Enigmatic and enchanting, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is often referred to as the Golden Land. Myanmar’s long-term isolation has bequeathed a corner of Southeast Asia full of traditional culture, spirituality and old-world charm. A visit to Myanmar is like turning back the clock. Phone and internet connections can be erratic in areas so you may peacefully experience a culture which emphasises spirituality and reveres monks and holy men.
One of the highlights of a holiday to Myanmar is a visit to the mysterious and striking plain of Bagan. Situated on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, this 42 square kilometre plain is the largest area of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ancient religious ruins in the world. These date from as early as the 11th and 12th centuries and are particularly atmospheric when viewed from above in a hot air balloon.
In Yangon, once known as Rangoon, you can stroll along tree-shaded avenues and marvel at golden stupas and glittering pagodas. A walk around downtown Yangon reveals the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda, and some of the most impressive colonial era architecture in the region. Mandalay offers the chance to offer alms and food to the monks and novices from the Mahagandayon Monastery before visiting the hundreds of peaceful stupas on Sagaing Hill.
In Myanmar you can journey to colonial hill stations set amongst rolling pine-clad hills. Or drift around Inle Lake with its stilt house villages at the water’s edge. You can feel the power of a Buddhist relic at Kyaiktiyo, also known as Golden Rock, where a huge golden stupa perches precariously on the edge of a hill.
The most ideal time to visit the beauty and mystery of Myanmar is in the cool dry months from November to February.
The monsoon weather patterns of Southeast Asia bring with it a distinct dry season which is typically split between a cool season from November to January/February and a hot season from March to May. After the scorching heat of the hot season monsoon rains bring a distinctly rainy season which lasts from June to October. The central region, which is protected by the Arakan mountain range, experiences significantly less rain than other regions of the country
The cool season weather in Myanmar brings with it humid warm days with cool refreshing evenings. It rarely rains during the cool season and the weather can get quite chilly in the mountainous areas, sometimes close to freezing at night. The hot season brings with it high tropical temperatures that reach their peak in April and May. Myanmar’s central region experiences the highest temperatures in the country during this time. The rainy season brings much needed relief to the country with tropical heavy rain showers in the afternoons. The most rain occurs in the delta and coastal areas of the country. The central region of the country usually experiences about half as much rain as the delta and coastal areas. The north of the country is cooler in the hot season; however it receives more rain than the central areas in the rainy season.
Other than bringing clothes which are suitable to Myanmar’s tropical climate, walking shoes for exploring the beautiful splendor of the country should not be forgotten. A jacket or sweater for the mountainous areas in the cold season is a must.
For those adventurous enough, another great time to visit the country is during the hot season which hosts Burmese New Year in mid-to-early April. Local people celebrate the New Year by splashing water on each other and it’s a great way to beat the heat and have a great time getting acquainted with lowland Burmese culture. The early months of the rainy season can be nice as the weather is still balmy with short afternoon rain showers and the rain levels haven’t yet reached their peak.
Burmese arts and craftsmanship find their full flowering in the religious architecture. At times it seems that every river bend or hilltop boasts a temple spire, due to the Burmese penchant for balancing their structures on cliffs or towering rocks.
Literally meaning ‘holy one’, paya, is the general term referring to religious structures. Payas are either square, rectangular or bell shaped and house holy relics such as a hair or footprint of the Buddha. Decorative metal umbrellas, called hti, adorn the tips of most and their chiming contributes to the tranquil ambience.
Because monasteries and secular buildings were traditionally built of wood, unlike the more permanent religious structures, there are very few surviving examples of these elaborately carved structures.
Classical dance-drama often features solo performances by female dancers who wear dresses with long white trains that they kick into the air with their heels during the foot movements. Yokthei pwe, or Burmese marionette theatre, uses colourful puppets up to a metre tall and is considered the most expressive of all the Burmese arts. It is also extremely skilful as some marionettes may have up to 60 strings, including one for each eyebrow.
– In Burmese culture it is unseemly to show too much emotion so avoid losing your temper over problems and delays.
– You should always take your shoes off when entering a temple or when visiting private houses.
– You should never touch anybody’s head intentionally as it is regarded as a particularly holy part of the body.
– Accordingly, the feet are literally the lowest part of the body so do not point your feet at anybody or at a Buddha image.
– Sensitivity to politically related subjects in conversation is advisable.
– It is polite to ask permission before taking photographs of Burmese, particularly monks.
Although there are many ethnic groups in Myanmar, it can be roughly divided into four: Tibeto-Burmese, Mon-Khmer, Karen and Thai-Chinese. The first group includes the main Burmese people and more than 30 smaller tribes while the other three groups are less diverse.
Approximately 2-3 million Karen live in Myanmar, forming the third biggest ethnic group in the country. They are mainly farmers living either in the south-east near to the border with Thailand, or in the west of Myanmar near the Indian border. The women of the Padaung tribe, a subgroup of the Karen, are known for wearing heavy rings of brass around their necks and are called ‘giraffe women’ since the heavy rings push down the shoulders and elongate the neck.
The Shan consist of various tribes with a history dating back to the 3rd century BC. They are found today in the border regions of the north, north-west, east, and on the borders with Laos and Thailand. Although most of them are Buddhists, animism still plays a significant role in everyday life.
The Mon people, who are found mainly in the regions around Mawlamyine and Bago, have had a big impact on arts and culture. They are Buddhists and have their own language. Today, approximately 1.3 million Mon live in Myanmar.
The Kachin live in the remotest northern state. They include about 62 different tribes, some Christians and some animists. Their unique bamboo and wood houses are constructed in an oval shape; the first floor is used for animals and storage and the second floor is used as the living quarters.
The religious life of Myanmar is dominated by the omnipresent Theravada Buddhism. Over 80 percent of the population call themselves Theravadas, the remaining are Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. Over 500,000 Buddhist monks live in monasteries throughout the country.