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.


Daily Life in Burma | OrganicIsBeautiful

Burma, where it all started.

Flash back

Summer 2012. Myanmar.

It was my first travel to Asia, and it remains the most magical one. Knowing little about the country kind of help because at the time, my curiosity was sent through the roof! Now 3 years later, I genuinely believed that it was the most amazing trip of my entire (little) life!

I will share with you some of the reason why I fall in love with the Burmese landscape and why you should no wait any longer and head to Myanmar.

My first trip in Asia was in Burma, in 2012.
My first trip in Asia was in Burma, in 2012.

I was first skeptical, back in 2012, Myanmar was sadly more famous for its political instability rather than its tourism industry.

I saw a few pictures online that made me reconsidered my narrow judgement, I have to admit, there is some kind of mystery around the country that mesmerized me.

Daily Life in Burma | OrganicIsBeautiful
Daily Life in Burma | OrganicIsBeautiful

 ∴ Paris – Bangkok – Yangon.

Yangon is an hour flight away from Bangkok airport.

On day 1, after a smooth check in into a local guesthouse, I decided to explore Yangon by night, camera in hand, with an itinerary more or less laid out in advance.

Beginning and ending in Yangoon, the trip took me to all the classic locations for which Myanmar is rightfully famed: Yangon (Rangoon), Inle Lake, Mandalay and Bagan.


First impression. Yangon comes across as a sprawling city with a relatively small downtown area. The British colonial influence is still evident. Yangon remains a semi-rural city, with dirt roads and old downtown buildings. In 1989, the current military junta who runs the country, changed the city’s name to “Yangon”, however many have not accepted the changes.

Two men walk down the street in downtown Rangoon ( Aliece Alisha for The Wall Street Journal)
Two men walk down the street in downtown Rangoon ( Aliece Alisha for The Wall Street Journal)

On my day 2, I visited the awe glorious Shwedagon Pagoda, “the crown jewel of Burma.” Magic. This world famous temple is Myanmar’s most sacred site.

Rudyard Kipling on his brief visit to Burma in 1889 describe it as the “The winking wonder”. There is was standing in front of me! You quickly realized how a beautiful building can move a person but a building that has been said to be covered in more gold than in all the vaults in England can take your breath away!
The following days, I ventured through the the chaotic Yangon Riverbank and the crowded street markets of Chinatown with its tiny lanes crowded with local food stalls and young children in pyjamas tucking into a pre bedtime snack on the street.

Lac Inle in Burma | OrganicIsBeautiful
Lac Inle in Burma | OrganicIsBeautiful

It was unthinkable to me that a day could pass me by without heading out to explore some of the remotest regions of this beautiful country.

I explored villages and landscapes where most of the time the roads were still under construction, and where time seemingly kind of stopped as soon as you moved away from the main cities.

The land of smiles

 Rather, with a smile and hello spoken in Burmese (min-ga-la-ba), faces light up radiantly.

More naturally friendly people are hard to find. If other countries proclaim that they are the land of smiles, Myanmar is surely the land of the BIG smile.

Rangoon, Burma. (The Wall Street Journal)

 Heading North, Mandalay

Mandalay is the second biggest city and the former capital of Myanmar. The most interesting part is probably the taxi ride up in an open cart up a windy road.

Arrived at Mandalay hills, I was courageous enough take the south gate and walk 1729 stairs up to the top.

Fascinating and spiritual climb.One of the best aspects was talking to people on the way up. They practised English and I learnt about the culture and history of the Hill and the old palace. In this wonderful old building, constructed in the traditional style, were several very young students being taught by a senior monk in a most reverential and timeless way.

Stop in Burma | OrganicIsBeautiful
Stop in Burma | OrganicIsBeautiful

The entrance to the stairway is protected by two Chinthes, huge leogryphs that often guard temples or pagodas in Southeast Asia. The Chinthe is also on the Kyat, Burma’s official currency.

Bagan, a bicycle ride away

More than 3,500 religious buildings, temples, pagodas, monasteries and halls have survived the centuries and earthquakes. A mystic vibe surrounded the 40 sq km of plain.

Wandering around the area and discovering these buildings was an exceptionally rewarding.

Picture credit: TWJ

What is your image of Myanmar? If you have been there recently, feel free to share your experience, I am very curious to hear about the changes since I was there!

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