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World Youth Adventures is committed to responsible travel and true sustainability
Myanmar is home to a number of threatened species and because of a lack of environmental awareness many of them are exploited for domestic consumption or sold illegally on the national and international market. We discourage our travellers from purchasing animal and plant products that exploit wildlife or aid in the destruction of species and habitats such as elephant ivory, tortoise shell, wild animal skins and traditional medicines made from animal parts or rare plants.
We encourage our travellers to interact with the local people because we believe that has the strongest positive impact on the Burmese people and our travellers. Examples of such interactions include village walks in Bagan, a visit to a monastery or school, excursions to the local markets, a ride on Yangon’s circle train, half-day visit to a toddy farm concluding with tea and lunch with the locals, cooking course in a family home on Inle Lake, or lunch in a Nunnery.
We discourage our travellers to give money or sweets to the local children and adults because it highlights the income gap between visitors and locals, and it encourages begging instead of attending school. It is better to buy something to help these people or to give through your guide to a school, orphanage or hospital.
Well-defined environmental plans exist on every trip within this country
Learn more about our commitment, and view our free Responsible Travel Guidebook, on our Responsible Travel Page
Bagan: The once capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the pagodas located here are its most enduring legacy and one of the finest collections in Asia. Climb a pagoda to get an impressive view over the ancient city to see even more amazing temples that have been here for hundreds of years. Sites such as the Ananda, Dhammayangyi, Sulamani, and Thatbyinnyu will certainly impress. Minnanthu is probably our favourite temple as it is quiet, it’s a beautiful area and the temples here are often completely deserted.
Ancient cultural traditions, handsome colonial buildings and thousands of ancient temples, forested hills dotted with tribal villages, placid lakes and river deltas, brilliant green rice paddies, quiet beaches and deserted islands, a complex history and a gentle, welcoming people: Myanmar is a unique travel destination yet to be consumed by Western culture.
Myanmar’s distinctive cultural profile has been the result of both its natural isolation—bordered by mountain ranges and sea—and of thousands of years of cultural exchange and trade with different kingdoms and cultures. Thanks to its extensive coastline, its location on the overland trade route between China and India and its position as a gateway to the Malay Peninsula, Myanmar (previously known as Burma) has been traded with, settled and influenced by various ethnic groups, resulting in a uniquely Burmese culture.
Archaeological evidence places humans in Burma as far back as 11,000 years ago, with stone and fossilised wooden tools indicating a Paleolithic culture in the central plain. The Shan area of eastern Burma has also produced evidence—stone tools and cave paintings—of both Paleolithic and Neolithic (10,000 years ago) human settlements.
The Pyu people came to the Irrawaddy Valley from Yunnan province in southern China, and between the 1st century BC and 9th century AD, established several sophisticated city kingdoms. It was during this time that the Pyu, who the Chinese documented as a humane, graceful and artistic empire, embraced Buddhism, picked up through extensive trade relationships with India. Within the first decades of contact with Indian merchants, Burmese religion, culture, customs, arts, architecture, and systems of administration, law and governance had all been heavily influenced by Indian culture. And yet, many indigenous elements survived and were incorporated.
South of the Pyu were the Mon, who were closely related to the Khmer people of modern day Cambodia. Having entered southern Burma from the east, the Mon had founded several city kingdoms of their own along the coast, with an especially important Indian trade settlement near Thaton in southern Burma. Relations between the Mon and Indian merchants were friendly and Indian culture was readily absorbed by the Mon. The Mon would go on to establish their capital city in the port of Pegu (Bago), in 825 AD.
By the early 9th century, another ethnic group had settled in the region: the Burmans (or Bamar), who came from Yunnan to settle in the Irrawaddy Valley, gradually eclipsing the Pyu and the Mon as the region’s dominant ethnic group and building the powerful Kingdom of Pagan. The Pagan Empire would be the kingdom to unify for the first time the regions that now constitute modern day Burma, with its cultural influence replacing Mon and Pyu cultures as the dominant Burmese culture, a legacy that continues to dominate today with Burmans representing nearly 70% of the total population.
As one of the first regions in Southeast Asia to adopt the Buddhist faith, Burma had by the 11th century had become the centre of Theravada Buddhism, with the religion flourishing under the financial and ideological support of the government. A small 9th century village on the banks of the Irrawaddy River would be developed by the Burmans into the sacred temple city of Pagan, serving as the seat of the powerful Pagan Empire and capital of Burma between the 11th and 13th centuries, the period considered to have been the Golden Age of Burmese culture.
Following repeated conflicts with the Mongol Empire, Pagan fell in 1287, when Mongol troops sacked the city, installing their own puppet government. Mongol rule was brief, however, and the city spiralled into disorder. During the next three centuries several small kingdoms arose, but civil war ensued as each kingdom fought to reunify the country.
By the mid-16th century a second powerful Burmese empire had risen: the Toungoo Dynasty. By 1531 when Tabinshwehti took the throne, the Toungoo had become powerful enough to take the Chinese Shan states and the southern Mon regions, reunifying the country. Between 1539-1599, and again from 1613-1634, the Toungoo made the former Mon capital of Pegu the base for the Toungoo Empire.
In 1635, the Toungoo Dynasty moved its capital to Ava, building sophisticated legal and political systems that would survive into the 19th century. However, the Mon took back Pegu and used it as the base for a rebellion that would in 1752 sack the city of Ava, ending the Toungoo Dynasty. After a short-lived period of Mon rule, the Burman King Alaungpaya took Ava and invaded the independent Mon Kingdom, also capturing the Mon capital of Pegu in 1757.
Between 1824-1885, the country would be subjected to three successive conflicts with the British—the Anglo-Burmese Wars—during which Burma would continue to lose territories to Britain, culminating in Britain’s total annexation of Burma in 1885. From 1 January 1886, the British made Burma a province of India, with Rangoon (now Yangon) as its capital. The impacts of British colonialism dealt the country a devastating blow: the monarchy was eliminated and the ancient ties between state and clergy severed, stripping the Buddhist monkhood of its status and patronage. The impact of colonialism on the Burmese economy was disastrous, with the traditional Burmese economic system destroyed and economic benefits now geared towards the British Empire instead of the Burmese people. Foreign missionaries were incentivised to establish Christian schools instructing in English, with the curriculum including heavy criticisms on Buddhism.
A refusal to accept the victory of the British Empire forced many Burmese civilians into guerrilla warfare, led by members of the now-defunct royal family, administration and army. In attempts to squash guerrilla rebellions following what they considered to be a legal and just end to the Third Anglo-Burmese War, British troops took drastic measures to contain the uprisings, committing mass executions and burning villages. Guerrilla warfare escalated in the face of these actions but by 1890, more than 30,000 British and Indian troops had flooded the region, quelling the rebellions.
International demand for Burma’s rice crops had exploded with the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal, and the British focused efforts on clearing the vast mangrove forests flanking the Irrawaddy River to make way for terraced rice paddies. The explosion in rice cultivation that followed was responsible for drastic changes in Burmese society: the bulk of the population came to settle in the rice growing delta regions, farmers were forced into exploitative loan arrangements with Indian banks, and increasing land and rice values often forced farmers out of land mortgages, resulting in a growing class of dispossessed farmers who were forced by poverty into petty crime. The former pillars of Burmese society—the monarchy and the monkhood—had been dismantled; the economy was in tatters; and Burmese language, culture and religion had been diluted by colonial influence. Burmese society had become dysfunctional, and homicide rates had risen dramatically.
Out of the disorder of Burmese society at the beginning of the 20th century began to spring a growing nationalism, but what a new Burma needed was Burmese leaders. With the monarchy and clergy stripped of power and prestige, and the Burmese people excluded from entering politics or studying sciences such as engineering and medicine, the hope of the people rested with a handful of Burmese students who had made their way through liberal arts degrees in Rangoon’s British government college, before traveling to London to study law. The young lawyers returned to Burma with confidence that their country’s independence could be regained through peaceful negotiation, and began to lead the Burmese people to protest and petition for change in order to constitutionally protect Burmese religion and culture, and to fight for better living conditions and opportunities for the population.
During the 1920s, a growing resentment towards the British gave rise to a radical student protest group known as the Thakin movement. In 1930, Saya San, a former monk, led a civilian army in a rebellion against the British, in which peasants fought British troops for two years with only sticks and swords. Although the Thakin did not orchestrate the rebellion, the villagers involved came to trust the movement as its leadership. In 1936, the Thakin movement received two important new members: U Nu (formerly Thakin Nu), president of the Rangoon University student union, and Aung San, the union’s secretary, who had together been driving a growing student political movement.
Three years later, World War II erupted and the Thakin leaders saw an opportunity to negotiate constitutional reforms for Burma, in exchange for a pledge of allegiance to Britain. A warrant was issued for Aung San’s arrest, but he managed to flee the country for China, where he sought foreign assistance in the fight for Burmese independence. Japan offered to help fund and train a secret Burmese army and so Aung San together with another 29 young men (the “Thirty Comrades”) trained in secret in Japan, facilitating Japan’s successful invasion and occupation of Burma in 1942. Japan proclaimed Burma a fully sovereign state in 1943, but it was a mere ceremonial title, as true military and political power still rested with the Japanese army. By 1945, Aung San and his army, the Burma National Army, had switched over to the British side, defeating the Japanese in May 1945.
On 19 July 1947, amid negotiations for a peaceful transfer of power to a new independent Burma, Aung San’s political rival U Saw, a disgruntled former political leader-turned-conservative, sent a team of gunmen into the council chambers while Aung San and his cabinet were engaged in an executive council meeting. Aung San and most of his cabinet were assassinated, a crime for which U Saw was later executed.
Aung San’s former comrade U Nu was asked to form a new cabinet, a new constitution was passed, and on 4 January 1948, Burma became an independent sovereign republic. The first decade of Burma’s independence was filled with strife: a broken economy, destroyed villages and frequent civil war uprisings from political splinter groups and ethnic minorities. As head of state, U Nu orchestrated an unusual “constitutional coup” in which military leader Ne Win was invited to take over control of the country, stabilise the military situation and prepare the country for elections, after which U Nu was reinstated as leader by a landslide in February 1960.
In a dramatic turn, Ne Win then went on to lead a military coup in 1962, arresting U Nu and several of his minsters, abolishing the constitution and ruling the country via a Revolutionary Council of senior military officials with their eyes on a true socialist state. By 1974, a completely new political infrastructure was established. A new constitution was promulgated, elections were held for the new People’s Assembly and People’s Council, and Ne Win was elected president. From this point, Burma’s economic situation steadily improved under its new political structure, with foreign investment, foreign aid and liberalised international trade encouraged.
A climate of unrest had developed among Burma’s student and labour unions throughout the 1980s, resulting in Ne Win’s July 1988 resignation amid violent protests. By September of that year, protests had escalated to the point where Burma seemed on the brink of a revolution. The Burmese army took control of the government, enacted martial law, and suppressed protest demonstrations by killing thousands of unarmed civilian protestors. The country’s constitutional government was replaced with a military board called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), with Gen. Saw Maung acting as council chairman as well as prime minister.
The 1988 slaughter of unarmed civilians encouraged Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the country’s martyred independence hero Aung San, to speak out against the military government and to begin a nonviolent campaign for democracy and human rights. The following year, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, and shortly became affiliated with a newly founded opposition coalition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The government offered to free Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest if she left Burma, but she refused to leave the country until democracy and human rights had been achieved. Under the new SLORC government, the name of the country was changed to the Union of Myanmar, economic policy reforms were enacted, the 1974 constitution was redrafted, and the country’s first multiparty elections in 30 years were held in May 1990, during which the NDL won four fifths of the seats, a result which the military government refused to acknowledge.
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991 for her ongoing work for Burmese political and human rights, but would not be released from house arrest until 1995, at which time she was still forbidden to leave Yangon and was subjected to ongoing harassment from the government. Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest has continued in one form or another since then, with the government going so far as to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband Michael Aris from visiting her in Myanmar, even while he was on his deathbed. The international community has been vocal in denouncing the house arrest, and the United Nations declared the arrest illegal under Myanmar’s own laws in 2009, but it wasn’t until 2012 that Aung San Suu Kyi left Myanmar for the first time since 1988.
The National League for Democracy ran in parliamentary by-elections held in April 2012, with Suu Kyi easily winning her Yangon constituency seat, and the NLD winning by a landslide, taking almost all of the contested seats. Some critical reforms are now underway, including the provision of amnesties for a large list of political exiles, relaxation of censorship laws, the creation of a National Human Rights Commission, and other reforms in consultation with Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite all of the drama, the gentle grace and rich culture of the Burmese people rises above the country’s dark and complex history. While many issues and uncertainties remain in present day Myanmar, the future seems brighter again for this beautiful and fascinating country.
Buddhist - 89%; Christian - 4%; Muslim - 4%; Animist - 1%; other, including Hindu and Bahá'í - 2%.
The majority religion of the country is Theravada Buddhism, one of the oldest branches of Buddhism, which is a unique marriage of traditional animistic beliefs, Hindu and Buddhist principles. Central to Myanmar’s majority belief system is the worship of nats (spirits), belief in which predates Buddhism in the region. In addition to the 37 Great Nats (most of which are spirits of humans who died violent deaths), there are many other nats that guard nature such as nats for trees, water, forests and mountains. Every village has a nat sin, a village nat shrine. Stories of the lives of the nats are told through the performance of different nat dances at regional festivals.
Although Myanmar has no official state religion and religious freedom is constitutionally protected, the practice and principles of Buddhism are integral to Burmese culture, art, architecture and daily customs, whether in cities or villages.
Myanmar is extremely ethnically diverse, with Burmans accounting for two thirds of the population and the Karen comprising the second largest ethnic minority with 10% of the population. Myanmar is also home to the Kayah (aka Red Karen), Shan and Mon peoples, along with a large number of other smaller ethnic groups.
People are generally very polite, and they should be treated with respect and you should behave (and dress) modestly.
The Burmese are a polite and welcoming people, but be aware that pointing at people, or raising one's voice in anger at any time are both considered highly offensive.
Always ask permission before entering a temple or Pagoda. It is usually necessary to remove your hat and shoes.
Don't hand out money or sweets, as it only generates a begging mentality. There are better systems for assisting the local community. Your leader will be able to discuss this with you.
Please be modest about your clothing. While shorts are acceptable, there are few dress restrictions on religious or cultural grounds. Women should not wear high-cut shorts or skimpy tops.
Nudity is not accepted so please wear a bathing costume if you go swimming.
Do not touch a person’s head; or point at a person, Buddha statue or Buddha image (either with your finger or the soles of your feet).
Politics is often a taboo subject making local people uncomfortable, so don’t raise the subject unless locals do first.
Please bear in mind that tourism is still relatively new to Myanmar and in some areas locals have had little contact with Westerners as tourists.
Please be aware that the purchase of endangered animal products (ivory, tortoiseshell, bone) not only leads these animals toward extinction, but it’s also against the law in most western countries to import them.
One of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world is the lunar New Year celebration known as Chinese New Year, which falls in January/February each year. With its large Chinese community, Yangon in particular celebrates the holiday, with dragon dances and temple festivals happening in the city’s China Town.
Thingyan falls between 12-16 April each year and is by far the country’s most important holiday, incorporating the multi-day Water Festival and culminating in the Myanmar New Year on 17 April. Thingyan is a joyful time of year and one of the best times to experience Burmese culture. As to be expected, flights will need to be booked in advance and travel costs will be higher, but if you’re organised (and flexible!), traveling to Myanmar during Thingyan can offer a colourful glimpse into the country’s rich culture.
Buddha’s Birthday is celebrated in April or May each year, falling on the full moon of Kason, the second month of the traditional Burmese calendar.
Myanmar’s biggest animist spirit festival comes to Taungbyone (near Mandalay) every August, with tens of thousands of people coming together to pay tribute to the country’s most important nats (spirits). An intense week-long festival of music, dance, food and flowers, Taungbyone Nat Pwe is actually a welcoming gay/lesbian/transgender/transsexual pride festival, with its colourful ceremonies performed by transgender and transsexual Burmese.
Myanmar’s second biggest festival is Thadingyut (Festival of Lights), marking the end of Vassa, the three-month Buddhist Lent.
The country’s Christian population observes Easter, Lent and Christmas, with Christmas celebrated in some hotels and restaurants in tourist areas.
Myanmar’s Muslim population observes the holidays and festivals of the Islamic calendar including Ramadan, the holy month of fasting; and Eid, the celebration that follows.
Secular public holidays include Independence Day (4 January); Union Day (12 February); Peasants Day (2 March); Armed Forces Day (27 March); Workers Day (1 May) and National Holiday (November).
Total population is 55,746,253 (17), making Myanmar the 25th most populous country in the world, growing at an annual rate of 1.03%
The median age is 27.9 years, with 26.4% aged 0-14 and 5.3% aged 65+.
Sex ratio is 1.06 males to 1 female
32.6% of the total population live in urban areas (2011), with an average annual rate of urbanisation at 2.49%.
The majority of Myanmar’s population lives in rural areas, with the bulk living in the fertile Irrawaddy River valley region.
Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2%, Mon 2%, other 5%
Most of Myanmar lies with the Tropic Zone.
The hot season extends from March until October, and the cool season, from November through to February.
Temperatures during these seasons range from 17° to 40° C (62° to 104° F) in lower Myanmar.
Temperatures in upper Myanmar are usually less and mountainous regions can at times be cold.
The country receives pratically all its yearly rainfall between mid-May and October, the period of the Southwest Monsoon.
Tibet Autonomous Region to the north; Yunnan province (China) to the northeast; Laos to the east; Thailand to the southeast; the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal to the south and southwest; Bangladesh to the west; India to the west and northwest.
676,578 sq km / 261,228 sq mi (largest country in mainland Southeast Asia; 40th largest country in the world)
Myanmar is ranked 164th out of 178 countries (with an improving trend) on the Environmental Performance Index (2014)—which quantifies and benchmarks performance of government environmental policies and outcomes.
Environmental issues include industrial pollution, deforestation, water treatment and sanitation.
Natural hazards include floods and landslides during the wet season, damaging cyclones and earthquakes, seasonal droughts.
Myanmar is a signatory to various international environmental and conservation agreements.
Myanmar’s varied geography supports a wide variety of different flora and fauna.
Myanmar’s government estimates that half of the country’s landmass is forested, despite centuries of clearing for rice cultivation.
Tropical vegetation includes evergreen rainforest and jungle, broadleaf deciduous hardwoods such as teak, rhododendron forests, ferns, scrubland, bamboo, mangrove forests along the Irrawaddy and Sittang river deltas, and extensive rice paddies in the central lowlands.
The jungles of Myanmar’s tropical forest are extremely bio diverse. Burmese wildlife includes elephants, tigers, leopards, wildcats, bears, rhinoceroses, monkeys, gibbons, buffalo, various kinds of deer, plus hundreds of mammal, reptile, fish and bird species. A new primate species was discovered in northern Myanmar in 2010, the Myanmar (or Burmese) snub-nosed monkey.
Stretching from its northern border with China to its southernmost extension on the Malay Peninsula, Myanmar is home to a variety of physiographic regions, with distinct geographical features, climate, flora and fauna as a result.
Due to its location, the country’s northern reaches are similar to China and northern India, its southern regions are similar to Malaysia, and central Myanmar has overlapping similarities to both.
Myanmar’s five different physiographic zones are the northern mountains, the eastern (aka Shan) plateau, the central basin and lowlands of the Irrawaddy, the western ranges, and the coastal plain.
In the extreme north of the northern mountains sits Myanmar’s highest peak, Mount Hkakabo, at an elevation of 5,881 m / 19,296 ft. From here, the country’s terrain slopes southward, reaching sea level at the Irrawaddy and Sittang river deltas.
The central basin and lowlands form a vast region encompassing the perfectly flat areas of the Irrawaddy and Sittang river deltas and a river basin deeply eroded by previous river systems, a process which has left rich alluvial deposits and made this the fertile ‘food bowl’ of Myanmar. A series of volcanic cones, including Mount Popa, are found in the Pegu Range of central Myanmar.
The Shan plateau rises sharply from the eastern flank of the central basin, forming a wide elevated plain from which Myanmar has extracted lucrative lead, silver, zinc and gemstones.
The western ranges trend north-south along the entire length of western Myanmar, from the northern mountains down to the Rakhine (Arakan) mountains, separating the central basin from the coastal plain and forming a natural barrier between Myanmar and the Indian subcontinent.
Myanmar’s coastline stretches from Bangladesh to the Malay Peninsula, forming the eastern shore of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The country’s land claim includes many islands, including the Mergui Archipelago (aka Myeik Islands), with 800 mostly uninhabited, untouched and unexplored islands. The western ranges are separated from the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea by a narrow coastal plain.
Myanmar’s other major rivers are the Sittang and Salween, and the Mekong forms the border between Myanmar and Laos in the country’s east.
Inle Lake on the Shan Plateau in central Myanmar is the country’s most famous and second largest lake (the largest is Indawgyi Lake). Supporting cities and villages on its shores and floating villages and markets on its waters, the placid Inle is one of the country’s top tourist attractions.
Bagan Archaeological Area and Monuments (1996)
Wooden Monasteries of Konbaung Period: Ohn Don, Sala, Pakhangyi, Pakhannge, Legaing, Sagu, Shwe-Kyaung (Mandalay) (1996)
Badah-lin and associated caves (1996)
Ancient cities of Upper Myanmar: Innwa, Amarapura, Sagaing, Mingun, Mandalay (1996)
Myauk-U Archaeological Area and Monuments (1996)
Inle Lake (1996)
Mon cities: Bago, Hanthawaddy (1996)
Ayeyawady River Corridor (2014)
Northern Mountain Forest Complex (2014)
Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Sanctuary (2014)
Natma Taung National Park (2014)
Myeik Archipelago (2014)
Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary (2014)
World Youth Adventures can tailor make a school expedition to Myanmar to your school’s budget and curriculum requirements.
Talk to us about your next school expedition, or if you need some ideas check out the trips below.