Travelers to Myanmar may feel some trepidation—and with good reason.
With decades of military rule and armed conflict marring the peace, the country was all but closed to travelers until 2011. But Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is on the brink of change, particularly if Aung San Suu Kyi succeeds in leading the country to democracy—and as a destination, it has so much to offer. People in Myanmar are perhaps the most welcoming in the world, and the country is home to a host of unique cultural landscapes, from elaborate bridges to the world’s largest book to one-leg fisherman rowers.
Here are some experiences you can probably only find in Myanmar:
1. VISIT TEAHOUSES INSTEAD OF BARS.
Tea consumption is a Burmese way of life. Instead of bars, teahouses serve as the social gathering places. Every neighborhood has at least one of these corner shops, and they are easily recognizable by the small plastic tables and stools that spill out on the street. You will even see many peaceful Buddhist monks sitting in these shops, enjoying warm cups of brew. A few famous tea shops are also open 24 hours, so they're a popular late-night place to go when hungry. Many establishments are family-run, with teenage boys usually serving the tea with bright smiles.
2. WITNESS ONE-LEG ROWERS
Myanmar’s Intha fishermen live in colorful floating villages held up by bamboo and situated on Inle Lake. They row 10-foot long canoe-like boats with one leg wrapped around a single oar, which leaves their hands free to manipulate their fishing nets. This is the only place in the world where fishermen row with their legs, which takes a high level of balance, agility, and strength. The fishermen have to determine the right amount of pressure to put on the free leg while the other leg steers, turns, and uses the oar to slow the boat down. Basic fishing equipment helps the men catch Inle carp and other fish.
3. SEE THE WORLD’S LARGEST BOOK.
The gilded Kuthodaw Pagoda, called “the world’s largest book,” is a collection of 729 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist teachings. The pagoda was built by King Mindon Min circa 1860, and took 8 years to complete. The texts were copied from ancient manuscripts written on dried palm leaves, with the letters carved out of the stone and inlaid with gold leaf. Each marble slab is 5 feet long, 3.5 feet wide, and enshrined in a Dhamma ceti, or a cave-like structure. At the 730th slab, there is information on how the world’s largest book came about.
4. WALK THE WORLD’S LONGEST TEAK BRIDGE.
At three-quarters of a mile, the U Bein Bridge in Amarapura is the longest teak bridge in the world. The local then-mayor, U Bein, salvaged the wood from pieces of the dismantled teak palace at Amarapura when the capital moved to Mandalay in the late 1850s. The bridge is a central part of the community, a place where you see monks walking their bikes daily, women carrying produce home, and fishermen restoring colorful well-used boats in its shadow.
5. VISIT THE ONLY OVER-WATER BURMESE CAT SANCTUARY.
The luxury Inle Heritage House is a collection of six bungalows perched on stilts above Inle Lake, with its own organic garden and organized Myanmar cuisine cooking classes. The most intriguing aspect of the property, however, is its feline residents: the 40 rare Burmese cats that laze around the on-site Burmese Sanctuary. This safe haven was created when the pure Burmese cat bloodline was at risk of extinction. Feline accommodations include indoor lounge chairs and an outdoor play house situated precariously close to the edge of Inle Lake. Guests are welcome to play with the friendly, agile cats.
6. MARVEL AT THE ONLY MAJOR BURMESE ROYAL PALACE BUILDING TO SURVIVE WORLD WAR II.
The teak-carved Shwenandaw Monastery is the only major Royal Palace (the former royal residence) building in Myanmar to survive World War II bombing. When King Mindon built the Royal Palace in 1857, he used the building as his personal living quarters. After the king died, his son took charge and placed it outside of the palace grounds, where it was converted into a monastery in 1880. The building is comprised of large teak pillars and carved panels depicting scenes from the Jataka tales, which recount the previous lives of the Buddha.
All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise noted.