Myanmar (old name: Burma) is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia. It is located in the western part of the Indochina Peninsula and bordered by Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Laos and China. Myanmar’s coast is washed by the Andaman Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Gulf Moutama (Martaban).
Marco Polo was in awe of Myanmar. He wrote in his travel diary: “The towers are built of fine stone, and one has been covered with gold a finger thick, so that the tower appears to be of solid gold. Another is covered with silver in a similar manner and appears to be made of solid silver. They make one of the finest sights in the world, being exquisitely finished, splendid and costly. When illuminated by the sun they are especially brilliant and can be seen from the great distance.” Let’s learn a few more things about this magical country:
Interesting facts about Myanmar
1. Myanmar welcomes New Year with a splash. The Water Festival, also known as Thingyan happens in the month of April to mark the beginning of the Buddhist New Year. The celebrations are similar to the famous Songkran in Thailand.
The sprinkling of water over one’s head is a metaphoric washing away of past evils – a custom that has evolved into full-fledged water fights with cannons, pistols and buckets.
2. The traditional Burmese dress is the longyi, a wraparound skirt worn by both men and women. Yes, this is quite similar to the Indian lungi.
The difference between the longyi for males and females is the pattern and how the knot is tied. Men usually wear plaid, striped or plain longyi which is tied in the front. Women choose more brightly hued options and secure it at the side. Why does Lungi dance keeps ringing in my ears? Oops, it’s Longyi Dance in Myanmar 😉
3. Myanmar is one of the three countries that have not adopted the metric system. The other two are the United States and Liberia. The country still uses its own units of measurement, though you’ll find gas measured in gallons and distances in miles. Measurement of weight is a lot trickier here as they have a local unit called peiktha, which equals to 3.6 pounds or 1.68 kilograms.
4. Myanmar has a lot of Temples & Pagodas. And I mean A LOT!
The country is home to Bagan, the world’s largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins. Founded in the second century AD, the kingdom once had over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. Due to its location in an active earthquake zone, Bagan has suffered many earthquakes over the ages, the most recent of which in 2016 destroyed over 400 buildings and damaged hundreds more. Today, the remains of only 2,000 temples and pagodas can still be seen, many of which are undergoing repairs and restoration.
5. If asked about the capital of Myanmar, many will still say Yangon. But the capital was moved to Naypyitaw in 2005. It was a hush hush affair as the government built the new city in secret and then announced that it was the new administrative centre. What a surpsrise!
6. When in a restaurant, it is very common to hear locals make the kissing sounds to call the attention of the servers. Many people might find it a little offensive but it is part of the culture here.
7. The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is one of the world’s most sacred Buddhist pagodas. More than 60 tons of gold cover the exterior of the pagoda and the top is covered in more than 4,500 diamonds. The largest, right at the top, is 72 carats.
But the gold and the diamonds are not the reason why this pagoda is extremely valuable. This site is believed to hold eight strands of Gautama Buddha’s hair. According to legend, two merchants met the Buddha on their travels and returned to Burma with the strands of his hair, which were placed in the temple with the other relics. And that’s how it became one of the most sacred pilgrimages for Buddhists.
8. Myanmar has its own take on ‘Dadi ma ke nuskhe’. When in the country, it is very common to see a yellowish chalk covering the cheeks of both adults and children. Sometimes painted on as swirls, thanaka is a pale yellow paste made up from ground tree bark. This paste acts as a natural sunblock and also cools the skin.
9. You will see a lot of chaos on the roads of Myanmar. Myanmar, being a British colony adapted their style of driving – driving on the left. But the country switched sides overnight in 1970. The government here likes surprising (or confusing?) people, I guess. The problem was that the roads and older vehicles were designed to drive on the left. Today you’ll see newer vehicles which were designed for right handed driving running on the road with the older ones. People don’t usually follow traffic rules and it sums up to a different level of chaos.
10. Myanmar is a cultural melting pot of ethnicities. Roughly 135 ethnic groups make up the people of Myanmar and it is ranked 75 most culturally and ethnically diverse country in the world. The collective number of languages spoken by these diverse peoples is upwards of 60.
The country recently faced a lot of criticisms from the outside world due to the injustices that are being done to the Rohingya Muslims. Hundreds of thousands have fled to Bangladesh to escape the violence, and the debate still continues.
11. One of the most intriguing ethnic groups is the Moken ‘sea gypsies’ who inhabit the spectacular Mergui Archipelago off the Andaman Coastline. They traditionally live a nomadic lifestyle, spending most of their time at sea and setting up on land only during monsoon.
They know everything about the ocean and this knowledge saved them from the 2004 tsunami. They are more comfortable in water than on land. And have genetically evolved overtime. The Mokens are excellent at fishing and can also stay underwater for a longer period of time.
12. The national sport of Myanmar is Chinlone which can be best described as part-sport, part-dance and part-martial art. Now this one’s an all-rounder kind of sport.
It is a non-competitive game where the focus is on how beautifully one plays the game. Any number of players form a circle and keep the chinlone (cane ball) as long as possible in the air by kicking it soccer-style from player to player, using any body part except the hands.
13. The mountains in Myanmar are home to many precious stones. Around 90 percent of the world’s rubies come from the country. The rubies from here are also considered the world’s finest as they are high in chromium and low in iron which gives them high fluorescence and a beautiful hue.
14. The thick, unspoiled jungles of Myanmar are home to plenty of wildlife. Elephants, tigers, leopards and rhinoceros roam freely. The country is also home to 28 species of turtles and tortoises. Seven of these species are endemic, including the Burmese roofed turtle, which was thought to be extinct until 2002. Happily, a conservation project has brought numbers up into the hundreds.
15. Fishermen on Inle Lake in Myanmar are famous for fishing on one leg. The local Intha people developed the unusual technique over centuries to enable fishing and rowing at the same time.
16. The practice of elongating one’s neck is still prevalent among the women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe in the Shan state. Brass coils are placed around the necks at the age of five and it becomes a part of their life. The practice started when the women would elongate their necks as a status symbol and also as a way to protect them from wild tigers. Now its done to protect the culture of the community.
Trip leader Sakshi’s Recommendations if you are visiting Myanmar:
Visit Bagan, the cultural capital of Myanmar and explore the different temples and pagodas here. You also have an option to go on a hot air balloon. Imagine yourself gliding on top of these ancient relics as the sun rises above you.
Any trip to Myanmar will be incomplete without visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda. It doesn’t matter if you believe in Buddhism or not. You have to check out this stunning Pagoda.
Sail towards Myeik Archipelago to see some of the best white-sand beaches. These beaches are pristine and not as crowded as its counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries.
Do you know Myanmar has its own version of the famous Halong Bay in Vietnam? Hpa An is home to impressive karst mountains. The highlight is Sadan Cave, a towering place full of pagodas and Buddhas, where you can walk under the entire mountain and take a tiny wooden boat back through the paddy fields.