Burma’s on the move. After 60 years forced to sit still, it’s now sprinting ahead, and while this is very exciting, the nostalgic amongst us are clinging on to remains of a time gone by which may eventually go out with the betel nut husks.
Here are some of our favourites:
The Burmese trishaw is essentially a bicycle, with a passenger side car attached to it (think Two Fat Ladies with no engine). Hilariously known as the “Sai-Ka” in Burmese, the trishaw has been delivering people, packages and produce all over town since the 1930s. 26,000 of them still course the streets looking for their next 30p ride, or sit in the shade of the trees, doubling up nicely as a bed for their snoozing driver. There’s a chance they’ll disappear under the rise of Uber and a functioning bus system, but seeing as motorbikes are illegal in Yangon, they may hang on in there as the easiest way to zip through the narrow streets of downtown.
This ancient Burmese wonder-cosmetic is said to protect against the sun, wrinkles, allergies and acne. While the science is unproven, the tradition is 2000 years old, totally unique to Burma and at risk of extinction with the rise of Western influence. Already, the more internationally minded have stopped wearing it, and it will surely lose it's cool as the global cosmetics industry takes hold on a new market.
The Longyi is a sort of ankle length sarong, worn every day by both men and women in Burma. Men’s are usually subtly patterned and dark in colour, tied at the front in a big, swiftly tied knot, and are routinely undone, billowed around and re-tied with great hip-swaying nonchalance. Worn with a smart white shirt, collarless jacket and velvet flip-flops, it becomes National Dress. Women’s are much more colourful, and are often paired with a matching top halves. They are usually zipped rather than knotted, so luckily no need to readjust when you jump off the bus with too much zeal. As Western clothes become more available at more accessible prices, the longyi will probably disappear as an everyday choice, and be reserved for formal occasions.
OLD COLONIAL BUILDINGS
Once the hallmark of a buzzing cosmopolitan city of the British Raj, Yangon’s remaining colonial buildings are in deep trouble. Now crumbling and jostling for sunlight with the ferns and trees rooted in their walls, these stunning ghosts of another era are disappearing every day and being replaced by ubiquitous modern horrors. 189 buildings are officially listed for conservation, and organisations like Turquoise Mountain and the Yangon Heritage Trust campaign tirelessly for more, but this isn’t enough, and the fear is that ruthless modernisation will turn Yangon into a homogeneous South-East Asian city before long.
OLD PUBLIC BUSES
These are already on their way out. On January 6th this year, any bus made before 1995 was deemed un-roadworthy, and is excluded from the new Bus System with its shiny Japanese air conditioned alternatives. While a blessing for those who take them every day, and also for those of us who live on noisy bus routes and much prefer the softer horn of the new buses, this is a big change to the road-scape, and the end of an era.
CONSTRUCTION SITE "SAFETY"
This has to be a good one. It’s still best not to look too closely at construction sites, where workers drill at concrete inches from their bare or flip-flopped feet, heave around steel girders in wellies, and teeter on ladders in a clouds of welding sparks with no safety goggles. Surely the context beneath the “Safety First” signs that hang unconvincingly near these death-traps will be enforced as regulation increases.
It is still possible to get lost and be the only foreigner for miles around…just. It’s no longer possible to have the Bagan sunset to yourself, but venture far enough and there are special secluded spots to be found. These will very quickly become fewer and harder to reach, and truly extraordinary experiences such as the annual Taunggyi Balloon Festival (where handmade hot air balloons loaded with fireworks rise majestically, or crash fatally in equal proportions) will be regulated into a shadow, nanny state version of their former selves.
These are basically already defunct (seeing as 80% of the population now have mobile phones), but some still exist. So brilliant!
Ox and cart is still the norm for 95% of the 21 million farmers in Burma. However, every now and then we spot a JCB or digger chomping up a field. Although less charming, this is clearly a vital development for the incredibly fertile lands of the erstwhile “Garden of Asia” which are long-overdue their return to the top of the agriculture export food-chain.
Backstrap and wooden loom weaving are still a household skill in parts of Burma, where some women still weave and wear their tribal outfits. However, the smart-phone generation are looking up and out from the loom, allured by what they consider to be more glamorous jobs in domestic service in Malaysia or office work in Thailand. At Kalinko we’re working hard to keep these skills alive, and to give enough work to these incredibly talented weavers to persuade them of the worth of what they can do, and the hunger of the rest of the world for their beautiful textiles.
Come now! See it how it is, with hints of how it was, and then be joyful for the development in the knowledge that you caught it before the change. And invest in a piece of it’s heritage at kalinko.com.