Burma, also known as Myanmar, has the largest land mass of any country in mainland Southeast Asia and in size is comparable to the state of Texas. It is situated between and shares long borders with two of the world's great superpowers, India and China, as well as having an extensive border with Thailand. For a relatively short distance, Burma also shares a border with Bangladesh. In form, the country resembles a diamond shaped kite with a long tail. From the peak of the kite in the north to the southern end of its tail, the country extends 1,275 miles. At its broadest extent from east to west, it measures approximately 580 miles.
The dense jungles, long distances, and extended mountain ranges between Burma and its powerful neighbors, India and China, have provided a natural barrier to foreign military invasion. (The Mongol incursions around the year 1287, credited with ending the Pagan Empire, are now thought to have penetrated only into northern Burma and did not succeed in capturing or occupying the capital city of Pagan. The incursion did serve from afar to topple an already weakened government.) Therefore, the Indianizaton of Burma and, particularly the adoption of art forms connected with Buddhism and Hinduism, was a peaceful and internally motivated process. Burma and Thailand have often been at war, having regularly plundered each other’s capitals, and for relatively short periods they colonized portions of the other’s territory. Otherwise, with the exception of the British Colonial period that ended with the close of World War II, Burma was not long dominated by foreign powers and has had a generally continuous development over time.
Burma is a naturally formed geographical unit consisting of a vast central plain surrounded by three mountainous areas to the north and by the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea to the South. There are four major land divisions: the large central plains area is encircled by mountains and plateaus; along the west and northwest by the Arakan Yoma (mountains) and Chin Hills; along the northern border by the Kumon mountains; and along the northeast and eastern borders by the Shan Plateau and attendant mountains.
Two major rivers, the Irrawaddy and the Salween, flow southward across the central plains. The Irrawaddy is Burma’s longest and most important river and a succession of Burma’s capitals were built within a short distance of its banks. To the east of the Irrawaddy, the much shorter Salween River drains the Shan Plateau and empties into the Gulf of Martaban between the ancient cities of Pegu and Thaton.
Because the Irrawaddy river is navigable for most of its length, it has served throughout history as the country’s major transportation route for communication, trade, and warfare. Additionally, it has assisted in keeping alive the memory of earlier civilizations so that successive Burmese polities up and down the river have often asserted their legitimacy by demonstrating connections to earlier kingdoms. Interestingly, the depth of these connections is far greater in Burma than for other countries of mainland Southeast Asia. The Irrawaddy, including its considerable tributary, the Chindwin, drains approximately three-fifths of the country's surface terminating in a broad delta below the modern capital, Rangoon (Yangon). Fertile silt from the Irrawaddy has continually expanded this delta area that gained in economic importance over the last two centuries as it was cleared for the production of irrigated rice. Rangoon’s riverine location near the Bay of Bengal provided the British with a seaport through which to govern their colony. Until today, Rangoon has remained the capital and center for political and economic activity, whereas Mandalay, built in the nineteenth century and the last royal capital, has continued to be a major center for fine arts and education.
Climatically, Burma is unlike other Southeast Asian countries in that a considerable dry zone exists in the center of the country where rainfall can be less than 30 inches a year. This arid area, the dry zone, results from its location in the "rain shadow" of the Arakan Mountains that are situated between the dry zone and the Bay of Bengal. The dry climate is the result of the monsoon clouds first striking the eastern ranges of the Arakan Mountains and then being shunted higher into the atmosphere inhibiting rainfall until the rain clouds strike the Shan Plateau.
Paradoxically, irrigated rice was first cultivated in the central dry zone and until the present day it has continued as a major center for rice production. Despite the lack of rainfall, extensive irrigation has been possible because water was diverted into canals and weirs from tributary streams before they enter the Irrawaddy. Water from the Irrawaddy River itself is not readily available for irrigation because the water level remains far below the surrounding countryside for much of its course. The wealth produced by intensive rice cultivation in the dry zone supported the ambitious building programs and patronage of the arts that is evident in the remains of the capital cites that were situated along its banks.
The Burmese refer to the dry zone as Upper Burma, even though it is geographically in the middle of the country. It was here that the Burmese ethnic group first settled and it was here that most of the Burmese capitals were subsequently built, including Pagan, Sagaign, Ava, Amarapura and Mandalay. Rangoon and the delta are referred to as Lower Burma, an area that gained in political and economic importance during the nineteenth century as a response to Britain’s need for a seaport-capital from which to govern its colony.
Since Burma stretches into the northernmost reaches of Southeast Asia, much of central and northern Burma has a temperate climate although the southern third of the country is quite tropical with heavy rains and high temperatures.
A mere fifteen percent of the soil in Burma is arable. The disparity in soil fertility between the fertile central plains and the relatively infertile mountainous areas has defined not only an economic but also a marked cultural, religious, and language difference between the lowland peoples and hill tribe groups. The lowlanders typically are rice farmers, speak Burmese (or in the past, Pyu or Mon) and are adherents of Theravada Buddhism. Eighty five percent of today’s lowland population practices Buddhism. The hill tribes typically engage in swidden or slash-and-burn agriculture, speak a non-Burmese language, and practice one of the many forms of Animism. Western missionaries have been successful in converting only members of the hill tribe groups, so that today, for example, there are hilltribe Karen who are Christian as well as animist.
Burma is one of the least densely populated countries in Asia having a population of 40 million that is concentrated in the arable plains bordering the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers.
Burma is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in Southeast Asia having more that 100 indigenous languages spoken within its borders, although Burmese is the common and official language. Three ethnic groups, the Mon, the Pyu, and the Burmese have made the greatest contribution to the development of the arts and culture of Burma and they all settled in the central plains along the middle and lower reaches of the Irrawaddy or Salween.<
The Mons are the earliest identifiable group to inhabit Burma and lived along the eastern coastal regions centered about the ancient city of Thaton. Although little is known about their origins or when they first settled in Burma, their language belongs to the Mon-Khmer family; similar Mon speaking groups settled in Thailand and Cambodia. Since the Mons occupied areas adjacent to the coast, it is not surprising that they were the first group in Burma to be influenced by Indian ideas. The Mons were the first to adopt the Indian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Mon myths tell of two Mon brothers who visited India and received hair relics from the Buddha. The two brothers returned to Burma bearing their precious gifts that were encased in what has become the most revered Buddhist monument in Burma today, the Shwedagon, located at the center of the present capital, Rangoon.
The Pyu Peoples settled areas located inland to the north of the Mons although some few communities may have been interspersed among the Mon. The Pyu lived in walled cities, the largest and most important being Srikshetra, located not far from the Irrawaddy, near Prome. Pyu, the language of these people, belongs to the Tibeto - Burman family of languages, as is Burmese. Therefore it is believed that when the Burmese moved south and conquered the Pyu, they were easily absorbed into the Burmese population. In any event, the Pyu are rarely heard of after the quadralingual Myazedi inscription of 1113 AD and today there are no Pyu speakers.
At some time after the fifth century, the Burmese people moved South down the Irrawaddy settling along the Irrawaddy but importantly around the bend of the Irrawaddy where it makes a major eastward turn. This area, known as Kyaukse, became the Burmese heartland and is where irrigated rice was first extensively cultivated. By the 8th century, the Burmese established what was to become their most important city, Pagan, which was located at the second major bend in the Irrawaddy where it turns and flows southward to the Bay of Bengal. Today, about 70% of the population occupying the central plain are ethnic Burmese.
Burma: Geographical Facts and Figures
Location : : Southeastern Asia, bordering the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal between Bangladesh and Thailand
Geographic coordinates : : 22 00 N, 98 00 E
Area : : Total 678,500 sq. km , Land 657 , 740 sq. km Water 20,760 sq. km
Elevation extremes : Lowest point : : Andaman Sea 0 m
Highest point : : Hkakabo Razi 5,881 m
Natural Resources : : petroleum, timber, tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, marble, limestone, precious stones, natural gas, hydropower
Land Use : : arable land 15%
Total Population : : 41,734,853
Ethnic Composition : : Burmese 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine (Arakanese) 4%, Chinese 3%, Mon 2%, Indian 2%, other 5%
Religious Affiliation : : Buddhist 89%, Christian 4%, (Baptist 3%, Roman Catholic 1%), Muslim 4%, animist 1%, other 2%
As in other Southeast Asian countries, clothing in Myanmar is usually modest. In some ethnic minority villages it’s still the norm to wear traditional dress, and even in cities many men and women wear a traditional skirt-like garment called a longyi. These days, though, it is also common for locals to wear Western-style clothes and you’ll very occasionally see men in shorts. People will be too polite to say anything, but they may be offended by the sight of tourists wearing revealing clothes.
This would include shorts cut above the knee, and – particularly for women – tops that are tight or show the shoulders. It’s especially important to dress conservatively when visiting temples, and some travellers carry a longyi for such situations. Most women and girls, as well as some men and boys, use thănăk’à (a paste made from ground bark) on their faces; traditionally thought to improve the skin and act as a sunblock, it is often applied as a circle or stripe on each cheek.
Avoid touching another person’s head, as it is considered the most sacred part of the body; feet are unclean and so when sitting don’t point your feet at anyone or towards images of the Buddha. Remove your shoes before entering a Buddhist site or a home. Always use your right hand when shaking hands or passing something to someone, as the left hand is traditionally used for toilet ablutions; however, locals do use their left hand to “support” their right arm when shaking hands.
Most people in the country are Buddhist although there are significant Muslim and Christian minorities. Men are expected to experience life in a monastery twice in their lives, once when a child and once as an adult, although this is only for a short time unless they become a novice. Most Buddhists also believe in nats, spirits rooted in older animist traditions, which are now considered to be the Buddha’s disciples. These supernatural beings take an interest in the actions of humans, and may need to be propitiated.
Considering the social conservatism of Myanmar’s society it is interesting to note that while in the past most nat kădaws (spirit mediums) were women, today most are gay men and many are either transgendered or transvestites. A nat-pwèh (spirit festival) held, for example, at the start of a new business enterprise is an occasion on which people have license to sing, cheer and show emotions which would otherwise be repressed in public. Homosexuality is, however, technically illegal in Myanmar – for tourists as well as locals – and punishable by fines or imprisonment, but this is rarely enforced in practice. There is a discreet gay scene in Yangon, but little elsewhere.
Burmese people are hospitable and warm-hearted. 89% of population is Buddhists. More than 65 % of population are living in the rural area and living from agriculture. They have simple and ordinary lifestyle. Farming technique has not been changed yet in Myanmar. They still use oxen and buffalo for their farming.Every village has one or two monasteries, pagoda as they are Buddhists, wells for taking bath (some families have tube well nowadays), lakes to collect the rain water for drinking and cooking.
In the villages, people wake up early morning and each family member takes their daily duty of farm works. In their spare time, the people visit to their relatives and friends. Some families host to their friends with green tea, fermented tea salad and palm sugar and chat together every night, what we call “Burmese green tea talk’. It is very importance to the elder people in the villages. As people from the tropical weather, they are talkative. The open video show in the late evening is entertainment for the villagers and there is no other entertainment. But life in the villages is very simple and out of stress.
Most Myanmar families are big and have about 8 members generally. But in the big cities, the family becomes smaller. Parents, grand parents and children live together in the same house. Generally, the adults don’t leave the family until they get married and the last married person keeps live with the parents. When both parents die, he or she shares the inheritances to the families of his/her brothers and sisters. The tradition is the good children are supposed to support back to their old parents in order to show their gratitude. And the young Burmese believe that they gain good deed by supporting their parents who are ranked just after the triple Gems; Buddha, Dhama and Sanga (the monk).
Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is a country that is nestled between China and India, and one of the largest countries on the Southeast Asia peninsula. Nearly 50% of the landscape is covered in thick and natural forest which helps to create a perfect ecotourism experience for the travellers on the Myanmar travel packages. Plus, this country has long stretches of coastline and a warm climate. Also, Myanmar has put in a lot of effort to promote itself as a unique travel destination, which makes it possible for the traveller to discover first-hand the local culture and customs.
Courtesy and respect for the country’s religion and traditions is expected in Myanmar. Modest dress is expected in public places which is most important when visiting sacred sites. So for the tourists on the Myanmar tours visiting the religious buildings it is essential to remove footwear and cover the knees and shoulders. The upper part of the body, the head is seen as sacred and will be seen as offensive to pat anyone (even children) on this area. A common aspect of social standing relates to age with the elders regarded as very important people.
Also, it isn’t always appropriate to take photos without first getting permission and certain places like harbours, ports and airports can have extra restrictions in place.
The official language is Myanmar (Burmese) although there are over one hundred dialects spoken throughout the country (spoken by the different national races). The use of English is quite common in business settings and spoken by many of the elderly people in the larger towns.
The alphabet is made up of various symbols to help with indicating the tone and 33 letters (consonants) which consists of 12 central vowels (although this increases to 21 vowels with sequential extensions).
The majority of the people in Myanmar follow Theravada Buddhism, which is in the region of 90% of the population, which is then followed by Christianity at 4.5%, Islam at 3.5%, Hinduism at 0.5%, Spiritualism at 1%, and an estimated 0.5% for the other minority religions that are followed in the country.
Myanmar comprises of 135 distinct ethnic groups that include eight official national races: Shan, Kayin (Karen), Rakhaing, Chin, Kachin, Bamar, Kayah and Mon. Nearly 70% of the local population descend from the Myanmar (also referred to as Bama, Burmese, or Mranma) and arrived from Tibet or central Asia in the 10th century. With exception of the Indians and Chinese, the vast majority of the minority ethnic groups have taken up residence in the hills. Most of the people that do live in the hills use a language that is entirely unique. Also, the religious practices of the hill people are mainly worshipping the local spirits – although some are Christians or Buddhists.
The family life in Myanmar is quite large. A single home can easily see three to four generations living together, which can consist of a simple thatched hut in a rural district or a two or three room house in the more built up areas. Nearly 25% of the country’s population earns its living from agriculture with most of local life taking place in the countryside or around local villages.
A great occasion is the birth of a child. Even though a baby boy is more favoured, a baby girl is still favoured nearly as much. Children in later life are expected to help take care of their parents. Also, it is essential to attend the funeral of a family member – missing a funeral is regarded as an incredibly shameful act.
The local people seen on the Myanmar tours are appreciated for their friendly and welcoming behaviour and will without hesitation help others. Plus, they affectionately refer to each other as brother or sister.
Most of the country's population is devoted to Theravada Buddhism and have no qualms about supporting the local monks, monasteries, temples and stupas.
Eight national races
Bamar The Bamar (also referred to as the Burman or Burmese) are the largest national race and amount to 68% of the population. They first started to dominate the country from the 11th century, and hold a very strong devotion to Buddhism. Plus, they continue to maintain the faith in animist beliefs in spirits (nat). The Bamar lifestyle has had the greatest influence on not only Myanmar’s art and customs, but also the dialect which is used in the majority of schools throughout the country. This also means that most of the non-Bamar speaking Burmese have the ability to use the Bamar tongue as a second language.
The Chin people are located in a mountainous region that is close to the borders with Bangladesh and India. Most of Chin state has restrictions in place for travel, but can be reached subject to receiving government permission. The local people refer to themselves as Lai-mi or Zo-mi which means “mountain people”. The chin has a language, culture and eats food similar to the Zo who are their neighbours in Mizoram state, India.
The traditional practices in the region include hunting and gathering for food and a shifting type of cultivation (a method of using fire for clearing the land which is left for several years to regenerate).
Many of the animistic ceremonies include animal sacrifices with the Chin state having the greatest share of animists in the country. But there are an estimated 80-90% of the Chin people that believe in Christian which resulted from the American missionaries in the country for the duration of the British colonial era.
The local Chin culture can have some odd traditions such as playing the flute by the nose and bizarre traditional dances.
The Kachin people mainly inhabit the Kachin state and part of the Tibeto-Burman racial set. These people are split into several ethnic sub-groups, including Lisu, Rawang, Zaiwa, Lashi, Lawngwaw, and the majority group, the Jingpaw. The traditional following is animists, but this region was targeted by Christian missionaries in the colonial times, which have led to nearly 36% of the local people following the Christian faith, majorly Catholic and Baptist.
The Kayah (also referred to as Karenni or Red Karen) are located in an isolated and mountainous region of Kayah state, which is not accessible to tourists and not possible to visit on the Myanmar customized tour. The traditional following is animism – though the local people were targeted to convert to Christianity by the missionaries that once toured the country. The Kayah are one of the smallest races and only amount to about 1% of Myanmar’s population.
The Mon was once rulers of early Thailand and the first ethical races to make Myanmar their home. Over time the influence of these people has declined and are now most unknown outside the borders of this country. The Mon amounts to about 2% of the Myanmar population – although their culture and art have had a more influential impact on the country.
The Rakhaing (also called Rakhine) people are mostly devotees of Buddhism, and seen as one of the first to start following Buddha in Southeast Asia. The traditional dialect is quite similar to Bamar, but with their close proximity to the Indian subcontinent they have copied quite a bit of the customs and culture. Many see the Rakhain as a combination of Indian and Bamar.
The culture is able to exhibit a lot of Indian influence which is mostly noticed in regards to the music and food. The people are skilled at making garments such as the longyi with intricate and eye-catching patterns.
The Kayin is a tribe of people with diversity in dialects with nearly a dozen intelligible languages used in the local region. The most popular religion for the Kayin people is Buddhism, while the next most popular is Christian at approx 20% and a small amount that follow Islam. One particular sub-group of this national race is the Padaung tribe, which are known for the women that wear brass neck rings that leads to the long necks. Most of the people live in Tachileik and Loikaw. A visit to Hpa-an on the Myanmar holidays is one of the few place to see the Kayin race.
The Shan is the second largest ethic tribe in the country with the majority of the people following Buddhism. These people refer to themselves as Tai and follow similar dialect and culture to those in neighbouring countries like China’s Yunnan province, Laos and Thailand.
Myanmar has an estimated 135 ethnic groups in the country (latest official count) with the majority comprising of the Bamar or Burmese people with nearly 68% of the population. Other popular groups include the Rakhine, Mon, Kaya, Kachin (Jinghpaw), Shan, Kayin, and Chin. Many of these people are located is isolated mountainous regions and speak their own languages. Plus, they can live traditionally and respect their own cultures. The local people hold a variety of celebrations and feasts throughout the course of the year which relate to cultural activities. While it is possible for tourists on the Myanmar family tour to visit these festivals, they are held more for the reason of their religion and culture, than being an attraction.
A typical Myanmar household can hold up to three generations. Even if family members aren’t sharing the same property, there is the likelihood they live closely and will make regular visits. The children are taught to participate in family and share from a young age. It is common for cousins and siblings to be sharing the same bedroom. Traditionally, the children are involved in most social events – although this will exclude funerals. The children in the rural areas are often asked to help in the fields or help out with small errands. The younger generation is always expected to obey and respect not only their parents, but also their elders and teachers. In later life, the grown children would be expected to help with taking care of their elderly parents.
Men and women
With the Buddhist religion, men are seen to have a higher status than the women. Also, with the local people believing in reincarnation, a women hopes to return and be reborn as a man in their next life. In a marriage, the husband has a spiritual status and regarded as the head of the household.
When out in public, the men are left to take the lead with the women walking a few steps behind their fathers or husbands. But, within the confines of their home, the wife takes on the responsibility of managing the family budget, and may even run their own business.
Women aren’t permitted to enter all areas of temples, pagodas, or other religious buildings. For instance, this can include the middle platform at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Even with the hierarchy related to Buddhism, women in Myanmar still have a good degree of self-confidence which relates to their ongoing tradition of independence. In relation to inheritance, both men and women have equal rights. Plus, they dominate areas like markets, and many work in professional industries, such as scientists, teachers, writers, lawyers, dentists and doctors. Enrolment in universities is similar between male and female students.
The local Myanmar people give great importance on following the rules of proper etiquette. Any signs of excessive emotion (by love or by anger) displayed in public are frowned on and shouldn’t be carried out on the Myanmar holidays. The people of high status, such as the elders and monks must be treated and addressed with courtesy. So, for instance, passing an object over the head of a seated elder is seen as rude. Respect is shown to teachers, parents and grandparents on formal occasions by kneeling down with elbows and forehead touching the ground. Also, when meeting a monk or passing a pagoda, it is respectful to put the palms together as a sign of respect. The Myanmar people aren’t the type to inconvenient or impose on other people, and are very sensitive in this regard.
The Myanmar people that live in the countryside are more likely to be superstitions and therefore make sure of clairvoyance or astrology to help face a significant decision. There are a variety of reasons to experience bad luck associated with superstition, such as washing the hair shortly after a funeral, leaving broken glass in the home, or leaving shoes or slippers upside-down. Other local traditions to ward off evil are to carry the hairs from an elephant’s tail.