The common form of dress in Myanmar is the longyi, a form of long fabric wrapped around the lower body like a skirt, for both men and women. But make no mistake – they are not interchangeable between sexes. Enter Kevin. And comedy ensues.
We arrived at Shwedagon Pagoda (Shwedagon Paya), Yangon’s main attraction, the grand golden chedi of a pagoda high on a mound and visible both night and day from much of the rest of the city.
This is a must-see in Yangon, its number one tourist site. And while I had forgotten to pack pants, my mother-in-law had sent a couple of wraps with my wife. It is common at such religious places to require some modest cover. In the cases of tourist attractions, it is common that travelers either (rudely) ignore the custom, don’t realize, or like me, just pack poorly for the trip. The popular sites often have something available for loan, purchase or rent. I figured I’d just don one of the two skirt-like wraps that Tip had in her bag. Being smart and all, she had pants on.
I pulled out both and asked a Burmese man who was helping tourists store their shoes, get their tickets, and find the elevator: “Which one?” He looked at the two options I had and hesitated. A sort of mild smile turned up the corners of his lips and he said something to the Burmese lady sitting behind him policing the tourists who had forgotten to also take off their socks.
Her eyes widened and she smiled. OK, I admit they weren’t exactly the stereotypically masculine designs. One was floral and purple, the other green. I chose the latter, with a sort of tie like an apron, and slipped it on over my shorts. The man shook his head but reached around me like we were slow dancing and tied it. He stepped back, smiled, looked back at the woman. Green, so it sort of matched the shirt, he noted in a consolation sort of way. She just laughed a bit. OK, super.
Up we went in the elevator to the top of the temple mound where the faithful and the travelers gathered to admire the large golden central chedi and the collection of Buddha images and shrines surrounding it. But suddenly I realized that, for locals, I was the new central attraction. Ever see a Burmese person do a double take, almost tripping over themselves? I have. About two dozen times in the next minute. Tourists drifted by blissfully unaware of the spectacle.
One pagoda attendant told us in broken English and gesture that this was for women. OK. But is it a big deal? So what if it’s green? No, it was the way it was tied as well, and he showed me his knot. He just shrugged, no problem for him, You go on ahead there, big fella.
I decided I would just suck it up and endure. What’s the harm? So I get a little bit of attention. But the thing is, since I was a kid, I have always been totally socially terrified of being a clown (unintentionally, anyway) or being the laughingstock. I lasted about five minutes before the anxiety brought on by jaws dropping and eyes widening and giggling. Tip and I retired to a back corner where I made the incredibly illogical decision that it would be better if I wore the floral one as it could be tied more like a true longyi.
Let’s just say the spectacle factor doubled. I gave in to Tip’s suggestion that I go back downstairs and borrow a proper longyi. I stepped into it – it is sewn into a barrel shape – and the attendant helped me fold it on either side in front and sort of tie the ends around each other, leaving a bit of a bundle of fabric at the gut, as the men’s longyis should.
Now THAT’S how it’s done! And back we went, up the elevator, as I proudly sported my new local attire. Out into the crowd I stepped where no one turned and pointed and snapped photos and whispered to each other because a foreigner was wearing a woman’s longyi. No sir, now they giggled, pointed, and smiled because a foreigner was wearing a longyi. I can live with that.
Myanmar travel tips on The Mad Traveler