Why I Love my Burmese Longyi

I left my laptop in Thailand when I went to Burma. I was told that WiFi would be almost nonexistent, and without cell phone service I relished the idea of returning to my Moleskine instead of a keyboard. Looking at my notebook months later, my enthusiasm is palpable. On day two: “Burma is one of those miraculous, seemingly utopic places where you are free to assume the best in the local people you meet. Juxtaposing this friendliness on the truth about what’s happening inside military-ruled Burma is surreal; you see what you are allowed to see, and no more. But what you experience is real, and in my brief time thus far in Burma, magical.” The friendliness and generosity of the Burmese were primary reasons that other travelers urged me to visit. On that second day, I decided to find myself a Burmese longyi, and it quickly turned out to be the best ice breaker I could ask for.

The longyi is everywhere in Burma.

Burmese longyi in Inle Lake
Longyi-clad women and children in Inle Lake, Shan State

A sarong-like tube of fabric worn by both genders, they are called paso when worn by men and htamein by women. Throughout my time in the country everyone merely referred to the gender-neutral term “longyi”. The patterns differ by gender as well: for men, a thin plaid or woven stripe, tied by pulling the fabric tight against the back and tying an elegant knot in front. For women, anything goes: beautiful, bright batik patterns, traditional woven zigazags called acheiq, stripes or flowers. Women tie the longyi by pulling all of the fabric to one side, folding back at the hip and tucking into the opposite side of the waist, usually topped with a fitted blouse worn just to the waistband. The women also sew in a thin band of black fabric at the waist of the longyi. I was told this was “for the sweat”, but I found it handy to figure out which side was up.

Offering alms to the monks in a longyi at dawn on Inle Lake
My host giving alms to the monks in a traditional Shan longyi on Inle Lake.

I decided to get a longyi when I realized how prevalent they were; almost everyone wears the long traditional skirt and as a solo traveler I thought it would help blend in. Stepping out of my hostel on my 2nd day, I took out a map to figure out where the market was. Within seconds, shadows cast over the map and I looked up in surprise to find 5 women standing there with beaming smiles. “How can I help you?” one of them asked. I explained I wanted to find myself a longyi, and the next thing I knew I was holding hands with two of the women and on my way to the fabric store. Parading me around the store with bolts of fabric on my shoulders, each had a differing opinion about what colours suited me best. I ended up choosing an Indonesian batik in a thin fabric, with deep purples that matched the 2 tops I had in my possession.

One of the women in the group turned out to be a tailor and shooed the rest of the ladies away as she took my hand and led me to her apartment. Set in the back streets of Yangon, her building was subsidized by the government and in terrible shape. “My walls are falling down” she said as she led me up 8 winding floors on a crumbling staircase, “but the government doesn’t care.”

Apartment block in Yangon
View of Yangon from the roof of her apartment.

Inside the apartment, her belongings were scattered on display shelves, separating the bed from the rest of her tiny studio. She quickly sewed the long rectangle of fabric into a longyi, added the black band and made me a delicious dinner. Though she steadfastly refused payment, I snuck Kyat under her sewing machine and promised to meet her daughter the next day to practice English.

Inside a Yangon apartment
Inside her tiny apartment, a shelf of possessions for the family of 8.

Making my longyi
Making my longyi in the afternoon light.

Back on the streets of Yangon, I realized I had a small problem: she thought I was far taller than I really am. I was forced to wrap the longyi just below my bust to avoid tripping on it, which meant that it kept untucking itself as I moved. When I went to Mandalay the next day, my first order of business was to get the longyi shortened. This turned out to be slightly more difficult than anticipated: I did not know the Burmese word for tailor, and hadn’t remembered to ask my guesthouse before I left. Wandering up 82nd street, I tried to mime what I wanted to the people I met. “You know….brrrrrrrrrrr?” I’d say, imitating the sound of the machine while pumping my foot and air-sewing for good measure. Blank looks, until one wizened old man grinned toothlessly and grabbed my hand to drag me across the street to a tailor.

Shortening the hem of my longyi in Mandalay
Sewing up the hem of my longyi in Mandalay.

Now that it fit, the longyi turned out to be an excellent purchase. Wearing it on the streets of Mandalay, people would smile and point at the skirt as I walked by. In Hpa-An, my tiny guesthouse had a public bathroom and I wore the longyi like the Burmese do to shower: wrapped around my whole torso, tucked just under my armpit. Walking to the shower one afternoon the owner saw me. “Just like a Burmese girl” he exclaimed happily “even to shower!”. Ah yes, the joys of public bathing just got easier.

In the Kachin state, the longyi proved a perfect buy once again. With tens of thousands of Kachin from around the world, days of music, dancing, costumes and rice wine, the Kachin State Fair was an overwhelming welcome to Myitkyina. Wearing my longyi one afternoon, I suddently felt someone undo it from the side. Whipping around, I found a group of Kachin women dressed in traditional costumes giggling hysterically – apparently I had tied it on the wrong side of my torso and they found that hilarious. Cut to a series of group shots, them doing my makeup in the middle of a dirt road and some mohinga for good measure and it made for an incredible afternoon.

Me and Kachin tribeswomen at the Kachin State Fair
Self-portrait: Me and Kachin tribeswomen at the Kachin State Fair.

In Inle Lake, I wore the longyi when I visited the local markets at dawn. The Pa-O tribeswomen who had descended from the Shan foothills to buy their food for the week would gawk at it, many coming up to touch the fabric or stare at me unabashedly. A few complimented me on my Burmese-style, others would merely point from afar, but it proved to be both an excellent ice-breaker and a way to take pictures without seeming too obtrusive.

Me in my longyi with Pa-O tribeswomen at Inle Lake
Me and my longyi with two beautiful Pa-O tribeswomen on Inle Lake.

On Inle, I also learned that the “whoops my longyi fell off” worry is an extremely valid one to have. While exiting a tiny boat, my longyi got caught in a protruding nail, and let’s just say my boat driver and the boat of passing Pa-O now know what a white woman’s behind looks like (clad in underwear, of course) because that longyi fell to the ground faster than I ever thought possible. Two words, ladies: safety pin.

Pa-o on their way to the market
This boat is speeding away because they are blinded by the phosphorous whiteness of my behind.

My trip ended in the Mon State, south of Yangon. While in the tiny town of Hpa-An, I went to a dusty shop next to the village’s central market. There, I found the most beautiful longyi I had seen, a wondrous blend of colours and stripes, woven together on a thicker cotton base. The woman in the store would not sell it to me. “Not Burmese,” she stated, pointing at my face. And then, gesturing dismissively at the one piece of clothing that got me into so many homes in Burma, “you cannot wear traditional longyi. Not selling to you.”

I tried again several days later, hoping for a different woman in the shop, but the second she saw my face she set her jaw and shook her head. On my last day in Yangon I went back to Boyoke Aung San market to buy a longyi for a friend, and somehow in the dizzying maze of dark hallways and wooden stalls, I found my longyi. I was so excited that I gave the woman running the shop a big hug. In turn, she was so happy to see me happy that she had me sit with her for the afternoon, helping her sell to tourists. A big group of French travelers came by and I was able to translate for them, thereby earning me another big hug.

Buying a longyi in Yangon
Me at a stall in Boyoke Aung San, with the huggable sales lady and her daughter.

It was the perfect way to leave Burma and yet another example of warmth from her people. I met several men and women who also bought longyis when they arrived in the country, and all of us had an easier time of meeting, interacting and befriending locals. It was the best thing I could have done upon arrival and I’d urge anyone planning a visit to the same when you get there.

My final purchase in Yangon - a longyi from the market
My final purchase: this beautiful longyi.


26 thoughts on “Why I Love my Burmese Longyi”

  1. What a lovely story. It sounds like the longyi made you stand out even more in the end! I think I would actually feel quite self-conscious dressed in the local style but I like the sentiment.

  2. I love how the longyi is the binding force that strings together all these intimate and personal experiences throughout your journey through Burma. The story of the tailor in Rangoon is so touching. Great piece.

  3. This is a really beautiful post Jodi and I agree with Audrey – tying it together with the longyi ties adds such a unique personal touch. Plus you have really just pushed me over the edge in terms of putting Burma tops on my list of next places in SEA, looks like you had some incredible experiences!

  4. I treasure the longyi I bought in Burma, I loved the way more locals interacted with me while I was wearing it. This is a really lovely and thoughtful post! I love how you wove the story together!

  5. Thanks everyone. I actually hadn’t planned for the post to go in this direction, but once I started writing and looking at the photos, it became apparent that the longyi really was this strong thread that bound my memories together. I’m glad you enjoyed!

  6. Jodi, I love your Tweets. Just wanted to say, I know what you mean about the longyi coming down. My guide had to show me how to tie it in the middle of the Shwedagon Pagoda, kind of embarrassing. Thanks for sharing. Canadian Legal Eagle in SEA.

  7. Thanks Troy – glad you’ve enjoyed the blog and tweetstream. The men tended to tie and retie their longyis everywhere but the women were more subtle. But nothing subtle about losing it entirely! Safe travels.

  8. Beautiful post Jodi. We loved our Longyi’s too while in Burma. The men loved it that Dave wore one. They kept calling him Myanmar Man. They are a real ice breaker. People love that you embrace their culture. BTW, I didn’t know that you spoke Burmese, wow, that is impressive! Love your photos too:-)

  9. First, I’m jealous that you’ve been to Burma. I’m currently working with Burmese refugees and orphans in Thailand and it has been wonderful (so I hope I make it there in the future). Although a few mishaps along the way, it sounds like wearing the longyi proved very beneficial and a way to tie in with the locals :)

  10. What a great story. I’m amazed at how helpful people can be towards complete strangers. I’ve been struggling with my poor French during our stay in Paris and people are very patient.

    A lot of people view long term travel as very dangerous but it sometime feels like many people are looking out for your welfare. It is sad we have to leave home to experience this.

  11. @Dave & Deb: I met a Russian guy in Inle and they called him Myanmar Man too when he put on his longyi. Love it! I don’t speak Burmese by any means – just picked up a few words while I was there. I found it way easier than Thai.

    @Laura: are you up near Mae Sot or elsewhere? Thank you for the comment. Yes, the longyi was a purchase I wanted to make but I had no idea it would turn into such a lasting legacy in my memories!

    @Russell: I suppose it’s like anywhere else, with both good and bad people. If anything, these years of travel has taught me that being open to learning from everyone you meet and interacting with them meaningfully goes a long way to making travel that much more special. Good luck with the French! Just remember most words ending in ‘ion’ are feminine – once I learnt that rule it got easier :)

    @Jayne: glad you enjoyed the post. Please check out my ‘crash course’ on Burma for more information pre-departure, including further readings. That might also help you make your decision.

  12. I think with all those beautiful colors and textiles I would be in heaven. This was a beautiful post as well. For some reason the picture from the top of the apartment is striking to me. Thank you for your wonderful pictures!

  13. Hello there, I was just traveling the net and came across your site . Thought I’d say thanks and tell you that I’ve enjoyed my visit here, hope you have a nice morning !

  14. Thank you so much for sharing. When I was in Kenya I did the same thing and it made life so much more entertaining. I am leaving to Burma in 2 weeks :) I shall buy a longi 1st thing!

  15. Thanks Kirstin! I’m sure you will have a great time in Burma. Definitely do buy a longyi, and be sure to eat mohinga for breakfast at least once. Safe travels!

  16. What a great story of discovery, based on a piece of clothing!! This kind of immersion is so much fun. I hope your longyi has not been the victim of any bird crap. B well, PHil

    1. Thanks Phil. I am happy to report that no birds have crapped on my longyi in Burma. The same cannot be said of my head: 3 birds crapped on it in Burma. Trade off? I guess so….

  17. Burmese are very friendly people. You were very brave to wear longyi, I grew up in Burma but when I went back home after eleven years, I had nightmare of my longyi would be falling during my visit.

    I do admit there is great food in Burma such as Mohinga. Food is center of everying in Burmese culture. In Western culture we greet one another by “How are you?” but for Burmese they great “SaPeBeLa?” meaning Have you eatten yet?”

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