Getting to Know Burma

December 2015 - Pagodas of Bagan, Myanmar
Myanmar or Burma, as most people know it, is perhaps the least traveled South East Asian country. Since it has opened its doors to tourism and had been more lenient to visa approvals (Philippine passport is granted 30 days of stay upon arrival), there is no doubt this hidden gem of the East is being flocked by tourists.

With its neighboring countries Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, a lot of backpackers have been including Myanmar into their itineraries. From mountain ranges, pagodas, rivers and lakes, this is definitely a place worth exploring.

I visited Myanmar during the Christmas holidays, a country which doesn't even celebrate it. Despite that, I can never be more grateful to be accompanied by my Burmese friends. It went actually a lot smoother and easier having them especially with communicating with the locals.


About an hour's flight from Yangon (City Capital) is Bagan, well known for its timeless pagodas dating back as early as the 12th Century. Local domestic flights are actually more expensive than what I paid for my international flight from Singapore to Yangon. Tourists have to pay more than the locals. As per my friend's advise, it is recommended to book domestic flight reservations through a local travel agent. If you have more time, you can take an overnight train or bus from Yangon, which will be a lot cheaper but will definitely take almost a whole day of travel. However, driving the rough roads to Bagan won't be an easy journey which might add discomfort to the long drive. Since I only had 5 days in Myanmar and only 2 nights in Bagan, I had to opt to fly.

Upon arriving, you would have to pay an Eco tour pass for USD 25. This serves as your ticket that would allow you to visit the pagodas. Although there were not really any checkpoints during my visit, I always carried it with me in case someone looks for it.

Exploring Bagan

Getting around Bagan is easier by bike (electric, manual or scooter) as it allows you flexibility to get around and visit pagodas, which are mostly situated right next to each other. There are numerous bike rentals that will only charge for as low as 10,000 Kyats (USD 8) for a whole day rental. There are no public buses or trains so if you won't bike it, you would have to hire a car to get around.

There are about 2,000 pagodas scattered immensely across Bagan. To be honest, a day isn't enough to visit all of them so I would recommend planning beforehand what it is you want to see. My friends gladly drove me to the popular ones but later on I have asked them to bring me to the non-touristy ones instead which are obviously less crowded.

Climbing on top of the pagodas is one way of getting a good view of Bagan.
Posing with my good friend from Myanmar who gladly showed me around :)

Another way of seeing the pagodas to get a bird's eye view of Bagan is through a Hot Air Balloon, which I have written about on my previous blog. 

Hot air ballooning over Bagan.

While they might all look the same from afar, Pagodas actually vary in sizes, shapes and design. They also put markings (numbers) on them for record purposes. Most of them are well kept and maintained you wouldn't even know it was built ages ago until you get inside and see the peeling of paintings from its walls. Some of them are being renovated which I personally think makes it more modern looking and loses its genuine form.

Newly renovated Pagoda
Peeled painting of Buddha inside the pagoda

The People and their Culture

Having strong Asian features, the Burmese people can easily be mistaken as Filipinos, Vietnamese or Indonesians - probably why I was always mistaken as a local. I was a bit culture shocked seeing a lot of women wearing what looked like a thick foundation on their faces applied heavily on their cheeks, chins and foreheads. Only later on I found out it is actually part of their long tradition of beauty regime. It's called 'Tanaka', a yellowish paste produced by rubbing a bark into a stone slab mixed with water. It also acts as a sunblock. I actually got to try it. It's really good and leaves your face smooth through out the day.

Trying out Tanaka

What's most strongly evident in Burma is the manifestation of their religious beliefs. Various offerings from devotees in forms of money, food, water and fruits can be found all over the pagodas.

I've come across different cultures from all over the world but I can say that the Burmese people are perhaps the most humble people I have ever met. I'd like to believe this is because of their strong Buddhist beliefs. Their cheerful humilty is like an aura being radiated in everything that they do. And with these traits, it assured me that Myanmar is indeed a safe place to travel even if I chose to go solo. Being there is so much different than seeing how this country is being projected by the media.

Local farmers taking a break to smile from a hard day's work.
The simplicity of their living is very admirable too. I've seen more of their livelihood and what a normal day is like to them when we arrived at Inle Lake, about a 6 hour-bus ride from Bagan.

Local Fishermen at Inle Lake
We hired a boat to take us around the floating villages and to get a closer look of their livelihood.

Floating Village


(L) A local woman making tobacco.   (R) A local woman extracting a thread from a plant to be used for weaving.

Local masonry creating silver products
Highlight of the day trip was watching the sunset while a local fisherman poses.
They are very popular with this technique of fishing.


Apart from Vietnam, traveling to Burma has opened up my taste buds to different flavours of Asian cuisine. What's also interesting is that different regions of the country have different food specialties.


I mostly loved the dishes from Shan Region (Inle Lake) which are mostly dry noodles mixed with minced meat. Picture in the middle is actually pig's organs.

Dishes in Yangon are quite mixed with Western taste. Picture on the right tastes like french toast which goes well with chai milk tea.

Dishes in Bagan are mostly served in small platings and best eaten with white rice. Eating in Bagan feels like having your own little buffet on your table. These are mostly deep fried meat.

I was actually surprised on how much I have enjoyed my trip to Burma. I thought it would be just pagodas that I would see. It proved me wrong. There's so much this special country can offer. It's not actually the sceneries that captivated me more, it's the people and their culture that makes Burma worth traveling to.

Child Nuns praying at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

>>More about Burma...

A Glimpse of Burma

Spending Christmas Day in Bagan