Myanmar is an extraordinarily unique country. Filled with mythical caves, serene lakes, an infinite number of monasteries and temples, scenic mountain trails and some of the most interesting cuisine in Southeast Asia, Myanmar is a gem that has been tucked away for decades. A turbulent, tragic past and a present that is seeing ongoing struggle add a level of captivation that most other countries simply cannot offer.
Gratify those senses that are starting to tingle from curiosity with ten fascinating facts about Myanmar.
1. The gold-gilded Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, the country’s former capital city, has one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites. It is believed that eight of Gautama Buddha’s sacred hairs still remain here!
2. The capital city was moved 367 kilometers away (228 miles) from Yangon to Naypyitaw. This moved caused a lot of confusion, as Yangon is a highly commercialized city with a pretty dense population, whereas Naypyitaw was literally just a field.
The city was transformed massively, with an impressive 20-lane highway, high-speed Wi-Fi, reliable electricity and much more. What makes this fact interesting? Naypyitaw has a humble population of 924,608 (compared to 7,360,703 in Yangon), making this city look and feel more like an abandoned, eerie ghost-town than a cultural and political hub.
3. When traveling to the Chin state, located on Myanmar’s borders with India and Bangladesh, you’ll find one of the country’s most gripping stories: the face-tattooed tribal women of Myanmar. This region is home to the only ethnic group in the country, which is predominantly Buddhist, that has adopted Christianity. This makes them a double minority, neither Buddhist nor Burmese, thus leading to brutal discrimination; making them one of the most persecuted groups in all of Myanmar.
Families here are believed to have tattooed their daughters’ faces in order to make them appear less desirable so as to avoid being kidnapped by traveling Burmese kings who would want to take them as wives. In an effort to modernize the country, these tattoos were outlawed in 1972. The elderly women of the region are the last generation to bear these traditional facial tattoos.
4. There are a grand total of eight Jewish families living in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, making Jews the smallest ethnic group in the country. The biggest problem these families face day to day is finding enough people for their group prayers. Otherwise, they live in complete peace and harmony.
5. Known as Yoke thé, literally translating to “miniatures,”, Burmese marionette puppetry has become a refined artform over the last several centuries. It began as a form of entertainment for royals but slowly graduated to wider audiences and today, is one of the most iconic aspects of Burmese culture. The marionettes are extremely intricately made because of the Burmese belief that the puppets have a spirit.
When designing and shaping them, it is believed that this spirit is what plays the part of the puppet, not the outside appearance. Male marionettes employ eighteen wires, while females employ nineteen. Traditional shows contain twenty six main characters, most of which are typically gods, animals, monsters and royals.
6. Of the original 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries that stood in the ancient city of Bagan, a whopping 2,200 still remain to this day, making it the city with the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world.
7. The peak of Mount Popa, an extinct volcano in central Myanmar, reaches a staggering height of 1,518 meters (4,980 feet) and boasts an impressive monastery, Taung Kalat, at the top. Both the volcano and Taung Kalat are believed to have been sacred to the kings of Bagan as a place of sacrifice. Today, they are important pilgrimage sites and are believed to house thirty seven highly revered spirits, perhaps of those who were sacrificed many centuries ago.
8. Fishermen on Inle Lake, Myanmar’s second largest lake, are famous for fishing on one leg. This unique technique was developed over many centuries by the local Intha people, enabling the fishermen to see through the reeds of the shallow lake waters while simultaneously catching their dinners.
9. Myanmar is the only country in the world that regularly consumes tea leaves. Tea leaf salad, perhaps the country’s most iconic dish, can be found in nearly every restaurant or tea shop. That being said, tea is more than a delicacy here; it plays a significant role in everyday life and even in Myanmar’s history, as tea-drinking get togethers were and are a way to meet with family, friends and to host guests.
10. Myanmar is one of the few countries in the world where mangosteen can be found. This delicious, tropical superfruit has been described as a combination of oranges and peaches, and has a history of various medicinal uses throughout Southeast Asia.
It is impossible to grasp Myanmar’s complexity in one single post. These ten fun facts only scrape the surface of this beguiling place, so be sure to stay tuned for the rest of our Myanmar series.