A rooster crows. The slap of bare feet fills the pavement as monks begin their morning walk for alms. Buddhist prayers pour out of the temple loudspeaker; an Indian vendor mixes spices for the morning curry; somewhere a car honks and children sing on their way to school. Waking up as a volunteer in Myanmar is a sensory experience. With seven ethnic states mapped inside its borders, it’s difficult to declare any one scent or sound as quintessentially Burmese. But, as a visitor and volunteer, these are a few cultural sights and opportunities that should definitely be experienced to enhance your time in Myanmar.
1. Start the Day in a Sweet Tea Stall.
The country takes tea seriously. Even the smallest street vendor will offer a thermos of the piping herbal beverage. Sweet tea – le pay, as it sounds to the Western ear – is a favorite. With this mixture of tea and condensed milk, served in shot sized glasses, sweat tea stalls are the early a.m. cafes of other cultures. Accompany your drink with braids of fried dough, thin naan-style pancakes, Chinese pork buns, and other snacks. While sweet tea is similar to chai, influenced by Nepalese, Bangladeshi, and Indian immigrants, the tea shop is distinctly Burmese. It is here that men and women gather to discuss current affairs and the latest political developments.
2. Witness a Buddhist Ceremony.
Temples along the tourist routes will advertise special events – from leaping cats to bathing Burmese pythons. However, there are many ceremonies and practices that fall within every Buddhist calendar, and these offer a unique opportunity to better understand the country’s main religious group. Visit a temple during one of the year’s Full Moon festivals, or watch the monks on their morning walk for alms (offerings of food). If you’re lucky, you can catch a cluster of newly shaved monks at their ordination ceremony or, hear the rhythmic chant of daily prayers.
3. Visit Shwedagon Pagoda at Sunset.
The 325 foot (99 meter) tall pagoda, or paya, is the country’s most iconic spiritual center. Shwe means “golden” in Burmese, a name taken from the gold plates that decorate it. Buddhists believe it is over 2,500 years old. Locals say that if you visit in the late afternoon and plant your feet at a particular point in the temple’s courtyards, you will see a rainbow of colors as the sun sets through diamonds in the paya’s top-most crown, or hti.
4. Watch a Burmese Movie.
Since Burma only recently opened its doors to foreign investment and tourism, the country’s media industry is still predominantly Burmese. Starring a few lucky celebrities, who you will recognize from advertisements and billboards, movies introduce visitors to a very unique way of life. Typically light-hearted and comedic, they tend to incorporate a dashing hero, gangly sidekick, and devious bad guy. Plots are predictable, with vaudeville style soundtracks (gongs and cymbals).
Be aware: most films portray the lives of wealthy, metropolitan Burmese, and not their ethnic or rural neighbors.
5. Take a Local Bus.
Tuk tuks and trishaws are two forms of transportation for shorter distances. For longer jaunts, flag down a local bus. Women, children, and families are squeezed along two rows of benches, with late-comers sitting on laps, shopping bags, and anything else they can find. When the bus gets too crowded, poultry, boxes, and men are crowded onto the roof. Nothing brings you physically closer to a Burmese person than a bumpy, speedy drive in such confined spaces!
6. Book a Sunrise Boat at Inle Lake.
The floating villages of Inle Lake are a major tourist attraction for a reason. To beat the crowds and glimpse daily life for the ethnic peoples who live here, organize to take a boat out before sunrise. Fisherman up and down the docks will take on passengers for extra wages. Seated in their long and low boats, you can glide beside the famous Inle fisherman who steer with their legs, and wake up the herons with your passing.
7. Hike Through Hill Tribe Regions.
In the central and northern hills of Myanmar, ethnic language and culture can change from village to village. With so many different tribes living in the area, hiking and trekking have become popular activities. In the towns of Kalaw and Hsipaw, local guides can arrange trips lasting one day or one week.
Study maps, chat with guides, and determine a route that works for you; along the way, you’ll have the chance to dine with unique peoples and learn about Burmese plants and animals. A good guide should make clear that your hiking fees go towards medicines and necessary supplies for the more remote tribes in the area.
8. Snack on Everything.
Street vendors and markets replace grocery stores in Myanmar. Springing up at every corner, you can smell your way through these delicious dining options. Indian pakora and roti fry in small pans; chestnuts and sunflower seeds roast in big vats; women stoop over frames on the ground, pouring palm sugar into shaped candies. Face your wariest taste buds and try some of the wilder-looking snacks, like speckled hard-boiled eggs and tea salad.
9. Bike Through Bagan.
Myanmar’s government came under criticism when it reconstructed some of the ruins at this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Historians argue that the improvements were badly done; but, with over 2,000 pagodas to choose from, Bagan is still worth exploring. The site of the ancient city, Pagan, it’s is often called the “Angkor Wat” of Myanmar. Frescos, giant Buddhas, and richly decorated stupas emphasize the country’s religious and political history. While local horse carts can carry visitors between the sites, bikes are the best way to negotiate between the ruins.