When we arrived in Myanmar over two weeks ago, the signs at the airport jumped out at us with characters like neither of us had ever seen before. I felt a bit silly that we hadn’t thought to try to familiarize ourselves with the language at all before arriving. The was plenty of English in Thailand so I guess we just didn’t really think all that much about it. And besides, the British controlled Myanmar for years, so surely there would probably be plenty of the English language around.
As it turns out there is some truth in that statement but not as much as expected.
First off, where there are tourists there tends to be English. And there are definitely tourists here. For the most part in hotels we have had at least a bit of English. Well except for Mandalay, where our hotel was clearly geared towards Chinese travellers. This makes me think that it must be much harder for non-English speaking travellers in general. While there isn’t a lot of English, there is almost no French, Spanish, Japanese, etc.
Outside of hotels it is less certain where we can communicate with the local people. Burmese is a fast language, so it is hard to even pick words out of a sentence. On top of the speed, many Burmese men chew betel nut constantly, which is sort of like an Asian version of tobacco. So it makes them hard to understand regardless of the language. We have come to learn that English is a fairly slow spoken language, and that Canadians speak fairly slow even by English standards. We had some Argentinians tell us that for this reason they find Canadians the easiest to talk to in English.
Trying to order food can be a challenge. We have had plenty of fun trying to speak with street food vendors: “Is that pork or chicken?” “Yes.” “Alright…Is it meat?” “Yes, pork”. “Great we’ll take one”. And so on.
It took us a while to learn the only two words we know in Burmese. For the benefit of our readers, and because I don’t know the actual spellings, I’ll write them out phonetically. To say hello you say “mingalaba”. Though used in place of hello (i.e as a direct greeting) we were told this word means something more like “I wish you well”. The second word we know is pronounced “jezzebah”, which is thank you.
We have taken to using our two Burmese words frequently, and for the most part I’d say the Burmese people enjoy our efforts at their language. No one ever tries to carry on a conversation with us in Burmese, which isn’t surprising because we clearly don’t speak any other Burmese. But you can tell from their smiles that they like the effort.
English comprehension seems best in young people, as to be expected. But it varies wildly. Most younger people know a few words. Thankfully numbers are fairly common. This makes buying things so much easier. Once in a while a store clerk will use a calculator to show a price.
Speaking of stores, they are a great mixture of languages on products here. Products are imported from all over the world but their packaging is not usually customized for Burma. So you have A1 Steak Sauce (labelled in English) on the shelf beside some bizarre and awful looking Russian snack, of course labelled in Russian only. Then foods from Japan, China, Korea, Thailand. Thankfully all are labelled with a number indicating the price. While we may not know what is inside the package, at least we know the price.
We are in Bagan now and it’s probably the most touristy place in the country. Some of the bigger temples have vendors selling things, and while I wouldn’t call them pushy I would certainly call them persistent. They know enough English to hook you into talking with them, ultimately ending in sales pitch. They see the Canada flag on our packs and yell “hey Canada!”. Of course we turn, sometimes without even thinking. They ask where you are from, and then sometimes they name some Canadian cities to demonstrate they knowledge about Canada. Or in reality to try and hook you into their sales pitch. Yesterday one vendor simple looked at me and said “Canadian Tire”. I laughed but still didn’t buy her carved wood pots. I witnessed a similar conversation between a vendor and someone from Japan. The vendor asked where she was from and knew enough random Japanese words to open the door to a potential sale. It’s hard to be polite but also avoid these conversations, because as interesting as they are we really aren’t looking to buy souvenirs at this point. The vendors don’t understand that though.
There is a fair amount of English signage on the streets, which can be helpful.
Complicating all of this is that Burmese is not the only language spoken in the country. It’s the most common, but we did encounter the Shan language when in Shan State. We learned a few Shan words but have already forgotten them.
We have been told by other backpackers that Burma is the hardest place in Southeast Asia for communication, so it’ll be interesting to see as we move on at the end of the month. Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam get far more tourists than Myanmar so we suspect English will be more widespread. And both Laos and Vietnam have French influences so we are told there is a fair bit of French spoken. It will be fun to find out.
Thanks to Carina for the blog post idea!
-Doug / Feburary 17, 2017 / Bagan, Myanmar @ Golden Myanmar Guest House/ 2:50pm