Myanmar, a southeast Asian country known under many names, was the land of human origin. It is also recognized by the world as the Golden Land. You have to find out why. Myanmar, officially Union Of Myanmar, formerly called Burma, Burmah, Bermah, Birmanie, Birma, Birmania, Burmese, and so on, is a country lying along the eastern coasts of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in southeast Asia.
Myanmar is Asia at its best. More than any other Asian country, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has preserved its cultures and traditions. Myanmar is a deeply religious Buddhist country and is well known by travelers for its abundance of sights and sounds, in-teresting cultures, diversity of nature and most of all for its charming and friendly people. A kind of magic shrouds the whole land with its tropical plains, the Himalayan Highlands, teak-filled jungle and the Ayeyarwady River.
With an area of 671.000 square kilometers, Myanmar is almost twice as big as Germany or the state of Arizona. It is sandwiched between India and Bangladesh on one side and China, Laos and Thailand on the other. To the south is the Andaman Sea with beautiful unspoiled beaches. The Himalayas rise in the north, where the Hkakabo Razi, right on the border between Myanmar and Tibet, is the highest mountain in South-East Asia at 19,290 ft./5881m.
Myanmar has three quite distinct seasons, although the effects of the monsoon vary in different parts of the country. The best time to visit Myanmar is the ‘cool winter’ season from November to February. At this time of year the weather is very pleasant - not too hot in the day and not too cool at night. In the hills it can get quite chilly in the evenings. During March, April and May the temperatures rise and will often topping 100°F/40°C and it can be unpleasantly hot. The rainy season starts in May with almost daily monsoon rainfalls, mainly in the afternoons and evenings, until the rain tapers off in October.
An estimated 30 percent of the land is arable but only half of this is under cultivation. Nevertheless, agriculture is the most important sector of the economy in Myanmar - two-thirds of the employed population works in agriculture. Agricultural products are rice, maize, wheat, pulses, peanuts, sesame, sugar-cane, jute, tobacco and cotton.
More than half the country is covered with nearly impenetrable forests but illegal fire clearances are reducing and destroying this invaluable natural resource rapidly. Myanmar is one of the most important exporters of teak wood and hardwoods and it is estimated that more than three-quarters of the world's reserves of teak wood are located in the forests of Myanmar. Smuggling of teak, and hardwoods, especially to Thailand's borders is a serious problem.
The tribal communities of the Karen, Mon and different Tibeto-Burmese tribes, the most famous being the Pyu (who came from eastern Tibet) were probably the first inhabitants of the area which is now Myanmar.
In the 8th century the Pyu built a town named Pyay, which was said to be the biggest in the country. The ruins of Pyay are still visible today. After the decline of Pyay the capital shifted to Bagan. From the 11th to 13th centuries about 13,000 temples and pagodas were built. King Anawratha, the first Burmese king, ruled in Bagan from 1044 to 1077 and succeeded in establishing a strong and powerful kingdom. After defeating the Mon, he took Mon prisoners back to his capital and used their architectural abilities for further development of the city. He also adopted Theravada Buddhism from them and began to spread it in his kingdom.
During the reign of King Narasihapati in the 13th century, the Mongols attacked Myanmar. The Mongols finally won the war, and in 1287 Bagan was destroyed. From the 13th to 18th centuries five independent kingdoms existed, sometimes concurrently: In-Wa, Toungoo, Rakhine, Bago and Pyu.
Alaungpaya, who came to be one of the national heroes of Myanmar, established the new Burmese kingdom in 1753. He drove the Mon out of northern Myanmar and made Shwebo his capital. Finally, in 1755, he conquered Pyay and Dagon, changing its name to ‘Yangon’ (‘end of conflict’).
In 1824, the first British-Burmese war started. In 1886, Myanmar finally lost its independence and became a province of British-India. It was centrally governed, and traditional Burmese culture was suppressed in many ways.
In the 20th century, opposition to the British occupying forces and the Karen, who supported them, grew. In 1936, after many years of opposition, elections were held and in 1937 Myanmar achieved self-government within the British Empire.
After the Second World War, the British left Myanmar, which had been proclaimed independent by the Japanese in 1943. In 1947, a new constitution was ratified and in 1948 the ‘Union of Burma’ was established.
There are seven states and seven divisions in Myanmar.
The dominating color of the national flag is red. The rectangular space at the upper left corner is blue. In it could be seen the figure of a paddy stalk and a pinion encircled by 14 white stars of uniform size. The paddy represents the peasants while the pinion stands for the workers who form the majority of the people in the country, 14 uniform white stars symbolize the equal status and union spirit of the 7 States and 7 Divisions that constitute the Union of Myanmar. The white in the flag signifies purity; the red indicates bravery and upright nature of the people; and the blue stands as a symbol of peace and stability in the country.
Since late 1988, Myanmar has replaced the centrally planned economy to a more liberalized economic policy based on market-oriented system. In moving towards a more market oriented economy, Myanmar has more liberalized domestic and international trade, promoting the role of private sector and opening up to foreign investment.
Foreign Investment Law, new Central Bank of Myanmar Law, Financial Institutions of Myanmar Law, and Myanmar Tourism Law have been enacted and Chambers of Commerce has been reactivated.
Myanmar is richly endowed with renewable and non-renewable energy resources which are being exploited by the State sector with the participation of local and foreign investors. Agriculture remains the main sector of the economy and measures have been taken to increase productivity, diversification of crop patterns and revitalization of agriculture exports.
The religious life of Myanmar is dominated by the omnipresent Theravada Buddhism. The history of Buddhism in Myanmar began in 638 AD, when the Mahayana creed started spreading there. During the 11th century, the people of Bagan turned to the Theravada Buddhist School. Today, about 88 percent of the population call themselves Theravadas, the remaining 12 percent of the Burmese are Christians (7 percent), Muslims (3 percent) and Hindus (0.5 percent). Over 100,000 Buddhist monks live in monasteries throughout the country.
Myanmar is an ethnically diverse society. There are many ethnicitiese that can be roughly divided into four groups: Tibeto-Burmese, Mon-Khmer, Karen and Thai-Chinese. The first group includes the main Burmese people and more than 30 smaller tribes. The other three groups are less diverse, but certainly not homogeneous. For a long time the ethnic variety of Myanmar has been the cause of many conflicts, which has also hindered economic development.
Approximately 2-3 million Karen live in Myanmar today, forming the third biggest ethnic group in the country. The Karen are mainly farmers and most of them live in the south-west, near the border with Thailand, and in the east of Myanmar, near the Indian border.
The women of the Padaung tribe, which is a subgroup of the Karen, are known for wearing heavy rings of brass around their necks and are called ‘giraffe women’ since the heavy rings push down the shoulders and elongate the neck.
The Shan consist of various tribes and their history in Myanmar dates back to the 3rd century BC. They are found today in the border regions of the north, north-west, east, and on the borders with Laos and Thailand. Most of them are Buddhists, although animism still plays a significant role in everyday life.
The Mon, today found mainly in the regions around Mawlamyine and Bago, had a big impact on arts and culture. They are Buddhists and have their own language. Today, approximately 1.3 million Mon live in Myanmar.
The Kachin live in the remotest northern state. They include about 62 different tribes, some Christians and some animists. They have a unique way of constructing their wooden houses.
Arts and Architecture
Burmese arts and craftsmanship find their full flowering in the religious architecture. At times it seems that every river bend or hilltop boasts a temple spire, due to the Burmese penchant for balancing their structures on cliffs or towering rocks.
Literally meaning "holy one," paya is the general term referring to religious structures. Payas can be divided into two categories: the solid, bell-shaped zedi, and the square or rectangular pahto. A zedi, or stupa, typically houses holy relics such as a hair or footprint of a Buddha. Early zedis were built in the form of a hemisphere, later evolving into more graceful styles. Style is not a reliable indicator of age, however; due to earthquakes, many of the buildings were rebuilt time and time again, changing style each time. Decorative metal umbrellas, called hti, adorn the tips of most zedis, and their chiming contributes to the tranquil ambience.
Pahtos function as shrines rather than temples, as often there are no monks present. The Mon-style pahto is shaped as a large cube, with small windows and passageways, sometimes leading to outdoor passageways. Both variations usually contain finely ornamented religious reliefs or frescoes for the visitor to contemplate.
Because monasteries and secular buildings were traditionally built of wood, unlike the more permanent religious structures, we have very few surviving examples of these elaborately carved structures.
The usual Asian rules of conduct apply in Myanmar, plus a few specific Burmese ones. It is unseemly to show too much emotion; losing your temper over problems and delays gets you nowhere. It is better to stay calm at all times just as the Burmese do.
Courtesy and respect for tradition and religion are expected. You should always take your shoes off when entering a pagoda or temple and when you visit private houses, and you should wear appropriate clothing. For men and women it is advisable to cover your shoulders and wear knee-long skirts or trousers. Wearing bathing suits or trunks should be limited to the beach or hotel pool. The head is regarded as a particularly holy part of the body. You should never touch anybody's head intentionally, and offer an excuse if you do so by chance.
Accordingly, the feet are literally the lowest part of the body - do not point your feet at anybody.
Tipping commonly amounts to five or ten percent on hotel and restaurant bills. It is not customary to tip taxi drivers.
Dance and Theatre
Classical dance-drama is currently enjoying a revival in Myanmar and is occasionally performed at the National Theatre in Yangon. The most Burmese of the dances feature solo performances by female dancers who wear dresses with long white trains that they kick into the air with their heels during the foot movements. Yokthei pwe or Burmese marionette theatre presents colorful puppets up to a meter high in a spectacle that many aesthetes consider the most expressive of all the Burmese arts. The Burmese have great respect for an expert puppeteer. A dozen or more strings may manipulate some marionettes; certain nets may sport up to 60 strings, including one for each eyebrow. The marionette master’s standard repertoire requires a troupe of 28 puppets. These figures bring together the talents of singers, puppeteers, musicians, woodcarvers, embroiderers and set designers.