Betelmania: how to chew betel nut in Burma

In Burma, the streets are stained with red blotches, as if someone decided the pavement needed a more Jackson Pollock look. Walk down any lane in Yangon or Mandalay or anywhere that humans reside in this southeast Asian country, and you’ll see splotches of red on the street. I wondered if following these small red liquid pools would lead me to a hospital where I’d find some poor farmer who had had a bad run-in with a tractor. Or maybe it was that the Burmese needed a lesson in proper table saw safety. I began to wonder why there weren’t more amputees in Burma. But then I realized what I was really seeing. Saliva. Specifically, the saliva of betel nut chewers.

I have a proclivity for trying the local legal narcotic when I’m traveling. In Bolivia that meant chewing coca leaves. In Ethiopia it was chat or, as it’s more commonly known (where it’s chewed in Yemen), qat. In Amsterdam…well, you can figure out what I consumed there. I have to admit: I knew nothing of betel nut. Only that it made people’s teeth permanently red.

A guy I met who works for Intrepid Travel, a tour operator that recently began doing tours again in Myanmar, and he thought it was hilarious I had wanted to try it. He said I’d get slightly intoxicated from chewing betel. Betel also functions as a vermifuge–meaning it helps expel parasites–and an appetite suppressant.

As far as I knew, I had no parasites to expel and I was loving the food here so I didn’t necessarily need to cut down on my eating. But, for better or worse, I’ve always had a hard time turning down the local intoxicant. So when someone extended their hand to me–and that hand contained betel nut (see the photo above)–I couldn’t resist.

Sir James George Scott, a colonial-era chronicler of all things Burma, wrote, “No one can speak Burmese well till he chews betel.” I wasn’t necessarily out to learn Burmese during my week-and-a-half-long trip there (though I did somehow learn the word for “midget”). I was in Inle Lake, about 300 miles north of Yangon, a kind of decrepit looking southeast Asian-version of Venice; a town made of wood and water with canals flanked by rickety teak houses on stilts. I had hired a boat for a while–a deal at $10 for most of the day–to take me around the lake. We stopped at a place that makes herbal cigarettes. As a service to customers, they hand out complimentary food (think delicious tea leaf salad) and, it turns out, betel nut.

The boy rolling the nut held up a leaf, as if to offer. I nodded and he went to work. He slapped some white lime paste on the betel vine leaf and then came cloves, aniseed, and cardamom. Then he broke up some of the betel nuts and placed them with the rest of the party on the leaf. Finally, he opened up a jar and pinched out some tobacco that had been marinating in alcohol for days. He wrapped it up and handed it to me.

I popped the leaf in my mouth and commenced masticating. Immediately my mouth was incapacitated with saliva. I’d lean over the wood railing and spit into the water ten feet below a long stream of red liquid. The taste was bitter and the mint stung my tongue every so slightly. I stood there looking out over the golden temples that dot this town in the middle of the lake, my thoughts interrupted by having to lean over again and drizzle a stream of red saliva into the lake.

Constantly expelling red saliva didn’t make for the most fun narcotic I’ve ever tried in my life. On the boat ride back to the lake-side town I was staying in–having spit out the betel nut before getting onboard–I could feel a curious sensation. A slight tipsy feeling.

When I got back to shore, still a tad light headed from the betel, I didn’t necessarily want to speak Burmese–how could you with all that red saliva in your mouth? And my one word, “midget” (which I can no longer remember), only got me blank stares in return when I uttered it.

Or maybe it was the fact that I was a non Burmese with totally red, (fortunately temporarily) betel-stained teeth and lips that made me look like some kind of freak.