John Buckley drops his pants in Yangon
Excerpted from To Myanmar With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
To be honest, I've never quite been sold on the concept of pants. I was raised in a cold weather environment in the United States, which made them an elemental, not to mention cultural, necessity, but secretly I've always yearned to be freed from their form-fitting restraint.
When I began reading about Myanmar in preparation for my first visit, I was introduced to certain interesting facts. Upon arrival, I would quickly come into contact with women who wore a powdery, yellow substance called thanaka on their faces and-of particular interest to me, due to the aforementioned reason-men who would be dressed in a skirt-like garment known as a longyi.
Sure enough, when I arrived at the Yangon International Airport on a hot October day, I was greeted by smiling women with thanaka smeared across their cheeks, along with taxi drivers seeking my business, all of them wearing ankle-length pieces of cloth tied neatly around their waists. I was instantly intrigued.
After wandering the chaotic Yangon streets, it soon became apparent that the longyi was not a costume adorned by the locals for the benefit of arriving tourists. Both the use of thanaka, which serves as sunscreen and make-up, and the wearing of longyi are traditional practices preserved in a country that has essentially been cut off from the "modern" world for the better part of the last half century. While visiting a longyi-wearing travel agent in Yangon, I curiously asked about the garment. After a brief explanation of its practicality, the agent then produced a small plastic-wrapped package containing a neatly folded longyi. With a smile, he offered it to me as a gift.
Later that day, I visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most sacred Buddhist site. As I was paying the entry fee, one of the ticket takers noticed that I was wearing shorts and shyly asked if I had a pair of trousers to cover my knees. I remembered the longyi in my backpack and asked if that would suffice. The young man looked relieved and told me it would be much appreciated if I would be so kind as to put it on.
It then occurred to me that there was one small problem. I had no idea how to go about fastening the large piece of cloth around my waist. Attracting a small crowd of giggling locals, I received my first lesson on properly tying a longyi. You must first "step into" the cylindrical garment, and then pull up the top end until it reaches your lower chest. The next key step is to secure two separate ends of fabric in each hand at both sides of the waist and then to pull each end in opposite directions. The right hand then drops down to hold the loose middle section firmly in place before bringing the left hand down to meet the right hand in the middle. Are you with me so far?
Maintaining a tight a grip on each portion, you then encircle the two pieces of fabric in each hand into a tight cross section at the waist-still holding the middle. This leaves the two ends free for a final motion where one end gets tucked into the waistline. The other end sticks out like a clump that resembles a knot. Though more intricate, the longyi-tying process is essentially akin to wrapping a towel around your waist.
I felt slightly awkward at first, but as I walked the grounds of Shwedagon, I began to take to the concept of longyi wearing. Free-flowing, yet conservative. Casual, yet stylish. I felt the need for pants in my life diminish.
Several days later, on a visit to the riverside town of Mingun, I received another lesson in the practicality of the longyi. Having engaged in a rather lengthy tour of the Mingun Paya-that large, unfinished pagodaon the Ayeyarwady River-I was soaked through with sweat. Noticing that the sun was taking its toll on me, my guide asked if I would like a shower. In local parlance this meant bathing in the river. Though tempted, I did not want wet clothes for the remainder of the day and politely declined. Undeterred, my guide told me that I could borrow a longyi.
The beating sun soon weakened my resistance, and I followed my guide to his modest house, where I re-enacted the motions of my earlier longyi experience. I then walked down to the river, doing my best to keep the longyi firmly in place so I wouldn't expose myself to the other tourists who were already shooting surprised looks in my direction. Joining a group of elderly local women and my guide in the water, I spent the afternoon swimming along the banks of the river and washing myself with borrowed soap. Though the Mingun Paya was indeed a grand sight to see, it was that moment in the river that I will remember best-and I owe it all to the longyi.
Throughout the remainder of my trip, I would wear my longyi in private, secretly longing for this to become an accepted look for an American. On my way out of Yangon, I purchased two more in various patterns. Though I know it will take some convincing, I have vowed to friends that I will make the longyi the latest craze in a society that could benefit from loosening up a bit and dropping its pants.
For a regular men's longyi, which locals also call paso, prices usually range from 2,000 to 6,000 kyat (about $2 to $5), depending on the quality. Pure silk versions can cost around 20,000 kyat, and women's longyi, also called tamein, are normally more expensive, ranging from 3,000 to 30,000 kyat. The finer ones might cost up to 120,000 kyat (around $100). Besides price, there is another difference between men's and women's longyi: women tie their longyi on the side. Most locals buy their longyi at markets or department stores.
To find out more about To Myanmar With Love, go to ThingsAsian Press.
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Published on 2/6/09