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Plains of Bagan

Myanmar (Burma)

An enigma uncovered

Our Myanmar (Burma) Travel Guide

Introduction

Whether it’s your first time travelling to Myanmar (Burma) or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.

At a glance

Flying time from UK
11½ hours

Time zone
GMT +6½

Currency
Kyat (K) = 100 pyas

Language
Burmese and other ethnic minority languages

Travel advice
Check the FCO for latest visa & travel advice

Travel Guide

Overview

"There is a special charm to journeys undertaken before daybreak in hot lands: the air is soft and cool and the coming of dawn reveals a landscape fresh from the night dew."
Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters from Burma

Tourism to Burma (officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar) has increased dramatically since Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) lifted its opposition to foreign tourism in November 2010, as the country began to engage in a slow transition from military dictatorship to a more democratised society. Burma certainly offers all the traditional delights of Asia including pristine jungles, snow-capped mountains, beautiful beaches and a fascinating cultural heritage spanning over two thousand years.

Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the cosmopolitan former capital, maintains its colonial charm with tree-lined avenues, tranquil lakes, and stylish but faded turn-of-the-century architecture. The golden Shwedagon Pagoda dominates the city skyline, while at street level there is a warren of exotic arts and crafts markets, and Chinatown is filled with the enticing aromas of delicious street food.

The very name of Mandalay evokes images of a bygone era (though the latest renovations to the imposing walled city of the royal palace and its vast moat were only completed in the 1990s, reportedly by forced labour). Positioned 700km north of Yangon on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, it is in easy striking distance of former colonial hill stations, ancient cities and other cultural attractions, and home to the venerated Mahamuni Buddha Temple.

Once the centre of an eminent kingdom, the ancient temples, monasteries, stupas and pagodas of Bagan (formerly Pagan), fill the landscape southwest of Mandalay. The most important sites are Dhammayangi Temple, Ananda Pahto, Shwesandaw Paya, Shwezigon Paya and Popa Taungkalat.

The once-sleepy village of Nyaung Shwe at the north of the Inle Lake at a cool 880 metres above sea level has become a bustling tourist hub, with dozens of guesthouses and hotels, a plethora of restaurants, bustling floating markets and a relaxed vibe.

Wherever you go in Burma, there is a feeling of adventure, and exciting new destinations off the beaten track are gradually opening up. Many of the country's National Parks are becoming havens for ecotourism, from the temperate forests, mountains, hill tribes and exotic wildlife of the north to the stunning coral reefs of the Mergui Archipelago, which are attracting attention as a world-class diving destination.

Culture & etiquette

"Remember what your grandfather said about the earth's being round at school and flat at home... It is the same in politics. Learn the arguments for socialism in the textbooks parrot them pass your exams. Never never argue. But keep within your own head and heart what you and everyone really knows that in the real world it is a system of incompetence and corruption and a project for ruining the country."
Pascal Khoo Thwe, From the Land of Green Ghosts

Burmese people are open and friendly, with a strong sense of courtesy and respect. Everyone who acts politely will receive a warm welcome.

Society operates on the principles of ana, which is characterised by hesitation, reluctance or avoidance of offence or embarrassment, and hpone or 'power', used as an explanation for ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender differences. Age is considered synonymous with experience and wisdom, and therefore venerated. Hpone is also linked to Theravada Buddhism concepts of reincarnation and karma: depending on their behaviour in this life, each person will come back in their next life as a higher or lower being; if you act well, you will have good karma.

Theravada Buddhism has the following principles:

  • Understand the cosmos.
  • Have the right intentions.
  • Speak the right words.
  • Perform the right deeds.
  • Earn a living in the right way.
  • Make the right effort.
  • Be intellectually alert.
  • Meditate.

As in other Eastern cultures, the feet are regarded as the inferior part of the body, so never indicate or touch a person or object with your foot. Conversely, the head is the 'highest' part of the body, so it is taboo to touch a person's head.

Public demonstrations of affection are common between friends or family members, and you may often see friends - but not lovers - walking together holding hands or with arms round each other.

Drink

Tea is the tipple of choice in Burma, with 'milk tea' (strong black tea with condensed milk) drunk throughout the day and green tea served with meals. Local soft drinks tend to be rather sweet, with the exception of Lemon Spark Ling. Alcohol is not widely consumed in Burma, though readily available. Locally brewed beer and spirits include Tiger and Myanmar beer, and Mandalay Rum and Dry Gin. International brands are served in hotel bars and restaurants. Tap water and ice made from tap water are to be avoided - bottled purified water can be bought almost everywhere.

Festivals

Burma's national festivals are intertwined with Theravada Buddhist rituals celebrating the ebb and flow of life. The major festivals are:

February/March (moveable) - Full Moon of Tabaung. Merit-making day for Buddhists marking the last month of the year in the traditional Burmese calendar, centred on Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and temples throughout the country.

13-16 April - Thingyan Festival (Burmese New Year). The most important public holiday throughout Burma and part of the summer holidays at the end of the school year, involving much water throwing and the dousing of revellers.

April/May (moveable) - Full Moon of Kason. Prayers and offerings to the monks to commemorate the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and passing into Nirvana.

June/July (moveable) - Start of Buddhist Lent. Three-month retreat for Theravada practitioners during the rainy season.

September/October (moveable) - End of Buddhist Lent (Festival of Light). Commemorates the return of Buddha to earth, descending at night to be greeted by devotees with lamps and lanterns.

November (moveable) - Full Moon of Tazaungmon. Offerings of new robes, slippers, umbrellas, alms bowls, food and other necessities are presented to monks, and cash offerings are collected by monasteries.

Food & drink

Burmese cuisine has been influenced by India, China and Thailand as well as the diversity of the country's ethnic minorities. Like many of the cuisines in this part of the world, the basis of most meals is rice, a balance is sought between sour, salty, spicy and bitter, and the variety of dishes is staggering.

This is in part because the country's long coastline and rivers, lush climate and fertile soil provide an abundance of produce, particularly fish and a wide range of fantastical vegetables. It's no surprise then that seafood and fish sauce are a predominant feature, and explains why the salads here are such exciting affairs - extraordinary mixtures of raw vegetables and or fruit sharpened with lime juice and enlivened by peanuts, roasted chickpea powder and chillies.

Ordering pretty much anything in a typical restaurant - a curry, or a piece of fried fish - will bring with it a serious selection of side dishes, including soup, fresh and blanched vegetables, herbs, dips, and unlimited green tea. It's fun, as is sampling the street food on offer everywhere, watching samosas sizzle and chapattis being skilfully rolled and flipped before being filled with a dollop of curry, or if you're strolling down BBQ street in Yangon's Chinatown, savouring the smoky atmosphere as not just meat but okra, mushrooms, broccoli and tofu meet the grill.

There's plenty to try in Burma, including this selection of specialities:

Balachung - a common condiment, a pungent and punchy paste of chillies, garlic and shrimp

Mohinga - rice noodles in fish broth with garlic, ginger and lemongrass, topped with boiled eggs and banana blossom - virtually the national dish, and mostly eaten at breakfast time.

Lahpet thohk - one of those famous Burmese salads, possibly the most famous, in which pickled tea leaves sit happily alongside fried peas, peanuts, garlic, tomato, green chillies, crushed dried shrimps, dressed with fresh lime and fish sauce. Refreshing and unique to Burma.

Hinto - a country dish of onions, rice, leeks and cabbage steamed in a banana leaf

K'auq sen - a Shan dish of rice noodles with curry - Shan cuisine can be found in Mandalay and Inle Lake

Shan k'auq-sweh - another Shan speciality, fine rice noodles in broth with chilli-marinated pork or chicken

Kausuetho - yellow rice noodles with an Indian-style masala, lemon juice and herbs

Mala hin - assorted vegetables in a spicy bean paste

Danbauk - Burmese style biryani, made with chicken or mutton

Htat taya - which translates as 'a hundred layers' - very flaky multi-layered paratha, sometimes sprinkled with sugar

Htamane - a pudding made from glutinous rice, shredded coconut and peanuts, a Mon-inspired dish

Geography

"This is Burma, and it is quite unlike any place you know about."
Rudyard Kipling, Letters from the East

Burma is bordered to the east by China, Laos and Thailand, to the north by Tibet, and to the south and west by the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh and India. The coastal region is known as Lower Burma, while the interior is known as Upper Burma.

A horseshoe-shaped mountain system and the valley of the Irrawaddy River are the dominant topographical features. The mountains of the northern margin rise to 5,881 metres at the peak of Hkakabo Razi, the highest point in Southeast Asia. The Arakan Yoma range, with elevations up to 2,740 metres, forms a barrier between Burma and the Indian subcontinent, and the Bilauktaung range, the southern extension of the Shan Plateau, marks the boundary with southwestern Thailand. The Shan Plateau, extending into China, has an average elevation of about 910 metres.

The Irrawaddy flows north to south through the Central Burma Basin and ends in wide and fertile delta plains. Both the Arakan (northwest) and the Tenasserim (southwest) coasts are rocky and studded with islands, and the country has a number of natural harbours.

The area from Yangon to Myitkyina in the north is mostly monsoon forest, while the peninsula south of Mawlamyine is primarily rainforest. Mangrove forests occur in estuaries, lagoons and creeks along the coasts, and beaches are fringed by palms, hibiscus and other storm-resistant trees.

Getting around

Much of Burma remains closed to foreign visitors and with both roads and rail services in poor condition, internal flights are the most convenient way of travelling between approved destinations. Privately-run Air Bagan, Asian Wings, Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways have newer aircraft and are preferable to the state-run Myanmar Airlines where the route offers a choice of airlines.

There is a fairly extensive rail network, but trains and services are generally in bad shape. If you have a taste for adventure, the sights of the route from Mandalay, up switchbacks and hairpin bends to the old summer capital of the Raj at Pyin U Lwin, and across the famous mountain bridge at Gokteik, stake a claim as one of the great railway journeys of the world, and the Upper Class carriages of the Yangon-Mandalay Express are clean and comfortable. Buses are invariably quicker and cheaper than trains, but always choose a 'luxury' option. Buses often travel through the night, so take a jacket or blanket for warmth.

Local transport in the main towns comprises a colourful array of buses, cycle rickshaws or trishaws, horse or ox carts, vintage taxis, motorised three-wheelers (thoun bein) tiny four-wheeled 'blue taxi' Mazdas (lei bein) and modern Japanese pick-up trucks (lain ka = 'line car').

There is also a growing fleet of five-star river cruise vessels and this is an excellent way to explore the country. Mandalay to Bagan (or vice versa) is the most popular route and can be completed over two, three or four days. There are a number of other river cruise options, including along the Chindwin River, Bagan to Yangon, and the gorges of the north.

History

"Even if the truth is buried for centuries, it will eventually come out and thrive."
Burmese proverb

The earliest inhabitants of present-day Burma settled along the Irrawaddy River in the central dry zone in around 11000 BC. Polished stone tools of the Neolithic era (10000-6000 BC) have been discovered in caves near Tuanggyi; by 1500 BC people were firing bronze, cultivating rice and domesticating chickens and pigs; and between 500 BC and 200 AD rice-growing settlements south of Mandalay were trading with China.

The Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu entered the Irrawaddy valley from present-day Yunnan province in China in the 2nd century BC. By the 4th century, Burma was a well-trodden trading route between India and China, the Pyu had founded several city-states as far south as Prome (Pyay), and Buddhism was widely adopted. Between the 6th and 9th centuries the Mon, who had entered from Haribhunjaya Dvaravati in Siam, established their own city-states along the southern coastline.

The Mranma (Burmans or Bamar) of the Nanzhao Kingdom entered the upper Irrawaddy valley from Yunnan in the early 9th century and went on to establish the Pagan Empire (1044-1287), which unified the Irrawaddy valley and its surrounding settlements for the first time. A distinct Burmese language and culture slowly replaced Pyu and Mon traditions during this period.

The empire's decline in the 13th century ushered in a series of internal battles and external challenges by Mons, Mongols and Shans, who began to encircle the empire from the north and east. The Mongols, who had conquered neighbouring Yunnan in 1253, spread west into Burma from 1277, and by 1287 had sacked Pagan, ending the empire's 250-year rule.

The Mongols moved swiftly on, but the Pagan territories were irreparably broken up into several small kingdoms. By the mid-14th century, the country was organised around four major power centres defined as Upper Burma, Lower Burma, the Shan States and Arakan, each in turn made up of minor kingdoms or princely states characterised by constant wars and ever-switching alliances.

In the second half of the 16th century, the Toungoo Dynasty (1510-1752) reunified the country and established the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia. This was succeeded by the Konbaung Dynasty, which reinforced central rule and produced one of the most literate states in Asia. The dynasty soon went to war with all its neighbours, ultimately falling to British India over a six-decade span (1824-85).

The British established a capital at Yangon and brought social, economic, cultural and administrative changes that completely transformed the once-agrarian society. The monarchy was abolished and King Thibaw sent into exile. The separation of church and state was particularly harmful to the Buddhist monks, who were dependent on the sponsorship of the monarchy and thus remained loyal to the king. The British founded Christian and secular schools teaching in English and Burmese, where Buddhism and traditional Burmese culture were discouraged. Finally, they burned villages and uprooted powerful or 'disloyal' families, expelling them to Lower Burma. Crucially, the British divide-and-rule strategy highlighted differences among the country's myriad ethnic groups.

Burma was separated from British India in 1937 and granted a new constitution calling for a fully elected assembly, in which many powers were granted to the Burmese. Ba Maw served as the first prime minister of Burma, only to be forced out by U Saw in 1939, who served for two years until he was arrested by the British for communicating with the Japanese.

Japan invaded Burma in 1942 but widespread insurgent activity meant they never succeeded in conquering all its territories. By the end of World War II in 1945 British troops had regained most of the colony.

The British military administration immediately sought to try revolutionary leader Aung San and other members of the Burma Independence Army for treason and collaboration with the Japanese, but Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, advised that a trial was an impossibility given Aung San's Gandhi-like popular appeal.

After the end of the war, the British governors Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith and his successor Sir Hubert Rance established a programme that focused on the physical reconstruction of the country and attempted to delay any discussion of independence. As Rance became governor in 1946 the Yangon Police and other government employees went on strike. Rance calmed the situation by meeting with Aung San and convincing him to join his Executive Council along with other members of the troublesome Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) in order to begin negotiations for Burmese independence. Talks were concluded in London as the Aung San-Attlee Agreement on 27 January 1947, but the agreement left both the Communist and conservative branches of the AFPFL dissatisfied. The Red Flag Communists led by Thakin Soe went underground, and the conservatives formed an opposition party. But the popularity of Aung San's AFPFL was confirmed when it won an overwhelming victory in the April 1947 constituent assembly elections.

Then on 19 July 1947, conservative ex-prime minister U Saw engineered the assassination of Aung San and several members of his cabinet. Socialist leader Thakin Nu was asked to form a new cabinet, and it was he who presided over Burmese independence on 4 January 1948. Unlike India, Burma opted not to join the Commonwealth of Nations, but to cut all ties with Britain.

Since independence in 1948, the country has remained in the grip of unresolved ethnic and civil rebellions. Today, Karen and Shan rebels continue to fight the government in the east of the country, small armed groups of Rohingya are active in the west, and sporadic conflicts flare up in other regions.

Under military rule of various guises from 1962 to 2010, characterised by brutal crackdowns on ethnic and political insurgents, Burma became one of the least developed nations in the world. In 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma's independence hero Aung San, returned to Burma after many years in London at a time when the country was gripped by political upheaval. In a wave of pro-democracy protests, Suu Kyi was propelled into leading the revolt against General Ne Win. The demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the army, who seized power in September 1988. The military government called national multi-party elections in May 1990, and Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory but Suu Kyi had already been retained under house arrest in 1989 and her party was not allowed to govern. Suu Kyi subsequently became one of the world's most prominent political prisoners, remaining under house arrest for 15 of the next 21 years, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize two years into her confinement.

"History is unforgettable. Criticism is intended to benefit the country. I believe if there is criticism, there can be progress."
Dagon Taya

The military junta moved the government from coastal Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw (translated as 'royal city of the sun' or 'abode of kings') in central Burma in 2005, legitimising the lavish new capital with a replica of Yangon's venerated Shwedagon Pagoda, named Uppatasanti (or 'Peace') Pagoda. The official reason for moving the capital was that Yangon had become too congested, though Western diplomats speculate that the government was concerned about the possibility of foreign attack. The city hosts a large military base, and high-ranking officers and other government officials live in secure mansions 11km from the main residential area, above a complex of bunkers and tunnels.

In September 2007, the 'Saffron Revolution' saw thousands of monks joined by students and other protestors to call for democratic change. After eight days of peaceful protests, a military crackdown left at least 30 dead and thousands of monks were imprisoned or fled into exile.

Burma's next general election was held in 2010. Hailed by the junta as an important step in the transition from military rule to a civilian democracy, it was boycotted by Suu Kyi's NLD, and opposition groups and international observers alleged widespread fraud.

A nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein - who had served as a general and then prime minister under the junta - was installed in March 2011. A quarter of the seats in parliament were reserved for the military, including the key ministries of the interior, defence and border affairs.

There have since been various steps towards ending decades of international isolation. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a landmark visit in December 2011, meeting both President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi. In the by-election of 01 April 2012, called to fill a vacant 46 seats in parliament, the NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested and Suu Kyi took public office for the first time as leader of the opposition in the lower house. The same month, the EU lifted all non-military sanctions and subsequently offered Burma more than US$100m in development aid.

The newly re-elected President Obama visited Burma in November 2012, and hosted President Thein Sein in Washington in May 2013, signalling the country's return to the world stage.

"We are working hard to move from military rule to democracy, to end the multiple armed conflicts that have ridden this nation since independence in 1948, and to reform the economy away from a centralised economy to one based on free markets. I promise you that we will not waver in this task."

President Thein Sein, June 2013

Shopping

Popular purchases in Burma include lacquerware, precious stones including jade, rubies and sapphire, silverware and jewellery, wooden carvings and stonework, tapestries, antiques, silks and textiles.

Yangon has plenty of duty-free shops and department stores with fixed prices, but shopping and bargaining at Bogyoke Aung San Market is significantly more fun. Chinatown also has a large number of vendors offering colonial-era coins, paintings and other souvenirs.

Bagan is the centre of lacquerware manufacture, where you can find a dizzying array of ornate plates, bowls, cups, water jars, vases, jewellery boxes and even furniture. You can visit the Golden Cuckoo Lacquerware Workshop or Moe Moe Family Lacquerware to see how the pieces are made. Shwe War Thein handicrafts shop also has a fabulous range of puppets, wood carvings, chess sets, bronzeware and gems.

Mandalay has several markets where you can pick up jewellery, sculptures, fabrics and other handicrafts. The largest is Yadanarbon Market, with thousands of stalls set over five storeys. Zegyo (or Zay Cho) Market is the oldest in the city and a great place for one-stop shopping for practical items like spices, fabrics and homeware as well as gift items.

Inle Lake's shopping attractions include the Ywama Village floating market, where the canal is packed with farmers' boats selling local produce and pedlars offering souvenirs. Inphaw Khone is a village known for its weaving workshops, and the best place to purchase lotus-silk shawls; while the bustling Mine Thauk market is also known as the 'five-day market' because people from the hills sell their colourful produce an artifacts at different locations over a five-day period.

Tipping

Tipping is not traditional, but may be tacitly anticipated, for example for opening a locked temple at Bagan, sightseeing guidance or porterage, so keep some small notes to hand for tips and temple donations.

Where to eat

The streets of Mandalay and Yangon are lined with stalls and vendors dishing up jelly sweets, fritters, flatbreads and much more. It's fun, and so are the tea shops, an integral part of life here, where snacking is a national pastime.

Traditional restaurants, or Myanma saa thauk sain tend to serve all the dishes simultaneously, and the sheer variety is staggering. There are numerous Indian and Chinese restaurants. Hotel restaurants serve a wider range of cuisines.

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