Myanmar (Burma) Tours and Travel Guide
Myanmar (Burma) Attractions & Landmarks Guide
After opening up to the world, Myanmar (Burma) is now one of the hottest destinations in Southeast Asia. A wonderland of Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries, it can be toured by land or by the Irrawaddy River, which runs through the country from Yangon (Rangoon) to Mandalay. Myanmar hasn't changed much for decades -- yet -- so now is a great time to go.
You think you’ve seen it all in Southeast Asia, until you hear of a country called Myanmar. The crowds and global restaurant conglomerates haven’t yet arrived, and it is still largely untouched by tourism.
Other-worldly and ethereal. Unusual and in ways unique. Timeless yet changing.
Even the name of the country – today Myanmar, formerly Burma -- suggests how this intriguing destination is keeping one foot planted firmly in its past, traditions and ways of life as it moves, tentatively but steadily, toward the future.
Myanmar - The Land of Pagodas
Myanmar is known as “The land of pagodas,” and the visitor soon learns why. No one knows how many Buddhist pagodas, temples, monasteries and stuppas are scattered throughout the county.
What you soon realize is that if at least one Buddhist holy place isn’t within sight at any given time, it will be soon. Whether exploring a vast religious complex or coming upon a tiny roadside memorial, the pervasiveness of the religion that the great majority of people practice is everywhere.
For non-Buddhists an itinerary that includes a seemingly endless array of religious places may threaten to cause a bit of pagoda overload. But don’t let that thought discourage you.
Some holy places belong on any “must-see list. Many others have their own special appeals. Wherever there is an image of Buddha there are people prostrating themselves, praying, chanting and presenting offerings that range from fruit to flowers, incense to candles.
If the pervasiveness of religion in the everyday life of the people leads one to assume that Myanmar is only about Buddhism, think again. It’s a multi-racial country with interesting cities, fascinating villages, stunning nature and attractions sure to excite and delight. This variety isn’t surprising in an area about the size of France and Great Britain combined.
Temple Etiquette in Myanmar
Relatively new to the world of tourism, Myanmar may be excited to show off its country and culture, yet this also means dealing with foreigners who don’t understand nor adhere to local customs. Take the time to research Myanmar’s religious customs and traditions, making yourself a better global citizen and being respectful of your destination.
- Understand that most Burmese citizens are devout Buddhists and be respectful of their traditions when visiting temples in Myanmar. Do not touch a monk’s robes, don’t disturb those who are praying or meditating and wear appropriate clothing at temples and religious sites. You might even try to wear local Burmese clothing, an effort that will be appreciated by Myanmar residents. Look for the Longyi (for women) and the Pasu (for me) as a replacement for pants or skirts. (More on what to wear to a Buddhist temple in Myanmar below.)
- It’s OK to take photos of stupas, but do not photograph local people without asking permission first. Do not photograph meditating monks.
- Do not disrespect the Buddha - it’s the law. Residents (and visitors) can be imprisoned for “insulting religion” and “hurting religious feelings.”
Let’s revisit what to wear and do when visiting temples in Myanmar. This is one of the top Burmese sightseeing activities, so it’s important to be respectful so that foreign travelers continue to be welcomed in this fascinating area.
- Take off your hat and shoes when entering a temple.
- Dress conservatively and cover yourself appropriately. Cover your shoulders and knees. Wear long pants, not shorts.
- This should go without saying, but turn off cell phones, take out headphones, speak quietly and do not smoke or chew gum.
- Stay off the Buddha statues and the platforms on which these statues sit. Do not point your feet away from the Buddha. This means - yes - that you should walk backwards as you are exiting and then, when there is a respectable amount of distance between you and the Buddha, you may turn around.
- Do not point at things or people in and around a temple. Instead, use your right hand, with your palm facing up, to point something out.
- If you’re visiting a temple in Myanmar and a monk or nun shows up, stand up as a sign of respect. Remain standing until their praying or meditation is complete.
- Women, especially, should be aware that they are not to touch or hand a monk any item.
List of Temples in Myanmar
Buddhist temples are one of the main sightseeing attractions in Myanmar…and there are countless ones to see. Add these to your bucket list:
- Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
- Tooth Relic Pagoda, Yangon
- Golden Rock, Kyaiktiyo Pagoda
- Ananda Temple, Bagan
- Shwesandaw Pagoda, Bagan
- Dhammayan Gyi Temple, Bagan
- Shwezigon Temple, Bagan
- Htilominlo Temple, Bagan
- Mount Popa, near Bagan
- Hsinbyume Pagoda, Mandalay
- Mandalay Hill, Mandalay
- Kuthodaw Pagoda, Mandalay
From Occupation to an Historic Election
Britain controlled Burma from 1824 until the country gained its independence in 1948. A military junta that took control in 1962 suppressed dissent and allowed the economy to stagnate largely isolated from the rest of the world.
When the ruling generals permitted free elections to take place in 2015, the political party of Aung San Suu Kyi won a resounding victory. She is an activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but whose advocacy for democracy resulted in her being under house arrest for 15 years until her release in 2010. She now serves as State Counselor and has instituted new freedoms and economic reforms. However, Myanmar’s constitution still gives the military a strong voice in governance of the country.
Since August 2018, there have been continuous news reports about atrocities by Myanmar’s military forces against Rohingya Muslims who live in Rakhine Province. The Rohingyas originally came from the neighboring country of Bangladesh, and have been viewed as interlopers since they arrived. The unrest is confined to a narrow strip of land along the border with Bangladesh, so it is safe to travel throughout most of the country.
Ancient and Modern Life Meet
Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, is the largest city and commercial center of Myanmar. It boasts the highest number of colonial-era buildings in southeast Asia.
Mandalay was the last seat of Burma’s kings before the British colonization. It’s known as a center of arts and crafts, with different neighborhoods devoted to various trades.
The setting is very different in villages located throughout the countryside, where in many ways people live much as their forebears did. Modest houses made of intertwined bamboo line narrow dusty lanes. Domesticated animals wander along the streets.
Yet even in the tiniest, most isolated hamlets, as elsewhere throughout the country, vestiges of change are emerging from the traditional lifestyle. Cell phones are as ubiquitous as in any major U.S. city. Children of all ages use a smartphone to play games, and it’s not uncommon to see a monk retrieve a cell phone from his saffron robe to make or take a call.
Wherever the visitor may be in Myanmar, the gradual evolution from traditional ways of life to increasing hints of modernity is one of the most interesting aspects of the country. The result is an immersion in a rich and colorful past combined with the comforts and conveniences of today.
Top Cultural Attractions in Myanmar
Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar is blossoming after 50 years of dictatorship and perfect for small-group guided tours with travelers hoping to explore and experience this region of the world.
Richly satisfying, with its fascinating cultural history and the ambience of a bygone Asian era, the Golden Land, as Myanmar is affectionately called, makes history- and culture-minded travelers delirious with excitement. Read on for the top cultural attractions in Myanmar.
1. Shwedagon Pagoda: Yangon is the biggest city in Myanmar, and the massive, golden Shwedagon Pagoda is its main pagoda. The people of Myanmar are incredibly proud of this top Burmese tourist site, and for good reason.
Enter by way of four separate entrances, then look for the eight planetary posts for each day of the week (two for Wednesday), each ruled by an animal. You’ll likely see Burmese Buddhists, who come here to pray at the post for which day they were born.
Delve further into the history and culture of Yangon with a small-group walking tour. Start at the Shwedagon Pagoda, then venture out toward downtown, past colonial buildings, as you get a feel for the architecture and daily life of the area - your expert Myanmar guide will answer any questions you may have along the way.
2. Inle Lake: Explore serene Inle Lake in a long boat, powered by the region’s famous leg rowers, where your stay might include a hotel on stilts or a visit to the floating gardens north of Nampan. The farmers tend to the gardens as they glide past in their canoes. This is one of the best places to fully immerse yourself in Myanmar’s daily rural lifestyle and traditions.
3. Bagan Temples: Look for guided Myanmar tours that spend at least a few days in Bagan. Tour the Bagan Temples in the 26-square-mile archaeological zone, exploring the ruins of 2,200-plus Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries.
Ask your guide if it’s possible to see the Bagan temples by motorbike, bike or horse-drawn cart, as the area is quite large. The sunrises and sunsets in Bagan are legendary, and the temples are innumerable.
Expert tip: Look for Bagan temple tours that include a hot-air balloon ride, the very best way to see the temples.
4. Kyaiktiyo Pagoda: This awe-inspiring pagoda is a must-see in Myanmar and one of Burma’s most sacred Buddhist sites - it clings to the edge of a steep cliff west of Yangon and overlooks the forest of Mount Kyaiktiyo.
5. Golden Palace Monastery (Shwenandaw Kyaung): Many visitors to Myanmar include a visit to the Golden Palace Monastery for its intricate, teakwood design, elaborate roof and depictions of mythical creatures, dancers and Buddhist legends.
6. Chaukhtatgyi Buddha: It’s hard to look away from the massive, reclining Chaukhtatgyi Buddha, a top attraction in Yangon. And massive it is, at 213 feet long and 52 feet high - it took from 1899 to 1907 to complete it. Take particular notice of the beautiful jeweled crown.
7. Ananda Temple: Visit Ananda Temple to see one of the most well-preserved examples of Bagan architecture. This popular temple in Myanmar is respected for its delicate stone facades, pyramid structure, gilted woer and original murals. To fully immerse yourself in your Ananda Temple tour, consider an ox-drawn cart excursion, traveling as the ancient citizens once did.
8. Dhat Zoam Doi Pagoda: Take a guided tour of this ancient, hilltop pagoda for insight into the culture, beliefs and traditions of the Khmer people. Your expert guide can also accompany you to Myanmar’s Akhe and San tribal villages.
9. Mandalay’s Mingun Ruins: Consider a private boat excursion along the Irrawaddy River, observing river life as you glide along and stopping to explore the Mantara Gyi Pagoda (Mingun) ruins. Take note of the huge Mingun Bell, more than 90 metric tons of copper.
Outdoor Travel in Myanmar
Wondering what you can do for outdoor and adventure travel in Myanmar? Active travelers are finally getting the chance to uncover the Golden Land’s many outdoor travel opportunities, from caving to hiking. Your active travel guided tour of the Burmese landscape can be as rugged or low-key as you wish - this is an adventure destination awaiting your discovery.
Here are a few favorite outdoor activities to do when on a Myanmar guided tour:
1. Hike in the Himalayas. If jagged mountains make your heart swell, look for a Myanmar hiking tour that visits Putao in Kachin State. The admittedly challenging treks in this area are guided by local porters and include meals and accommodations - and they take two to four days to complete. If you’re an avid hiker going to Myanmar, this is for you.
2. Trek through rice paddies near Kengtung. For trekking on the lighter side, take a walk through the countryside of Pin Tauk, perhaps getting the chance to meet residents of the local hill tribes in the Lahu, Akha and Ann villages. You’ll learn about their customs, dress and daily life. This is a great opportunity to try Shan khao swe, a delicious noodle soup and regional specialty.
3. Hike Mt. Zwe Ka Bin. Another accessible trek is renowned Mt. Zwe Ka Bin, a two- to three-hours climb - you might glimpse a monkey or two on your way up.
4. Whitewater rafting in Kachin State. Fans of river rapids might consider a Myanmar whitewater trip - check with your tour operator for up-to-date access and availability as the government regulations are in flux regarding this relatively new adventure activity. If you can, raft the beautiful sections of Mula Creek and the Malikha River.
5. Bike Bagan. With so many temples to see and such a large area to cover, explore Bagan by bicycle. Pedal at sunrise and just before sunset to take advantage of the beautiful light and cooler temperature. Venture out from Bagan on a guided biking tour and visit quiet villages and rice paddies, from Nga Tha Yauk to Set Set Yo.
6. Rock climb in Hpa-An. Experienced rock climbers will find plenty to do in Myanmar - the Burmese climbing community is really taking off. Look for rock-climbing tours near Mandalay and Hpa-An for the most options for all skill levels.
7. Adventures on the water. Go diving and snorkeling in Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago to see rainbow-hued marine life, or book a sailing tour through the islands. Or, head to the southern tip of Myanmar and go sea kayaking on the Andaman Sea. Stop at little islands for a picnic or a hike and revel in the gorgeous ocean scenery.
8. Trek to Inle Lake. Guided hiking tours near Inle Lake bring you to the area’s temples, markets, villages and local tribes. Look for the leg-rowing Intha people, unique to this area.
Cuisine in Myanmar
One of the perks of visiting a country that has been all but invisible to travelers for the past 50 years is being one of the first to try its distinctive cuisine.
Burmese cuisine has been heavily influenced by South and Southeast Asia and just like in those countries, you’ll find that particular restaurants or food stalls typically specialize in one type of food. Burmese food is more salty and savory than sweet and spicy, and typically involves a lot of side dishes.
And if you love salad, you’ll love dining in Myanmar - you’ll find sour, spicy, even crunchy, salads with just about any ingredient, including rice, noodles, vegetables.
Try these top Myanmar foods, from tea leaf salad to the unofficial national dish, mohinga.
1. Tea Leaf Salad: The salad is comprised of lephet (fermented tea leaves), cabbage, tomatoes, deep-fried nuts (more on Myanmar’s fascination with deep-fried food in a moment), garlic oil and chili.
2. Mohinga: Try this favorite Burmese dish for breakfast, as it’s typically enjoyed, or really any time of day or night that you happen to come across it. A broth-based vessel for round rice noodles, it can be topped with lentil batter, hard-boiled egg or - you guessed it - deep-fried vegetables.
3. Shan Rice: The Shan are one of Myanmar’s main Buddhist ethnic groups and this rice is one of their traditional cuisines. It’s also known as nga htamin (fish rice) in Burmese. Rice is cooked with turmeric, then flattened into a disk and topped with bits of fish and a splash of garlic oil.
4. Curry: So you’ve had curry before, but it’s unlikely you’ve had curry like this. During your guided Myanmar tour, make it a point to dine at a traditional Burmese restaurant, where you can order a meat- or fish-based curry that will then be accompanied by more side dishes than you may be able to eat in one sitting.
Expect tea leaf salad, deep-fried vegetables, soup, rice and dips to be eaten with fresh vegetables. This is the best way to taste the traditional flavors of Myanmar, all in one meal.
5. Deep-Fried Everything: Your culinary tour of Myanmar isn’t complete without myriad deep-fried foods. Just about everything you find to eat in a restaurant, tea shop or on the street is fried in oil, from samosas to spring rolls, breads to noodle dishes. One of the best deep-fried dishes in Myanmar is the buthi kyaw, pieces of gourd that have been battered, then fried - don’t miss it.
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