Myanmar is the “Land of Immortality (Amarapura,” “Land of the Gems (Yadanarbon,” and “Golden Land (Suvanabhomi).” With a complex history and rich natural resources, it can be all of these things at once. Built around the cultural heritage and religious focal points of its people, Myanmar reflects an image unlike many other Asian countries. Travelers will be amazed by the developing city of Yangon, the major city and gateway to Burma, as a British architectural relic surrounded by lush greenery.
For many travelers, Myanmar leaves nothing to be wanted—Inle Lake in a serene atmosphere, the hot desert sands of Bagan and its hidden temples. I visited for the first time in 2016. After a month ferrying between Japan, China, and Vietnam, I whipped my scooter around the ancient city of Bagan, and felt the gloom of the sea wash off of me. It has an excitement to be kindled. There are some concerns for ethical tourism, so be sure to check the responsible travel section.
Continue reading for what you should know before you go, or skip straight to the travel guides:
SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL
Responsible travel in any country requires conversation, research, and a strong effort to understand the cultural norms and to adhere to them. Myanmar was a country frauded with governmental corruption and a fierce military presence. The current situation is tense. As a people, the Myanmar are extremely welcoming and apologetic of tourists. They want you to like their country and enjoy visiting, so that their country can receive some of the benefits of you being there. As a first-time traveler to a country, it’s impossibly hard to remember everything, but it will make a world of difference, and goes a long way in feeling welcome in a foreign country.
Understand the History
Myanmar or Burma? A flag of red or with a white star? The new flag, yellow, green, and red stripes beneath a white star, symbolize unity in Myanmar along with their new constitution (2008). Even the names, Myanmar or Burma, are still open for debate. (A monk I met during my 2016 visit asked us to call his country Myanmar, so I do so out of respect for him). Find out which name your hosts prefer, and use it. The people suffered under a military dictatorship and various human rights violations until Myanmar’s first openly contested election in twenty-five years, finally freeing Aung San Suu Kyi (November 2015). If you are a guest in Yangon, pass respectfully by the home where she was kept under house arrest. (Understand, here.)
Know the Temple Etiquette
You won’t just see a lot of crimson and orange robes in Myanmar. You’ll also see a lot of unwritten rules, although you might not realize it. Cultivate an attitude of respect for the main religion, Buddhism, by first having a working knowledge of Buddhism and second, memorizing these most basic (and important!) rules. Women should not touch male monks, even in a friendly manner. In the tradition of Buddhist faith, you walk around Buddhist pagodas clockwise. REMOVE YOUR SHOES before entering a temple. When entering a temple, be careful not to step on the threshold. Stand when a monk or a nun enters the room, and give a slight bow when you greet them. Dressing modestly means covering yourself (yes, even the tropics). I think of dressing appropriately in another culture like wearing a costume; it’s necessary for your performance in another country. Understand: Young monks and nuns are orphans being cared for by the temple elders themselves. They feed them out of their own alms bowls. A small donation at a temple is not only appropriate, but can be a sign of thanks.
Be an Informed Consumer
The deposits found in Myanmar’s northern region have the highest quality jade in the world, but in the “Land of the Gems,” gems can hold a dark curse. Why? The gem trade in Myanmar consisting of the mining, distribution, and manufacture is brutal. Most of the gems mined in Myanmar are not cut for use in Myanmar, instead they are transported to other countries for use. The laborers living around and working at these mines do so in poverty. In fact, the U.S. banned trade in Myanmar jade and rubies in 2013 for the country’s human rights violations. (Read this article by The New York Times calling rubies blood red beauties.)
Kayan Lahwi women in the mountainous regions of Myanmar and Thailand protected themselves against tiger and snake bites with neck rings or brass neck coils. Once worn for beauty and cultural identity, Kayan Lahwi women now wear the neck rings for the tourists who choose to wear them. Especially around the temples in Bagan, they will ask you to pay them to take their photograph. Do not stare. As a traveler and not a tourist, you are an ambassador of your country. How you act, what you like, and how you vocalize that can be very influential (for good or bad). *As always, ask before you take a photo of someone or their property.
Support Local Artisans
The markets in Myanmar are a source of income for a large part of the population. In Yangon, everything from local produce to handicrafts and clothes to gems are sold. Buying from local artists in Myanmar supports cultural heritage, and ensures the preservation of things like lotus weaving, sand painting, and lacquerware that are Myanmar art icons. Myanmar has many beautiful arts, and artists throughout the country are continuing traditional arts forms hundreds of years old.
explore city & regional guides for myanmar
Myanmar is a relatively small country and the train system allows you to travel it quickly. Myanmar has a lot to offer, however, and each region has a different reason for you to visit. You can see all of the top destinations in just a one-week or two-week trip, but to really understand someone, you want to spend as much time with them as possible, and by knowing them intimately, you'll love them deeply. Below are notes from my trip, as well as journal entries from my travels that will help you connect with a place.
Traveling writer learning what it means to love the world and to love people. "If I don't come back, tell my lover I'm fine."
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