxi and travel assistance, first aid, postal services, internet kiosks, shopping and food options are all covered, albeit on a simpler, smaller scale.
Foreigners with tourist visas and locals arriving in Yangon can queue up at one of 21 counters, and visitors from 50 countries can take a business or transit visa on arrival at one of three counters opened for the purpose. They are expected to carry a set of documents to be issued a visa. Tourist visas are issued by the Myanmar Embassy in other countries.
With flights of 28 airlines operating out of Yangon International Airport, air traffic and tourist footfalls are steadily on the increase. With ten daily flights to Bangkok and eight to Singapore, besides other cities, Yangon has become conveniently accessible.

A suggestion

Prior hotel bookings are recommended since most hotels are booked weeks, if not months, in advance. Options are somewhat limited and rates unjustifiably exorbitant. Small hotels are mushrooming around the city and as supply increases, room rates should plummet…but this seems a long way off, given the increasing number of tourists. Numerous hotels are in the pipeline including Novotel and Daewoo Amara, and many old, run down hotels are up for sale. In the next two years another few thousand rooms should be added, which will make comfortable stays more affordable.

Getting Ready for Yangon

Yangon

Yangon was that elusive, distant place, fascinatingly alien, and very much off the beaten track. Opting to work in a country opening up gradually, was a decision that posed the toughest challenges for me, something I was ill prepared for, after two decades in developed, highly modern cities. All that was a given in my life, was going to be out of bounds for me now, and everything that had offered comfort and solace, was slipping out of my hands. Accessibility and connectivity are modern age mantras, both of which were no longer guaranteed, bringing a feeling of being cut off and far far away, in an age where physical proximity is unnecessary when virtual distances have reduced.

As I awoke on my first morning in the city, I was unable to get my bearings right. A peep out of the window showed the sun lazily crawling up over the horizon bringing a mild light into a grey sleepy city stirring to life. Was it a dream, that I was in a place right out of my history book, or did a place such as this actually exist, in the twenty-first century? Was living here going to be a journey ahead, or a journey back in time for me? It struck me then, that my Myanmar experience was going to be different from any other in my life.

For the outside world, Myanmar is so much in the news, that like many others, we expected to see a place abuzz with action, change, innovation and improvement. But the ground reality was different, the slow pace, limited availability and very low standards of quality of products and services, had us baffled. Accustomed to a decent standard of living, enjoying the good things of life, getting comfort out of spending on the latest in clothes and gadgets, I knew that now, what I had already, would have to suffice, since Yangon and Myanmar offered little beyond teak, jade and rubies. Not that the elite did not live a luxurious life, but their homes were adorned by their acquisitions overseas.

Yet there was peace and contentment, tranquility and a serene ambience that gradually crept into the innermost core of my being. This is when it dawned on me, that materialistic attitudes are irrelevant when the mind is calm. I just had to change my mindset and think of nurturing my mind now, after having spent most of my life nurturing my body and home, with physical comforts and attributes. I needed to inculcate finer human values like patience and tolerance, forget that I had a right on anything or anyone, stop being judgmental, and develop an empathetic attitude towards the locals who needed much more than I ever would.

Thus began the battle of the mind to prepare for living well and happily in Yangon. No one was punctual, so I must wait. Hardly anyone spoke English, so I had to accept that an assistant condensed a ten minute conversation in Burmese language, in just a couple of sentences. Irrespective of who calls on the phone and how urgent it might, the locals may not answer the call nor reply to messages, so instead of being upset, it was best to accept the siuation. We were foreigners with more money, so had to pay multiple times for things we bought, and conceded that their need for money was more than mine. If rain water seeped into my apartment, I must quietly place towels to prevent it from flooding the place, rather than disturb the landlord. The list was endless, and we all learned, and grew wiser.

Soon, we were better off, not losing our temper, raising our blood pressure or ending up shouting. So much the better, since the common advice was, just pray that you never fall sick, since medical facilities leave a lot to be desired…more on this later.

Yangon –Five unexpected experiences

Kandawgyi lake - Yangon

The twenty-first century has split us all, and as the world moves to a higher level of consumerism, comfort and convenience, we often forget, that there are pockets of backwardness, or places not equally blessed with the latest technology and communication facilities. The prospect of living in such places poses new challenges everyday, and the decision to move, bag and baggage to Yangon, Myanmar, brought with it, a fair share of excitement and apprehension.

My first trip to Yangon taught me the crucial lesson of not taking anything for granted, and what has become the norm elsewhere, might be a novelty in Yangon and the rest of Myanmar. Having come with a clean slate, with no pre-conceived notions or expectations, the idea was to absorb rather than abhor.

My first taxi ride was an unforgettable experience. Within a day of arriving here, I had accepted the run down condition of cabs, even though I hadn’t seen vehicles of that pedigree in Bangkok or Kolkata, the two places that had been home for the last ten years. The vintage car was white and brown, the latter due to the rusted corners and edges. A piece of metal tore through my shirt as I brushed past to reach the door, but this was merely the first of surprises. As the door opened I found the inner soft covering on the metal frame of the door was gone, and I was just staring at 4-5 holes as I sat down. The rug beneath my feet slipped and as the cab moved, I got a shock to see the road whizzing behind, right under my feet! The journey ended with relief and amazement at the pride with which the driver drove his prized car.

Being accustomed to instant connectivity and being available to friends and family 24×7, the next shock was not being able to get a SIM card. The temporary twenty dollar cards were out of circulation, so I had to either pay $250 for a SIM or do without. Internet came at a steep rate in the hotel and it was only Traders’ Hotel (now called Shangri La) whose lobby offered wi-fi access. I just had to learn to do without Viber, Whatsapp, WeChat, Skype and other apps.

Clean, unfolded, and blemish-free dollar notes were the only acceptable form of currency we could use. It was a pleasant surprise to see US dollars accepted in every shop and restaurant, and they happily quote rates in dollars as well as Myanmar Kyats, the latter seemingly difficult to carry, with an exchange rate of around 980 kyats to a dollar. I was handed wads of cash in a plastic bag! I had to remove all my debit and credit cards anyway since there were no ATM machines. This was something that was going to take a long time to accept if I was to come and live here. How much money would I carry, in how big a bag? And with its poor purchasing power, what would I do if I ran short of cash?

The traditional  Myanmar attire is called the Lungyi, worn both by men and women, though the style of tying it is different. Not really an alien outfit, since it is seen in India, Bangladesh and other places as well. Its just that I hardly saw any locals in any other dress, even children. Men interestingly tucked their shirts in the lungyi which was knotted at the waist, while the women, look really elegant in their short tops over what appeared to be a long wrap-around skirt. I noticed the pride with which they have stuck to their traditional dress unlike so many other countries where western clothes have taken over, pushing ethnic clothes into oblivion or left for festive occasions. I also realized what this attire did for society-it had transformed Myanmar into a classless society-all the men wore similar checked blue, mar0on and brown lungyis with similar white or striped shirts. There was no way a driver could be differentiated from the owner, unless the elite chose to be dressed in formal silk lungyis kept for formal occasions.

The last shock that took time to digest came at nightfall when we drove in dark, extremely dimly lit streets, which often blacked out each time there was a power cut. The stillness apart, the lack of light made the place appear more depressing with an eerie feeling creeping in. Except for Pyay Road, it was difficult to find any road bright enough to feel safe on. But our fears were unfounded, Yangon is one of the safest cities in the world.

Aung San Suu Kyi-Myanmar’s Biggest Brand Ambassador

Aung San Suu Kyi

If there is one name that comes to mind at the mention of Myanmar, it is that of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The petite, pretty, iron-willed lady has been known internationally, and revered in her own land throughout the military regime and today as leader of the opposition, remains the most acceptable leader for the diverse ethnic groups. Her stature is similar to Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela and can be attributed to her peaceful and nonviolent approach to fight for her country’s freedom from oppression and imposed rule.

Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, who helped free Burma from British rule, and assassinated in 1948,  has faced personal loss and sacrificed a happy family life in UK to lead her country towards democratic rule. She was educated in some of the world’s best academic institutions but returned to Myanmar in 1988 to look after her ailing mother, and ending up with house arrest and unable to leave her country. This however, did not deter her from assisting in the establishment of the National League for Democracy in 1988 and become the voice of the people seeking freedom from oppression. She continues to serve as its Secretary General, pushing for reforms and seeking international assistance in helping Myanmar progress to catch up with the rest of the world.

One would wonder at her firm stance and her unceasing fight against military rule, and if it was in any way linked to personal gain. A close look at her life shows more personal loss, since she could not leave her country even when her husband was dying, since she would not have been able to return to Burma. She was committed to fighting for her people, to restore normalcy in the country and to begin its journey towards reforms and change so that Burma was not left far behind, as the world progressed. Her concern was about human rights violations, lack of freedom and educational reforms, which found voice in the world outside, though her husband and two sons, and won her support in the US and the European Union. Through years of house arrest, she kept up with her party and the world through the handful of people she was allowed to meet. Intermittent release for detention enabled her to reach out to the common man, till she became a free citizen in 2010.

 

Buddhist beliefs gave Suu Kyi strength

Myanmar’s population has 89 % Buddhists and Suu Kyi’s Buddhist beliefs helped her last through years of solitude while under house arrest. As a Theravada Buddhist, she believed in the Five Precepts, with non-violence deeply entrenched in each of them. As a political leader she felt that Buddhist culture would help preserve loving kindness and compassion in Myanmar along with a deep respect for education. Meditation for her is a type of spiritual cultivation that has held her in good stead during her years of detention and gave her the ability to stick to the right path. Without permitting her beliefs to be dogmatic, she has maintained a very practical approach and made her beliefs a way of living.

The Future

In 2013, she publicly expressed her desire to run for Presidency in the coming 2015 elections. Despite having steered her NLD party to a 43 out of 45 seat victory in the by-elections of 2012, her future role remains uncertain given the current laws. According to the constitution, any citizen whose spouse or children are citizens of another country cannot stand for presidential elections, and Suu Kyi’s two sons are British nationals. She left Myanmar to travel overseas after a gap of 24 years in 2012 and has been garnering support from countries like US, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and EU nations, even as she warns them to pursue cautious optimism while helping rebuild her country.

Myanmar-The Road Less Traveled

Sule

Myanmar has been an enigma, both mysterious and fascinating, and somehow, seemingly out of bounds. It is very much a road less travelled, with decades of military rule making it a pariah nation, or perhaps not alluring enough for the average tourist looking for comfort, relaxation and fun activities in a plush environment. But with political transformation in progress, a trip turns out more to be a courtship with nature, in almost virgin territories as yet unexposed to the vagaries of modern living. Not that Myanmar is devoid of snow clad mountain peaks, pristine beaches, historical structures and centuries-old monuments, not to mention the immense Buddhist influence. The Hkakabo Razi Ski Resort in northern Myanmar and the impeccably tranquil beaches of Ngwe Saung and Ngapoli offer ideal retreats appealing to those wishing for time far away from the madding crowds.

Ever since the country opened up and a civilian government replaced military rule, the number of tourists has been steadily increasing. The number of international tourists crossed the 1 million mark for the first time in 2011-2012, and the government is targeting a foreigner footfall of over 3million in 2014, and around 7.48 million in 2020, as stated in the Myanmar government’s Tourism Master Plan 2013.

Little wonder then, that the European Council on Tourism and Trade has selected Myanmar for the ‘World’s Best Tourist Destination Award” for 2014, an award that is perhaps the highest honor in the travel and tourism industry worldwide. The award is an acknowledgement of a nation’s endeavor to promote tourism “as a resource for cultural and social development”, while also respecting the “ethics of human relations and preserve cultural and natural heritage”.

The Place

Myanmar remains quite reclusively fascinating for the global citizen. And those who visit this place often return time and again. A country with 135 ethnic groups, it stands out with its natural lakes and rivers, mountainous terrains, and thick forested plains. The country is rich in natural resources and has amazing marine life that fascinates tourists. The British influence is conspicuous in the colonial style buildings, which are in stark contrast to some exquisite golden pagodas, which catch attention wherever you turn.

Myanmar is divided into fifteen states, regions and a union territory with Yangon being the biggest city with a population of over 2.5 million, followed by Mandalay, Naypyitaw which is the capital city and a Union Territory, and others like Bago, Mawlamyine, Pathein and others.

The biggest tourist attractions remain Bagan and Inle besides Yangon which remains the best known city abroad.

Myanmar shares a long, winding border with Thailand, and neighboring India, Bangladesh, Laos and China, making it accessible by road, sea and air.

The People

The Myanmar people are simple, pleasant and always smiling. There is an imminent gentleness in their demeanor, and an inner calm that manifests itself in their actions, and a sense of complacency, even a quiet resignation. There is a huge divide between the upper and lower classes, and middle class that generally forms the backbone of any country, is almost missing.

People speak the Myanmar language, along with a hundred regional variants. The script has been derived from the Brahmi script, and English is known to very few people, making communication a bit challenging.

The Ambience

The ambience again is peaceful and tranquil. Vast expanses of green meet the eye giving the country a clean, green look. There is no rush, no frenzied pace of life, and it is amusing to see people relaxing by the lake, in tea shops, or just ambling along sidewalks. It is like living in an Indian city thirty years ago, without modern infrastructure, and a pace difficult to find elsewhere.

Doubtlessly, all this is set to change, and rapidly too…it remains to be seen, how fast Western influences seep in to radically transform this almost sleepy old country.