Famous for the golden Shwedagon Paya, Myanmar is a country that takes you back to the past and allows you to experience a traditional way of life. The country is vastly rural and a place where the 21st century is still working to catch up.
Myanmar is known as a Buddhist country with 90% of the population practicing Theravada Buddhism, and many tourists are eager to catch a glimpse of the famous Shwedagon Paya or view some of the 4000 sacred stupas. There is also a lush landscape and pristine beaches amongst the golden temples to invite you in for an adventure.
ကြိုဆိုပါတယ် – Welcome to Myanmar!
Myanmar is a unique country because it has an old capital and a new capital city. In 2005, the newly constructed city of Naypyitaw became the official capital city. The city is like a ghost town with just under 1 million people living within the city limits, which are almost 5 times the size of London, England.
Naypyitaw was built for the future with 20-lane wide roads that have hardly any drivers. Where Naypyitaw has failed to become the central hub, the old capital of Yangon remains the most popular with locals and tourists.
Yangon, sometimes called Rangoon, is the largest city in the country and is famous for being the home of the Shwedagon Paya. Other architectural beauties that are mixed in with the pagodas include British colonial and modern architecture.
The old capital has also remained the central hub for Myanmar’s commercial and artistic industries. With new investments, returning political exiles, and tourists, the old capital puts Myanmar’s future on display.
- Culture and Language
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
- Points of Interest
Culture and Language
Myanmar is an ethnically diverse country with up to 135 different ethnic groups. The different groups started back as early as 11,000 BCE, which is when science suggests that early settlement began in the central dry zone.
It wasn’t until 849 that the Pagan Dynasty began to unite what is now modern-day Myanmar. The Pagan Dynasty ruled until 1297 and social, religious, and economic reform. During this time, the Burmese language also became dominant within the region.
Myanmar also went through a period of British rule, which changed the country’s traditions. As the country struggled to regain its own identity, World War II broke out, and Myanmar took a stance against the Japanese.
When the British returned after the war, Aung San became the nationalist leader who fought for his country’s freedom. He was ultimately assassinated, with people guessing it was due to his socialist ideologies. Myanmar did become independent by 1948, and while it has struggled, democratic reforms began in 2011.
While democracy was brought to the country, it still struggles to thrive. The divide between ethnic groups is posing a challenge because the people will not unite. Another issue is that the government has once again turned oppressive.
There are now laws against journalists who are critical of the country’s government, which can be seen as taking a step back in the wrong direction.
Due to religion being held in high regard throughout Myanmar, tourists will see people’s faith on full display from the wandering monks, towering pagodas, and other sacred sites. Visitors should show respect to the monks, and in return, they will be shown generous hospitality.
Cleanliness is also important, with the Burmese people believing that your head is the most sacred and your feet the dirtiest. For this reason, you will often be asked to remove your shoes, and you should avoid pointing your feet toward other people.
The culture is also very caring and eagerly shares amongst themselves, meaning that meals may be served with dishes in the middle of the table, where each person may then serve themselves.
Burmese is the official language of Myanmar, which began with the Bamar people. The Bamar people are also the country’s main ethnic group. The vast majority of the country’s 54.8 million population (as of 2021) will speak Burmese as either a first or second language. Burmese is also used by the government and media, which makes it the most prominent in the streets.
With multiple ethnic groups, you may find other languages are spoken throughout the country, especially in rural areas. Each ethnic group may have its own dialect, which has been passed down from generation to generation.
English is the most popular foreign language in the country, and Myanmar followed suit with its neighboring countries by expanding the use of the foreign language.
While Burmese is the primary language for education, English is the second taught language in institutions, which means that it is becoming more popular. You still can’t get by with only English, and visitors may find that it is more common in popular tourist areas.
Before heading to Myanmar, you’ll need to decide how much you’re willing to spend. Myanmar is an expensive country to visit and is often said to be more expensive than its neighboring countries.
However, you can still travel to Myanmar on a backpacker’s budget or go all out and live the life of luxury. The most important considerations of your budget are airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
Airfare will be the biggest portion of your budget, as Myanmar is far away, and you are only allowed entry into the country from the international airport.
Flights from the US to Myanmar can be well over a thousand dollars, though you may be able to find deals that lower the price, depending on where you fly from. The time that you travel and how early you book your flight can also affect the cost.
The tourist high season runs from October to May, which is also Myanmar’s dry season – similar to other South East Asian countries. Airline tickets will be more expensive during this time.
You can also save a little money by booking your airline ticket further in advance of the date of your departure.
Once you have booked a ticket, you should look towards deciding on your accommodation for the duration of your stay. Dorm beds will be affordable, however, they still cost more than in other Asian countries. This is particularly true in the capital, which you will find, across the board, is the priciest area.
The influx of tourism to Myanmar also means that you should reserve accommodation ahead of your travel. There may not be as many places ready to accommodate tourists as there are tourists looking for a place to sleep.
You can also find luxury accommodation options like hotels and resorts. Hotels will likely cost a decent amount per night, depending on what you are looking for in your accommodation. Some hotels will cost more, especially if they are more Western.
Resorts will be the most expensive, especially in the capital as compared to the rest of the country. Though, anywhere with more tourists will be more expensive than local establishments or destinations.
While it’s important to get your beauty sleep while you travel, you’ll also be eager to try the local cuisine. Burmese cuisine is unique because it has been influenced by different ethnic groups, as well as neighboring countries like India, Thailand, and China. The cuisine can be divided into two categories based on location – coastal and inland.
Tea leaf salad is Myanmar’s most popular dish, which is served as an appetizer, side dish, or snack. The salad uses shredded cabbage and other vegetables, which are mixed with slightly bitter tea leaves. A typical dish is shan-style rice, which is often topped with flakes of fish and deep-fried pork.
Curry is also popular in Myanmar, and the country has its own varieties of traditional Indian cuisine that is based on region. Finally, deep-frying food is popular throughout Myanmar, and you may find dishes, both sweet and savory, served as a snack or meal.
If you are traveling on a budget but still want to try the local dishes, street food is the best affordable option. Many street food dishes are sold for very cheap and give a hint of authentic Myanmar cuisine.
If you would like to eat out at a restaurant, it’s important to remember that local places will be more affordable than touristy spots. A mid-range local restaurant won’t be expensive, however, if you’re in a tourist area expect the price to raise drastically.
You should also know that you can save on your budget by not drinking. Most people don’t really drink in Myanmar, and it’s usually more of an activity for tourists. However, if you do want to drink, you can stay on a budget as it can be very affordable, though this is outside tourist hotspots.
How to Get Around
While some people will choose to travel by private car and driver, most people will want to save money on transportation so that they can stay on budget.
Buses and Trains
For many travelers, taking the bus is the best way to travel the country. There are plenty of buses that travel between towns in Myanmar, and they are not only quite affordable but also nicely kept and comfortable. You can also travel by train, which is cheaper than traveling by bus. However, the trains are not as reliable, and they can be more stressful.
The fastest way to travel would be to use domestic flights, but they can be very expensive. If you can’t take the time to travel using another method and can afford a plane, this would be the best way to travel to see more of Myanmar.
Other transportation methods include taxis or renting a moped. Taxis in all forms (tuk-tuks, motorcycles, and even carts) will cost minimal. Grab Car is another affordable option, similar to Uber, that’s used in Myanmar as well as Thailand and Vietnam.
If you want to drive yourself, you can rent a scooter for the day, or if you prefer a private driver, many cities will have options that are well-priced.
Walking is another option that is free and safe in touristy areas. You can experience the local lifestyle and explore the streets more by walking, but you should always be aware of your surroundings and keep your belongings close by to be safe.
Top Cities to Visit
While there are technically two capitals in Myanmar, by the people’s standards, there are plenty of other cities to visit too. Home to gorgeous temples, pagodas, ruins, and sprawling landscapes, each area is highly worth the trip. Here is a brief overview of the top city destinations in Myanmar.
If visiting an urban ghost town sounds like fun, then the nearly abandoned capital of Naypyidaw is the place to go. While the government officially moved the capital to this city, it has struggled to become the seat of the country outside of official meetings.
Instead, tourists can walk the empty streets, drive the empty roads, and stay in empty hotels. With very limited tourism and even people, it is certainly an adventure for the more curious traveler.
While Yangon is no longer the official capital, it still very much acts as such and is Myanmar’s central hub for everything related to business, tourism, and culture.
While the government may be holding meetings in Naypyitaw, Yangon is drawing in tourists with its energy and entertainment. Tourists can see how Yangon has stayed current with the times. Plus, the famous Shwedagon Pagoda is located here.
Bagan is known for its pagodas, which are absolutely everywhere. The unique architecture helps enhance the city’s ancient mythology, while a yearly hot air balloon festival also draws in tourists. With amazing views and a beautiful landscape, Bagan is one of Myanmar’s top city destinations.
Mandalay is the place to go if you want to witness how Myanmar became the country it is today. While there is not much to do here, the city’s pagodas, palaces, and monasteries still tell an important story. For the best experience, you can hire a guide to unlocking Mandalay’s secrets.
For nature lovers, Hpa An or Kyaiktiyo is the place to go for epic landscapes awaiting new adventures. Hpa An is most famous for the Saddan Cave and Mount Zwegabin, though it’s also close to the Golden Rock Pagoda.
Tourists who want to escape the city bustle can take a short trip from Yangon and experience the beauty of Hpa An.
Points of Interest
While visiting the cities is always fun, there are also many points of interest throughout Myanmar to explore. Boasting highly popular religious and historic sites as well as gorgeous outdoor areas for nature enthusiasts, there’s plenty to do and see while visiting. Here are some of the top destinations in Myanmar.
Also called the Kyaiktiyo Zedi, this pagoda sits on a large boulder on the cliffside. Everything is covered in gold, and locals say the boulder has maintained its position because it’s being held by Buddha.
You’ll have to climb up to the pagoda, and you should show respect, as this area is also a pilgrimage site for Myanmar Buddhists.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is also called the Greater Dragon Pagoda and is an impressive sight amongst the old capital’s skyline. Myanmar’s most sacred site, the stunning gold pagoda is located in the old capital of Yangon.
Housing shrines, temples, and stupas, visitors should be aware that there is a temple dress code that requires guests to wear long pants and shirts with elbow-length sleeves. You’ll also be asked to remove your shoes for entry into the pagoda.
If you’re willing to climb 777 steps, the reward is a stunning view and close-up look at the Taung Kalat Monastery. From the top, you can see Bagan and Mount Popa. Macaque monkeys also call the area home, and you will pass plenty of them on your climb to the top.
Inle Lake is a stunning location, where you can witness a traditional way of life by observing the Mon people and lake fishermen as well as view the stilt houses. There are workshops that can show you an in-depth look into the daily life of a local, and you can see the market.
Another popular feature is the floating gardens, which locals grow to sustain themselves.
For a truly off-the-beaten-path location, Mrauk U will take you deep into Myanmar mythology. This ancient city was once an Arakan capital and had great importance to the area. Now, it takes a long time to reach, requiring visitors to take several boat rides up the Kaladan River.
Upon arrival, you’ll see an ancient fortress and carved temples. With a medieval feel, you can step back in time and visit this stunning ancient site.
“The Golden Land”
While Myanmar may not be as popular as other neighboring countries, it’s still a stunning location to visit. You can witness the beauty of culture and religion as the past is put proudly on display and merged with the country’s modern society.
With amazing pagodas and gorgeous landscapes, you can visit Myanmar before it explodes onto the scene as a mega tourist hotspot.