Living in Myanmar
Myanmar is a fascinating place to live where people are warm and friendly and are delighted to help you get to know their culture and its citizens. The recent political changes have made just about everyone optimistic about the future of Myanmar. You are coming to a great place at an exciting time in its history.
All photos on the Living In Myanmar page were taken by Joshua Van Lare, ISY Teacher, 2015.
The geography of Myanmar encompasses an area of 676,577 square kilometers (261,218 square miles), which is close to the size of Texas. Roughly diamond shaped, Myanmar is often compared to a kite with a tail trailing along one side or to a parrot facing west. Many people have only a vague idea of where Myanmar is located, despite the fact that the country occupies a large area of land between the world’s most heavily populated countries, India and China. The country lies between latitude 10 and 28 degrees north, and longitude 92 and 101 degrees east. The country is over 2,000 miles in length from north to south, and almost 1,000 miles in width from east to west. Borders are shared with Bangladesh and India in the northwest, China in the northeast, and Laos and Thailand in the southeast. Towards the south and southwest are the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
For years, a large number of books referred to the country as “The Forgotten Land,” which Myanmar had indeed become because of its closed nature. Until a decade ago, tourists were allowed into the country for only one month at a time. This went some way towards keeping out foreign influences and preserving Myanmar’s own culture and traditions. The country was, to some extent, isolated from the rest of the world through restrictions on Myanmar citizens wishing to travel abroad, due to the sanctions imposed by the government. Current easing of those sanctions and the release of political prisoners have brought dramatic changes to Myanmar, within the past two years. Foreign visitors and investors are flocking to the country. It remains to be seen how the next chapter of the history of Myanmar will be written.
The climate of Myanmar varies from region to region, due to the country’s diverse geography. Yangon enjoys a tropical climate with three distinct seasons. The most comfortable part of the year is from November to February. During these four months it is generally cool and dry. The driest and hottest part of the year runs from March to May. By late May the humidity builds up preceding the rainy season, which lasts from June to late October. This rainy season, which comes from the southwest monsoon, can bring up to 150 inches of rain per year. Temperatures rise above 100˚F during the hot season in many parts of the country. In Shan State in the north, however, it can be much cooler, even falling to the freezing point in January.
Myanmar has an estimated population of over 60 million people. It has been described as an anthropologist’s dream by some writers, as it possesses such a great diversity of ethnic groups with distinct dress, customs, and traditions. The major racial groups are the Burmans (making up 69 per cent of the population), Kachin, Chin, Shan, Mon, Kayah, Kayin, and Rakhine. While the largest groups of Burmese live mainly in the river valleys and plains, many of the smaller ethnic minorities live in the mountains and hills, seldom venturing into the urban areas because of poor transportation and communication infrastructure. According to a Myanmar government report, the overall national literacy rate is 82%, the infant mortality rate is 79 per 1,000, and the average life expectancy is 59 years. The average citizen consumes almost 2,500 calories per day. Myanmar ranks first worldwide in the percentage of daily calories taken from rice consumption.
The Burmese people have a festival for every month in their calendar. This calendar traditionally consists of twelve lunar months. As lunar months differ from solar months in the number of days, an extra month, known as “second Waso month” is added every few years, a bit like a leap year. The Burmese year 1376 will begin in April 2014. However, for religious matters, the Myanmar people use the Buddhist calendar. This is also the lunar calendar, but the calculations begin from the year of Buddha’s Enlightenment. Thus, year 2014 is 2558 according to the Buddhist Era. The most spirited celebrations of the year occur when the water festival welcomes the Myanmar New Year. Held in April every year, this festival can last up to seven days in conjunction with the weekend. Business slows down or practically stops at this time of the year. Known as Thingyan or Thagyan (gy is equivalent to “j”), the festival is often prepared for several weeks in advance. The focus is on water. Symbolically, the sprinkling of water washes away the sins and bad luck of the old year in preparation for the new year. In reality the practice becomes an excuse for endless practical jokes, where whole barrels or even hoses of water are directed at friends, relatives, or anyone that passes by. Special stages are set up on roadsides for splashing water, but also for dances and songs. The stage may belong to a section of town, to a group of friends, families, or associations, or to government departments or companies. Rows of water hoses and barrels line the front of the stages and people on the stage take turns throwing water at truckloads of people driving from one stage to another just for the purpose of getting soaked. It is all great fun and no one is supposed to get angry even when a complete stranger drenches him or her while passing.
Myanmar can be divided into distinct geographic zones, namely the northern mountain ranges, the Shan plateau in the east, the central dry zone, the river valleys, the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, and the long Taninthayi strip in the south.
Myanmar is a rural country, with more than 70% of the population living in villages. The three main cities are Nay Pyi Daw, the capital (estimated population around 925,000), Yangon, the main port (4,088,000), and Mandalay (1,034,000). Yangon is a relatively quiet and green city with two large lakes and a population density of only 1,000 people per square mile, though things in Yangon are changing rapidly. With the lifting of international sanctions, Myanmar in general, and Yangon in particular, are both undergoing rapid economic development.
The major lifeline of Myanmar is the Ayeyarwaddy, the mighty 1200-kilometer long river that descends from the snowy mountains of Kachin state, through the central plains, and finally flows beyond the lush delta into the Bay of Bengal.
The language of a majority of the people is Burmese, or Myanmar. Tribal minorities speak over 100 dialects. English is also quite widely spoken, although it is easy to be deceived into believing that English is more widespread than it actually is. Many English words e.g. car, bus, telephone, doctor, film, and TV, are part of everyday Myanmar vocabulary. There are more likely to be English speakers among the older generation than the younger.
Myanmar possesses extraordinary natural resources: more teak than any other place in the world, petroleum, mineral deposits, rubies, jade, and other gems, raw rubber, rice, fish, and 12 other foodstuffs. Buffeted by political turmoil, Myanmar has yet to make the most of the natural abundance that should place it among Asia’s richest countries. Although Myanmar contains 75% of the world’s teak supply and 30,000 acres are replanted each year, widespread deforestation is inevitable if timber concessions to China, India, Hong Kong, Japan, and Thailand continue at current rates. The country’s lengthy coastline provides a wealth of saltwater fisheries. The harvesting of shrimp in particular, estimated at a potential 13,000 metric tons per year, promises to be a major source of national revenue in the future. On the other hand, marine resources are threatened by a lack of long-range conservation goals. Overfishing, especially in the delta regions, is a growing problem. Also, the country must deal with illegal encroachment on national fisheries by Taiwanese, Thai, and Malaysian fishing boats.
Most of the country’s agriculture is centered along the floodplains of the Ayeyarwaddy River. Plentiful rainfall and fertile soil enrich 14.6 million acres of rice fields. At one time, Myanmar exported more rice than any country in the world and was know as “the rice bowl of the world,” but they no longer hold that title. Rice is not merely an export crop in Myanmar; it is a staple food, taken at almost every main meal by the Myanmar people. Myanmar’s principal crops apart from rice are sugar cane, peanuts, maize, edible seeds, and sesame. Millet, tobacco, cotton, and rubber are also produced in considerable quantities. Tea and coffee are also cultivated. In addition to petroleum, the mineral wealth includes coal, natural gas, tin, lead, zinc, and silver.
Natural gas is also one of the most important resources for export. Myanmar is known worldwide for its precious gems, especially rubies, sapphires, topaz, and jade. Gold has been obtained in the north, but not in amounts large enough to be considered a major industry.
Recently, with the lifting of sanctions and the opening up of the country to visitors, tourism has begun to play an important role in the economy of Myanmar. Tourist facilities are being expanded and developed in several areas of the country, creating jobs for many people. The improvement of basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and overpasses, as well as the construction of many hotels and apartment blocks, has provided many jobs in the construction field.
The local currency is the kyat (pronounced “chut” and abbreviated as K). Kyat notes are issued in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 5000 and 10,000 notes. Coins are no longer used since inflation has proved them to be no longer effective. The current approximate exchange rate is $1 to 1,294 kyat.