19 February 2015

Meandering in Myanmar: Culture Shocked

You know, when I took the train from downtown Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I already had a weird funny feeling in me. I felt that this would be an adventure. After all, I was again heading to a new country, a place where I don't speak the language, and I don't even have the ability to read the signs. So as I left the train and headed into the terminal, I had a little exciting feeling.

I still had a few Malaysian ringgit with me, so I figured I'd try my luck with the airport money changers. I asked them if they change into Myanmar kyat (MMK). They said no. Hmm. So I changed my ringgit into Thai bhat (THB) instead, knowing that I will be heading to Bangkok in two weeks time. At the same time, I had a little worrying thought brewing in the back of my head. I had with me 400 EUR, as a backup. Most of Myanmar guidebooks say that you have to bring crisp unbended US dollar bills, and carry it with you in a flat wallet. Being an EU resident, I have no other use for USD, so I consulted other sources, and sure enough, some people told me that there are ATMs in the country, and therefore using a foreign Visa or Mastercard (which I both have) is not a problem, and that making a cash advance transaction is definitely doable now. It might not have been the case 4 years ago, but now it is. Fingers crossed.

So I found my flight, and boarded it. I sat next to a Malaysian guy, who apparently works in Yangon. As we were descending into Yangon, I asked him about the money issue, and whether there are ATMs at the airport. He didn't know, and he said he doubted it. Oops. I might have to sustain myself with 400 EUR for the next two weeks.

Oh, I should add that I had no mobile phone coverage in Myanmar. Myanmar was the only country I have been to so far where my German telephone provider didn't have a partner to provide roaming services. And yes, Internet overall in Myanmar was slow. I had some issues with that, as I quickly learned that being connected was a big thing for me, especially when you are traveling alone, and you have loved ones in different time zones.

Anyway, we disembarked, and entered the relatively swanky new international terminal of Yangon International Airport. And there were signs everywhere as well as advertisements of banks that have ATM services. So there, that was a problem solved. After filling up an Arrival Card, I queued up at Immigration, and my passport was stamped. Before I exited the Customs area, I already approached an ATM and withdrew 300,000 MMK, which was about a little more than 200 EUR, and which would end up lasting me for a week.

By the way, Myanmar kyat is quite peculiar. The largest bill available in the country is 10,000 MMK, approximately 10 USD. That however is uncommon, and the most common bill is 5,000 MMK, which is what the ATM dispensed to me. So I ended up with a fat wallet that almost wouldn't close due to the immense amount of bills it contained.

Upon arriving in the evening to my hostel, I immediately set out to get something to eat. I immediately befriended this young German girl in my room, and we both went out to eat. Street food is plentiful, but one never knows whether they are clean or not. Eventually, we just dived in, and ate. Some things were surprising and some were reminiscent of the food in the Philippines. I saw fruit I haven't seen in ages, like custard apples. I also developed a particular liking to some food items, such as the Burmese preserved egg salad, which I ordered several times in various locations across the country.

I have an overall feeling that Myanmar is decades, perhaps even a century behind the rest of its neighbors. That was what made travel in Myanmar relatively difficult, and culturally shocking, so to speak. We are so used to Western culture, and we have these assumptions and other information we take for granted, that is totally not applicable to Myanmar. Take food, for example. We know what cookies and biscuits look like, so when we go to a supermarket, most of the time we know what we are buying, even though we cannot speak the language. With Myanmar, that doesn't help. Their snacks are different. Sure, there are Western shops nowadays, but those are restricted to large cities like Yangon. Once you're out of it, then it's a totally different world.

Fashion is something different. Men don't wear Western trousers. They wear the longgyi, which is this sarong-like garment that is wrapped around the waist. Urinals in restrooms are designed differently to accommodate men who wear the longgyi. Women don't wear lipstick, and they don't even think that making one's lips red is a concept of beauty. Instead, they use the bark of a tree and grind it with water, creating a paste called thanakha, and apply them on large swaths of their face, mostly on the cheeks, but sometimes on the forehead too.

Looking back, I realized that culture shock doesn't really come immediately, but gradually. I guess it is inversely proportional to sight-seeing fatigue. I think culture shock hit me the most in Mandalay, the last city I visited, where I spent three nights. By that time, I already saw plenty of temples, and was not in the mood to see yet another one. Therefore, all I could think of was how dusty the city was, how chaotic it was, how dirty the pavement were due to the red salivary spit that everyone produced due to chewing betel leaves. But come to think of it, this was true even in Yangon. And yet it didn't bother me then. Only in Mandalay. Hence when I flew out of Mandalay and landed in Bangkok, it was such a refreshing feeling. It felt refreshing to see skyscrapers, highways, and air-conditioning.

Anyway, I tell friends that Myanmar is not for beginners. I feel like in order to enjoy Myanmar, one has to practice with other easier countries first. One should first go to 5 countries whose language one cannot understand. And none of these countries should be in the Western World (so if you're American, European countries don't count). And 2 of these countries should have their language written in a script that you don't know how to read. If you survived those, then I think you can be ready for Myanmar.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed Myanmar. I don't think I would redo things I have done during the two weeks I was there. I had fun, and I am willing to go back there if I have the chance. But it was tough. Somehow you can see it with the types of travelers. The fellow travelers I bumped into in Myanmar were of a different vibe than the travelers I saw in Bangkok. Bangkok is actually easy, compared to Myanmar. Myanmar is just on a totally different league.

And yes, it was fun.


  1. This fascinating. I know you mentioned the culture shock you experienced by email, but your examples (the clothes, lack of makeup, etc.) really help me understand it.

    Do you think the shock was somewhat bigger because you were coming from Malaysia, which is arguably less developed than Europe but of course a first-world country compared to Myanmar?

    I remember going through such shocks, for instance from Peru to Bolivia (you think Peru is "exotic"? Ah, wait until you end up in La Paz!), Belize to Honduras, or Nicaragua to Costa Riva. It's the contrast because you think you are already in the foreign culture and "mastering" it but you don't realize that you had it easy.

    1. Zhu,

      I am not sure about your hypothesis. After all, I found myself rather culture shocked when I was in London too, and that was in my opinion, more shocking, more intense, and more surprising. So I don't think modern technology and development had something to do with it per se, but more the fact that things are different from what I was used to.

      If we pursue the difference hypothesis more, I felt like it would also explain my shock in London. When I began the trip in Myanmar, I already knew they were going to be different, but in the beginning I saw them as a novelty. But eventually the novelty wore off, and the difference just annoyed me. And two weeks is definitely not enough to form coping strategies that we all do when we move to a new place and slowly adapt to our new surroundings.

      With London, I suppose there were just too many things I didn't expect to be different, and they all annoyed me, so to speak, because I thought it would be the same, and therefore wasn't expecting to encounter difference. But there it was, and so I found myself crying while crossing a bridge on the Thames, just because it was emotionally overwhelming, so to speak.