Arriving in Myanmar for the first time, it wouldn’t surprise us if you soon started to notice red stains on the pavements. A simple query you might have is what is this stuff? Well the answer is betel nut, and in Myanmar it is extremely popular. You will see locals all over the country popping green leaves into their mouths and chewing (or sucking) with relish. It is one of the oldest traditions in Myanmar and one which takes many tourists by surprise.
In India they call it “paan” but here in Myanmar it is “kun-ya”. Basically it is made up of areca nut (the actual name for betel nut), slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and catechu which is then wrapped in a betel leaf. A toothpick is then often used to keep everything in place before you pop it into your mouth. Now the recipe of what is inside the betel leaf changes from shop to shop, with some also including tobacco, chili and even jam, but the main ingredient is the arcea nut.
Once it’s in your mouth, your first instinct is probably to start chewing, but we’d advise against this. Much like snuff, it’s best to press it between your cheeks and gums and just suck. This slowly releases the liquid and taste, and means the small package can last for an hour or so. Now while this all sounds lovely, we should note that much like tobacco, betel nut is a drug that has been linked to several health implications.
Chewing betel nut has spread all over South East Asian countries and in Myanmar, locals have been chewing it since the days of the Kings. Back then, in high societies guests were offered kun-ya as a treat, with the betel nut packages being decoratively arranged in laquer ware boxes called “kun-it”
Today, arcea nuts are grown year round on arcea palm trees, mostly in southern Myanmar. Dawei is said to grow the best arcea nuts in Myanmar, and they are transported nationwide.
During your time in Myanmar, you will walk past many different vendors selling anything and everything from traditional snacks to the use of their weighing scales. One of the vendors you will certainly come across is a kun-ya shop.
These little shops (or street stands) are dotted all over the country, and you’ll often see them on the corner of streets. Here you can see how the kun-ya is made and even try one for yourself. The cost is around 100 kyats (or 10 cents) for one. Normally, the vendors brush the betel leaf with slaked lime, then add the areca nuts, a squeeze of actual lime, a sprinkling of catechu and any other ingredients the have chosen. All of these are then rolled up, much like a burrito, ready to be used.
Chewing kun-ya causes you to salivate, which is then mixed with the juices from the areca nut and most importantly the catechu. Catechu is the extract from an acacia tree and when heated (for instance with the saliva in your mouth) becomes a thick red paste. After a while your mouth will be pretty full, and there’s only one way of getting rid of the saliva, and that’s with a good old spit.
It’s genuinely impressive how much distance some locals can get from spitting out this saliva mixture, but at the end of the day, it’s a pretty unpleasant site. The saliva mixture can then stain whatever it touches, including pavements, lamp posts, you get the picture. Watch out when you’re walking past a bus, as getting hit by a rogue kun-ya spit isn’t as uncommon as you might think.
Those splotches of red on the streets of Yangon inspired me to try one. Heading out onto the streets, I picked a shop at random and asked the vendor for some kun-ya. He smiled and then gave me one for free. I guess the locals love it when foreigners experience their traditions.
The taste was bitter and a little bit tangy. I could smell something like ginger or mint but I wasn’t too sure which. Maybe it was both? If I’m honest it wasn’t really for me, but I didn’t want to seem disrespectful to the vendor so I carried on sucking away. The areca nuts get little bits everywhere and soon your mouth is filled with this gritty substance (apparently this meant I was doing it wrong and chewing, as the nuts shouldn’t separate). However after 5 minutes I began to realise I was actually enjoying myself. Walking down the street, smiling with a load of kun-ya in your mouth is a great way of interacting and connecting with the locals.
As we’ve mentioned before, kun-ya (or betel nut) stains everything. That includes your teeth and lips. Other than the red stains on the pavements, you’ll also quickly notice the stained red teeth of avid betel nut chewers and the red lips. On top of this, kun-ya has been heavily linked to oral cancer, and is a growing problem in Myanmar and other countries in South East Asia.
Many of the locals know about these side effects, but unfortunately are too reliant, or addicted, to stop chewing. Much like cigarettes, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of those who have gotten through 20 kun-ya’s a day. The withdrawal symptoms can include mouth ulcers, bleeding gums and much more.
As chewing kun-ya can cause serious illnesses and the saliva from it leaves red stains in public areas, it has been actively discouraged by the government in recent years. In 2007, chewing kun-ya, along with smoking, at the Shwedagon Pagoda was banned in order to help maintain the country’s most important religious site. In 2010, further laws were passed banning betel nut shops from selling within 50 metres of schools. Campaigns are currently in place that are aimed at removing betel nut stands from public places. As a result this once high society tradition might soon find itself in the history books.