While Myanmar (formerly Burma) has abundant potential as a tourist destination, it remains lagging behind its neighbors in Southeast Asia. The country has a list of yet unspoiled landscapes and jungles, even its culture is well preserved, holding more appeal to foreign visitors. The styled pagodas and stupas, the Burmese monk sightings, the long-necked women and the Thanaka-covered cheeks of Burmese people – they all make Myanmar unique. So even as flights to Yangon remain expensive and hotel rates are high, these distinctive features of Myanmar have continued to spark the curiosity in many tourists.
1. Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most visited attractions in Myanmar. History says the Shwedagon was built 2,500 years ago. It has four key stairways in all cardinal directions leading to four main Buddha temples – Konagomana Buddha (south), Kassapa Buddha (west), Gautama Buddha (north), and Kakusandha Buddha (east). for the floor plan of the Shwedagon Pagoda:
The 14-acre complex has a walking path for visitors as footwear is not allowed inside. It has three terraces but many visitors only visit the main terrace or the middle level where the massive golden stupa is. This most photographed structure is 326 feet high and surrounded by small stupas. A number of shrines, pavilions, and bells are on this level. Worshipers would nonchalantly find their spot, sit on the marble slabs and offer flowers, candles or incense before a Buddha shrine. Monks and novices in maroon-colored robes wander around the complex – worshiping, taking photos, or sometimes, just taking notice of the merry chatter of tourists around them.
2. Inle Lake
This freshwater lake in Nyaungshwe Township of Taunggyi District of Shan State is a perfect spot for photographers, trained or not. Any time of the day, one can spot fishermen hauling their nets across the water. The lake is mostly covered by lotus, water hyacinth, and other floating plants. During the dry season, the lake’s maximum depth is 12 feet, but only 7 feet on the average. The mountains surrounding the lake can be mirrored on the water, making it more alluring to click-happy shutterbugs. Villages are lined up along the Inle Lake, the people known as Intha. Traders sell their goods on small boats, from silk fabrics hand-woven from lotus plant fibers to various tools and carvings. The lake, however, is not as tranquil as one could hope, as vessels with blaring engines ferry tourists in succession.
There is no shortage of picture-perfect spots in this ancient city, equaling Cambodia’s famed archaeological site, Angkor Wat. There are more than 2,000 Buddhist monuments spread out in the entirety of its 104-kilometer area. Balloon rides are the best way to soak up the exquisiteness of Bagan. Sunrise and sunset watchers will not be disappointed, as long as they carefully research (or ask their guides) for the right spot and the right time. In February this year, Myanmar has nearly imposed a ban on climbing the pagodas of Bagan amid reports of tourist misdemeanors. But it backpedaled, for fears of the ban’s impact on the country’s tourism.
4. The Kayan women
As Myanmar strives to stay on with the developing world, tradition remains for the women in remote villages – the women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe, or the “giraffe women” to many tourists. Their practice of wearing neck rings continues to draw tourists. Brass coils are placed around the neck, giving the impression that it is elongated. Wearing these coils starts at the age of five.
Historically, the Kayan people are refugees from a conflict between the Karenni rebels and the Burmese army. The other state in Myanmar where Kayan people fled to is the Kayah State. But throughout the years, what should be “refugee camps” in the Shan State have evolved into tourist villages. The long-necked women of the tribe have clearly become accustomed to the stream of tourists in their village as they would willingly sit still or weave on their loom for photo opportunities. Amid protests of human rights advocates, this exotic tribe continues to lure tourists to the Shan State.
5. Burmese monks
They can be spotted on the streets, either singly or in a group. When doing the traditional alms round in villages, the monks of Burma, in their dowdy maroon-colored robes, would walk single file, barefooted. Each of them carries an alms bowl. Every food that’s dropped into the bowl will be combined together and must be shared with other monks. Monks are prohibited also from storing food.
The alms round is an obligation of every monk and should not be misunderstood by tourists as their excuse for free food. Even if abundant food is available, the Buddhist monks would still make rounds for alms. The giving and receiving of alms connect the monks to the lay people spiritually. Tourists can take a photo of them anytime, but they cannot be touched.
6. Thanaka-painted faces
That yellowish-white cream painted on people’s faces certainly captures the lens of every traveler. It is called Thanaka, widely used in Myanmar by men, women, and kids. They proudly wear it to work, school, market and sometimes even at home. It is for cosmetic purposes, believed to protect the skin from acne and sunburn. Working women apply thanaka on top of their foundation and usually create beautiful patterns on their cheeks. Thanaka trees are abundant in Myanmar, producing fragrant barks that are grounded into a paste. But this ritual of preparing the thanaka cosmetic paste is slowly fading as commercially prepared thanaka creams are now available throughout the country. Even a tourist can buy this cream and paint it on her cheeks to blend in with the Burmese.
Sheila, a.k.a. The Solo Tripper. Former news desk editor, full-time traveler, freelance writer.