We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Myanmar, a country still so untouched by commercialism and tourism, and meet truly some of the nicest people in the world. After a day of sightseeing in Mandalay, we set off on a three-day cycling excursion to Bagan. Accompanied only by our happily eager guide, and incredibly warm and supportive driver, both Burmese natives, we traversed the backroads and villages that weave the fabric of Burmese culture. More than what we did, here are a few things worth knowing, noticing and experiencing while you’re here:
Must know & notice
- There are roughly 60 million people in Myanmar today
- 65% of the population works in agriculture. Crops are plentiful ranging from peanuts and sesame in the dry season, to tobacco, sunflowers, tamarin, watermelon, green pumpkins (which are often dried and candied to be sold as a sweet treat). Rice is also a primary crop in the wet / rainy season. If traveling through a local village, you’ll likely see mounds of watermelon, cut timber and hay amongst other various piles of produce, filling the stands lining the streets.
- Farming is still done in a highly manual fashion, meaning cows, wooden wheel barrels and people are still the primary form of labor mediums. Machinery is often too expensive for the average farmer, so they and their workers will instead rise around 4am and work 10-12 hour days, individually filling up buckets from local wells for water to irrigate their fields, using cow-pulled carts to transport goods from the fields to the markets.
- Given palm trees are plentiful, palm sugar, rather than sugar cane, is used as the primary sweetener. It’s also used to make rum and tasty palm sugar cookies (similar in texture to maple candy) that are often served at the end of meals.
- Many of the roofs in the rural areas are made from palm leaves. The roofs take roughly 1 day to build and last anywhere from 2 – 3 years before needing to be replaced.
- You’ll notice many trucks with the motors exposed in the front. These are the trucks used to transport workers, usually to the fields. The reason for the exposed motor is to have easier access to fix a problem case one arises.
- Regarding the driving: The country drives on the right hand side of the road (as like the US) but the steering wheel is typically on the right side of the car. The implementation of a steering wheel on the left side of the car is quite costly so only the wealthy own cars with the steering wheel on the left side.
- Driving is also a bit manic, with vehicles inching their way into traffic sans a blinker, when they want to turn. They wait for oncoming traffic to slow before fully pulling out to make the turn.
- You must take off your shoes and socks prior to entering most public places.
- The faces of Buddahs can be made to order, so as you’re passing by masonries who carve them, you’ll often see their faces unfinished.
- There are some temples in which women can’t enter, but in any event, to enter any place of worship (temple, pagoda, stupa etc.) as a woman, you must have your legs and shoulders covered. It’s socially polite to dress conservatively as a rule but in the hot season this can be challenging.
- Women wear a beautiful gold paint on their faces called Thanakha which is made from the Thanakha tree. It’s used for both cosmetic and natural sun block purposes.
- Female monks wear pink (unlike the men who wear more of a deep red) and also shave their heads.
- Actual gold squares are used to cover all Buddahs. It takes roughly 6 hours to pound out one square of gold that is maybe 4×4 inches.
Beyond everything else, these are some of the sweetest people we’ve ever met. Everyone is overly happy to help you with anything you may need and are thrilled when you offer even the slightest attempt at greeting or thanking them in their language.
Insider tip: The water isn’t drinkable but bottled water is readily available throughout. Unlike Thailand, you should also be wary of the ice as well.
Balloons over Bagan at sunrise. The flight in one of Bagan’s legendary hot air balloons is a breathtaking experience, as you glide over thousands of ancient pagodas and watch the city wake up. Your journey is dependent upon the wind patterns, but you’ll likely land on or close to the Irrawaddy River bed, where farmers with ox driven carts will be collecting sand. In any case, you’ll be greeted with champaign, pastries and fresh fruit upon arrival to top off a truly memorable experience.
Myanmar Cycling tour from Mandalay to Bagan. This was an intense but eye opening experience as we cycled over 200km from Mandalay to Bagan over three days, getting a personal look into how the people of Mayanmar live. A few of our notable highlights-
- We stopped for tea at a local shop along the way where we sat on small stools and shared steaming green tea and coconut donuts, while taking in the bustle all around. Kids smartly clinging to their parents on the backs of motorbikes, women running out to share food with passer-by’s, market bargaining and lively music coming from all angles.
- Stopping at a small street side shop to share native snacks of dried sugared green pumpkin, melon, apple, peanuts and sweet potato with salt. Kids started to gather while we were indulging, so we shared with them some sweet sesame candy and peanut brittle we had stored up as well.
- Learning how the Brumese people produce peanut oil. They have built wooden, manually driven machines that use cows to power. They go in circles to grind the peanuts until the oil is squeezed out.
- Being shown how men climb bamboo ladders to the top of palm trees to hang clay pots under the cut palms to let the juice drip out. From there we watched how women produce palm candy and a liquor similar to rum, made from fermented palm juice.
Amazing food is easy to find, but authentic Burmese food takes a bit of work to find. The culture at large considers dining out a treat so the majority of restaurants are Chinese or Thai versus what is cooked in local home kitchens. Here are some tips we can offer:
- True Burmese food at a locally recommended spot. We were with two others in Mandalay and we each ordered one meat dish, and three complementary sides. Enough food in truth to feed many more people than four, we were collectively served over twelve delicious plates. Each with their own flavor. Instead of getting sweet, savory, salty or spicy all together, each of the sides offer one of these tastes and it’s then up to you to choose how you’d like to mix them.
- If in Bagan, go to The Moon. Vegetarian, but absolutely delicious and quite filling. Our recommendations would be the pineapple coconut curry and coconut lassi. Simply scrumptious.
- Htwe Oo Myanmar Traditional Puppet Show. Burmese marionette performances are an elaborate but fading thousand-year-old tradition in Myanmar, properly performed during full moon celebrations in cities’ popular pagoda locations, and accompanied by a full orchestra. Taking up to 8 hours on average, exhibiting skits from all 37 Burmese nats (or saints as we may think of them) and the many lives of Buddah, we rather took in the performance in it’s brevity, lasting only 45 minutes. Afterwards, we were able to personally meet the puppeteers, one of which was an 82-year-old master puppeteer, and try our hand at puppetry. With only a handful of families left with this skill, it may not be around in years to come but if it’s around during your visit, it’s certainly worth the time!
Insider tip: If you won’t be visiting Yangon during your visit to Myanmar, Mandalay also has a show run by the same family, “Mandalay Marionettes.” Performances run daily at 8pm lasting one hour.
Link: www.htweoomyanmar.com- check this link for times and locations as Mr. Htwe is currently in the process of moving locations.
- World’s Largest Book. Found in Mandalay, this is considered to be the largest book in the world. Unlike your traditional paperback or hard cover, this is a series of over 700 inscribed stone tablets each encased within their own elaborate house-like structure, with windows of sorts on each of the four sides for viewing. The “book” spans several blocks and shares its space with a stately golden pagoda which can be found rising from the center of it all. An truly impressive sight!
- Mandalay Hill. Go early and climb barefoot up the steps through the many winding markets and temples along the way. Plan to reach the top for sunset. You’ll be impressed with stunning views of the expansive cityscape from various angles as you ascend to the summit, and be rewarded with a beautiful sunset.
- Popa Mountain Resort in Mt. Popa. This is a secluded escape atop what was formerly an active volcano. On par elevation-wise, with the majestic Mt. Popa temple, you can take in it’s views from the resort’s serene infinity pool, open air dining room, or perhaps even your private bungalow.
- Bagan Umbra Hotel. The room accommodation scales with how much you’re willing to pay, but clean and cool regardless of your preferred tier. The grounds however are notable. You can lay by the infinity pool under the shade of one of their many umbrellas, ordering sweet lassis or fruit juices all afternoon. They often have live music during dinner, which is enjoyable by candlelight. Their food is exceptional as well, with a healthy spread offered complimentary for breakfast. Also available are electric motor scooters for you to zip around on to see the pagodas that sprinkle the city. Insider tip: Do be very careful as the roads’ shoulders are covered in sand and can make for slippery handling on these bikes.
JJ Express. If you decide to do some non-flight cross country traveling, book the JJ Express bus. This is a luxury coach line within Myanmar, offering music, movies, personal blankets, delicious treats, and above all, very plush reclining leather seats. All of this for only $19/person!*
*Prices may vary based on destination
- Cultural notes and etiquette tips
- Fantastically thorough book outlining the history of Myanmar to present day: Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know, by David Steinburg
- Great article on Burmese cuisine
Insider tip: Do make a point to get your Visa arranged weeks in advance of your visit. Much of what is online says you can get your Visa on arrival, but you’ll in fact need to fill out an eVisa form in advance, be approved and have the printed out eVisa approval notice (which you will receive via email) on hand, along with physical passport photos, at your departure location in order to board your flight. Customs will grant you the Visa once you land in Myanmar assuming you have the approved [printed] paperwork on hand.