Burmese idiosyncrasies

Something which always annoys me is when people abroad comment disparagingly on everything which is different from back home. It reminds me of getting on the boat train at Liverpool Street station on my early journeys to Amsterdam and having to listen to a litany of complaints about all the dreadful things in England, from soggy chips to warm beer. And I’ve tried to avoid being too critical in the blog. But this may mean I’ve given a rather one-sided view, things aren’t all rosy here. So, at the risk of sounding like one of those annoying foreigners I’ll devote this post to some of the things which have amused, surprised and annoyed me about life in Myanmar. I couldn’t leave without having at least a bit of a moan.

Something which will be familiar to anyone who has travelled in Southeast Asia is the need to dress decently and remove footwear when entering a sacred building. In Myanmar, this applies to pretty well every building it seems, including the upstairs classrooms in our college. I have no objection to dressing decently (though I was a bit taken aback when a student tried to fasten up the top button of my blouse during a lesson) but I really don’t like teaching barefoot. My feet start to ache when I have to ‘teaching actively’ on a hard floor. It also makes all those 7 pairs of shoes I brought with me a bit redundant. But the footwear in the corridor while a lesson is in progress always makes me smile:


As you can see, the new principal is keen on discipline, white flip-flops for women and black ones for men. He is also keen on brightening up the campus. There  are now coloured neon lights on the buildings and decorative stones at the entrance:


but other less visible parts of the building like this stairwell have been left untouched:


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These are some of the electricity switches in one of the classrooms; there are others around the room. I’m never quite sure where to begin:


Actually relying on electricity is a bit risky though as there are frequent power cuts, usually when I’ve just set up the projector to show a Powerpoint slide. My solution is to avoid using technology as much as possible and prepare lessons which can be taught in semi-darkness.

When the electricity goes off it’s not always a power cut though. We sat for hours one night waiting for the electricity to come back on before realizing that everyone else had their lights on except for us. Luckily it proved easy to fix. A question of climbing up an electricity pole and rehooking a wire:


There seem to be very few (or no) health and safety regulations in Myanmar. Nor is there any concept of reducing plastic consumption. Things are wrapped in as many layers of plastic as possible and then put in a plastic bag, and drinking water comes in unrecyclable plastic bottles:


People complain about the bad driving  but I like the slow pace of traffic in Mandalay and the way that all the different vehicles on the road, from lorries to hand-drawn carts, weave in and out of each other. You see all sorts of vehicles, for carrying  goods:


and people:

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Many drivers seem to toot as a form of greeting, a sort of ‘Hello, here I am’. At first I was terrified being tooted at all the time on the bike but now I hardly notice it. What I’ll never get used to seeing though is a baby carelessly slung over their mother’s arm on the back of a motorbike, while traffic zooms by only a few inches away. What would happen if the baby wriggled?

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Something I find very strange is that nearly all cars (including new ones) still have the steering wheel on the right, while driving on the left-hand side of the road was abandoned in the sixties. People say they would find it difficult to change but I can’t help feeling that it must be safer to have the driver rather then me always sitting in the driving seat. Another interesting feature in many cars is the seat-belt buckle (with no seatbelt attached) permanently inserted into the seatbelt socket so that the no seat-belt alarm isn’t activated. The lengths people will go to, to avoid being safe!

But the main danger on the roads as far as I’m concerned is the lack of street lighting and sudden deep and, until you step into them, invisible holes in the road. Walking means paying attention at every step. I had never realized before how very ‘protected’ we are in the West.

Many aspects of life in Myanmar also have a pleasantly nostalgic quality,  taking me back to my childhood. Things like standing up for the national anthem before a film starts, stewardesses handing out sweets before the plane lands and a postman at the door with a handwritten list of parcels to be delivered. This is the tailor, who made my tops and is currently turning my longyis into cushion-covers; her sewing machine reminds me of my mother’s:


Most machines here are still mechanical and hand-driven, and there  is an almost total absence of computers anywhere, even in banks, where  you see huge piles of notes stacked behind the counter being counted by hand. On payday the teachers at the college line up to be paid in cash. I don’t think many people have bank accounts or credit cards.

This is the post office, a glorious remnant of the colonial past, which is generally completely empty:Market and general 003Market and general 008

Another reminder of the past is the public library, which I suppose Orwell himself may well have visited when he lived in Mandalay, training to be a police officer. The books on the shelves are mostly from the 1920s or 30s


While the lack of ‘development’ sometimes has its charms, in other ways it is devastating. There is serious flooding ever year in many parts of Myanmar and many thousands of people are regularly displaced losing all their possessions. This was a road I drove through last weekend in a village on the outskirts of Mandalay near the river:


The surprising thing was that no-one seemed particularly perturbed. People simply accept what happens to  them or perhaps they have simply got used to the fact that nothing will be done about it, and anyway voicing a complaint is dangerous. This also applies to the wide-scale corruption in many spheres of life. Government employees have to supplement their pitifully low wages in order to survive, requiring extra money to provide medicines, school certificates or legal documents. I’ve noticed that drivers also have to stop and hand over cash at various checkpoints along the road. Fraud is an accepted part of university life too. Students copy answers to exams en masse and a lecturer will commandeer a bright student to write a dissertation for someone who is unable to write it themselves. I have also been told about colleagues in the college who have been ‘promoted’ as a result of ‘gifts’. One of the laws brought in by the new government has been to forbid students from giving gifts to teachers. That in itself says enough.

The new government is also taking measures to curb the unbridled development currently taking place in cities, where whole neighbourhoods are demolished and residents forcibly removed to make way for foreign-owned hotels and offices. I saw this street-side teashop being literally brushed aside by a bulldozer:


Many parts of central Mandalay still look almost like a village, with wooden shacks and tall shady trees.


I sat on the street corner below for about half an hour while my bike was being repaired and watched women do the washing, men looking after children and an older resident being helped onto a motorbike and driven somewhere. It felt like a real community:


But I presume that scenes like this will soon be a thing of the past as buildings and traffic take over all the available space.

This is the man who was mending my bike:


As you can see he chews ‘betel’. The betel nut is combined with lime and turns the chewer’s mouth a startling red and rots away teeth. The effect is rather like talking to a vampire. Many people (about 70% I read somewhere) including almost all taxi and bus drivers use betel as a mild stimulant. Apart from the nauseating smell it also means that the driver sitting next to you is regularly coughing up a sort of red phlegm and spitting it out of the window or (more civilized but even more unpleasant) into a plastic bottle kept handy for the purpose. It makes me feel sick. Here is a poster hanging in the college warning about the dangers of betel:


Luckily there is no betel chewing on campus. However there is incessant chanting. I wake to the yells which accompany  morning exercises at 6 a.m. and go to sleep listening to the monotonous tomes of religious plainsong coming from the hostels. During the day texts are drilled endlessly in the classroom and there are tuneless renderings of English nursery rhymes. It’s not the sound itself which upsets me but the sheer deadening weight of all that repetition and the knowledge that week in and week out teacher education students are being required to sing songs like ‘One two, buckle my shoe’ and ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, over and over again.

Chanting has its roots in Buddhism and of course there are also many positive ways in which Buddhism influences daily life. There is a general acceptance of what life brings, which seems to remove a lot of the anger, frustration and stress of daily life elsewhere and (to make a very broad generalisation) people seem very at ease with themselves and are quick to make jokes  and have fun. I have also been struck by the sense of solidarity among the TEs. They seem to genuinely enjoy (rather then envy) the good fortune of others and are happy to share everything, even a communal soup spoon. In class students always work together and help each other; in fact it’s hard to get them to do anything individual at all! One of the most important concepts of Buddhism is ‘Metta’ or loving kindness and this is something which is very tangible both inside and outside the college. According to a recent survey the Myanmar are the most generous people in the world and every morning you can see long lines of monks and nuns being given food and donations, not only in Mandalay but every city, town and village in Myanmar:


The monasteries are supported by the local community and in return provide food and shelter and spiritual support to anyone who needs it. Second only to the reverence for monks is the respect shown to teachers. One of the first things I noticed when I arrived was how students will always bow when walking past a teacher and stand up when a teacher enters the room. This applies to my students too. Many of the younger teachers will bow as I pass and every lesson I receive ‘donations’ from my students in the form of food and drinks, anything from coffee and juice to noodles and curries and hamburgers or pizzas. They also bring special sweets they have made or fruits from their family gardens, all beautifully arranged and presented:

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It’s all much more than I could ever consume. If I happen to attend a ceremony or competition (of which there are many) I am ushered into a special chair at the front and whatever the time of day (and however much I have already been given) an array of food and drinks is produced. As the teacher of the teachers I am expected, together with the Principal, to eat and drink while the other 500 people present in the hall get nothing and just look on. I find myself thinking of that biblical phrase which used to puzzle me as a kid: ‘To him that hath shall be given and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath’. And at the end of term students kneel in front of their teachers and bow their heads to the ground to show their respect. All this respect makes me feel very uncomfortable.

It is also clear that respect and generosity are not extended to all in Myanmar. My TEs have no compunction about expressing their antipathy towards Muslims, who ‘want to take over the country’  and the Chinese, ‘who already have’, and they are fiercely patriotic. Their views on the world are also ‘interesting’ as I experienced one day on an outing when we met a German tourist. One of the TEs politely started up a conversation by saying: ‘Ah, you are German. I admire Hitler very much, he was a great leader. Do you agree?’ I would have been shocked if I had not already discovered that this viewpoint is not uncommon here. Strong leaders are greatly revered.

Last week thirty teachers from the college attended a national conference for teacher educators in the capital Nay Pi Daw and they came back bursting with pride at having met ‘the Lady’ and showed me their selfies to prove it:

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I asked the TEs what she had said and they told me she had mainly asked questions. She wanted to hear their ideas and was particularly interested in what needed to be changed. This is something which would have been unthinkable under the previous regime, where voicing any kind of criticism could lead to imprisonment or worse. But the TEs are still wary; there were also military present, who listened carefully to whatever was said and by whom. Only a few of the most critical TEs are willing to express negative thoughts out loud, even to me. Change will take time they say,  it is for the next generation. For the children who will be taught by your students, I think to myself, and hurry off to prepare my next lesson.






















  1. It’s amazing how you make us take part in life in Myanmar, looking through your eyes, and this blog is certainly one that gives us a different view of the country where you’ve been living and working for nearly six months. It’s strange to think that in a few weeks all of this will be behind you and you’ll no longer need to take off your flip-flops before entering a (class)room, nor will anyone button you up :-). See you soon.


  2. Thnx for sharing your impressions of Myanmar Liz! Very interesting details instead of annoying comments on things ‘different from home’. Have a safe journey back!


  3. Hi Liz. Wonderful idiosyncrasies! So refreshing to read of some of the enjoyable, puzzling and even quaint aspects of life you are experiencing. And of course they are different from home. Thank goodness! Nice not to have exoticised your experiences. Are you OK about leaving? Leaving behind those you have begun to love and admire and will miss? Job done/job description fulfilled? Sort of end of an era. Bon voyage. Look forward to seeing you again. Allan and Judy X


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