Geography, Population & Climate

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Myanmar is geographically the largest country in Southeast Asia. Rich not only in traditions, Myanmar’s fertile land is crossed by a number of rivers that are used for transportation, irrigation, and also as a source of food. Myanmar’s primary river artery is the Irrawaddy, often referred to here as the Ayerawady.  Mines have yielded some of the world’s finest rubies and imperial jades, while the sea off the southern coast is prime breeding ground for cultured pearls of excellent luster. The country’s natural resources include a stunning array of flora and fauna, from elusive tigers and elephants, to rare birds, butterflies and orchids. Many of these species are protected by Myanmar’s system of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

Myanmar is an agrarian country with a population of more than 50 million, 90% of whom live in rural areas. More than 100 different national groups live within the country’s borders. The Bama or Myanmar are the majority group inhabiting the central zone, while the Shan, Kayin, Kachin, Kayah, Chin, Rakhine and Mon and their sub-groups live in mountainous regions closer to the borders or along the coast.

With more than 130 national groups, Myanmar has a wealth of different cultures. Most groups live in the mountains surrounding the central plains, many in villages reached by hours of walking through jungles and deep valleys. Here we can only give credit to a few.

The Akha live in the northeast and as with most ethnic tribes the men dress simply, in dark blue jackets and wide-bottomed trousers that tie at the waist. But the women are gorgeously costumed in intricately embroidered leggings, jackets and elaborate silver jewellery. Akha ladies look as if dressed for formal ceremonies even when they are just off to work in the fields.

The Chin live in the northwest border areas or farther south in Rakhine State. Some of the women tattoo their faces with elaborate designs. The ritual is voluntary and as the practise is dying out, not many young women are seen with tattooed faces. The Chin make hand-woven cotton and silk in traditional designs and colours, which have become popular collectors’ items.

At the very northern tip of the country is the land of the Kachin, a place rich with jade mines, ice-capped mountains, rare flora and fauna, wild rivers and virgin forests. The Kachin celebrate harvest, new year, wedding and other ceremonies with a Manaw Festival. Lines of dancers, led by men wearing plumed hats and brandishing silver swords, weave in and out to the thumping of long drums carved from a single teak tree.

The Lisu live on remote hilltops and their communities are found in both Kachin and Shan states. The women’s long skirts are covered in front with a hanging rectangular embroidered cloth; their jackets are sewn with silver coins and rows of beadwork. The Lisu of other regions wear full gathered skirts instead of sarongs, with long-sleeved jackets and beaded caps. Strings of beads and shells are draped across the bosom and under one arm.

The Rawang people, one of six Kachin sub-tribes, inhabit the most northerly and remote valleys of Myanmar. Their chiefs are known by their woven-cane hats decorated with boars’ tusks, and by the silver-handled swords in wooden scabbards tucked under their arms.

If males of other nationalities fade in comparison to their wives, the men of the Naga parade like peacocks. The many sub-tribes of the Naga come out in all their finery at their annual new year festival in January, a gathering of the clans. They strut into town decked out in feathers and beaks of hornbills; claws and teeth of bears and tigers; tusks of boars and elephants; fur of bears, monkeys and mountain goats; and shells brought over the mountains from seas they have never seen.

The Palaung also live in Shan State and are commonly encountered by visitors trekking in the Kalaw area, where the Palaung work hard cultivating cheroot leaves, black and green tea, mangoes and oranges on the hillsides around their villages. They traditionally stay in longhouses where six or more families live together and where all daily activities take place, including weaving, cooking, eating and caring for children.

Also known as Taungthu, the Pa-O live in southern Shan State and are diligent farmers who grow the best garlic in the country. Hard working and prosperous, their needs are simple and their lifestyle Spartan, and it is reflected in their costume: The women wear long woollen tunics and jackets of dark blue. The only touch of colour are the bright, woven scarves or towels casually draped around their heads.

kayin-01  akha-01 pa-o-02 Chin

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