A Keyhole into Burma – Betel nut chewing, it’s as gross as it looks

Initially, I was convinced that there was a nationwide dental crisis in Burma. People everywhere, men and women, had deeply stained reddish-brown teeth with gums so ostensibly diseased that even the lips and chin suffered discoloration. Unable to ignore this any longer, I inquired about the epidemic and was subsequently school on the revolting art of chewing betel nut.

Betel nut chewing is a wildly popular Burmese habit, with all the outward appeal of chewing tobacco (but messier), having the general effect of a cup of coffee. The exact origins of this appetite killing habit are in question, but in places like India, it’s been nauseating visitors for thousands of years. I located one vague mention of betel nut in a Burmese book indicating that it’s been in vogue locally from royalty on down for at least 150 years.

There’s a betel stand on virtually every street corner, usually consisting of just a tiny table with all the ingredients laid out and a very wired up, and presumably eternally single, guy with red drool down his chin preparing the chews. A few tiny pieces of betel are set in a leaf, along with lime paste, and tobacco. There’s a betel-for-girls as well, where the tobacco is replaced with a sweet flavoring. The whole mess is wrapped up in the leaf like a tiny burrito and popped into the mouth as is.


In addition to being faced with a disagreeable betel smile hundreds of time a day, non-chewers also have to take care as to where they step as the streets and sidewalks are one giant betel spittoon. Never mind the sanctity of your footwear, one needs to dodge these minefields of fresh, red/brown goo so as not to sully the lobby floor of one’s guesthouse.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.