85% of Myanmar’s population practices Buddhism, but there are substantial numbers of Christians, Hindus, Muslims and animists throughout the country. It is therefore not unusual to see pagodas, churches, mosques and temples standing together in a single neighborhood. Spirit worship also exists side-by-side with Buddhism, as these minor gods are believed to be disciples of the Buddha’s teachings.
In a long-standing religious tradition, Myanmar’s Buddhist families celebrate their sons’ novice initiation into the Buddhist Order, and their daughters are fêted with equally lavish ear-piercing ceremonies. Visitors can observe novice initiations at monasteries throughout the country. One of the most famous monasteries for spotting novice monks is the Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery by Inle Lake in Shan State.
Myanmar celebrates many festivals throughout the year and, fortunately for tourists, there are many options to choose from year-round. The exact dates of the festivals are calculated according to the Myanmar lunar calendar. Pagoda festivals are similar to country fairs, while nat (spirit) ceremonies are accompanied by plenty of music, dancing and eating. Major festivals include Thingyan Water and New Year Festival held every April. Find a detailed Festival Calendar here.
Arts & Crafts
Visitors will find a myriad of traditional handicraft in Myanmar. Some examples are:
Hand-woven cottons and silks are plentiful and are available in all colours of the spectrum. Silk pieces woven with 100 or more shuttles, which create intricate patterns, are unique to Myanmar. Fabrics and exotic blankets hand-woven by ethnic hill tribes are also available.
The most representative craft of Myanmar, lacquerware comes in many forms: plain red, black and gold, etched with colour-filled designs, or gilded and embellished with mirror inlays and fake gems. The items range from bracelets to placemats to furniture.
Many galleries and shops offer exquisite watercolours, a medium in which the local artists excel. There are many galleries in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan, well worth an afternoon’s browsing.
Boxes and artefacts of silver are hammered by hand. Traditional items include small boxes in filigree or relief work, showing traditional motifs, mythical creatures or scenes from classic religious stories.
Myanmar craftsmen are highly skilled in carving materials ranging from bone, to wood and jade. Sandalwood Buddha images or jewellery carved from jade make especially precious souvenirs.
Gems and jewellery
With prices to suit all budgets, jade, rubies, sapphires and pearls of all colours and sizes are available. Silver and golden pearls are pricey but worthwhile investments. Twice a year there are gem emporiums where buyers from around the world compete by auction.
The marionette theatre is a grand tradition of Myanmar culture, with puppets once bearing bad news to the kings that human messengers dared not utter. Many are available in all sizes, gorgeously dressed in faux gems and silks.
Pottery and basketry
Glazed ware is still used in many houses to store grain, oil or water and is produced in large numbers for both domestic use and export. Cane or bamboo furniture, baskets, bags and other utensils can be found in many markets.
Scenes of local life or traditional motifs are worked in gold and silver thread; figures are formed in silk and brass sequins on a velvet background. This is an old tradition, once used only in the royal palaces as room dividers.