The others take a tuk tuk, but Han Ni Soe, our guide, and I decide to walk. We’re in Kalaw, in the Shan State of Myanmar, and will meet the rest of our group at a monastery at the top of the hill to watch the sunset.
Trails of Betel Nut
As we walk along, I comment on the red betel juice stains on the roadside. All around us men and women with stained teeth and gums chew betel nut. Their mouths fill with saliva, making conversation almost impossible. At some point their mouth becomes too full and they spit the red saliva out onto the street.
Spitting Betel Juice
On one occasion my taxi driver, mouth bulging with betel nut and saliva struggled to talk on phone. He stopped in the traffic, opened his door and spat the red stained contents of his mouth onto the bitumen.
Another taxi stopped alongside us, its rear passenger window wound down. The round-faced man in the back seat gathered a globule of spit together and shot it out with force, the glob of gloop spraying towards me. Thankfully my window was shut.
An Offer I Can’t Refuse?
Han Ni Soe asks if I’ve ever tried betel nut. I haven’t and certainly am not planning to. But by now, she knows that it won’t take much to get me to experience something new.
She quickly finds a nearby kiosk where a woman stands behind a tray containing the betel nut paraphernalia, and suggests that we try it together. I offer a half-hearted objection, but really am fascinated to see what the attraction of the betel nut is.
Han Ni Soe waves away my protests and concerns about the cleanliness of the leaf and what goes in it (I’ve avoided a tummy bug so far). She takes a couple of leaves in her hand and washes them with filtered water from her water bottle. I feel like a real prat requiring this extra step to the betel nut preparation, but am secretly relieved.
What is Betel Nut?
Betel nut, also known as areca nut, is the seed of the fruit of the areca palm. It’s a stimulant and is usually cut into thin strips, folded together with lime and other additives into a betel leaf. This leaf package is what I am about to put into my mouth.
I watch fascinated as the vendor, wearing torn rubber gloves, dabs a white liquid (the lime) onto a leaf, adds the betel nut slivers, and shakes who knows what else on top. She then folds the leaf into a little parcel slightly larger and more angular than a large wad of bubble gum and hands it to me.
As she secretes her betel nut in her mouth, Han Ni Soe instructs me to place it into the back of my mouth between my cheek and back teeth and tells me not to swallow.
Immediately, my mouth fills with saliva. I have a strong urge to swallow. The hard lump bulging against my cheek feels awkward. I cautiously chew and the leaf and its contents break into little pieces in my mouth.
It feels like I have a spoonful of dry grass enclosed in a pool of saliva filling my mouth. Managing to suppress a strong gag reflex, I look around desperately for somewhere to discretely relieve myself of the uncomfortable wad.
We’re crossing a main road with a traffic island between the four lanes of traffic. Desperate and all attempts at discretion forgotten, I stop at the island and bend over the kerb, self-consciously spitting the contents of my mouth into the concrete gutter.
I spit again to remove all traces of the betel nut from my mouth and wipe my mouth with the back of my sleeve, sure that all the nearby locals are staring at this older western woman spitting in the gutter.
We continue up the hill to meet the others. While disgusted at myself for so openly spitting in the gutter, I’m secretly pleased that I’ve at least tried betel nut.
And just so you know, I experienced none of the stimulant effects – not even a numb mouth.
For more on Myanmar, have a look at my day in Kalaw here.