Last updated: 09:00 PM ET, Tue February 09 2016

20 Insightful, Confounding and Amazing Facts About Burma

Destination & Tourism | John Roberts | February 09, 2016

20 Insightful, Confounding and Amazing Facts About Burma

Photos by John Roberts

I sailed with Avalon Waterways through Burma along the Irrawaddy River. This journey of discovery in a remarkably colorful and complex country ventured from the north, an area little visited by tourism, to the south, with pre- and post-cruise stays in Burma’s largest city, Yangon.

I expect a steady flow of increasing interest in Burma, as it further opens to the world after a long period under military rule. Now, with democracy and development blossoming, it’s a brilliant time to travel to this nation, still officially called Myanmar.

Here are 20 things to know before you go to Burma.

1) It has been called Myanmar since 1989. The country was under an oppressive military junta from 1962 to 2011, when the military generals agreed to transition toward democracy. A landslide victory by Democracy activist and Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi's party in the 2014 elections point toward a further acceleration of open and normalized relations with the rest of the world and an increase in interest in travel to Burma.

2) “Thanaka” adorns the faces of many people you'll see in Burma. This cosmetic paste is made from the bark of native trees and serves as a moisturizer and sunscreen. Men, women and children alike are seen wearing the tan-colored cream, and they often add a personal flair or design with circles, squares or lines in the paste.

READ MORE: Wonders on the Irrawaddy: A River Cruise Through the Heart of Burma

3) “Longyis” are the traditional garment of the Burmese people. The fabric is worn by men and women from the waist to the ankle. The longyi is sewn into a cylinder that encircles the waist and is tied in a traditional knot. Patterns and styles indicate whether the longyi is for everyday use or special events.

4) The U Bein Bridge, a 1.2 kilometer (almost a mile)-long pedestrian span over Taungthaman Lake made from reclaimed teak wood, is idea for iconic photos. The bridge area is popular for sampan boat rides to watch amazing sunsets.

PHOTO: U Bein Bridge.

5) Temples, pagodas and stupas are everywhere. You see the shrines lining the Irrawaddy River and filling valleys — as seen in the town of Bagan. In Mandalay, the Maha Muni Buddha Pagoda contains an image of Buddha larded with so much gold leaf that it has bloated the statue by more than nine inches since 1901. Visitors flock continuously to the site and apply those paper-thin layers of the precious metal as an offering for luck.

6) Sunset Temple in Bagan features an observation area to view amazing sunset scenery. Scale the temple to the top to look over a valley containing thousands of pagoda and temples.

PHOTO: Sunset Temple, Bagan.

7) The Irrawaddy River is the heart of Burma. The brown river flows south and is important for transportation, commerce, fishing and farming. Villagers can also be seen swimming and bathing on the banks of the lake, home to the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. 

8) The Burmese love to chew betel leaf. You'll see red splotches of spittle on the roads everywhere you go. You'll also notice wide smiles revealing red gums and teeth (often rotting from chewing the highly acidic and addictive narcotic). Vendors work all day on street corners preparing the chew by wrapping an areca nut, a pinch of tobacco and lime paste in betel leaves.

9) Markets are vital and bustling. People need to hit them up for fresh food twice a day because many families have no refrigerators, especially in small villages. Rice and fish are staples.

10) Burmese people are friendly and outgoing. You will feel very welcome when you visit. People are always smiling, and young children can be especially precocious and curious.

11) The cars and roads don't match. Burma used to be an English colony, so residents drove on the left side of the road in vehicles that had steering wheels on the right. Well, a general in 1970 had a dream that the direction of the country would switch directions if traffic did. So drivers were ordered to the other side of the road. Cars, however, still are supplied to the country with right-side steering wheels, making it unique in the world.

12) Kyauk Myaung is a charming pottery village. Most of the 15,000 residents work in an industry producing clay pottery and provide many of the large Ali Baba jars (up to 50 gallons) seen throughout the world.

13) With 90 percent of Burma practicing Buddhism, every Buddhist male spends a part of his life as a monk for at least a brief period.

14) Burmese people believe in luck and fortune, in keeping with the widespread Buddhist faith. The day of the week on which you were born typically determines the name you are given, and that day also is believed to define your personality.

15) Poverty is widespread, but Burmese believe they can change their luck and buy good fortune for their next life. Therefore, even the poorest people scrape together money to buy gold leaf to affix to images of Buddha on temples throughout the nation.

16) Distinctive foods include green tea leaf salad and ginger salad. Many Burmese recipes include turmeric, rice, noodles and peanuts. 

17) Yangon is home to an interesting old colonial town. The largest city in Burma holds more than five million people and also is the site of the famous and spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda. Traffic snarls are notorious in Yangon.

18) Elephants are an important part of Burma's culture. The great Asian pachyderms are prevalent in iconic imagery, appear on currency and work in the teak logging industry and in tourism.

READ MORE: Inle Lake: Myanmar’s Must-See Destination

19) Agriculture is the dominant industry. Farmers along the Irrawaddy cultivate rice, peanuts, corn, seeds and other nuts using traditional methods that include the use of oxen and water buffalo. In farming villages, you see families living comfortably among pigs, water buffalo, chickens and goats. 

20) Burma is a country in transition. It's not advised to discuss politics in public. Aung San is regarded as a national hero, and his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi is almost equally regarded today as leader of the nation's opposition party and leader in the push for democratic reforms. She is referred to in Burma as "The Lady" and is a key figure as Burma is in the midst of a political transformation. 

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