Things to Do in Myanmar
The glittering blue waters of Inle Lake lie at the heart of the Shan Highlands, surrounded by verdant hills. Myanmar’s second-largest lake is a popular destination for intrepid travelers, who come to cruise the lake, soak up the scenery, and experience local life in the lakeside fishing villages.
In a country full of religious shrines, Shwedagon Pagoda is considered the most sacred. Its golden steeple rises high above Yangon’s skyline and relics of previous Buddhas, including a water filter, staff, hairs and a piece of robe, are all kept safe within its structure’s walls. Historians say the pagoda, known locally as Shwedagon Zedi Daw, was built between the 6th and 10th centuries and since then numerous dignitaries, religious figures and political powerhouses, including Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, have passed through its halls.
Visitors must remove their shoes before going into any of the four main entrances. Travelers will likely pass by religious pilgrims as they ascend the stairs, making an offering of candles, flowers, flags and fruit—an act known as dana—meant to pay homage to Buddha. Visitors should be sure to check out the pagoda’s stupa, which is encrusted with more than 4,500 diamonds, including one that is 72 carats.
Located southwest of Mandalay Hill in Myanmar, Mahamuni Buddha Temple honors the Mahamuni (Great Sage) expression of the Buddha. The pagoda, arguably the most important to the residents of Mandalay, was built to house a 12-foot (3.8-meter) tall statue of the Buddha that was already ancient when King Bodawpaya conquered Arakan and claimed it in 1784.
According to local legend, the statue was cast while the Buddha was still alive, but it was more likely cast some six centuries after his death, somewhere around 150 AD. No matter its origins, the statue is highly venerated by devotees — evidenced by the inches thick layer of pure gold leaf that has been added to the metal statue over the centuries.
The pagoda courtyard houses six more statues, Khmer bronze pieces of lions, elephants and warriors, that were taken as war loot from Angkor Wat during the fifteenth century. It is believed that rubbing these statues imparts healing.
Bago lies about 85 kilometers north of Yangon and was founded in 573 AD. The city was one called Pegu by the British and used to be the capital of the powerful Mon Kingdom for centuries. According to records, Bago was then still connected to the ocean and was actually known as Burma’s largest seaport. Travelers from far and near boasted about its size and beauty when returning home from their journeys. These days, the power of the once important empire can only be guessed at by visiting the many sights Bago has to offer. Among those are many small and big Buddha statues, pagodas, ceremonial items and gardens.
One of the biggest and oldest reclining Buddhas in the world, which was only rediscovered in 1881, when workers started clearing the jungle for a new train route from Yangon to Bago can be found in the city. Even older are the four 27-meter-tall Buddhas, which were built by King Migadippa in the 7th century, sitting back to back at the entrance to the city. They guard Bago rigidly, greeting people who enter and leave from all directions. Food for thought offers the Kya Khat Wine Monastery, where the 1,000 monks line up soundlessly and in orderly queues every morning at 11am for the last meal of the day. When witnessing the monks exact routine, speaking and interfering is not allowed and visitors have to adhere to a strict observing only policy. During the afternoons though, the monastery is a lot less crowded and might appeal more to people who like the tranquil setting.
The golden spire of this well-recognized pagoda stretches far into the skyline of downtown Yangon, making it easy to spot from even just about anywhere in town. Built more than 2,000 years ago, the pagoda is said to house a hair from that Buddha that was given to two Burmese merchants. Colorful spirits stand guard of a massive brass bell, which residents ring to signal good deeds. In addition to being one of these most recognized pagodas in Yangon and place of spiritual worship, the Sule Pagoda has also served as a meeting place during the 1988 uprisings and the Saffron Revolution, making it an important landmark in the country’s recent past.
Chaukhtatgyi Paya, with its 65-meter-long reclining Buddha, is not only a must-see, its sheer size and rich details make it one of the most memorable stops in all of Yangon. The Buddha’s bright white face hovers some 16 meters above the ground and is decorated with brilliant red lips and bright blue eye shadow. Its golden robes drape down to the statue’s feet, which are covered in 108 intricately designed lakshanas representing each of the noble characteristics of the Buddha. Travelers can witness local monks from nearby monasteries honoring Buddha’s teachings as they wander the grounds, thick with the scent of burning incense and fresh flowers.
About 11 kilometers south of Mandalay, just between the Taungthaman Lake and the Ayeyarwady River, lays the small town of Amarapura, another former capital of the old Burmese kingdom. Apart from pagodas and the ruins of the ancient palace, the city offers one of Myanmar’s most photographed sights: the narrow, 1,200-meter-long U Bein bridge, which made entirely out of teak wood. The gangly looking bridge was built in 1784, but is still in mint condition and never needed any serious repairs. It was named after its founder, a former mayor, and was built from over 1,000 teak logs, partially even with the ruins of the abandoned royal city. Thus, for its incredible length spanning the lake, the U Bein bridge is recognized as the longest teak wood bridge in the world. Sunsets are especially popular, as the setting sun creates a beautiful silhouette of the bridge, photos of which adorn many a living room at home.
Sporadically, platforms, pavilions and benches are built into the bridge to offer travellers some rest and protection from the burning Southeast Asian sun. Apart from crossing on foot, it is also worth it to head to the Mahagandayon Monastery, which is located right at the beginning of the bridge. The monastery is one of the biggest in Myanmar and houses up to 1000 monks, some of which can often be seen strolling across the teak wood bridge in their billowing red robes. Visitors are welcome to glimpse into the life of these devout Buddhists and wander through the hallways, although it gets almost too busy during mealtimes.
Since 1926 this city heritage site known for its rare antiques, old coins, Burmese jade and black market moneychangers has been a destination for locals and travelers alike. The halls of this crowded labyrinth are lined with bustling stalls where local artists sell traditional handicrafts, handmade clothes and hearty regional dishes.
Bogyoke Aung San Market has one of the largest selections of traditional longyi and gemstones, and since the first sale of the day is considered good luck, those who arrive early are likely to get some of the best prices. Travelers can watch jade being fashioned into earrings or bracelets and see clothes being stitched by hand on the second floor of Bogyoke.
Visitors looking to escape the intensity of the market and the sounds of the city can stop into the nearby Holy Trinity Cathedral for some peace and quiet contemplation.
Kandawgyi Nature Park, sometimes called Kandawgyi Garden, is one of the reasons why Yangon is often called the garden city. It is a retreat in the middle of the bustle and the noise, where couples, joggers and people looking for a relaxing stroll can unwind in a tranquil setting. The many picnic areas and playgrounds under the shady trees are especially popular with families and kids. But spread over 260 acres you can also find tropical gardens, restaurants and recreation centers, a big walkway along Kandawgyi Lake (the great artificial lake created in colonial times), a mini zoo and good views of the Shwedagon Pagoda and Karaweik Hall. The latter is an enormous replica of a royal barge comprised of three floors of dining rooms, performance halls and shops and reminds of the ancient Burmese kings, who used to travel the waterways of their kingdom on these glamorous boats.
Kandawgyi Park is also the location where regular concerts and festivals are held throughout the year. At the beginning of January, for example, the Independence Day festival is celebrated in the gardens for seven days. Another prominent festival takes place in November, when oarsmen from all over the country compete in boat races on the lake. This annual regatta also includes a royal barge procession, which stands in contrast to the more rowdy races and pays homage to the old times and the beautiful vessels used back then with a lot of pomp and ceremony.
Yangon City Hall is the seat of the various departments of the Yangon City Development Committee, the city’s administrative body, the head of which is Yangon’s mayor. As the place where the city’s leaders meet, the building was also the point of many a demonstration protesting political decisions and situations. In 1964 for example, 200’000 people met here to support Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, an important leader of the peace movement. City Hall marks the center of Yangon and can be best viewed from the Maha Bandoola Garden right opposite the building.
Construction of this building finished in 1936 and the city hall is now considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of combined British and Burmese architecture. It was designed by the prominent Burmese architect U Tin, who also planned Yangon’s central train station. U Tin’s style is well known for its fusion of the seemingly conflicting western and Myanmar’s indigenous styles. Accordingly, the newly repainted bright white City Hall building features tiered roofs, intricate ornamentations on the pillars and arches, but also the solid but elegant colonial build.
More Things to Do in Myanmar
Yangon’s Central Railway Station isn’t only the gateway to Myanmar where you can catch the train for further adventures around the country, but it is also the place where one can observe the fascinating everyday life. The station is a hive of activity, with thousands upon thousands of commuters passing through its halls every day. Especially photographers love coming here, interacting with the commuters and maybe even hoping onto the Circle Train for a three hour ride through the suburbs. This iconic line rattles slowly over 29 miles of bumpy tracks and through 38 stations, while vendors hop on and off, advertising their wares, and the uncomfortable benches in the stuffy train cars make your backside hurt.
The Central Railway Station was designed by the famous architect U Tin, who created the station in his distinct fusion style of Western and Burmese elements after the original structure was destroyed by the retreating British forces. With its green tiered pyatthat roofs and golden towers, the bright white paint job, the big windows and graceful pillars, the building has become an iconic sight in Yangon. But although the elegant station is spectacular to look at from the outside and without a doubt very photogenic, it’s the little moments and the activity inside, that make the trip to the station worth it.
The Bogyoke Aung San Museum is dedicated to General Aung San, the founder of modern Myanmar and is located in the very building where he and his family lived for only two years before he was assassinated in 1947. Regarded as Myanmar’s greatest hero, in what was then Burma’s struggle for independence from Britain, General Aung San is also the father of Suu Kyi, one of today’s most recognizable figures and leader of an anti-government faction that fights against the government her father helped put in place.
The museum was established some 15 years after his death, but everything is still displayed as if the general, his wife Daw Khin Kyi and the three kids were living there. Everyday memorabilia such as books, handwritten correspondences, furniture and family photos decorate the home, Daw Khin Kyi’s dresses can be admired and one of Aung San’s cars still stands in the garage. While the personal effects are interesting to see, the most impressive part of this home turned museum is actually the house it is located in. Apparently, Aung San was a frugal man and the museums interior reflects this by being very sparse, but he did live in a beautiful two-story colonial villa. This museum offers a glimpse into the life of Myanmar’s national hero, who, despite his power was apparently a very honest and selfless man who preferred a simple lifestyle.
The Taukkyan War Cemetery is a memorial in honor of allied soldiers, most of whom died during the Second World War in Burma. Altogether, there are 6374 graves of fallen soldiers from this aforementioned war, hundreds of them unidentified. Inscribed on the many pillars of the Rangoon Memorial are an additional 27,000 names of men of the Commonwealth forces who died during battles in Burma, but had no known grave. Because it was a multinational force with over a hundred different languages spoken within the platoons, the words “they died for all free men” are added in English, Burmese, Hindi, Urdu and Gurmukhi. Some burials were also transferred from other battlefield locations as well as isolated and scattered jungle sites when the graves couldn’t be maintained any longer. Fittingly, to commemorate these individual battles and the soldiers who fought and died there together, the graves at the Taukkyan War Cemetery are grouped together according to regiments, countries and these battlefields in Meiktila, Akyab, Mandalay and Sahmaw.
The cemetery is a very peaceful place and well maintained by the many gardeners caring for the graves and the plants. But despite its beautifully landscaped grounds and its popularity with history buffs, the memorial is a sad place. Many people travel here on a personal pilgrimage to pay their respects to a loved one and often, you can see them taking off their shoes, as is the custom in Myanmar. When walking through the neat row of tombstones and flowers, reading the sheer mass of names and commemorations of soldiers from Australia, India, Africa, England and Burma, the heat and the noise of Myanmar seems to fade far away.
Immerse yourself in the food and culture of Myanmar with a dinner and traditional dance performance at Karaweik Palace. Located on the eastern shore of Kandawgyi Lake facing Shwedagon Pagoda, this glittering restaurant was designed in the shape of a royal barge, and is a landmark in Yangon and popular tourist attraction.
The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue is Myanmar’s last remaining Jewish house of worship. During colonial times, Yangon had a thriving Jewish community of over 2,500 people, most of whom had followed the teak wood trade to Asia. But today, after the Japanese occupation during World War Two and the long years of military rule that followed, only a handful of Jewish people remain. The whole weight of Myanmar’s Jewish history is now carried on the shoulders of one man: Moses Samuels, the keeper of the old synagogue, who is hopeful that his community will recover.
The synagogue was constructed during the late 19th century and stands in a colonial-era neighborhood next to mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, churches, hawker stalls, stores and markets. The building itself is a beautiful blue, white and gold house with a high ceiling, stained glass windows and old wooden benches. Although it is still a functioning synagogue with regular services, it now serves as a reminder of a multicultural past and has become somewhat of a meeting spot for several neighboring religious groups. While those groups often don’t get along very well elsewhere in the world, even in most other parts of the country, they come together in this synagogue in a rare display of multi-religious friendship, to help each other out or celebrate festivals together.
The Chinatown in Yangon, also called Tayoke Tan, is, if possible, even busier than the rest of Yangon. The trick is to let yourself be carried along by the crowd through the typical vibrant Chinatown-ness you can find in Chinese neighborhoods across the world. Big signs with Chinese characters fight for attention above jewelry, gold, flower, fruit, medicine and apparel shops and a variety of restaurants and food stalls beckon visitors with inviting smells, sizzling sounds and persistent attendants. There are a few temples to be found as well, such as the Guang Dong Kwan Yin Temple, where all the major Chinese festivals and celebrations are held throughout the year. These clan temples belong to either one of the two communities living in Tayoke Tan, the Hokkien community who historically mainly resided on Strand and Anawratha Road or the Cantonese community located on Mana Bandoola Road.
Especially 19th street has become a bit of a landmark and is known for the extensive barbecue stalls and the many restaurants with the small plastic chairs. The street is packed at all times of the day with locals and tourists alike. Menus are a rarity and if you don’t want dumplings or pastries, you are instead expected to point at piles of whatever skewers of meat, tofu, chicken, garlic, vegetables and seafood you want. In true Chinese build-your-own-dinner style, these skewers are then tossed on the charcoal grills or into steaming hot pots and accompanied by a big mug of draft beer. Sit down where it’s busiest, as the food there is bound to be the best.
The Yangon Circular Train, aka the Circle Line, offers visitors an easy, affordable and relaxing way to take in the sites and sounds of local Yangon life. The 28.5-mile railway winds through 39 stops that travel across lush farmland, suburban neighborhoods and rural villages. The commuter railway is one of the cheapest ways to get around the city, making it ideal for people watching, visiting with locals and getting around on a budget.
Tourists can ride in cars reserved exclusively for foreigners, or join up with area residents as they travel to work or home from the market. Most trains traverse the loop in approximately three hours, but air conditioned trains can make the voyage in closer to two. Travelers hoping to capture photos of the scenery and people should opt for non-AC trains, since windows can’t be opened and are often too smudged to capture crisp pictures.
Just across the river from Mae Sai in Thailand sits Tachileik, the main border town between Northern Thailand and Myanmar. Due to its position close to Thailand and not far from a border crossing with China, Tachileik has become a bustling, modern town with an international flare quite unlike any other place in Myanmar.
Since tourism regulations have only recently loosened in Myanmar, Tachileik only has a few things to do, making it fun for a quick stopover. One of the most popular attractions is the labyrinthine border market popular with day trippers from Thailand. Shwedagon Paya, the town’s gilded pagoda, is also worth a look.
Built in 1901, the grand colonial hotel known as the Strand Yangon has been called one of the finest places to stay East of the Suez. High ceilings, teakwood floors and hand-carved furniture are just some of the fine features that make the Strand’s three stories and 31 suites unique. Guests can enjoy world class dining at the Strand Grill, where crystal chandeliers and marble floors nod to elegance, or pop by the Strand Bar for a more casual happy hour drink. The peaceful spa offers a perfect place to unwind from the hustle of Yangon Streets and personal butler service means every visitor receives the royal treatment.
Little India is a somewhat unidentified neighborhood in downtown Yangon. It is spread out over several streets and received the name during the British occupation, when many Indians and Bangladeshi Muslims migrated to Yangon. The district is a melting pot of people and features mosques and Hindu temples among rustic looking houses and colonial style buildings. A large Indian food market, the Thein Gyi Zei, attracts people having lunch, buying food and selling goods, while the surrounding narrow streets are covered on both sides in a variety of stores. Fresh fruit is sold everywhere and mangos and rambutans are advertised next chapattis and samosas. Often, the food is laid out on the sidewalks and piled high in baskets, which makes the walkways even more congested, but also moves everyday life out into the streets.
Interesting to see is the Shri Kali Hindu Temple, which was built by Tamil immigrants during colonial times. This incredibly vibrant temple is painted in all colors of the rainbow and covered from top to bottom in depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses dancing, standing, playing instruments and twisting and bending in all kinds of weird poses. Here, several Hindu festivals are held each year, but among the most famous is the Murugan Festival, which apart from colorful processions also features ritual self-mutilation.
The Golden Rock, also known as the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda because of the Stupa on top of it, is just what it sounds like: a somewhat surreal looking, gold shimmering boulder that seems to completely defy gravity, threatening to drop into the adjoining 1,100-meter deep abyss at any moment. The legend says that for over a thousand years, a single hair of Buddha has been holding the roughly head shaped piece of granite in equilibrium. While the legend stands in contrast to the geological explanation, the reason why the rock seems to be made of solid gold is noticeable immediately. Women aren’t allowed to touch the big nugget, but men crowd around the bottom, sticking golden flakes on the stone, kneeling in prayer and wrapped in the smoke of incense.
Buddhism is omnipresent in Myanmar and accordingly the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the country. Up to 50,000 people visit on important days to see the rock that has survived centuries of weathering, earthquakes and erosion, while an average day usually attracts around 15,000 pilgrims. Although there is an air of devotion surrounding the site, the area has also been developed into a true tourist site providing everything you might need on the mountain, from accommodation, platforms, various buildings to food stalls selling delicious pancakes, skewers, fried fish and rice noodles.
Found nearly at the exact center point on the map of Myanmar, the town of Mingun is famous for the Mingun Pahtodawgyi, which is an unfinished pagoda that was being constructed in the 1790s. The construction on the pagoda was never completed because of a claim made by an astrologist that as soon as the construction was completed, the ruler, King Bodawpaya, would die. Visitors to Mingun will also notice the cracks that run through the rock. These cracks are the result of a massive earthquake that hit the town in the 1830s. Travelers are welcome to climb the unfinished building and although there is obviously little to see in the rock itself, there are stunning views of the region and the impressive Mya Theindan pagoda below to be had.
Local tour guides claim that the pagoda is actually the world's largest unfinished stupa and that if it had ever been finished, it would be the largest completed one. Finished and very impressive is the Hsinbyume Pagoda, a pure white structure with seven terraces and many niches filled with mythical monsters, which was dedicated to the favorite wife of a king. Along with the pagodas, there is also a ringing bell that was cast during the same period on the orders of King Bodawpaya. Fitting in with the realm of “everything is bigger in Mingun,” the bell is the largest ringing bell in the world.
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