There’s an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine’s boss calls her from Burma and she goes like: “Burma!? (where or what is this?),” to which he replies: “You most likely know it is as Myanmar. But it will always be Burma to me.”
And that is just exactly how confused most of the world is when it comes to the name of the country. While the official name is the Republic of the Union of Myanmar since 1989, when the military government changed the English translations of many local names, there are still countries and organisations to not officially recognise the change and refer to the country as the Union of Burma, or simply Burma.
In reality, both Burma and Myanmar mean the same and derive from the name of the majority Burmese Bamar ethnic group, where Myanmar is the literal form of the name.
Burma has been in use in English since the 18th century English colonial times, when the country was among the richest and most developed ones in Southeast Asia. The Independence from Britain in 1948 followed by isolation, socialism and military clashes and human rights violations, to find modern Myanmar as one of the poorest and least educated and developed in the region.
And today, part of the country is still isolated and closed for foreign travellers due to risks of armed conflicts or stepping on a land mine, as Myanmar has the notorious fame of one of the planet’s most heavily-mined states, with an estimated 5 million residents currently living in areas clogged with the hidden weapons.
Nevertheless, most of Myanmar is opened for tourism and is considered relatively safe and crime-free and the Burmese are accepted as extremely kind and friendly.
And there is plenty to see and experience in the country. From underground Buddhist temples in caves, lost cities, stupas, and the world’s largest reclining Buddha, through picturesque trekking routes to exotic islands with stunning beaches.
And as poverty is always subjective, just picture the Shwedagon Pagoda, covered with hundreds of gold plates while the top is encrusted with 4531 diamonds.
To enjoy a stunning view of the Pagoda from above, you could treat yourself to a hot air balloon ride. But when you prefer to travel on road, keep in mind that traffic could be confusing. Myanmar is a country where most cars have right hand steering, yet the traffic on the roads is right-handed! And the country has its own units of measures, as has not adopted the metric system.
Tourists on holiday in Myanmar must travel with cash, and preferably with US dollars and as peculiar as it might sound, your dollars must be clean and new, otherwise your risk they not to be accepted and considering the few ATMs in the country and that a credit card won’t really take you far away, you better have spotless banknotes in hand.
If you want to pay your bill at a restaurant, do not wave your cash, but instead make a kissing sound to attract the waiter’s attention.
And don’t be surprised to see shirtless men wearing skirts, those are the traditional longyi, comfortable and easy to wear when temperatures climb above 40°C or while playing Chinlone, the traditional sport in Myanmar, a non-competitive combination of dance and football with no opposing team.
Another daily hobby of the Burmese is chewing betel nuts, Kun ja has been around for thousands of years in Southeast Asia as a mild stimulant and the locals love it, so expect to see streets covered in red saliva and do not mistake those for blood.
The only time of the year to wash away the red colour, is The Burmese New Year, Thingyan, when Burmese pour water onto each other as a way to wash away of unlucky things and sins in the previous year.
Burmese New Year is in April, so you have some months ahead to plan your visit to Myanmar. And when you have further questions on the country, its culture, or the Burmese language, (yeah the country might have changed its name to Myanmar, but the local language is still called Burmese language), our Burmese translators and interpreters are here to answer all your personal and corporate needs.
→ Click here to contact our Burmese language department.