At Glance

A MIXTURE OF WONDROUS ancient pagodas, stunning archeological sites, scenic landscapes of Himalayan foothills and pristine islands and beaches, combined with a unique and diverse culture of over 130 distinct ethnic groups are just a few reasons why a rapidly growing number of tourists are hurrying to explore Myanmar, one of the most undiscovered and charming countries in Asia. Due to decades of international sanctions and tourism boycott, which ended only in 2012, Myanmar has not changed for generations. Travelling around the country feels like you are going hundreds of years back in time. Most people in Myanmar still live the traditional way as farmers, without access to electricity, using ox carts to cultivate their fields and as a mean of transportation. Best of all, you will encounter different tribes with distinct cultures, customs and languages. No matter where you go, you will meet with friendly, engaging and humorous people that are happy to share their unique way of life with you.

Spanning a land area of 1,275 miles (2,050 km) when estimated from the east side of the Himalayas to the palm-surrounded Andaman Sea coast, Myanmar is encircled by an amazing assemblage of landscapes. Being at the heart of the country, encompassed by a huge of jungle covered with mountains, is a wide, slightly parched area forged by the flat-lined Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) valleys, Sittaung, Thanlwin and Chindwin Rivers, which travel southwards into the Bay of Bengal and the Mottaman (Martaban) Gulf. Connected to a network of streams, irrigation canals, rivulets, and ditches, the low-end river deltas where these gigantic waters empty into the ocean from stretched patchworks of flooded fields – where the country grows most of its rice.

Heading towards the north and east, the stripped slopes and soak-sided stream crevasses of the limestone Shan Plateau swell the distance to the outskirt of Yunnan Province in China, and the opium-developing belt of the purported Golden Triangle district where Laos and Thailand frontiers converge with the frontiers of Myanmar. Meanwhile, in the west, we see an array of smaller, loftier mountains which connects the borders of India and Bangladesh, coming to a head in the extreme north at the Hkakabo Razi massif, Myanmar's and Southeast Asia's most elevated top at 19,294 ft (5,881m). At the other end, further south by the country’s end, the land decreases to a restricted belt along the immaculate coast of Tenasserim, where the multitude of coral bordered islets and islands of the untainted Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago makes for one of the last genuine marine wild districts of Southeast Asia's, the last fortress of the travelling Moken ocean wanderers.

The Citizens

Myanmar's divergent physical qualities are reflected in its ethnic composition. The Bamars who speak Burmese originated from Indo-Tibetan wanderers who in the 9th and 10th centuries defeated the central plains, constituting about 68 percent of the 60-million well-built populace that fill up different positions in the nation's government, military and civil service.

The remote areas, however, consists of a mind-boggling puzzle people of minority groups, like the Mon, Karen, Kachin, Chin, the Rakhines (Arakanese) and the Shans, and they have all, at one point or another fought or is still fighting the state of Burmese. The outskirt zones hill areas and Shan Plateau hosts much smaller and more differentiated groups, like the Pa-O, the Danu, the Akha and the Padaung, identified by their outlandish customary outfits.

The blend of differing ethnicities is further improved by the presence of a huge multitude of Indians, ancestral children of labourers who arrived Burma during the reign of the British, and immigrants from china who today rule Mandalay’s economy and mostly form a major part of the population in a few towns located in the northeast.

Worship and Lifestyle

A typical Burmese society which has a hierarchical and primitive nature formed by the medieval rulers which started from around the 11th century and further strengthened by her successors, but severely fragmented by the time the British left in the late 19th century, and was substituted by a draconian form of totalitarian socialism, backed then by the military, after their independence. One factor, however, has remained unchanged through the nation's long and turbulent history. Buddhism, which has been an unavoidable part of the Burmese culture for over two centuries now, is accepted to have flourished in the region during the lifetime of its founder, Gautama Buddha (c. 563–483 BC) and over 89 percent of Myanmar's population practise this faith today. In a country that is generally a lowland, the immense brilliant zedis (stupas), raised, broadened, and decorated by several generations of their traditional rulers, are striking indications of the religion’s persisting popularity.

Another constant factor is the massive support the sangha or monkhood enjoys. Over half a million men in Burmese are monks and about 75,000 of their women are nuns – this is the highest population ratio when compared to any other country on earth. Also, the Myanmar populace normally donates a large proportion of their income to religious orders more than any other country in the world, while almost every Buddhist child spends no less than half a month living as a friar in a monastery from the age of seven.

Some of the most amazing sights of the country includes the presence of long lines of friars dressed in wine-shaded robes, walking orderly along the town’s streets and urban areas as the indigenes fetch hot rice into their bowls – a typical case of Burmese "merit making," through which individuals enhance their odds of living a better life in the future by presently performing great deeds. Theravada is the school of Buddhism that is adopted in Myanmar. It was first taught in the region by the Pyus around the 5th century AD, thriving with a lot of support from the Mon lords in the early medieval era, this school of Buddhism was later received as the official religion of the state by the Bagan leaders. Viewed by its followers as a purer type of Buddhism, more genuine in spirit to the initial Buddha teachings, the Theravada custom underscores how Vipassana reflection provides the path to illumination.

The huge significance the Burmese families place on Buddhist philosophy and right living are hugely responsible for the kind, friendly, and truthful way individuals in Myanmar lead their lives. Visitors who are used to the more tough-like Asian nations are usually shocked by way in which tourists are treated here: you will hardly be short-changed in a restaurant, unnecessarily overcharged by a cab driver, or duped into buying fake products.

Despite, the Buddhist lessons of peacefulness, youthful friars have not held back from organising myriads of protests against the military government of Myanmar. Friars practically stood on the front lines in the wake of the 2007 mass revolt which was later referred to as the Saffron Revolution due to the colour of their robes.

Even more so, Burmese friars have in recent years also led the violent protests that were coordinated against the nation's Muslim minority. About 5 percent of the population are Muslims and are ancestral children of traders, fighters, refugees and war prisoners from India, as well as Persian advisors and Chinese dealers. Most of the nation's Muslims are generally habited in isolated communities, the biggest of which is in Yangon – one of the legacies of the British reign, when a large number of Indian Muslims in their quest to find work, set out to Lower Burma and the Ayeyarwady Delta.

There have been random communal clashes amongst Buddhists and Muslims all through the entire nation since their Independence, but this has escalated in recent times, especially in the north-western state of Rakhine (Arakan), where a huge number of Muslims of the Rohingya minority group have been dislodged by several episodes of violent clashes.
 
Politics and Government

In the late 1950’s, there was an expansion of equipped rebellions mounted by ethnic minority groups, and this quickly resulted in the emergence of a military government in Burma. From that point forward, a few military coups have implied that the army has held a tight grip on the country. Protests, popular insurrections, and chants for the entrenchment of democratic rule and freedom of expression have been savagely stifled by the ruling faction, prompting the enactment of sanctions and a tourism blacklist by Western nations.

Notwithstanding, Myanmar has witnessed significant political reforms in recent times. Previously banned members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) have now been included in parliament, one of which is the party’s notorious leader, Aung San SuuKyi, whose picture is presently uninhibitedly shown on signage and T-shirts all over the nation. The press now has significantly more freedom than it has since the British era, and some of her provincial armed forces have consented to historic ceasefire arrangements with the Tatmadaw (Burmese military), causing civil wars that have been on for a long time to grind to a halt.

The changes, nonetheless, do not in any way translate to the revolutions which the global western communities have desired. The media and the judiciary are not really free, and only little of the riches produced by state-controlled organisations, (for example, the oil and gas ventures) get to the nation's poor. While military spending constitutes over 20 percent of total government expense, budgets for health spending are at a remarkably low 4 percent. Until real constitutional reforms take place, the parliamentary reforms have not really affected the general framework of their complex government system, which has stayed in the firm hold of the military generals.

Nevertheless, you still find a great sense of positivity amongst the people of Myanmar. There are frank discussions about the country’s political system in a manner that has not been discussed for generations now and there is a feeling that the time is at hand when the views of the common man will be considered by the ruling class. One recent instance was the suspension of a construction project work on a huge dam over a tributary of the Ayeyarwady River after some environmentalists amassed great support against the project. It was intended to be a hydroelectricity project that was supposed to provide electricity to its Chinese benefactors and hefty compensations for the local authorities.

Economic Growth

Myanmar’s failing economy has been the major motivation for political reforms in recent times. While its surrounding countries have been enjoying a high level of economic prosperity, Myanmar has maintained the position of being one of Southeast Asia’s poorest states. It is estimated that about 33% of its population live below the poverty line.

The major reason for this being the way the military cabal has recklessly plundered the country’s wealth. The government has earned significant sums of income through the exportation of gas, tropical timber, and gemstones; however, this wealth has managed to stay within the coffers of a few elite families of about twenty in number who have succeeded in building their wealth based on favours from the military cabals.

This same set of individuals are also positioned to profit the most from the recent growths in foreign inflows, as there are guarantees to free up the nation's economy so as to attract potential foreign investors, especially in the oil and gas industry, due to Myanmar's huge and unexplored reserves.

Yet still, while export-oriented industries are trying to gain grounds, the country still heavily relies on agriculture to cater for its poor masses. Presently, over 70 percent of Myanmar's population are farmers and since the fall of rice production during the military era, most of what they produce is consumed locally.

Tourism

Another great potential the Myanmar's economy holds is tourism. Though it has not been functioning for decades due to the boycott led by NLD, the number of visitors has drastically increased since 2010, with about one million visitors in 2012 and another 1.5 million in the succeeding year. This sharp rise in the number of guests has posed some serious challenges to the country, mostly a lack of sufficient accommodation. This has resulted in hotel prices jumping to as high as prices in Europe and North America. There have also been noticeable shortages in power and water as the authorities are still struggling to cope with the demands.

When the tourism boycott was lifted, Aung San SuuKyi the leader of NLD communicated his worries about the dividends from a thriving tourism sector being enjoyed only by the military cabals and their cohorts who own most of the local airlines and hotels as well as ordinary Burmese. She, therefore, urged the tourists to seek out "small scale tourism," by travelling independently and patronising local shops, not paying attention to the large-scale operators. However, the trend still suggests that most visitors book pre-arranged tours and remain in lavish hotels that are owned by cronies of the government.

Beside Myanmar's exceptional culture and guest attractions, the colossal resource for Burmese tourism is simply the fundamental character of the Burmese people. Regardless of the nation's absence of learning opportunities for its citizens and satisfactory infrastructure, the indigenes are astonishingly well-mannered and accommodating, and would be glad to share their lifestyle with the rest of the world which they feel cut off from in a very long time. This may sound like common talk, but the true welcoming nature of Burmese hospitality leaves you with a memory to cherish likewise the country’s historic landmarks and sites.
 
 

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