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What makes a country is not merely its geography, but more its people. While it is true that Myanmar has breathtaking historical sites you don’t want to miss, its real charm resides in its people.
Apart from its devout practice of Theravada Buddhism, Myanmar is also known for its ethnic diversity and warm hospitality. It recognizes 135 distinct ethnic groups, speaking more than 100 languages belonging to 4 language groups.
This amazing diversity is one of Myanmar’s unique appeals, but has also in the past been the cause of much conflict. Balancing diversity with harmony is something the Myanmar government continues to grapple with.
The majority of the population (68%) are Burmese-speaking Bamars, descended from Indo-Tibetan nomads. These people dominate the government, the civil and military sectors of the country.
Most of the stereotypical images of Myanmar, such as the yellow bark powder people put on their faces for sunscreen, the practice of Theravada Buddhism, the traditional wrap-around clothing (longyi), are typical of the Bamar people.
Most tourist areas, including Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay, are regions dominated by Bamar people.
The second largest people group, the Shan, represents 9% of the population. They live mainly but not only in Shan State. Like the Bamars, they are mostly Theravada Buddhists.
The Shan people are distinguishable from the Bamar by their clothing. While the Bamar wear sarong-like longyi, the Shan men usually dress in baggy dark blue trousers, while girls above the age of 14 wear colorful dresses.
Interestingly, women wear less and less color as they grow older. At about the age of 40, they start to wear mainly black clothing, and continue to do so the rest of their lives..
The Shan State Army, an insurgent group in control of Shan state, is one of the largest of many rebel groups in Myanmar. Like other such groups, they have in the past struggled for independence from Myanmar.
The Kayin (Karen) and Kachin
The Kayin and Kachin are mostly Christians, as distinct from Buddhists, like the rest of the people of Myanmar. This is largely due to American Baptist missionary activity in the 19th century. During the colonial period, they were widely employed by the British as soldiers.
The preferential treatment of Kayin and Kachin over the Bamar has contributed to poor relations between them and the Bamar-dominated government in the past, and ill-feeling persists even until today.
The Kachin people live in northern Myanmar, bordering with China, while the Kayin people live in eastern Myanmar, bordering with Thailand. Both have long wished to separate from Myanmar and have fought long for independence, suffering much in the process.
Travel to these areas is still not recommended due to political instability.
The Rakhine and Chin
The Rakhine and Chin peoples both occupy the western region of Myanmar. The Rakhine constitute about 4% of the population and have slightly darker complexion, due to intermarriage with Indians.
The Chin constitute about 1% of the population and mainly live near the borders with India and Bangladesh. Like the Karen, the Chin have largely converted to Christianity from animism, due to Western missionary activities.
In addition to these, there are other smaller minorities, a large number of people of Indian descent who came to Myanmar during the British era, and many Chinese immigrants who today dominate the economy.
If you visit Inle Lake, you will encounter people from one of the smaller minorities called the “Intha” people. They are characterized by their men’s ‘leg-rowing’ skills, using one leg to stand on the boat and the other as if it was a long paddle to row the boat. For more details on Inle Lake, see
The Rohingya are a minority ethnic group residing in Rakhine State. The Myanmar government currently doesn’t recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group, maintaining that most of them are illegal immigrants who entered the country following Burmese independence.
Many people claim, however, that the group’s presence in Myanmar dates back to the colonial and even the pre-colonial period.
Like the Karen and Kachin people, the Rohingya’s distinct racial background (closer to Bengali) and Muslim faith have caused them to be held in contempt by the government and even by their neighbors.
The outbreak of conflict in 2015 in Rakhine State forced many Rohingya to flee abroad, including to Malaysia. Their plight became the focus of an international crisis, as human trafficking became a problem.
As the country starts to open up and develop its tourist industry, tourists are becoming a common sight in several places. Commonly visited tourist sites such as Yangon, Inle Lake, Bagan, Mandalay, and Nay Pyi Taw – the new capital – are safe for travel.
In other areas of the country, however, more caution needs to be taken, as political tension between certain ethnic groups and the government has yet to be resolved.
Since Burma used to be a British colony, many Myanmar people are conversant in English and English is the second national language.
The main language, however, is Burmese, which was originally the language of the Bamar people. During the Bagan Dynasty from 1044 to 1287 AD, Burmese was promoted as the common language to unite the region.
Within Burmese there are regional differences, between Upper Burma (the Mandalay dialect) and Lower Burma (the Yangon dialect). The differences are mainly in choice of vocabulary and pronunciation.
In the past the Upper Burma dialect was standard, but the Lower Burma dialect has been regarded as standard since Yangon became the center of economic and media activity.
Burmese uses a unique script adapted from Indian scripts. While there have been attempts to Romanize the writing, they have not yet been standardized (unlike Chinese pinyin). For example, a Burmese name such as may be Romanized variously as Win, Winn or even Wynn.
As elsewhere, you will be able to connect better with the local people if you know a little of their language. Even if you can only say a few phrases in Burmese, it will show local people that you are genuinely interested in their culture and are willing to get to know them.
We recommend that before embarking on your journey, you spend some time learning some basic Burmese phrases online.
Despite having experienced much bitterness in recent decades, the people of Myanmar have retained a genuine and warm sense of hospitality.
You will find that most Burmese people are friendly, helpful and willing to share their lifestyle with foreign visitors. Their sincere hospitality is one of the reasons why Myanmar will continue to attract visitors in future.
If you decide to use an Asia Highlights’ tour to explore Myanmar, you will experience this warmth firsthand. Our considerate and reliable guides will gladly share everything about the sights you see, from the signboards to the details of a festival.
Our drivers are equally willing to please. For example, when you return after visiting attractions, their air-conditioned cars are always cooled down and ready to welcome you. Drivers will supply you with water and tissues, help you with luggage, and more.
Waiters and waitresses in the restaurants and hotels are also very helpful.
Myanmar has great sights to explore, but you may find that one of the main highlights of your journey is your interaction with local people. We hope that when you visit Myanmar, you will get to know the people there in a more personal way and be entranced by their hospitality and diversity.
We provide tailor-made tours to Myanmar. Tours typically start or end in Yangon or Mandalay and last approximately 9 days; visiting Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake.
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