Art has been closely
intertwined with religion and royalty in Burman history. Temples,
pagodas and palaces displayed the artistic skills of painters, wood
carvers and sculptures. Temples and pagodas were traditionally built
of brick and many are still standing. The great palaces, however, were
made of wood, and only one badly-deteriorating example of these
beautiful carved structures remains today. Art and architecture, which
relied on royal support, faded when the last royal kingdom collapsed.
Although court culture has been extinguished, popular street-level
culture is vibrant and thriving. Drama is the mainstay of this
culture, and just about any celebration is a good excuse for a pwe
(show). Performances may recount Buddhist legends, or be more
light-hearted entertainments involving slapstick comedy, dance,
ensemble singing or giant puppets. Burman music is an integral part of
a pwe; it originates from Siam and emphasises rhythm and melody.
Instruments are predominantly percussive and include drums,
boat-shaped harps, gongs and bamboo flutes.
Over 85% of the Burman population is Theravada Buddhist, although it
is not the official state religion and since the Ne Win government
takeover, it has actually officially occupied a less central role in
Burman life. In the Rakhine region, towards Bangladesh, there are many
Muslims. Christian missionaries have had some success among hill
tribes but many remain staunch animists.
Burmese is the predominant language and has its own alphabet and
script. Though you're hardly going to have time to master the
alphabet, it may be worth learning the numerals, if only so you can
read the bus numbers. English is spoken by a few Burmans, particularly
by the older generation.
It's easier to buy authentic Burman dishes from food stalls rather
than restaurants. Chinese and Indian eateries predominate, and hotel
restaurants tend to remove much of the chilli and shrimp paste from
their Burman dishes. Rice is the core of any Burman meal. To this is
added a number of curry options and a spicy raw vegetable salad, and
almost everything is flavoured with ngapi - a dried and
fermented shrimp paste. Chinese tea is generally preferable to the
over-strong, over-sweet and over-milky Burman tea. Sugar-cane juice is
a very popular streetside drink, and stronger tipples include orange
brandy, lychee wine and the alarming-sounding white liquor and jungle