Bo Gu / NBC News
A young Burmese man sells oranges at Yangon's Theingyi Zei market.
YANGON, Myanmar – Yangon’s five-star hotels instantly relaxed me as soon as I checked into one after a long journey to this distant place usually closed to foreigners.
A smiling porter opened the taxi door and promptly took my luggage. Petite girls in traditional dresses spoke impeccable English at the front desk while I checked in and another young woman offered me orange juice. The sound of chanting monks echoed off a lake when I opened my balcony door; crystal waters of the hotel pool beckoned.
Clean, neat souvenir shops captured my attention with delicate puppets and “I Love Myanmar” T-shirts.
But I was confronted with a completely different world once I walked away from the tourist area and into the old town district where cracked sidewalk stones was the norm.
Bo Gu / NBC News
A young woman and a baby smile at the camera in downtown Yangon, Myanmar.
Instead of fancy shop windows, a bustling market sold everything on the street. Hundreds of stalls sold fruits I couldn’t name, snacks of all colors, fresh and dried seafood, flip-flops, pancakes, remote controls, stationary, and even Justin Bieber posters.
The market had much of what you would see anywhere in Southeast Asia, but there were three things I noticed that were distinct to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma before the ruling military junta changed the name):
I live in a country where people rarely smile at strangers – China – which may explain why I came to feel spoiled by the Burmese people’s constant, friendly and bright smiles. Women or children, monks or street peddlers, they all smiled and posed for me when I took pictures of them.
Their cheerful expressions seemed to belie the fact that they are an oppressed people under a military regime that still puts human rights activists in jail. But occasionally, out of the blue, one of them would whisper to me, “I hate my government.”
My trip was short, so I cannot say I understand the Burmese people, but I sensed they are so eager to communicate with people from the outside. They want the world to know how much they suffer – in a beautiful country with pleasant weather, but with an oppressive authority. And yet they begin that communication with the beautiful gesture of smiles.
Bo Gu / NBC News
A street peddler prepares a betel nut roll in Yangon.
Burmese men seem to always be either preparing a betel nut roll or chewing one. Although once banned by the government in mid-90s, chewing the mild stimulant that leaves a distinctive red mouth is still extremely popular and betel stands can be seen every few blocks.
It’s fun to watch boys and men dexterously roll up what looks like a tiny burrito made of green leaf containing a mixture of betel nuts, lime paste and tobacco. They put this tiny burrito into their mouths, chew, grind and spit it out onto the ground, leaving a thick, reddish brown spittle that dots the sidewalks of Yangon.
Magical facial paste
Another distinctive color on the streets of Yangon is the white paste that nearly every woman and child wears on their face. The whitish sticky paste, called “thanakha” in Burmese, can be made from teak, bark or other tree varieties mixed with water and other flavored ingredients.
Like in many other Asian countries, local women favor the magical paste for its supposed whitening effect, as well as its special power to smooth skin, prevent acne, and most importantly, cool skin from tropical sunburns.
Women and children apply the paste on both their cheeks and nose, in a square or round shape. They walk around with the mud on their faces all day; I couldn’t help wondering if they wear the paste when they sleep.
From the hotel souvenir shop I bought a small bottle of lime scented thanakha for $1. It didn’t seem to stay on my cheeks for very long, but I enjoyed the coolness, just like any other facial mud or moisture masks we apply at home. With the thanakha on my face and donning a blue and white flower-patterned longyi – a sheet of cloth widely worn in Myanmar – I felt like a local, at least on the outside. As for what it truly feels like to be Burmese – willing to give a smile to a stranger while living under an iron-handed government – that I can only imagine.
(Burma, Myanmar – what’s the difference? The country’s ruling military junta changed the name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. The capital, Rangoon, also became Yangon. The United Nations has recognized the name change, but the U.S. and the U.K. do not).