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Mandalay Diary: The Longyi

The way we dress at the Shwe-nandaw Kyaung (Golden Palace Monastery) is important in order to keep cool and protected from the intense sun. We have all adopted wearing flip flops, something I had never mastered before. Sandals just don’t cut it as you must remove your shoes to enter into the temples, offices, and some stores. It is better to be able to kick off flip flops than to bend down and undo sandals. There are five stairways up into the “Shwe Kyaung” and the first step at each stair becomes a repository of flip flops as local and international tourists pass through the site.

A fact of men’s dress here in Myanmar is the use of the longyi which is a sarong that is tied at the waist. Men re-tie them numerous times during the day, stick their phones in the back waistline, and sometimes carry betel nuts in the front pouch (that is a disgusting habit that is another story). The vast majority of men wear them every day with flip flops and a button down shirt. I was told that I should wear one as well and that our partners, the Department of Archaeology (DOA), would expect it and really appreciate the effort.

So the hotel manager, Mr. Kyaw (pronounced Joe), put me on the back of his scooter and took me to longyi street. Buying a longyi can be fun and they come in all sizes and patterns. Actually committing to wearing one is quite another matter. The next morning I watched a YouTube video about tying the longyi, spent 15 minutes tying my new longyi at the front, and strode boldly up to breakfast on the roof. There I sat enjoying coffee and my fried egg. When I got up to leave it fell off of me in front of the young Burmese girls who were HIGHLY amused. I said, “well, that is that,” and headed back to my room for pants!

That was not my longyi day. It came two days later when I built up the nerve to try again. Our colleagues at the DOA smiled and commented so the effort was well worth it. But there are no pockets so one must accessorize with a man purse.

I have been on the roof of the Shwe Kyaung three times to inspect and record the corrugated metal and gutters that will be replaced as part of the WMF project. The DOA engineers gave us a lecture on the importance of safety when we were on the roof. They then said that we MUST BE BAREFOOT as we would be above the Buddha’s head. It did not sound safe and I asked for special dispensation on this point but was told that “you came into this world barefoot and can go on the roof barefoot.” I reminded them that I came into the world totally nude and I was glad that I was able to wear pants on the roof. However removing footwear is a matter of cultural respect and has been reinforced by abuses of the nineteenth-century colonizers.

Climbing the ladder and walking on the sloped and hot tin roof was extremely difficult, a fact that my Burmese colleagues with their tough feet would not sympathize. Indeed it is not unusual to see workers barefoot on bamboo scaffolding. That and my longyi catching on the carved teak fascia boards of the roof ends made for a unique and less than wonderful experience. But I soldiered on—that is why I went to college for 6 years.

WMF would like to thank the U.S. Embassy in Burma and the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation for their support of this project.