- Population: 50.7 million (UN, 2005)
- Capital: Rangoon (Yangon) (authorities say the seat of government is moving to Pyinmana, north of Rangoon)
- Area: 676,552 sq km (261,218 sq miles)
- Major languages: Burmese, indigenous ethnic languages
- Major religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam
- Life expectancy: 57 years (men), 63 years (women) (UN)
- Monetary unit: 1 kyat = 100 pyas
Union of Myanmar is a place that revokes the exotic and is unsullied by the taint of Western influence for the most parts, making it a wonderful place to visit. Like a flower in bloom, it is a country gradually opening up to the world to share its natural prowess and immensely culture, for it is the melting pot of the West and East, and more to the East, snuggled between the Indian and Southeast Asian worlds. The name Burma that strikes a certain mystique lingers on and is recognized more than its current official name and is particularly famous with news and the media. The nation is currently the subject of an international tourism boycott that rallies against government-controlled tourism that benefits the powerful minority of military elite. But why not come here and witness the splendour of a land that is generally unexplored? Think about one of the most preserved cultures than other countries in the region, rare tourist traffic, wild animals, culinary exotica, and low-cost entertainment options. It is time to see what life is like behind the headlines.
The mystical nation of Myanmar (22 00 N, 98 00 E) as the largest country of Indochina peninsula, has a total area of 676,578 km2 of bliss. The lower terrain is densely forest-clad up to 50% of the country with crawling lowlands in the centre and jagged highlands to the north. Hkakabo Razi (5,881 metres) is the highest elevation in the country, above the Andaman Sea. Being a country abundant in natural resources, Myanmar is plagued by rampant deforestation mostly for mining of precious gems and rare stones as well as urbanization needs. As a developing country, on the other hand, Burma suffers air, soil, and water pollution. CLIMATE Burma’s tropical monsoon climate, like the most of SEA, is generally wet, hot, and humid from June through September due to the southwest monsoon, and milder temperatures with low humidity, as results from the northeast monsoon from December through April. The highlands in the northern regions have the coolest temperatures anywhere averaging 21°C and support flora and fauna that require cooler temperatures like the oak and pine, while the southern coastal regions have warmer average temperatures of 32°C. The ultimate time to visit Burma, all weather factors taken into consideration, is within the months November to February which sets the ideal conditions for travel to any part of the nation. PEOPLE The Burmese population numbers at 48,137,741 as of 2009 and is almost an exclusively Buddhist country, but not quite alike most Buddhist countries, Burma is short of peace, democracy and dialogue. Christianity has just started to flourish in faith and practice of among 4% of the Burmese population, and Islam comprise just about the same count of 4%. In correlation with the aforementioned dissuasion on travel, the junta means everything is under control, watchful eyes monitoring and screening every movement, every word. But behind this scenario lies a population of predominantly Burmans or Bamar and 100 or so other ethnic groups craving for new and unfamiliar faces and the stories of the outside world they know next to nothing of. Besides the native groups of Shans, Karens, and Rakhines are enclaves of Chinese and Indians. As such, the Burmans and the Burmese in general speak BURMESE, the national language, while the ethnic groups speak their own languages or dialects like Chinese. ENGLISH is a budding language amidst the one-time colonial rule of the British in Myanmar.
The Kayan people are home to, if you dare ask, the padaungs or the “giraffe-neck women” with the brass coils that surround and elongate the neck at the early age of 5. Long necks are an eccentric aesthetic standard for the Kayas, though not exclusive as long necks are also in western cultures a picture of “grace” and “beauty”, sans the brass rings. The Burmese culture is mainly influenced by Buddhism since the ancient times, which they have adapted and re-packed with Burmese flavour to suit their own specifications.
Myanmar is very exotic, very affordable. However, the situations are quite sad and hopeless with a huge impoverished demographic, being a rich country and all, and still one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia. The usurping government takes more that its people are left with almost nothing. Then, the international boycott that causes major dent to its tourism, and possibly the only other opportunity left for the locals to have a steady economy.
Yangon is the largest city and a former capital of Burma. Although the military government has officially relocated the capital to Naypyidaw since March 2006, Yangon, with a population of four million, continues to be the country’s most important commercial centre. The city is utterly underdeveloped, a distant cry from the major cities of Southeast Asian countries, which gives it its old city charm. Here the curious traveller will find the not-so-hidden treasure, the Golden Pagoda or Shwedagon which stands at around 326 feet. Truly the most sacred of stupas with relics of four Buddhas enshrined: staff of Kakusandha, piece of robe from Kassapa, water filter of Konagamana, and eight hairs of Buddha. Now, isn’t that amazing? Bagan, an ancient city and capital, owns a spread of up to 5,000 pagodas or stupas. Some beach fun can also be enjoyed here with a magnificent sprawling coast line like Ngapali. How about a cultural experience with the Mandalay marionette show, one of the greatest cultural expressions of the Burmese culture? And if you are in for a truly off-the-beaten-path adventure, you have come to the right place for nowhere else in the world can you enjoy nature, tropical climate, and sunsets to die for at the cheapest possible rates, at the least touristed places.
Anyway, independent travel is the ideal travel here as profit made from package-tourists is believed to sustain the oppressive government. A foodie of course will not find himself in a better culinary hot-spot than Myanmar, for what most people know little of is that the country is not just a melting pot, but the vehicle and link for food trade between SEA and South Central Asia. Hence, the traveller will find diversity in mammoth proportions but sure enough, Burmese cuisine has traits that are akin like its use of curry. Burmese curry is maybe the spiciest of all varieties served with loads of onions, but without the omnipresent coconut milk. Rice is the staple starch, while mohinga, which is rice vermicelli with fish gravy, chilli and coriander, is the national dish. The diet make-up of the Burmese are influenced by their religious traditions. Beef is prohibited in Buddhism, while pork, Islam. Vegetarian dishes are very common, correspondingly. Condiments are ubiquitous and assorted from savoury, sweet, to spicy.
Dessert can vary from a simple serving of fresh fruits like strawberries, mangoes, and lychees to something delightful like Mango Cake or acquired like seaweed jelly. Burmese cuisine shows no fear, as how the people of Burma should have been living, for according to Aung San Suu Kyi, “fear is not the natural state of civilized people.” So, if the traveller wishes to be swept away, travel right. Independent travel and staying and delighting in family run guesthouses and business will most likely ensure that profit goes to the locals. Buy some sophisticated first class ethnic tapestries and textiles or precious stones like rubies, sapphires, and jade, but be smart at the same time. Be here for rural progress, be here for the people’s good.