Myanmar is a largely-undiscoved gem of Southeast Asia, where experiences unlike any other await you. Below are some the best cultural activities to do in Myanmar, some of which are tried-and-true, and the others my personal favorites. (For the classic ‘best of Myanmar’ itinerary click here: 10 Things You Must Do in Myanmar)
Motorbike around Bagan
This is the most obvious one, but Bagan is a classic for a reason— this ancient capital has over 2000 temples, with dirt roads connecting them. For less than $10/day (if you rent for a couple days) you can navigate these incredible monuments at your pace. The main roads are asphalt, but getting off-road and seeing smaller, lesser-traveled temples is the best part of the experience.
All the motorbikes in Bagan are electric so you won’t feel bad about polluting, just make sure to charge them overnight so you don’t get stranded like I did!
See a traditional puppet show
Myanmar is famous for its puppets, something I thought was silly and ‘for children’ until I saw a performance by chance. By no means are these puppet shows for children.. they can be quite suggestive actually!
At a restaurant in Bagan, 4 men came out with very complex marionettes and put on the most spectacular puppet dance I’ve ever seen, and during certain parts, they pull up the curtain so the audience can appreciate how fast the puppeteer is working.
I highly recommend seeing one; there are performances you can pay to attend, but chances are, if you’re at a nicer restaurant in Bagan, you might happen upon one too!
Drink jaggery spirits
Jaggery is an unrefined cane or palm sugar common in South Asia, adding sweetness to many Indian and Myanmar desserts and teas.
But in Myanmar, jaggery is also fermented into an alcoholic beverage. It’s similar to rum, but with A LOT more flavor. Some stores will give you a free shot sample— you don’t have to buy a bottle if you accept, but you’ll definitely want to!
Eat Street Food in Yangon
Burmese cuisine is something most people have never experience– there is only 1 Burmese-fusion restaurant in the entire U.S.A, and I’d never been so I was pretty surprised to find that Burmese food in nothing like Thai food, and only vaguely similar to Indian food. (You’ll find samosas, but the curries are completely different).
For less than $2 you’ll be stuffed full of delicious sweet and savory fried dishes, lots of which are very eggy (heads up vegans… you’ll probably want to stick to the restaurants, where there are lots of options. More on Myanmar dining soon).
Take a boat on Inle Lake + Smoke a Cheroot
No trip to Myanmar is complete without a day-tour of the gorgeous Inle Lake, where there are entire towns on stilts, along with floating monasteries and restaurants. Here, you can find traditional Inthar fisherman, who famously row with one leg while they cast their nets.
While I don’t agree with fishing, its a tradition here and has recently become a bit of a show— you’ll be able to spot the difference between actual fisherman and those who are just doing it for tips*, immediately– still, both are worth seeing. Make sure to stick around for sunset!
One of the stops of your boat tour will likely be a cheroot rolling house– cheroots are all-natural cigarettes make from tobacoo and spices rolled in cheroot-tree leaves. They are probably some of the ‘healthiest’ cigarettes out there, and delicious, coming in many ‘flavors’ such as banana, anise, and mint.
You can really feel the dizzying effects of the raw nicotine in these unfiltered organic cancer-sticks so I recommend just smoking the free samples. Not your thing? Say no.
Shadow-dance in Bagan
Most travelers don’t realize that many Bagan temples are open until 9 or 10pm. We were getting up early to see as much as possible, and were generally exhausted by the time the sunset, you will be too— but the temples are completely different at night.
We met a local whose family takes care of a few of the smaller temples. He was really cool, one of the few people I met in Bagan who spoke English well. He told us about his life here, showed us some incredible photos of dry-season sunrises.
We made some shadow puppets together, and before we knew it, became puppets ourselves, dancing silhouettes on the 1000-year old brick walls.
Chow down on Shan Noodles
Not everyone in Myanmar is Burmese– there are many ethnic minorities, each with their own cultures, languages, clothing, and food. Shan noodles are famous, not only in Myanmar but also in Thailand, because they’re delicious and pretty different from most of the food I had during my trip.
Shan noodles are rice-based but chewier than pho or what you’d expect, in a spicy tomato broth (just make sure to get it without the typical chicken and sometimes fish sauce if you’re veg like me!)
Wear a traditional Longyi
A longyi is an ankle-length skirt for men and women (though the styles are different) made from a single cloth, often woven with intricate patterns, in cotton or silk.
Many of the peoples of Myanmar wear Longyi– its such a part of the cultures that you’ll even see Indian and Malay immigrants in Yangon wearing it!
Though it took a while for me to understand how to tie a longyi, I really enjoyed wearing one, especially on hot days! It’s easy to see why this garment is so popular, I’m not sure why more people don’t wear them. Locals are very proud of their tradition, so if your longyi is falling off or tied incorrectly, they’ll come fix it for you— often without any notice so don’t be surprised!
Climb Mandalay or Sagaing Hill (or both)
Myanmar is the largest Buddhist country, something the people are very proud of, and you’ll find temples EVERYWHERE. Mandalay and Sagaing, two cities in Northern Myanmar, both have temples on the hill overlooking the city. These temples are adorned with intricate mosaics, and offer panoramic views over the cities, so I highly recommend hiking up.
Tip: Mandalay hill has stairs, Sagaing does not, and is much more challenging but the temples on Sagaing are better, while I felt Mandalay was a better viewpoint.
Wear traditional Thanaka
Many Myanmar people wear Thanaka (the h is silent), a yellowish-paste made from the inside of a tree, mixed with water. It is applied using the fingers, often on the cheeks but traditionally also on the nose, and can be done quite artistically. You won’t have a hard time finding it, nearly every girl you see is wearing it.
In Mandalay, someone might happily put some on your face for free. I bought some because its so cheap, but realized there’s an art to it and I failed at doing it myself!
Myanmar is a really incredible place to visit, full of history, temples, and unique cultures which you’ve never encountered before!
For more on Myanmar, check out: Top Destination of 2020: Myanmar (1 Week Itinerary)
I’ll be writing more about Myanmars cuisines, and my other experiences soon!
Thanks for reading! Follow me on Instagram @tristans_expeditions for more.
*Myanmar is only becoming more touristy, so my suggestion is to get there are soon as possible while traditional things still exist to the extent that they do, and shops are not flooded with trinkets and t-shirts— when I was there this summer, the souvenir shops are full of really incredible local handicrafts and antiques, rather than cookie-cutter junk like Thailand and Cambodia.