Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia and shares borders with China, India, Laos, Bangladesh and Thailand. One-third of its total perimeter forms an uninterrupted coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
The country was formerly known as Burma. In 1989, the military government changed the English translations of names from the British colonial period and officially renamed the country the ‘Republic of the Union of Myanmar’ (pronounced MEE’-an-mar). The renaming is a contentious issue and many still call it Burma. This fraction does not recognise the legitimacy of the former ruling military government and believes it did not have the authority to rename the country.
Myanmar replaced military rule with a civilian government in 2011 and Western sanctions (for human rights abuses) against the country have eased. The government is making headway in overhauling its restrictive economic policies and is reintegrating itself into the global economy. The efforts are starting to bear fruit as economic growth accelerated in 2013 and 2014. Myanmar is attracting foreign investment in the energy sector and garment, information technology and food and beverages industry.
In 2012, the government did away with censorship of private publications. Religion and politics have been removed from the pre-publication censorship list, although journalists can still be imprisoned for printing items that portray the government in a poor light. Prime Minister Thein Sein gave a commitment that the government will continue to embrace political reforms. President Barack Obama visited Myanmar in 2012 – the first US president ever to enter the country. He praised the ‘drift from isolation’ as a ‘remarkable journey’.
At one time more than 10 000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in a region known as the Kingdom of Pagan. These temples and pagodas were built in the 12th and 13th centuries under the Pagan Empire as Therevada Buddhism spread across the country. Today, Bagan is a popular tourist destination where you can see more than 2 200 of the remaining temples and pagodas. The majority of the population are Buddhist.
The Myanmar New Year is called Thingyan (or the Water Festival) and takes place in April every year. During the festival all restaurants and stores are closed and the tradition is to pour water onto each other to ‘wash away unlucky things and sins’ from the previous year.
Tourists on holiday in Myanmar must travel with US dollars (and a lot of it). Credit cards are only accepted at more exclusive establishments and there are very few ATMs in the city (and none in the countryside). Fortunately Myanmar is relatively crime-free and tourists are not at risk carrying cash on them. The national currency is the kyat (pronounced ‘chat’). Keep your money as clean as possible because, for some reason, only a tiny crease could mean you money won’t be accepted.
To get the attention of a waiter or waitress, the locals make a kissing sound, often two or three times. It sounds similar to when you call a cat and takes some getting used to in the beginning.
Men and women apply a yellow paste from the bark of the Thanakha tree as a cosmetic. It is an effective sunscreen, tightens the skin and prevents oiliness. Another common is sight is seeing small children with holy thread around their neck or wrist. This is to protect them from bad spirits and spells.
A typical meal includes steamed rice, fish, meat vegetables and soup served at the same time in separate bowls. Locals roll the rice into a small ball and then dab it into a combination of the side dishes. Eating with your left hand is considered rude because this hand is used for personal hygiene. Always remember to do eat with your right hand. Locals also like to chew the betel nut and sometimes a pinch of tobacco. That is why you’ll get a bright red, sometimes dirty smile from locals.
Both men and women favour wearing the traditional Burmese dress called the ‘longyi’. It is a wrap-around skirt; men tie theirs in the front and women fold the cloth over and secure it at the side. The men often go without underwear, particular in the country when temperatures reach the high 40s.
The main sport, if you can call it that, is ‘chinlone’. It is a combination of sport and dance that is done in a group but not against an opposing team. The emphasis is on how beautifully the team ‘plays the game’ while keeping the chinlone in the air for as long as possible, kicking it soccer-style from player to player.
Experience the sights and sounds of Myanmar. Lekker Adventures specialises in providing you with the complete travelling experience to Myanmar. Click here to find out more about travelling to Myanmar with the assistance of Lekker Adventures.