Glorious Bagan - Pyathada Pagoda.
Last night Kyle and I spoke at the Chicago Travel Meetup "All About Myanmar". Fellow travel enthusiasts will understand my over-the-top excitement to talk for nearly an hour - A FULL HOUR - about the culture & sights in Myanmar. It was amazingly, and I'm so grateful to have gotten to share so much of what we love with a wide-eyed crowd of travelers.
Top 10 Experiences in Myanmar
It wasn't easy, but I narrowed down last night's presentation to my favorite 10 experiences I'd tell travelers to have in Myanmar. Visiting Myanmar is not just about checking a destination off your list, it's about experiencing life there. With more than 100 diverse languages and cultures, it's an exciting place, and visiting makes you a witness to the positive changes happening there that are too important to reverse. Get comfy, and prepare for Myanmar:
#1 Dress Local
Kyle demonstrates to Jim, our very happy longyi model.
Meeting locals opens the door to great experiences, and the best conversation starter ever is wearing a longyi (for men) or a tamain (for women). On your first day in Myanmar, go to a local market or walk the center of town for a shop selling longyis and tamains. Sometimes they're hanging over a counter, but often they're folded up about the size of a book. There are endless patterns and colors, many of which are warn by specific ethnic groups, so pick one that suits you. Don't be nervous about the bold plaids & patterns - the bolder the better!
The longyi & tamain are big loops of fabric, and you tightly fold the fabric to wear them securely. Men and women tie them differently, so ask at your guesthouse or make a friend to help you tie it. No shame in wearing shorts or something while you're getting the hang of it, although once your sure it won't fall off, you'll enjoy the loose fabric.
#2 Feel Local
Thanaka lined faces at a Mandalay shop.
Freshly cut wood for thanaka & children putting on thanaka in Sagaing.
Thanaka is a traditional, local makeup with a sweet, floral scent that cools the skin and is used as a sun block. It's made from a tree grown in Myanmar's dry region. Women and children especially wear thanaka, and my friends and students in Myanmar said they used it every day on their face and arms. The key is making designs and shapes, after adding a bit of water to make a paste, people use brushes and cotton swabs to make the designs. My favorite are the kids that have thanaka shaped bunnies and animals on their cheeks.
If you have darker skin it makes your skin lighter, although if you're like me with paler skin, you might end up looking a bit jaundice, so less is best.
#3 Go for Tea
Crowded tea shop in Yangon
If there's one thing you're guaranteed to find all around Myanmar, it's tea shops crowded with people in the mid-afternoon. If you meet someone at a temple or on the street, and they invite you for tea, you'll know you're doing something right. Go along and chat. Milk tea come sweet, bitter, or mixed, "lapae yay" is "normal tea". There are often snacks like steamed buns or parata for a snack. Sip your tea slowly, and after the milk tea, continue with the pot of hot green tea on the table. It's included.
Our guide to ordering tea has language tips & tea shops etiquette.
#4 Soak in the Buddhist Temple Scene & Mingle
Just before sunset is the perfect time to photograph Shwedagon Pagoda and mingle with the locals.
Now that you're getting a feel for the local culture, go all in, and connect with Myanmar's Buddhists. Temples are places that families gather and spend a few hours or where you'll see monks or nuns meditating or chanting together. It's a nice gathering place where people might approach to practice their English and where you can observe the many temple traditions. Bring a snack and water, and wear temple appropriate clothes that cover your knees and shoulders.
Spend a few hours at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Maha Muni in Mandalay, or another popular temple (there are many!). Leave your shoes at the entrance, and bring small bills to make donations around the temple. I suggest going mid to late afternoon as the heat wears off, and join the locals walking clockwise around the main pagoda. Extra points if you know what day of the week you were born, as there are 8 different Buddha statues for each day of the week (Wednesday is divided into morning or afternoon), and you can make an offering and pay respects to associated Buddha statue.
#5 Walk to the Top of Mandalay Hill and Practice English with the Monks
I hiked up to Mandalay Hill a few times while in Myanmar, and not only did I see many of the same young monks each time, but I started seeing more of them. Word had spread that Lonely Planet guides many English speaking tourists up there at sunset, and eager to practice their English, the monks would hang out on the steps and walk up with visitors in order to practice and ask questions. Many of them are studying at the Buddhist university just west of Mandalay Hill, and with aspirations to study in Thailand or India they're motivated to practice to improve their odds of studying abroad.
Enjoy the conversation, and don't feel inclined to give the monk any money. Generally, monks ethics are giving away money and material possessions. I've heard of some scams at temples where I believe foreigners were given a run for their money, but if you're asked for money or feel that you want to help the locals, making a donation into a box at the temple you're visiting or other organized charities is better than giving cash to a person.
#6 Watch the flow of people walking the world longest Teak Bridge
The longest teak bridge in the world, U Bein bridge joins a few small towns to nearby Mandalay, and it's common to see locals carrying goods with monks while riding bicycles. It's charming way to take in small town Myanmar at its best. Take the time to walk the full length of the 2 km bridge - you won't be disappointed! During rainy season the lake fills quite a bit, but drier times of the year you'll see more animals roaming and less fishing. Consider a boat ride and enjoy the flow of people walking in and out of town.
#7 With more than 2,000 Temples, all Roads Lead Somewhere Special
As one of southeast Asia major temple sites, you're sure to love exploring the 2,000+ temples. Although the temples are spread around a big area, there are so many to enjoy, it's easy to hop on a bicycle and go from temple to temple. Pick up a map to circle the temples you most want to see, or ditch the map and explore the many stunning temples. Remember to carry lots of water and snacks, as there are few shops around the temples.
More about the friends we made exploring Bagan and the beautiful temples we explored by bike.
#8 Explore Inle Lake's Villages by Bicycle and Slow Boat
My Shan students told me Inle Lake was the most beautiful place in the world, and after seeing it I truly understand why. Never getting very deep, the lake remains still and almost like glass reflecting the nearby mountains and rice patties. Inle Lake is also know for their fishermen's tradition of holding the boat oar with their leg and arm, and the long narrow fishing boats and cone-shaped fishing nets.
It's beautiful scenery to explore on bike as it's flat, and the small neighboring towns get much less tourism than other areas. Starting on the north tip, ride southeast along the lake, and take a boat across to the western shore, and then ride back north on the western shore. The whole trip will take half day, but if you can, go slowly, and take a full day and stop into shops and temples along the way.
More about our time exploring Inle Lake's canals and reflections about my refugee students that sent me there.
#9 Hike the Buddhist Pilgrimage Site and Breath in the Fresh Air
A monk, father, and son lay gold leaf on the sacred, Golden Rock.Getting to Kyaiktiyo is an endeavor, but it's well-worth the rewards if you're rewarded wit the stunning views from the mountain top. The Golden Rock sits upon a mountain side, not resting on the earth, but balanced on one of Buddha's hairs. Buddhists from around the country and internationally come to pay respect here. When we visited nuns chanted throughout the temple grounds and groups of visitors meditates looking out over the valley below.
To reach Kyaiktiyo, it's possible to take a pick-up truck about half-way up the mountain, but when we were there in 2012 and last we'd heard, foreigners must continue up the rest of the way hiking or some choose to get carried up on a large seat carried by 4 men. The hike to the top is worth it, and I suggest staying 2 nights at one of the hotels at the top, as sunrise and early morning provides the best views out over the mountains. Dress appropriately covering your knees and shoulders, and most likely it will be cold at the top and in the hotel, so bring layers.
Food in Myanmar as just as diverse as the 100+ languages and cultures there, so be brave, look for crowded restaurants and try many dishes! Our post on Myanmar food shows many pictures and translations of delicious foods to try.
A traditional Myanmar table is set family style with many side dishes to share and eat with rice. Soup can also be communal, but often for foreigners, you'll get your own bowl. Top left, Lephet-do (tea leaf salad) is Myanmar's most famous dish, and it's a fresh salad of tea leaves mixed with cabbage, onion, garlic, peanuts and more. Try is more than once as every place makes it a little different.
It's hard to go wrong with Shan restaurants in general, but Shan noodles have never disappointed me. Shown above has eggs and vegetables, but sometimes it's simpler with tomato sauce and meat or tofu. Again, every place makes it a bit different, but it's a good safe, easy dish!
Top right is an Indian inspired dish served at tea shops, and you'll usually see a large cook top outside of these shops. Above is a type, the photo is actually Naan bread, but parata is very similar, and both are great with beans, eggs, sugar, banana, etc.
Don't hesitate if you have any questions about Myanmar - we love to give tips and advice! Read more about why we spent 1.5 years in Myanmar, when we finally saw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the crazy human powered wooden ferris wheel that came to our Yangon neighborhood.