Burma – The Smile of The Betel leaves.

One of my first post was about my fabulous trip in Burma in 2012. A mind-blowing trip. Today, I stumbled a travel photography blog-  Jon Sanwell’s Blog – by chance, and it took my breath away.

Why? It remained me the sweet souvenir of experiencing Burmese culture, and especially the Hospitality (with a big H). One of my best souvenir remains the continuous smile on people face, regardless of level of poverty.

You can’t talk about The Smile in Burma without mentioning the Betelnut Smile, resonating in every corner of the country.

The BetelNut Smile

Betelnut Smile. Picture -flickrhivemind.net
Betelnut Smile. Picture -flickrhivemind.net

‘No one can speak Burmese well till he chews betel’.

The words of Sir James George Scott, Scottish journalist and colonial administrator in the XIX century still resonate today: Betel nut is ubiquitous in Myanmar.

Back in 2012, during my backpacking trip in Burma, I saw countless of locals chewing routinely the Betel Nuts. Chewers queue up at small kiosks across the city selling the wraps for 100 kyats (around 10 US cents). Hawkers carry them in trays hung around their necks and sell them to passing motorists at busy junctions.

Many people chew betel incessantly, despite half-hearted government attempts to curb the practice, or at least to stop the spitting associated with chewing. A long time habit in Myanmar. 

The streets are covered with big red blotches because, when locals finish chewing their quids, they hawk red gobs and streams of juice onto the roads and walkways, permanently staining the concrete.

Jon Sanwell.com Beta chewing for OIb

The Betel Nuts.

  • Scientific names: Areca catechu L. Family: Palmaceae (palms)
  • Common names: Areca nut, paan, paan-gutkha pinlang, pinang, and supari.
  • Effect: stimulant, addictive.

The fruit of the Areca catechu palm tree, also known as the “Betel Nut”, contain the stimulant arecoline. Native to SE Asia, the nuts are ground and often combined with mineral lime and wrapped in the leaf of a Betel pepper plant.

How to recognise a heavy user? Simple. Notably, frequent use can stain teeth black and its daily use is associated with increased risk of mouth cancers. It is known that there are variants of the betel and lime combination across many Asian cultures and have a long history of human use.

Jon Sanwell Pictures OiB Beta leaves in Market

Chewing the BetelNut

Using Jon’s words, chewing betelnut (actually a combination of betel leaves and areca nut, Wikipedia tells me) is a major part of the culture in Myanmar.

Jon Sanwell.com Beta Woman selling Burma for OiB

Betel provides a mild stimulant, but also stains the chewer’s teeth red and is a major cause of cancer. This series of pictures from Mandalay shows the areca nuts being sliced and sorted; the betel leaves being arranged in baskets for sale at the market; a street stand selling parcels of nuts and leaves; and a betel smile.

Beta nuts Jon Sanwell.com For OiB

The only additional flavoring Yapese sometimes use is tobacco. Dark, sticky twist tobacco is best, but some people will also bite off the end of a cigarette after popping the betel quid into their mouths.

Picture Credit: Jon Sanwell.



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