Gilded temples lure you in with their sheen, while abandoned palaces whisper tales of a bygone dynastic era. Monkeys scramble around temples and Buddhist monks in ruby robes roam the streets with empty alm bowls that people devoutly fill with rice. We have arrived: Myanmar, an enchanting country in Southeast Asia that has, until recently, remained isolated from the international community. Get familiar with the heart of Theravada Buddhism and the benevolent people that inhabit this land of wonders.
The Bagan Dynasty, founded in the 11th century under King Anawrahta, was the first dynasty in the history of Myanmar. After defeating the rival Mon kingdom, the King was able to consolidate his power and unite Myanmar for the first time. This was the beginning of the dominance of the Burman people in terms of culture, identity, and language. King Anawrahta also converted to Buddhism, which led to mass construction of pagodas, stupas, and temples across the plains of Bagan. More than 10.000 were constructed, and more than 2.000 are still standing today. The Bagan Temple Marathon will run through Old Bagan – the ancient heart of the dynasty and the home to some of the most magnificent pagodas in Myanmar.
Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, was the capital of Myanmar from 1948-2006, when it was relocated to Naypyidaw. Although the political capital has shifted, Yangon remains the spiritual, cultural, and business center of Myanmar. The holiest Buddhist pagoda – the Shwedagon Pagoda – shimmers on a hill above the city and numerous other pagodas and temples can be found. Yangon is located in the delta area of the Ayeyarwaddy River, and hence is a massive port city as well. In the past couple of decades, Yangon has been undergoing a transformation. Population growth combined with a huge tourism boom has led to rapid infrastructure development, which has been accompanied by social and economic changes. Myanmar is often described as the land where time stood still – while this is clear in Yangon, the city is also the best example of what it looks like when a country rapidly tries to catch up.
Inle Lake, located in the heart of the Shan Plateau in the Shan Hills, is the second largest lake in Myanmar. Although it is relatively shallow, the lake is wide and contains a number of endemic fish and snail species. More than 30 hill tribes inhabit the land surrounding the lake, but the predominant ethnicity is the Intha people. The Intha live off the lake by fishing, cultivating rice paddies along the river’s delta, and building floating gardens on the lake to grow produce. They have also built the majority of their houses on the lake itself, propping them up with stilts and then using small canoe-like boats to navigate their communities. The Intha are perhaps most famous for their distinctive rowing style: the fishermen stand on one leg and wrap their other leg around a long oar to steer and paddle, leaving both their hands free to manipulate fishing nets or cultivate their gardens.
Myanmar has had numerous former capitals. Mandalay, however, is a particularly significant one. The Buddha prophesied that a great Buddhist city would be built at the base of Mandalay Hill in the Buddhist year 2400. King Mindon was a devout Buddhist who fulfilled this prophecy, building Mandalay as the capital in 1857 (which corresponds to Buddhist year 2400). With more than 700 pagodas still standing, Mandalay is a heavily important Buddhist pilgrimage site. One of its notable attractions is the Kuthodaw Pagoda, a large complex that houses the entire Buddhist Pali canon inscribed on marble slabs. Mandalay was the last royal capital of Myanmar before the country came under British rule. Although the city was devastated during WWII, it remains one of the cultural capitals of Myanmar and visitors will be charmed by the upper Burmese cuisine, the warmth of the people, and the many historical relics.
Myanmar offers a myriad of natural attractions - from gleaming white beaches to dense jungles to serene lakes, the nature is well worth exploring.
The name “Myanmar” conjures images of golden temples and Buddhist monks in ruby red robes. Few people realize that Myanmar has beaches that rival those in Thailand – but with much less crowding. The beaches in Myanmar are known for their clear, turquoise waters and pearl-like sands. Combined with budget friendly accommodation and a mouth-watering seafood, the beaches and their fishing villages are not to be missed.
The most popular beach in Myanmar is called Ngapali Beach. Stretching nearly 7km in total along the Bay of Bengal, Ngapali has excellent snorkeling opportunities, as well as beautiful palm trees and a number of tiny villages dotting its expanse. Sample the seafood or snag some fresh fruit from one of the women roaming the sands as a delicious snack.
If you are staying after the Bagan Temple Marathon to explore Myanmar on your own, Ngwe Saung is a great escape. Relatively close to Yangon, Ngwe Saung boasts another beautiful beach in Myanmar, where you can laze around, ride a horse down the sand, or even rent a motorbike and head across a sandbank at low tide to “Lover’s Island” – just make sure you cross back over in time, or you’ll be stranded on the island!
Not to be outdone by the spectacular beaches, the jungles and forests in Myanmar are lush and vibrant. The country boasts 9 national parks, covering everything from mountains to marine life, that aim to protect and preserve the country’s diverse flora and fauna. One such park in the Mount Popa National Park in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar. Established in 1989, it covers 129 km2 and centers on Mt. Popa, an extinct volcano that overlooks the plains of Bagan. Just south of the volcano is a dramatic volcanic plug, atop of which sits the Taung Kalat Monastery. Popa is believed to be a principal residing place of Nats, which are spirits that people in Myanmar worship as part of ancient animist traditions.
Equally as impressive is Nat Ma Taung National Park in the Chin State, which is home to Mt. Victoria. A rare ecological zone, Nat Ma Taung is home to many temperate and alpine species that are typical of the Himalaya further north. It is also a culturally fascinating area, as the various tribes in the Chin States are famous for their face-tattooed women. Tribes can be distinguished by the patterns of the old tattoos. No one can trace the exact origin of the tradition – legend holds that it began as a way of making the women “ugly” and thus unattractive to royal whims, as royals were allowed to take any bride they pleased. Others contest that the markings are so that tribes can identify their women if they were kidnapped by rivals. However it began, the tradition is fading. Myanmar outlawed the practice in the 1970s, and the remaining women with tattoos are growing older. On a visit to the Chin State, guests can meet these women, as well as explore the natural surroundings, and even hike to the top of Mt. Victoria.
Myanmar is home to a diverse range of plant and animal life. The forests in Myanmar are primarily of two types: monsoon forest and rainforest. The mountainous monsoon forests are the ideal breeding grounds for teak, which represents roughly 25% of the forested area and comprises nearly half of the world’s natural teak supply. In the freshwater delta swamps and along the coastlands, visitors can see bamboo and palm growing by the bushel, and mangroves thrive in the salty coastal marshes.
The country also has an impressive variety of wildlife. Visitors are bound to see heaps of monkeys (most of which should be avoided – and hide your food!). Myanmar has a cast of impressive mammals such as elephants, leopards, tigers, martens, rhinos, and even two species of bear. All in all, there are nearly 300 mammal species in Myanmar – 4 of which are critically endangered, 10 are endangered, and 26 are vulnerable. In additions to the mammals, Myanmar has a truly vast number of marine species and excellent bird watching. It is also home to a lot of snakes – some are harmless, while some are poisonous. Visitors should exercise caution when walking in nature areas and after dark.
There is no official state religion in Myanmar, but roughly 90% of the population practices Theravada Buddhism.
Theravada Buddhism is one of two major branches of Buddhism (the other being Mahayana), and is arguably the more traditional practice. The primary belief is that the path to enlightenment is a personal one, and the ultimate goal is to become an arhat, which is someone who has achieved nirvana. To achieve nirvana, one should follow the practice of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha through meditation and the eightfold path to recognize the four noble truths. The devotion of the practice means the only people capable of becoming an arhat are monks, and every Buddhist Burmese boy will enter the monastery for a period of time between the ages of 7 and 20. For poorer families, this is popular because it means their boys will get free education, and they often send them for more than one period. If a boy so desires, he can choose to stay on in the monastery after 20 and become a full-fledged monk.
Karma is also an important concept to understand upon visiting Myanmar. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and which “state” (a low or high one) you are reborn into is determined by your karma. Your karma, in turn, is determined by the actions that you perform during your life. Building a pagoda, for example, is considered excellent karma – as a result, Myanmar is teeming with pagodas.
When Buddhism arrived in Myanmar, it blended with the indigenous animist beliefs. The native spirits – known as nats – are still prevalent today and the majority of people in Myanmar ascribe to them. One place that these beliefs can be seen clearly is on Mount Popa, where legend holds that 4 of the 37 Nats live.
Despite the dominance of Buddhism, other religions are present. There is a Muslim minority that largely lives in the Rakhine State, as well as a Protestant Christian minority that primarily live in the Chin, Kayah, and Karin States.
Myanmar’s cuisine is an amalgam of Thai, Chinese, and Indian influences. Traditional spices are varied, but generally include chili, turmeric, coriander, garlic, and, of course, curry. Burmese curries tend to be mild in flavor compared to their Indian counterparts and can be ordered as meat or vegetarian versions. The most famous Burmese dish is known as laphet – a salad made of fermented green tea leaves combined with various ingredients such as sesame seeds, fried garlic, chickpeas, peanuts, and dried shrimp, among others. Rice and noodles are both Burmese staples; noodles tend to come in soups, but can also be ordered dry, while rice is generally served with several small dishes to be mixed as accompaniments. The unofficial national dish is known as mohinga. Commonly eaten for breakfast, mohinga consists of thin rice noodles that are served in a fish and shallot-based broth and topped with crispy fried vegetables or lentils. Myanmar also has a plethora of deep fried food, and the seafood in the coastal regions is unparalleled.
The first sign of the presence of homo sapiens in Myanmar dates all the way back to 11.000 B.C. They followed the usual course of history, producing bronze tools and cultivating rice and eventually working with iron. Myanmar was on a major trade route between India and China, and by 200 B.C., the first city-state was formed by the Pyu people, settlers from Southern China. The Pyu are also believed to have brought Theravada Buddhism with them to the region. In the coming centuries, many other city-states were formed by various peoples, and for centuries these rivals developed independently. In the 10th century, the Bamar people settled the city of Bagan, and unified many of the competing city-states to form the united Pagan Kingdom. Under the Pagan King Anawrahta, religious and social reforms were implemented that laid the foundation for modern day Myanmar, including the spread of Theravada Buddhism.
The Pagan Kingdom went into decline in the 13th century, faced with economic challenges and continuous external threats from the Mons, the Mongols, and the Shans. After the Pagan Kingdom fell, Myanmar again was separated into several small kingdoms, including the Ava and Hanthawaddy Kingdoms. Smaller, short-lived kingdoms sprung up and died out quickly, until the Toungoo Dynasty managed to reunite most of Myanmar, as well as modern-day Thailand and Laos to briefly become the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia. The Toungoo Dynasty collapsed in 1752 and was succeeded by the Konbaung Dynasty. Politically and economically strong, the Konbaung Dynasty expanded westward, which brought them face-to-face with British-controlled India.
The First Anglo-Burmese War occurred from 1824-26 and was disastrous for Myanmar, losing all their recently acquired territory as well as Tenasserim. The British seized more territory in the Second Anglo-Burmese war in 1852, and finally annexed the rest of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. Myanmar, dubbed Burma by the British, would remain a colony until 1948. British rule dramatically changed the way of life in Myanmar – the destruction of the monarchy and the separation of state and religion devastated Burmese society, and there were decades of guerilla fighting followed by continuous uprisings over religious, educational, and political issues.
The Second World War presented an opportunity for Myanmar to free itself from British rule. Led by Aung San, the Burma National Army joined the British side in 1945 with the promise of a peaceful transfer of power. By 1947, Britain had agreed to Myanmar’s independence and the Burmese had voted to leave. However, the communists and the conservatives disagreed with the terms of the arrangement, and Aung San and six of his aides were assassinated by U Saw, a conservative former prime minister. Thus, Myanmar became independent under Aung San’s protégé, U Nu, in the middle of the night on 4 January 1948.
Upon independence, Myanmar almost immediately descended into chaos. Fighting broke out among across the country and the economy began to spiral. U Nu voluntarily handed power over to General Ne Win, who rapidly stabilized the country and prepared it for elections in 1960. U Nu was voted back into power, but Ne Win staged a coup a mere two years later, beginning the military rule that would characterize the next fifty years. Ne Win attempted to implement a command economy, but with a series of bad decisions and poor leadership moves, he only decimated the country’s economy further.
Student and worker unrest was becoming more frequent and violent through the 1980s, until a military coup led by General Saw Maung brutally suppressed these protests and seized power in 1988. Following this, Myanmar was ruled by a military junta known first as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and then, from 1997 to 2011, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). During this period, the 1974 people’s constitution was suspended in favor of martial law, and democratic elections were not honored.
One such election was in 1990. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory over the military junta’s party, the National Unity Party. However, the leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, was placed on house arrest rather than awarded the victory. This led to international pressure and a series of economic sanctions from democratic allies like the U.S. and EU. Aung San Suu Kyi was released in 1995, but repeatedly re-arrested and released for the next decade. In 2007, massive anti-government protests started. Although the protests were sparked by the removal of fuel subsidies, they quickly escalated to something much larger with monks at the head of the fight. It was clear that Myanmar’s future growth and acceptance by the international community was dependent upon democratic progress and improved human rights.
As a result, the National Convention finally approved a draft for a new constitution in 2008. Shortly after, the second deadliest cyclone in history struck the country, killing more than 130.000 people. The military junta failed to provide adequate relief to its people and refused to grant entrance to foreign relief efforts, eliciting harsh criticisms from the international community.
In 2011, Myanmar enacted the constitution that was approved in 2008. Officially, this allocates legislative authority to two bodes: a House of Nationalities and a House of Representatives. Executive authority resides with the president, who is elected to a 5-year term by the House of Representatives. Elections were held in 2010, but were boycotted by the NLD due to discriminatory election reforms. In 2015, the NLD won an absolute majority of seats in both chambers. A few months later, a new position of State Counsellor (a position similar to prime minister) was created, and Aung San Suu Kyi was appointed, while Htin Kyaw was elected as the first non-military president of Myanmar since the coup in 1962. The new systems are accompanied by efforts to end the country’s international isolation; Myanmar’s new government has focused on economic reforms and drawing in more tourism. The central parts of the country have been free from violence for many years, and tourism has increased dramatically.
It should be noted that the military still plays a significant role in the government, as they comprise a quarter of the legislative seats. There have been ongoing ethnic conflicts, in particular where Myanmar’s military clashes with Muslim populations such as the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi has drawn criticism for responding weakly to the growing crisis, and roughly 85% of the Rohingya people have fled to Bangladesh and neighboring countries. Although visitors to the country never see any hints of the conflict, it is important to be aware of it and sensitive to the ongoing tensions when speaking with local people in Myanmar.