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Off the Beaten Track, the countless faces of Myanmar

  • By Easia Admin
  • June, 26, 2018

In some areas of Yangon, cultures come face to face, in very close proximity: churches face mosques and pagodas, and in some areas of Myanmar, three different tribes inhabit three villages in a row. This is only a glimpse of the unique cultural diversity we can find in this country: superimposed over Europe, Myanmar would cover an area from Copenhagen in Denmark to the southernmost point of Italy.

One main ethnic group and a myriad of others…

In this large territory, which hosts more than 50 million people, many “Burmese” people are not themselves ethnically Burmese. That is to say, regardless of their nationality, they would not introduce themselves as Burmese. They would instead identify as Shan, Padaung, Pa-O, or whatever their true ethnic group may be, depending on to which one they belong. The majority Bamar ethnic group makes up about two-thirds of the population, but altogether, a staggering 135 different ethnic groups are officially recognized by the government. The main groups are the Bamar, Shan, Karen, Karenni, Kachin, Chin, Rakhine and Mon people. The others minority ethnicities represent around 10% of the population. Regarding religion, Buddhism remains the dominant majority religion, yet still 10% of the population are either Christians or Muslims.

 

… building a patchworked national identity

This was one of the national purposes when the name of the country was officially changed to “Myanmar” in English: whereas Burma comes etymologically from the Bamar people and was bestowed by the British, Myanmar is an older word, which represents a gathering of all the country’s ethnicities under its meaning. Calling this country “Myanmar” meant, among other meanings, making ethnic diversity part of the country’s identity. We, at Easia Travel, invite travelers to come, see, and experience a diversity that we live daily.

The tattooed faces of the West

Each ethnic group has its habits, its beliefs, its festivals, its traditional costumes, its traditional dishes, and its language. Some turned out being world-famous, like the Chin women, who live in the Chin and Rakhine States. Around their teens, the women of this ethnicity used to tattoo their whole face in a pattern, representative of their tribe. Legend has it that a Burmese King traveled around the region, fell in love with one Chin girl and took her away to marry her. Chin mothers would then decide and nearly be forced to tattoo their daughters in order to make them less attractive. According to other tales, the practice could have been a way to recognize a kidnapped Chin woman. Some stories even say that as Chin people were converted to Christianity, their local pastors taught them that only the tattooed women would reach heaven.

 

Leg-rowing men on the Lake

The Intha people have made their lives on Inle Lake, where they live in stilt houses, grow vegetables and fruits in floating gardens, and even fish by standing on their boats and rowing with one leg. When the Phaung Daw Oo Festival comes, around September, they organize one-leg rowing races on the lake, which draw in hundreds of people from the surrounding area to watch these feats of strength. Pictures of the fishers’ shadows, standing and casting their nets into the lake, have today become a symbol of aquatic living and travel in Myanmar.

 

Legend turned into clothes

The Pa O people, scattered across Mon, Karen, Kayah and Shan States and descendants of the same dragon mother and weiza father as the Kayan people, wear their story on their clothes. The womens’ turban is supposed to imitate the shape of the dragon’s head, while the mens’ turban symbolizes the dragon’s tail. As for their dark clothes, they represent a sort of mourning: the defeat they suffered against King Anawrahta in the 11th century. After his victory, he had the Pa O people enslaved and forced them to give up their colorful costumes- hence the adherence to dark coloration even to this day.

 

A story to tell for everyone

The Mon people, in the Southeastern part of the country, play and pluck their music on a fretted, crocodile-shaped zither with three strings, named mi gyaung or kyam. The Lisu people, also settled in China and Northern Thailand, and originally hailing from Eastern Tibet, pass their history from one generation to the next in the form of song. Nowadays the Mon people’s song is so long that it takes a week to sing it!

These anecdotes, tales, and mythic histories are never-ending and change from one village to another. The best way to learn about them, to understand how important they may or may not be, is to meet these people and let them tell you their story. This means simply traveling through Myanmar, and allowing the people to speak for themselves: “My name begins with ‘Nang’ because I am Shan,” or “I’ll be on leave on this day because it’s a Karen festival day.” The range of appearances and costumes at the five-day market on Inle Lake would be a great start to dive into the amazing diversity Myanmar has to offer.

 

Changing the stories into true encounters: Easia Travel steps in

However, even if these various ethnicities are to be seen and recognized all over the country, they all build communities which still mostly thrive in small villages, and not necessarily the larger, more touristic markets. This is where Easia steps in and allows guests to experience Myanmar’s diversity more closely; we take travelers to the remote region of Mrauk U, in Rakhine State, where the Chin people live; to Kengtung, near the Thai border, where the Akha, Lahu and Wa people have settled; to Loikaw, where Padaung women still wear their brass neck rings; and to the Shan hills, where one never knows if the next village will be inhabited by the Pa O, Danu or Lisu people. It’s more than just a geographic adventure; it’s a cultural one.

Beyond just bringing the travelers to these incredible locations, we want to share our knowledge as a locally-based, multicultural company, which embodies diversity within its own staff, coming from all over Myanmar. As such, we are confident to say that we will take these travelers to, for example, Loikaw, because we genuinely see treasures in this place; because it is a crucial part of Myanmar’s ethnic and cultural patchwork, and, importantly, because we know where to go without disturbing the daily life of people. Our local guides, who know the places by heart and the people by name, will lead travelers through the land, villages, and hills. Indeed, we cooperate alongside with local communities and families in the areas where we operate, live and, work.

Therefore, we encourage individuals to develop services or programs that create positive impacts together with us. In addition to reducing the impact on main tourist trails, our programs and adventures provide the travelers with supremely unique and exclusive experiences to share after their holiday. For instance, in Kengtung, we have developed a several-days-long program to discover the surrounding areas with a local supplier, who we trust to know the area and the needs of the place better than we do.

Here lies our invitation: encounter after encounter, we insist that discovering Myanmar’s identity is, first and foremost, to be understood through all the different colorful costumes to see, all the different languages to hear, and all the different traditions to learn (and take part in). And yet, despite this mind-boggling amount of cultural diversity, the people of Myanmar all demonstrate as one that there is something truly special about their country. Myanmar’s smiles are certainly no legend, no myth. They are awaiting visitors, ready to tell a quietly uttered tale or demonstrate the beauty of their traditions, from fashion to food, that travelers will never forget.

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