Acting as a bridge between the cultures of South Asia and Southeast Asia, Burma’s cultural identity is a compelling one, made of a mix of several ethnic groups. In general though, the two main groups that make up the bulk of Burmese society are the Mon/Pyu, which originated from modern day India, and the Bamar, which emigrated from the high steppes of Tibet over one thousand years ago.
Adding extra influences to the country were the British, who conquered and ruled the country for over one hundred years, until 1937, when it achieved self-governance. During this period, many Indians and Chinese immigrated to Myanmar, setting down roots in all the major cities.
After the Second World War, Myanmar achieved full independence from Britain, and for little more than a decade, it seemed to be working out well. They had been convened a meeting in 1961 to hash out a system allowing the different ethnic groups in the countryside varying degrees of self-rule and rights. However, this government never came to pass, as a military coup that ousted the elected government came to dominate the country for almost fifty years, crippling its economy, and causing a deep chill over anything vaguely resembling human rights.
In recent times though, the military junta finally saw the writing on the wall, and relaxed its iron grip on the Burmese people. A proper government is now in place again, and while things aren’t exactly perfect yet, the situation has vastly improved over the last few years, starting a rush of investment, including into the tourism industry.
With the junta stepping aside, many travellers are feeling comfortable about gracing this fascinating Buddhist nation with their presence. Should you be among them? You absolutely should, as there are tonnes of dazzling temples that few people have explored (at least on the scale of Thailand), beaches that are perfect in every way … except that they are empty, and a cuisine that is largely unknown, but is just waiting to be discovered by intrepid foodies.
Yes, as the Burmese tourist industry develops, there will be growing pains, as its infrastructure is creaky from decades of underinvestment and neglect. But as money rapidly flows into the nation, things will improve dramatically … and the crowds will flood in after that. Best to go now, and brave the less than perfect conditions. The battle is worth the reward!
Currency: Myanmar Kyat
What To Do
Many travellers will begin their Burma adventure by flying into Yangon. Before you go rushing off to the sights in the countryside, don’t forget that one of the most important Buddhist sights in all of Myanmar is located right here in its biggest city. The Shwedagon Pagoda is a massive complex that will have your heading spinning from all the gawking around at all the exquisitely decorated spires, stupas and shrines. Try visiting at night when it is all lit up in spectacular fashion … don’t forget your cameras for this one!
The next stop on many itineraries is Bagan. In this area stands the highest concentration of Buddhist religious structures on the planet, with upwards of 2,200 temples, stupas and pagodas ranging from being in pristine condition to being in ruins. Rent a bicycle, and spend all day wandering around from one abandoned building to the next, imagining how things must’ve been in their heyday!
The peaceful Lake Inle should be your next destination. Located in the uplands of Shan State, one should be sure to dig out their hoodies from deep inside your pack to wear at night as it can get rather chilly, especially in the winter months. Around the shores of this placid lake, take a boat tour on the lake, admiring the many tribes as they go about their day on the lake. Ample opportunities to buy handicrafts from them are afforded to you on these trips … if you are undecided about what to buy, try the cheroot, which is a cigar made from tobacco, honey, rice flour, tamarind, banana and anise, among other ingredients!
Those tired from the beating that travel on the road lays out to you in Burma will be looking for a respite at this point. Myanmar has a lengthy coastline, containing many pristine strips of largely untouched sand. One such beach destination that should be on your radar screens is Ngapali Beach. The appeal of this place is simple: lie back in the sun, sip milk from a coconut and relax, occasionally jumping in the crystalline waters of the Bay of Bengal to cool off. After all, you deserve the break after all that work!
What To Eat
Overall, the most popular dish, making it the unofficial dish of Burma is mohinga. This noodle dish consists of rice vermicelli, onions, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass boiled in a fish broth, topped with boiled eggs, fritters, and banana blossoms. This is primarily eaten at breakfast, meaning you’ll have to set your alarm to consume this vital piece of Burma cuisine, sleepy head!
Next, the Burmese style of curry is simply a meal you’ll have to make time for, if you enjoy getting swept away in state of flavour-driven bliss! The choice of meat varies widely, from pork, chicken, and beef, to mutton, fish and even shrimp. What makes Burmese curry meals noteworthy is the bewildering selection of side dishes –various styles of rice, vegetables, herbs and soups are available to either add to your curry or complement it nicely on the side, making for a different adventure every time you sit down to eat!
Finally, finish off an excellent meal in Myanmar with a variety of Burmese sweets. Often sweetened with ingredients other than sugar (like coconut and tapioca), these treats have a delightfully understated sweetness to them, giving them an appeal without overpowering the eater with too much sucrose! Be sure to sample hsa nwin ma kin, which are cakes made from semolina flour and coconut milk, and moun pyit thalet, a Burmese pancake that makes a delightful treat to cap off a trip to market in Mandalay.