Magnificent temples, breathtaking landscapes, and the Burmese people – these are some of the mesmerizing images that many tourists remember about Myanmar. In Myanmar, you don’t have to look far to know that its people are its best treasure. From teashops to markets to remote villages, you see happy and welcoming faces. After all, smiling is a language widely understood by the Burmese people.
Myanmar has an estimated population of 54 million divided into 135 distinct ethnic groups, making the country one of the most diverse in the world. This diversity contributes to the country’s rich and vibrant culture. The customs of the Burmese people may vary from state to state, but one thing they have in common is their hospitality. They would gladly invite you to their home, call you “brother” or “sister” and share with you their meal. Courtesy, generosity, kindness, piousness, resilience, and respect for the elders are also some of the values that remain entrenched in the Burmese people despite the hardships they have encountered over the years.
1. Kachin People
The Kachin people comprise 1.5% of the country’s population and mostly inhabit the Kachin Hills in northern Myanmar. About 90 to 95% of the Kachin people are Christians, converted by the American and European missionaries who arrived in the late 19th century. The majority of the Christian population is Protestants, specifically Baptists belonging to the Myanmar Baptist Convention. The rest are predominantly Roman Catholics.
The Kachin people have intriguing wedding practices, which includes paying a bride price and presenting the groom with a gift at the ceremony. They also prefer fabrics with intricate woven patterns and vivid colors. Men’s clothes include a jacket over a shirt, loose pants or longyi, and a shoulder bag hanging across the chest as an ornament. Women wear blouses studded with silver coins and colorful long skirts woven with intricate patterns. Both men and women wear turbans or headdresses decorated with tassels.
Things to do in Kachin State is ideal for outdoor activities and cultural exploration. Trek to the peak of the snow capped Hkakabo Razi or get on a thrilling rafting adventure in Putao, then go on a wildlife excursion in Indawgyi Lake, the third-largest lake in Southeast Asia. In Myitkyina, you will be amazed by the religious diversity; pay homage to Buddha at Su Taung Pyi Pagoda, admire the architecture of the Hindu temple Sri Saraswati, and explore the St. Columban’s Cathedral.
2. Shan People
The Shan occupies the Shan plateau, a forested area elevated at 1800 meters above sea level, in northeastern Myanmar. They make up 10% of the entire Burmese people, with over four to six million spread all over the county. Most Shan follow Theravada Buddhism with a heavy influence of animism. The majority of Shan are farmers who cultivate rice, fruits, vegetables, tea, and coffee. A considerable number of Shan work in mines in the area called Mogok Stone Track, looking for rubies and other precious stones.
The Shan people are famous for their cuisine, which fuses Thai and Chinese influence. Among the most loved dishes are nga t’min (glutinous rice cooked with turmeric, usually flattened into a disk and topped with fish flakes and garlic oil), Shan tofu (made of chickpea flour and dipped in chili tamarind sauce), and nam ngiao (sticky flat rice noodles garnished with peanuts, dried chilies, and garlic).
Things to visit in Shan State boasts of stunning landscapes and vibrant culture. Take a boat ride on the iconic Inle Lake and marvel at the floating villages, gardens, and markets. Enjoy the idyllic panorama of the countryside from the mountains of Hsipaw while strolling along tracts of coffee and tea plantation. Sample wine at the Red Mountain vineyards, cross the Gokteik Viaduct on a thrilling train ride, admire the Shwe Inn Dein Pagoda, and discover the old British hill station of Kalaw.
3. Karen People @ Burmese People
The Karen is the third largest ethnic group among the Burmese people, comprising around 8% of the country’s population. Most of them dwell in the mountainous region of Kayin State and along the banks of the Irrawaddy River. Their principal religion is Buddhism, combined with animism. About 15% are Christians.
Food, art, and clothing are essential in the Karen culture. A favorite dish is Talapaw, which consists of rice, shreds of dried meat, and chopped vegetables, such as bamboo shoots, cucumbers, eggplants, mushrooms, and squash. Karen people love to dance. Don is a famous dance performed by a group to the accompaniment of traditional musical instruments such as the frog drum, so-called for its frog skin covering. Their clothing usually incorporates vibrant colors of blue and red woven into stripes. Karen men wear longyi and a loose tunic called hse plo over a long-sleeved shirt. Married women wear a short-sleeved shirt, usually black, and a colorful longyi while unmarried women dun a long white dress. Both men and women often wear headdresses or headbands.
Things to do in Kayin State is full of friendly people, as well as incredible tourist attractions. Hpa-An, the state capital, is home to an astonishing cave system, the gorgeous Kyauk Kalap, and the stunning Mount Zwegabin with its famous mountaintop monastery. Three hours away from Hpa-An is the Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo Pagoda) , a gilded pagoda balanced on top of a granite boulder and the second most important pilgrimage site in Myanmar.
4. Chin People
The Chin people live in the highlands of Chin State in western Myanmar. They account for 2% of the country’s population, the majority of whom are Christians. The traditional clothing of the Chin varies according to their tribe; however, they bear similarities in terms of colors. The clothes often come in combinations of red, green, and black, usually accented with bracelets, necklaces, hair accessories, and rings.
In one of the villages tucked in the mountains, you get a high chance of meeting a Chin woman whose face is full of spider web-like tattoos. According to legend, the facial tattoos dissuade men of the neighboring Rakhine kingdom from abducting Chin women. The custom of facial tattooing has mostly died out among the current generation after the government banned it in 1960; however, a fair number of older women still bear the marks. Starting the late 90s, a few young women chose to have their faces tattooed to keep the practice from fading out.
Things to do in Chin State: Although overlooked by tourists, Chin State is an incomparable gem. You can climb Mount Victoria and enjoy a breathtaking view of the countryside from its summit. You can also explore the incredibly diverse flora and fauna of Nat Ma Taung National Park.
5. Rakhine People
Comprising about 5% of the Burmese population, the Rakhine people chiefly occupy the western coast of Myanmar, a region that is geographically separated from the mainland by the Arakan mountains. The Rakhine culture bears Indian influence, particularly in its arts and cuisine. The most popular food associated with the Rakhine people is mont di, a broad term for dishes made with thin rice noodles mixed with white fish, shrimp paste, and a variety of spices. Almost all Rakhine are Theravada Buddhists.
The Rakhine people are exceptionally talented weavers. Men wear elaborately woven longyis and traditional jackets over a collarless shirt, while women don buttoned blouses and colorful longyis with floral patterns or horizontal stripes.
Things to do in Ngapali Beach lovers will find the ideal getaway in Ngapali, the region’s best-known tourist attraction. The long stretch of unspoiled coast features idyllic beaches with pristine turquoise-blue waters, gleaming white sand, verdant palm trees, and secluded beaches. For thrill-seekers, several resorts offer a variety of watersports, such as snorkeling, diving, and kayaking. If you want to an in-depth cultural immersion, visit Jade Taw fishing village, or head to Thandwe market to admire the hand-woven longyis of the Rakhine.
6. Mon People @ Burmese People
While the Mon people make up only 2% of the country’s population, their influence has a significant impact on the culture of the Burmese people. The Mon people brought Buddhism to Myanmar centuries ago, but their contribution to Burmese culture is not limited to religion alone. The famous snack Htamanè (glutinous rice mixed with toasted sesame seeds, peanuts, coconut shavings, and fried ginger) and the New Year staple Thingyan rice are Mon in origin. The Mon people also introduced traditional children’s games, which UNESCO has granted the intangible cultural heritage recognition.
Bago, the capital of Mon State, is home to several fascinating landmarks, including the Kanbawzathadi Palace, Shwethalyaung Buddha, Maha Kalyani Sima, Kyaik Pun Paya, Shwemawdaw Pagoda, and Snake Pagoda. Go on a river cruise in the Irrawaddy Delta, and discover idyllic riverside villages, markets, and temples, as well as the abundant birdlife. At the Death Railway Museum in Mawlamyine, learn about the horrific story of the 100,000 laborers who died building the tracks that connected Thailand and Myanmar during World War II.
7. Red Karen
The Red Karen, also known as Karenni and Kayah, predominantly inhabit the highlands of Kayah State. The ethnic group is referred to as Red Karen because red is the dominant hue in their traditional clothing. The Red Karen have nine subgroups, which include the Padaung or Kayan Lahwi tribe, whose women are famous for their long neck rings. Most Red Karen are farmers, while a few are artisans who sell their local handicrafts, such as jewelry and scarves, in busy markets.
Things to do in Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State, is home to fascinating tribal culture and authentic Kayan villages. In Loikaw, you will witness Kayan women going about their regular daily lives, selling and buying in markets, walking in the streets, or socializing with friends. Although Kayah State is predominantly Christian, Loikaw is mostly Buddhist. Here, you will find the majestic Taung Kwe Pagoda, a cluster of white and gold stupas perched on craggy limestone boulders. Outside the capital, however, you will discover the captivating Kyet Cave, picturesque hill villages such as Pan Pet, and totem poles used by animist hill tribes.
8. Bamar People @ Burmese People
The Bamar people constitute the largest ethnic group in Myanmar, accounting for 68% of the population, or around 30 million. The Bamar are predominantly Theravada Buddhists and speak Burmese as the principal language. Because of their sizeable number, the Bamar people heavily influence the overall mainstream Burmese culture, particularly in the aspects of religion, clothing, entertainment, arts, politics, and food. Both men and women wear the traditional longyi, especially during formal occasions. Their cuisine often uses curries, fish paste, and various spices paired with boiled rice or cooked with noodles, such as the famous dish mohinga.
Things to visit: The Bamar principally inhabit the Irrawaddy basin, which covers a large portion of Myanmar, including urbanized cities Mandalay, Yangon, and Naypyidaw, as well as some of the country’s top tourist destinations, Bagan and Sagaing. In Sagaing, you will find hillside monasteries and pagodas, the iconic teakwood U Bein Bridge, and the charming town of Katha, the setting for George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days. For the adventure of a lifetime, fly on a hot air balloon over Bagan, where you’ll experience the most beautiful sunrise over a sea of temples and pagodas. Take a trip to Myanmar’s past in Inwa, the country’s ancient capital, and explore forgotten watchtowers, city wall ruins, and elaborately-carved wooden monasteries.
9. The Naga People
The Naga ethnic group accounts for 0.4% of the Burmese people. The group has 64 tribes, which predominantly live in the Chindwin basin in Chin State and parts of the Kabaw Valley in western Sagaing. Living in one the remotest parts of Myanmar, the Naga people craft their own wares, from cooking vessels to woodcarving to pottery to medicines. They are fond of colorful costumes and accessories made of various materials, including wild animals’ teeth, bones, or claws, as well as wood, fiber, glass, and metal. Being highly-skilled weavers, Naga women decorate their clothes and shawls with intricate and colorful patterns. Men wear unusual headgears created from feathers, shells, and animal bones.
Things to do in Nagaland: The Naga people attract visitors not only for their beautiful costumes but also for their festive celebrations, such as the Naga New Year Festival held every January 15 in Lahe or Leshi. The festivity starts with dance and sports competitions and ends with dancing around a bonfire in the evening.
10. Moken @ Sea Gypsy
An estimated 3,000 Moken live on and around the 800 islands of the Mergui Archipelago in the Andaman Sea, which bounds the southern coastlines of Myanmar. For hundreds of years, the Moken maintained a nomadic life, living on wooden boats called kabang, scouring the ocean for food, and trading fish for essentials, such as rice and clothes. During the monsoon season, they build temporary stilt-houses on the islands and forage the forests for fruits, vegetables, and other edibles. In recent years, however, many Moken chose to reside permanently in fishing villages, selling souvenirs or serving as guides and boatmen for the region’s growing tourism industry.
Things to do in Mergui Archipelago: A visit to the Mergui Archipelago allows you to not only enjoy unspoiled tropical islands but also delve deeper into the unique culture and history of the Moken people. Furthermore, there are several cruises and island safaris available for tourists who want to explore secluded diving spots, dense mangrove forests, and the diverse flora and fauna of the jungles.