Yes, those men are wearing skirts. They’re called longyi and they’re actually pretty damn cool. You might even have the urge to rock one by trip’s end, but do your best to resist. A non-Burmese man in a skirt just looks like a tool.
No, those women are not preparing for war. That makeup on their faces is called thanaka, and besides being an effective natural sun block (made from ground bark), it’s also a bit of a style statement. Pay attention to the different shapes—circles, stripes, swirls—women paint on their cheeks throughout the day.
Skip the free hotel breakfast. That was the piece of advice offered by legendary cookbook author and Burma trailblazer Naomi Duguid the first morning in our hotel and for it we owe her dearly. Even the dodgiest hotels will offer breakfast, and although it might be free sustenance, it’s a terrible waste of what may be Burma’s best meal of the day. Pull up a plastic stool at a teashop and order samosas, a plate of mohinga noodles, and a coffee with a twist of lime. It’ll set you back less than $2.
That smooching sound is not some dude making a pass at your girl. The international signs for flagging down a waiter—finger waves, chin nods, etc—carry little currency in this country. Instead, two short kisses are used to get someone’s attention. The trick is to make the sound via a thin stream of air passing through your lips, rather than from the lips themselves—a trick I never quite mastered, so my spirited attempts at authenticity invariably ended in me sounding like a pervert.
Those red stains you see everywhere—on street corners and in the cracks of sidewalks and stained to the grills of nearly every man the country over? They’re not blood, they’re betel juice. Betel nut is chewed throughout Southeast Asia, but in Burma it’s an indispensable part of the daily diet. Hard squares of betel nut are wrapped in betel leaves slicked with lye and laced with an Indian curry’s worth of spices—cardamom, fennel seed, star anise, rose powder, maybe even a touch of tobacco. For a mere 50 kyat (about six cents), you get a chance to fill the streets with your own personal burgundy stream, just like a local. With the texture of a two-by-four, it makes for a chew, but by the time the nut’s mildly narcotic juices start flowing and your head starts spinning, you won’t mind in the slightest.
Rise with the sun. The best hours of the day in Burma are from six to eight in the morning, when the light is soft, the heat gentle, and the naan bubbling hot from the tandoor ovens invariably firing in front of the city teashops.