Myanmar is quite the land of mystery. Closed to tourism for many years, this beguiling country has only recently welcomed travelers, and still retains a high level of exotic allure.
A particularly enigmatic destination for Western visitors, Myanmar continues to inspire and surprise even the most worldly travelers. To give you an idea of what makes the country so special, we’ve compiled a list of some fun and interesting Myanmar facts.
Find out why Myanmar women wear bark on their faces, why the traffic is kind of chaotic and if you’d be up for a game of chinlone, and start dreaming about your upcoming Myanmar trip…
Fact 1 – In Myanmar, you can eat tea
Why limit this lovely leaf to beverages? In Myanmar, tea leaves, lahpet, are fermented and eaten in the nation’s most beloved dish, lahpet thohk – tea leaf salad.
There’s even a local expression about tea leaves: “Of all the fruit, the mango’s the best; of all the meat, the pork’s the best; and of all the leaves, lahpet‘s the best.”
Fact 2 – Shwedagon Pagoda holds a bit of the Buddha
This most sacred of sites is believed to hold, among other relics, eight strands of Gautama Buddha’s hair.
According to legend, two merchants met the Buddha (who lived around 2,500 years ago) on their travels and returned to Burma with the strands of hair, which were placed in the temple with the other relics.
Fact 3 – Bark paste protects the face
Those chalky swirls you see on the cheeks of women and children is thanaka – a cosmetic paste made from the bark of selected trees.
The wearing of thanaka has been happening for at least 2,000 years; it is said to keep skin smooth and protect against sun damage.
Fact 4 – At one point, Myanmar ran out of Burmese cats
Purebred Burmese cats were once kept as royal pets; King Thibaw had 40 of them in the palace when the British took control of the country.
With no one protecting their bloodline, purebred Burmese had disappeared by the 1930s.
They were only recently reintroduced from the US, and now their numbers are slowly increasing, thanks to a breeding program by Inthar Heritage House on Inle Lake.
Fact 5 – Sea gypsies inhabit the islands
The Moken ‘sea gypsies’ are one of Myanmar’s diverse array of ethnic groups, inhabiting the spectacular Mergui Archipelago off the Andaman Coastline.
They traditionally live a nomadic lifestyle, spending most of their time at sea and setting up on land only during monsoon.
Their knowledge of the ocean is said to have alerted them to the 2004 tsunami, enabling them to move out of harm’s way.
Fact 6 -Fortunes are serious business
Astrology is taken very seriously in Myanmar. The Burmese zodiac comprises the 12 signs of the Western zodiac, plus 27 lunar mansions and 8 weekday signs.
E Thi, a blind, deaf-mute Myanmar soothsayer is one of the country’s most famous astrologers.
Her high-profile clients include exiled Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra and ex-junta leader General Than Shwe.
Fact 7 – Driving is chaotic (for good reason)
While the rule of the road in Myanmar was originally to keep to the left, the country switched sides overnight in 1970. Unfortunately, trade sanctions banned the import of cars from countries who make left-hand-drive vehicles.
Thus, the mix of cars currently on the roads includes extremely vintage left-hand-drive vehicles and newer right-hand-drive cars imported from Japan.
This is why we recommend a driver!
Fact 8 – Shwedagon Pagoda is encrusted with diamonds
This shimmering gold temple is not only entirely covered in gold leaf, its very top is covered in more than 4,500 diamonds. The largest, right at the top, is 72 carats.
Fact 9 – Birds like Myanmar
The country is home to more than 1,000 species of birds, of which six are endemic and 51 are endangered.
If you fancy a spot of bird-watching, Bagan and Mt Victoria are two places where you’ll see lots of feathered friends, as well as the wetlands of the Ayeyarwady delta region.
Fact 10 – New Year starts with a splash
Myanmar begins the Buddhist New Year (around April 14-16) with Thingyan, a multi-day celebration of prayers, offerings, traditional dance, parties and water fights.
The sprinkling of water over one’s head is a metaphoric washing away of past evils – a custom that has evolved into full-fledged water fights with cannons, pistols and buckets.
Fact 11 – You can visit the Himalayas
Up in the far north of Myanmar you’ll find the township of Putao, Kachin State, in the foothills of the Himalayas.
From Putao, it’s possible to trek up Mount Phongun Razi, with an elevation of nearly 3,635 meters (12,000 feet).
Thanks to its relative inaccessibility, this region is remarkably pristine, and you’re likely to spot endemic wildlife and rare orchid species.
Fact 12 – Myanmar is more diverse than the USA
Roughly 135 ethnic groups make up the people of Myanmar and it’s ranked 75 most culturally and ethnically diverse country in the world.
The government groups these into eight main ‘races’: Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and Bamar (the dominant group, who make up nearly 70% of the population).
The collective number of languages spoken by these diverse peoples is upwards of 60.
Fact 13 – Myanmar has its own measurements
Myanmar is one of only three countries in the world not to use the metric system.
The country still uses its own units of measurement, though you’ll find gas measured in gallons and distances in miles.
Weight is a big trickier, with 1 viss (peittha) equal to 1.68 kilograms (3.5 pounds). Confused?
Fact 14 – You can use two different currencies in Myanmar
The local currency is called kyat (MMK), but you can also use US dollars when you’re traveling through Myanmar.
One USD is roughly 1,360 MMK – if you want to easily pay for things in local shops you should break larger notes and keep 1,000 and 500 kyat notes handy (a bowl of noodles is around 500 kyat).
Many places will only accept US currency that is nigh-perfect (uncrumpled, unfolded), so keep your bills pristine!
Fact 15 – It’s not a sarong, it’s a longyi
In Myanmar, you’ll see men and women wearing a longyi – a cylindrical piece of cloth worn around the waist, down to the feet.
Coming in all colors, patterns and fabrics (in particula silk), they keep the wearer cool in the summer, allowing air to circulate and protecting from sun.
Men’s (called paso) are usually plaid, striped or plain, while the women’s (a htamein) are more brightly hued.
Fact 16 – Magic can prevent misfortune
Yadaya is a form of ‘magic’ that enables a person to avoid misfortune if they fulfill a prescribed ritual.
Noteworthy instances of yadaya include, Myanmar’s first prime minister, U Nu, ordering the construction of 60,000 pagodas across the country to ward off evil and protect the state.
Also the aforementioned switch from left-hand driving to right-hand driving as ordered by General Ne Win, was on advice from the general’s wife’s fortune teller.
Fact 17 – There is a pagoda on top of a golden rock
If you are in Mon state, you’ll likely get to see Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, the well-known Buddhist pilgrimage site. It’s only small (around 7 meters), but it’s perched on top of a huge boulder that’s been covered in gold leaf.
The rock itself looks precariously balanced on the edge of a cliff. During peak pilgrimage season, chants float through the air day and night.
Fact 18 – Yangon is not the capital
Around 320 kilometers from Yangon lies Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s shiny new capital.
Construction of this planned city began in 2002 in the middle of empty countryside, and it was announced the new capital, taking the title from Yangon, in 2006.
The name literally translates to ‘abode of the king’, and is used as a suffix for royal capitals.
Fact 19 – Myanmar and Thailand have history
And like most neighbouring countries, that history was not always pleasant. During the Burmese-Siamese wars, the great armies of both kingdoms clashed multiple times, with Burma defeating Siam on most occasions.
In the sixth attack on Ayutthaya, the city finally fell to the Burmese army, moving the Thai capital downriver to Bangkok.
A couple hundred years later Siam then kicked Burma out of the Lanna Kingdom, to claim Chiang Mai as its own.
Fact 20 – Chinlone – part-sport, part-dance, part-martial art
The national sport of Myanmar is chinlone, a non-competitive game where a cane ball is kept aloft by a team of 6 players through a series of creative foot juggling.
The ball is passed back and forth between players who exhibit an acrobatic level of ball juggling.
The sport started as a form of entertainment in the royal courts 1,500 years ago.
Fact 21 – The thing everyone is chewing is betel leaf
Specifically, kwunya: betel leaves wrapped around areca nut with tobacco and cloves.
Chewed for its stimulant properties it stains the mouth red and can lead to tooth decay and oral cancer.
The practice of betel-chewing in Myanmar predates recorded history
Fact 22 – Myanmar has the world’s finest rubies
Untreated rubies from Mogok in the Mandalay Region and Mong Hsu in Shan State are high in chromium and low in iron, giving them high fluorescence and that coveted ‘pigeon’s blood’ hue.
The most famous of them all, the ‘Graff Ruby’ ring, fetched USD 8.6M at a Sotheby’s auction in 2015, setting a new world record.
Lifted sanctions make them available again in the US for the first time in years.
Fact 23 – It also has wine
The mountains of Myanmar offer a favourable climate for grape growing, and a couple of vineyards have opened up, producing their own wines.
Both Aythaya Red Wine and Red Mountain offer wine tasting, so you can sample a local drop after taking a tour of the winery.
Fact 24 – And lots of wildlife
The thick, unspoiled jungles of Myanmar are home to lots of cool animals: elephants, tigers, leopards and rhinoceros to name a few, as well as 28 species of turtles and tortoises.
Seven of these species are endemic, including the Burmese roofed turtle, which was thought to be extinct until 2002.
Happily, a conservation project has brought numbers up into the hundreds.
Fact 25 – There might even be unicorns
Marco Polo was so rapt by the jungles and plains of Burma that he wrote of them in his own 13th-century travel diary.
He spoke of hills full of gold and incredible animals – even unicorns (he was likely talking about rhinoceros). About Bagan he wrote: “The towers are built of fine stone, and one has been covered with gold a finger thick, so that the tower appears to be of solid gold. Another is covered with silver in a similar manner and appears to be made of solid silver….They make one of the finest sights in the world, being exquisitely finished, splendid and costly. When illuminated by the sun they are especially brilliant and can be seen from the great distance.” Sounds pretty magical, huh?
If you have any fun and interesting facts to add to our list, want to expand upon something above, or just want to share your Myanmar love with us, let us know!