From our pre-trip research we were expecting to encounter a multitude of challenges whilst travelling Myanmar – from having difficulty finding ATMs, to poor infrastructure and a serious language barrier. Whilst it’s certainly fair to say that this amazing country isn’t as well developed as neighbouring tourist destinations like Thailand, it’s far easier to travel than we expected. There are some fascinating aspects of tradition and culture to learn about in Myanmar and it’s a thoroughly interesting place to travel.And that’s the thing – this country is changing so rapidly that the guide books are struggling to stay up to date. Of all the places we’ve visited it’s challenged our perceptions and there’s a reason it appears on so many lists of places to visit as soon as possible so it can be experienced at this early stage of its development into what will surely become a tourist landscape similar to other locations in South East Asia.
Yet despite the reasonably well developed infrastructure – with plenty of hotels, easy and relatively comfortable transportation and friendly English speaking locals, it still maintains a sense of its history and cultural traditions in a way that seems authentic for the most part. There are many signs of its turbulent recent past and socio-economic struggles – the pavements are some of the worst we’ve seen, restoration of ancient monuments is far out of keeping with world standards and speaking to people who live in Myanmar gives a sense of just how nervous people are about the future of their newly developing democracy and how fragile it is.
It’s clear that the next few years are going to continue to be a period of immense change for the country and it’s a fascinating place to visit. A lot more touristy than you’d think – it doesn’t take much for people to click on to the economic advantages of catering to travellers and holiday markers it would seem – but somewhere where you’ll continue to see many of the older cultural traditions in place in day to day life.
Some of our favourite and the most interesting things we found about Myanmar culture on our visit include:
In many places you visit you’ll see marionette puppets displayed – whether in museums, hanging from trees outside pagodas or used as decoration around hotels. They are intricately carved and beautifully decorated and taken many different shapes according to the character in traditional Myanmar stories and legends. Puppet shows were a hugely popular form of entertainment dating as far back as the 15th century, and it’s still possible to watch them in many areas of the country today.
One of the best is Aung’s Puppet Show that runs twice per night in Nwyaung Shwe near Inle Lake and is one of the most worthwhile things to do in Inle Lake in our experience. The family has had four generations of puppet masters who have all trained extensively in the art of creating and displaying marionettes in the traditional way. Historically shows would last up to 8 hours, although apparently this fell out of fashion around 25 years ago – Aung’s show is a far more manageable 30 minutes long!
I think it’s probably impossible to visit Myanmar without seeing a Pagoda – interested to hear if anyone’s managed it? Not that you’d want to, to be fair, they’re incredibly impressive and despite our fears we never did get too Pagoda’d out although we saw hundreds of them on our two weeks in Myanmar. Not necessarily unique but an enormous part of Buddhist culture in Myanmar is the tradition in which building pagodas was a demonstration of great worthiness and respect.
Many believed that by building pagodas it was possible to influence the afterlife and ensure a more positive form of reincarnation as a result of carrying out these good deeds. Getting even geekier than usual here but George Orwell’s Burmese Day’s contains a bit about the importance of this and is a must read if you’re visiting Myanmar! Pagodas remain extremely important and amazing examples can be seen across the country – we loved the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon; the sheer scale of the thousands of pagodas built throughout Bagan and the hundreds of crumbling and restored structures collected in Indein near Inle Lake.
3. Tiger Balm
Similarly to Thanaka, you might see tiger balm on sale at any country you visit in South East Asia or even further afield. Yet few people know that it was actually invented in Myanmar in the 1870s, where it was sold from a shop in what used to be Rangoon (now Yangon) before its creators took the product to Singapore where its popularity soared. Whilst today you’re more likely to find a locally made version rather than the globally famous brand, it’s an interesting fact that this wonder ointment is from Myanmar. Its menthol vapour is great for mosquito bites and rubbed into the temples if you have a headache.
Despite several offers from locals I never did give this a go. You’ll notice as you travel that many people have a yellowish paste on their faces – often in decorative patterns such as circles on the cheeks and nose. It’s a really distinctive part of the culture and we were straight on Google to figure out what it was. Turns out it’s another old tradition and is applied as a calming lotion that is anti inflammatory and also helps to protect against the sun. It can be bought at markets as well as from all supermarkets that we investigated if you feel like trying some. It dates all the way back to the 15th century and whilst you may now occasionally see it used in countries like Thailand, it’s originally from Myanmar.
5. Betel Juice
It took us a while to get used to being greeted by smiling locals with red stained teeth and avoiding what looked like small puddles of blood on the pavements. Many in Myanmar enjoy the habit of chewing on tobacco wrapped in betel leaves – sometimes different spices are added for flavour. Like chewing coca leaves in Peru or drinking Kava in Fiji, it serves as a mild narcotic and is supposed to help create a feeling of relaxation. Sadly like smoking it can lead to mouth cancer and programs are underway to educate and help reduce the use of betel in Myanmar and other Asian countries. Not one to try but definitely something you’ll see while you’re there!
6. Cane Ball
This is the traditional national sport of Myanmar and we saw lots of people playing this casually in the street in every place we visited. Also known as chinlone, it’s a game played with a smallish wicker ball by a group of around 6 people. Another longtime tradition it dates back over 1500 years. The purpose is to keep the ball from touching the ground while it’s passed around the group and to pass it creatively – making it hugely entertaining to watch but harder than you’d think to play.
Of course with such an ancient culture there are many more traditions that you can learn about on a trip to Myanmar, but these were the ones that really stood out to us. It’s a country where the people are exceptionally friendly and welcoming and we found everyone we met was more than happy to answer our questions and talk to us more about these traditions. For more information about our travels here, take a look at our guide to how much it costs to travel in Myanmar for two weeks and check out our 3 day Bagan itinerary.