When it comes to cultural traditions, Myanmar certainly has no shortage of distinctive customs such as the gender-inclusive Longyi skirt or the national sport of chinlone (caneball). And in addition to the bright thanaka paste seen on millions of Burmese faces, puffing on cheroot cigars has also become so widespread it is often jokingly described as another of the country’s prominent facial features.
Although once associated with the nobility, particularly during the British colonial period when it popularized by writers such as Rudyard Kipling (Mandalay) and George Orwell (Burmese Days), today cheroot transcends socio-demographic boundaries of gender, class, ethnicity (the country has 135 ethnic groups) and age (including the questionably-too-young).
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,Mandalay, a poem by author Rudyard Kipling
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot.
What Exactly is Cheroot?
Pronounced ‘shuh-ROOT’, cheroot originates in the Tamil language (southern India and Sri Lanka) and means roll of tobacco. To label all types of cheroot as cigar can sometimes be a misnomer, as they can range anywhere in size from just slightly larger than a cigarette all the way to roughly foot-long and much wider than a western cigar.
Unlike their western counterpart, ends of the cheroot are clipped rather than tapered, thus keeping production costs to a minimum. String-tied bundles of 10-50 can be purchased at the local market at mere pennies on the dollar each. Combined with a sweet and aromatic flavour, it’s no surprise that so many Burmese have picked up the habit of cheroot smoking.
How Cheroot is Made
Cheroot production is concentrated in parts of the country where its two main ingredients are grown –tobacco in arid regions along the Ayeyarwady River (Irrawaddy) while thanatphet leaves in higher elevations, particularly the eastern Shan State.
In a typical cheroot workshop, rows of female cheroot rollers sit on the floor and with a circular tray of ingredients set beside each worker. Prior to assembly, shavings of tobacco, star anise fruit and wood chips are scented with a variety of aromatic flavours such as molasses, honey, rice wine, pineapple, tamarind or banana.
To form the cylindrical shape, an inner paper lining is filled with ingredients and tightened around a short wooden pole. A piece of corn or rice husk is attached to one end to act as the filter (or unfiltered tip, rather), then a dried thanatphet leaf is wrapped around these to form the outer casing. To keep it from unrolling, a label is affixed around the center followed by folding in the ends.
The entire process takes roughly 25-30 seconds per cheroot, and depending on hours and hand dexterity, a worker can make upwards of a whopping 1,000 hand-rolled cigarettes in a single day.
Experience Cheroot With a Heritage Line River Cruise
Passengers aboard Heritage Line’s river cruises in Myanmar can learn about and sample cheroot during our enlightening on-board workshops. Or practice your newly learned Burmese phrases to purchase some souvenir cigars at the several of the local villages on the itinerary!
Guests on our 2- to 4-night Central Ayeywady cruises even have an opportunity to visit a cheroot rolling workshop in Pakkoku to witness the fascinating process in person. Other cruise options include a 7-night Upper Ayeyarwady River cruise or 11-night Chindwin River cruise to the most remote regions of Myanmar.
Journeys are aboard the ultra-luxe Heritage Line Anawrahta resume in January 2024.