Myanmar is not exactly a travel hot spot in Southeast Asia like neighboring Thailand, Malaysia, or Singapore due to its lack of modern infrastructure and network. An upside to this, however, is that the country retains its culture and history, which is less “commercialized” or “westernized”, and looks novel and original to me as I was there. If you are a fan of Cultural travel, Myanmar would be a place that you enjoy immensely – not just to see, but also to feel, taste, and experience.
Here is a list of top things to see and do in Myanmar!
Wear Longyi, apply Thanaka and try on Hnyat-phanat
In case you are having trouble picking an outfit for the day in Myanmar, consider this: a longyi, matched with slippers, and apply Thanaka – so you can be dressed the part as you explore the country!
Myanmar has a strong tie to its tradition. Longyi is a sheet of cloth widely worn in Burma, and it could be found in markets and shops in a great variety of colors and styles. Longyi worn by males are called Paso – and are usually in deep color with simple patterns, while those worn by females are called Htamain – and are usually in vibrant colors with a feminine touch – like floral prints. Strictly speaking, these are not unisex. It is great to wear longyi when I was visiting the pagodas in Bagan because it’s a tradition, the material is light and ventilating, and it gives coverage that pays respect to the sacred and historic sites.
How to tie a longyi tutorial:
All the temples in Bagan require visitors to take off their shoes and enter barefoot, so what’s more convenient to walk the miles in a pair of Hnyat-phanat? Hnyat-phanat is a Burmese traditional sandal, similar to flip-flops. To me, they are a great pairing for my Longyi and I loved it. Visit my other post for more tips about the etiquette and tradition in Old Bagan.
It’s also common to see Burmese ladies wearing yellowish-white paste on their faces, while this paste, called Thanaka, is actually a traditional, and natural cosmetic that protects them from the sun, and cools their skin in hot weather. Thanaka is made mainly from roots and timber of Thanaka trees by a simple process – the materials are first soaked in water and then ground in a mortar. Sometimes flowers were added to give a pleasant smell to the product. Thanaka could be found commonly in markets and Burmese women love to apply it on a daily basis, they could bring them along as they travel around. It is also used in special events and festivals as a showcase of their social status.
Indulge in a scrumptious Burmese meal with tea leaf salad
We were in a taxi the other day and I told the driver that I was looking for a place to have authentic Burmese cuisine. Speaking with very limited English and driver told me he had an idea and the next thing I knew we were dropped off at a local joint.
My first look at the menu was a bit overwhelming: a “set lunch” had over 15 dishes and within minutes there was an array of Myanmar food laid in front of us on the table. I have got to say the ladies in the kitchen (who were cooking just behind the counter) did boring veggie justice! The dishes turned challenging ingredients like bitter gourd (come on), bean sprouts (hate them), cauliflower (yuck!), okra (the texture…), and duck eggs into fireworks. The spiciness was just right and not fire-breathing. The veggie dishes were served with curry meat, noodle soup, and mixed rice. For 15 minutes, we stopped talking as we devoured the yummy dishes. All of these for US$3.
Another must-try is the tea leaf salad, an incredible Burmese dish. The fragrance of the peanut oil, the crunchiness of the beans and cabbage, and the freshness of the tea leaves are truly appetite-inducing.
Follow the alms-giving ceremony at dawn
It is a Buddhist ritual for the monks to walk barefoot through the streets with their alms bowls in their hands every morning in Myanmar. Go out early in the morning and you would see a line of monks knocking door-to-door to accept offerings from the people. Those were not charity, but respect from the people for their religion.
Most tour guides would tie this ceremony with Bago and Mandalay because the cities are closed to famous Monasteries with a large number of monks traveling through the streets at dawn. The Mahagandayon Monastery in Amarapura is a very popular site for tour groups to see monks and nuns line up for lunch at 10 AM. It saddens me though the invasion of tour groups (mainly Chinese) has somehow turned this cultural experience into a zoo attraction. As a traveler, it’s important to respect and protect local traditions while observing.
Apply a gold leaf to Buddha and turn yellow-brown into gold
Another traditional ritual that we, as an outsider, could participate in. Many of the golden temples in Myanmar were originally yellow-brown until worshippers flooded in from all over the world and turn them into gold by rubbing small squares of gold leaf on the pagoda as offerings.
It is their belief to seek salvation and achieve nirvana through this ritual. The wealthy Burmese families would even commission to build a golden pagoda for their loved ones and family. There are ladies at the entrance of temples like Shwezigon in Nyaung-U City holding the gold foils that would “aggressively” guide you to look for the right spot to carry out this tradition.
Walk barefoot in the pagodas of Bagan, & take a ride in a hot air balloon
There are over 2,200 temples and pagodas in Bagan and are simply unique. These monuments survived earthquakes, political turmoil, and time to the present day. After the 2016 earthquakes, many sites, unfortunately, have to be scaffolded against the top and are even prohibited to climb or enter. Still, I couldn’t deny the absolute beauty and found my inner peace when I was sitting on top of a pagoda, waiting for the sunrise. As compared with the other two greatest Buddhist heritage ensembles in the world, Angkor Wat, and Borobudur, Bagan is less “commercialized and therefore it gives tourists an opportunity to have a more laid-back experience.
On top of that, a ride in a hot air balloon would be a highlight of the entire trip. However, the price is not as cheap as it ranged from US$350 – 500 per person. It is also a seasonal activity and it is running from mid-October through mid-March when the winds are calmer and the air is cooler.
Leave speechless to the sunrise in Bagan, and sunset at Pont U-Bein
King Anawrahta, the founder of the Burmese Kingdom, built Shwesandaw Pagoda after his conquest of the then Mon Capital, Thaton. Climbing up the hundreds of stairs up to the Shwesandaw Pagoda, this is the best place to go and have a panoramic view of Bagan and its glorious sunrise and sunset. Be warned, it could be quite crowded in peak season, and save yourself a good seat by arriving a little bit early. In The Best of Bagan Pagodas, you will see a list of all the “best” temples in Old Bagan that you should explore.
The sunset of Pont U-Bein is another popular image that attracts thousands of visitors. The historic bridge was built around 1850 (a 170-year-old bridge!) and is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. Over 1,000 pieces of teakwood were used to construct the bridge and it has undergone numerous repairs. The bridge still acted as an important passageway for the local people – for the visitors might prefer to get settled on the side of the lake and take a picture of the sunset, with the silhouette of the bridge and the monks walking on it.
Marvel at Intha fishermen’s impressive fishing skills
Inle Lake is the second-largest lake in Myanmar. It’s famous for its picturesque stilted houses… and Intha fishermen’s extraordinary fishing skills. I had no idea how they did it. Standing one leg at the stern of a long, flat-bottomed boat, the fishermen wrap the other leg around the oar and row the boat graciously in the shallow lake – as if they are dancing in the ballet. Then they drop their conical nets into the water whilst they maintain their balance and change directions. The extraordinary skills that the fishermen demonstrate are just marvelous.
And if you ever wonder what it’s like:
Visit Aung San Suu Kyi House in Yangon
The story of Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle and her defiance to fight for the freedom of the Burmese is illuminating and inspiring to every living soul in many different ways. Aung San Suu Kyi’s house on University Ave Road in Yangon once belonged to her mother, which is where she lived when she was under house arrest. It has a symbolic meaning to many and it’s tempting for visitors to have a glimpse, while it’s not opened to the public as she still lives there when Aung San, being the first State Counsellor of Myanmar, is not in Nay Pyi Taw.
I stayed in a small hotel within walking distance of the house; some might think it doesn’t worth the while to see, but the high walls around prevented the house to be seen from the street anyway. I found it moving to be right there and feel the spirit of this important freedom fighter. The mansion could be seen from the other side of Inya Lake, right in front of the modern Myanmar Plaza. There are a few good restaurants in the area, for example, the food in Le Planteur received raving reviews and I suggest making a reservation in advance.