From Angry Birds To Shark Energy Drink, Five Cultural Exports That Are Big In Myanmar

First off, a huge thanks to Sharmin, Betsy, Max, Scott, and Harris for holding down the fort while I was away. I really appreciate everything they did to let me get away for a week.

And get away I did, all the way to Myanmar, where my father was reporting a story for the magazine he edits. It was completely fascinating to wander through Yangon’s payas (and to learn that the animal for my weekday of birth is apparently a guinea pig), to compare Bagan’s temples to the architecture of Angkor Wat and the surrounding complexes near Siem Reap, and totally delicious to develop an affinity for Shan cooking. But as a critic, and given the idea that some of the most important exports of the United States (and many other countries as well) are meant to be our cultural products, when I go abroad, I’m always curious to see what’s taken off far afield of its country of origin. Here are five products and genres that appear to have taken off in Myanmar in a big way:

1. Angry Birds: Many people in Myanmar have skipped a generation of technology ahead, getting smart phones without ever having had land lines in their phones or having earlier-generation bar phones or flip cell phones, in part because of how high the cost of SIM cards were before distributions earlier this year. One of the byproducts of relatively swift smart phone adaptation? A nation-wide craze for Rovio Games’ Angry Birds. Apparently, the furious winged cartoons hit it big in Myanmar even before the game arrived, showing up on t-shirts, car decals, and even in a popular children’s candy.

2. Facebook and Gmail: It’s one thing to know that Facebook and Gmail have enormous numbers of users in the abstract. It’s quite another to see every business in Myanmar with a Gmail professional address, down to wedding planners and dress designers on small streets, and every large billboard encouraging you to like their business on Facebook. Almost every person who approached me to practice English at a temple or a museum offered up their Gmail address or wanted to know if I’d be willing to add them on Facebook. It was a level of adoption that really brings home the scale at which these products have been adopted, and as a result, the volume of data these companies are collecting and the reach of the ads they’re placing.


3. Heavy Metal: Lots of folks in Myanmar wear t-shirts in English — my favorite, spotted in Bogyoke Aung San Market, was “We Love Fixed Gear Bikes” — but among the most frequent are shirts for metal bands, particularly Metallica and Led Zepplin. I’m told, though, that the most popular metal band in Myanmar is Iron Cross (not the hardcore band from the Washington, DC area, but a local iteration) that’s popular in part because of its role playing benefits for Cyclone Nargis recovery.

4. British Football: Myanmar is hosting the Southeast Asian Games this year, a role that, along with President Thein Sein’s assumption of the ASEAN chair, is part of the country’s stepping out onto the regional stage. As a result, there are billboards everywhere trying to drum up excitement for Myanmar’s football team, which has an upcoming friendly match against Vietnam, and a large official store selling the team’s merchandise. Apparently, these efforts aren’t coming to much. British teams still dominate, from Liverpool Football Club stickers on taxis to Manchester United shirts.

5. Energy Drinks: Shark Energy Drink, a Thai product, is advertised absolutely everywhere we went in Myanmar, and consumed just as widely. When we visited a small rice farming village in the Irrawaddy Delta that was still in recovery from Cyclone Nargis, one of the first things our hosts put out as part of a big lunch was a platter of Shark cans. It turns out that, before the non-profit we were covering started selling solar lights in the village district, the farmers had been turning shark cans into kerosene lamps to keep their ducks company at night (ducks are apparently frightened of the dark). Red Bull doesn’t appear to be as widely consumed at the moment, but it’s sponsoring big regional UFC fights. It’s quite a spike of caffeine in a country where one of the national dishes is already a salad made of tea leaves.

Bonus: I was at a temple last Monday when an older Burmese gentleman approached me to ask where I was from. When I said Washington, DC, he said “Oh, yes, near Virginia.” And then proceeded to quiz me about the performance of about half the NFL teams, asking after the quarterbacks by name, and having a lengthy discussion of the importance of a good receiving corps. And when we got to the Redskins, I explained that they were having a bad year, and that the name was under fire. “Because it’s a bad word,” he agreed. Dan Snyder has apparently lost Myanmar, too.