Immerse yourself in the culture, rituals and traditions of Myanmar (Burma) with these 7 unique Myanmar travel experiences.
This is a guest post by Laura Meyers, founder of Laure Wanders, a solo travel and adventure blog. Her adventures have taken her to a Voodoo priest in Togo, the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas and the jungles of Sumatra. She started her blog to share these stories and to inspire people to travel solo and immerse themselves in different cultures.
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Myanmar, previously known as Burma, is a beautiful country in Southeast Asia that is slowly opening up to tourists.
A British colony for more than a century, until just a few years ago, Myanmar was a military-controlled state. This is one of the reasons why it hasn’t yet been heavily influenced by globalisation or indeed the outside world.
Myanmar is still brimming with authentic cultural experiences and unique traditions. The country’s residents, who are quite fascinated by tourists, are usually more than happy to show you everything their culture has to offer.
Gilded pagodas, monasteries set in stunning locations and seas of smiling faces are just some of the many highlights this extraordinary destination has to offer. Here are 7 unique Myanmar experiences that will help you appreciate Burmese culture.
1. Join Thingyan Festival
Thingyan is the most important festival for Burmese people. It’s Myanmar’s celebration of the new year, which falls in mid-April annually (from the 13th to the 16th).
The Buddhist festival lasts for four days and during this time, the country is filled with beautiful dance performances, music, religious rituals, food stalls and… people throwing water at each other! Everyone has fun splashing each other with bowls, buckets, water pistols or anything that will work. Water symbolises washing away the sins of the previous year. As April is the hottest month of the year in Myanmar, it feels great!
Thingyan is also a period of good deeds, and you’ll find the already very friendly Burmese people will be particularly cheerful and kind during this period. Prepare to get wet from the moment you step outside the door during this unique and fun festival though.
Except for monks and the elderly, no one is spared!
2. Wear thanaka, the Burmese cosmetic
When you’re walking through the streets of Myanmar, you’ll notice a yellowish paste on most people’s faces. It’s called thanaka, and Burmese women and men alike have been wearing it for over 2,000 years.
Thanaka is derived from the bark of a specific tree. Preparing the paste and applying it to the cheeks in circles and other creative patterns is a time-honoured ritual in Myanmar.
Thanaka serves a practical purpose too, protecting the skin from the sun to avoid getting wrinkles. It’s often applied to other parts of the face and body as well, such as the arms.
People in Myanmar consider thanaka a symbol of beauty so if you decide to wear it yourself, you’ll likely receive lots of compliments.
3. Make a pilgrimage to the Golden Rock
For locals, a visit to Kyaiktiyo Pagoda or Golden Rock is something of a pilgrimage. This is one of the most sacred places in Myanmar, and the Burmese travel from all over the country to visit.
According to the legend, the rock, which is perched on the edge of a mountain, is balancing on a strand of the Buddha’s hair. This is the only thing preventing it from falling.
The enthusiasm of the locals when you’re on your way to Golden Rock is contagious. You can truly feel the excitement as you get closer. It’s obvious that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most visitors.
People take family pictures and pilgrims gently apply gold leaf to the rock, a privilege only granted to men, as women are not allowed in the direct proximity of Buddhist monuments.
Guided option: Full-day trip from Yangon to Kyaiktiyo Pagoda.
4. Visit Mandalay’s craft workshops
The last royal capital of Burma and modern-day Myanmar’s second-biggest city, Mandalay was long considered the nation’s cultural capital. It’s home to a huge population of craftsmen and women – and a huge number of traditional workshops, too.
It’s a mesmerising experience to visit one (or more) of these workshops and see how people make their amazing works of art by hand.
Artisans specialise in wood and marble-carving, gold leaf, traditional puppet making, tapestry, pottery, and sewing. Mandalay has a workshop for nearly any taste!
It’s possible (but not mandatory) to buy an authentic souvenir from any of the workshops you visit, too.
Guided option: Full-day cultural tour of Mandalay.
5. Explore the temples of Bagan
Bagan is one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist attractions and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a remarkable place with a very long history.
Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom from the 9th to the 13th century. During this period, more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built. At its peak, the city was a cosmopolitan centre for religious and secular studies, attracting monks and scholars from India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia.
There are more than 2,000 ruins within the Bagan Archeological Zone, which was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2019. These are all active Buddhist places of worship that can be visited by tourists.
Bagan is the kind of place where you can easily spend a few days exploring the temples, brushing up on Myanmar’s history, and learning about Buddhism. A nice bonus is Bagan’s world-famous sunrises and sunsets.
Guided option: Private tour of Bagan’s ancient temples.
6. Climb the 777 steps to Mount Popa
Mount Popa, also known as Taung Kalat, is a monastery located on top of an extinct volcano plug. It’s one of Myanmar’s holiest places and a worship centre for Nat Spirits, which are mostly the spirits of humans who have suffered a violent death.
These spirits are worshiped throughout Myanmar, and you can see how locals give them offerings in the form of food, money and flowers at the entrance to Mount Popa.
Mount Popa can easily be visited as a half-day trip from Bagan. If you decide to go, you have to be willing to climb its 777 steps, surrounded by hundreds of monkeys, barefoot. It’s quite an adventure and an unforgettable experience that will teach you a lot about Burmese culture.
Guided option: Day trip to Mount Popa from Bagan.
7. Travel back in time at Inle Lake
Inle Lake, famous for its floating villages and vegetable gardens, is a place that will truly take you back in time.
There are several incredibly enriching stops you can make on a boat tour of the lake. For starters, you get to see the Intha fishermen, who use one leg to balance themselves on the front of their boat, and the other to row.
Another stop is at the Five Day Market, which migrates from one lakeside village to another throughout the week.
You’ll also get to see lotus weavers who skillfully perform their handicrafts at the lotus, silk and cotton weaving centre. Silversmiths and blacksmiths also have their workshops on the lake, and you can visit a cheroot factory. All of these craftsmen will happily show you their skills.
Another highlight of a trip to Inle Lake is visiting the Padaung Tribe and the beautiful Shwe Indein Pagodas (only accessible during the wet season).
Guided option: Private tour of Inle Lake by boat.