© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Myanmar: time travel to medieval Asia

3 minutes to read

Still beautifully medieval, quite probably the most authentic in South-East Asia, but modernizing at an incredible pace, Myanmar has to be visited right now. It is a perfect time: most land borders have been opened, restrictions have been lifted from two-thirds of the previously off-limits areas, but the country has not yet had time to change much. As the technological level is increasing, better roads and vehicles have now significantly cut down travel time between destinations, the internet, and mobile connection are available everywhere. But, many items of daily use are still produced manually, by skilled craftsmen, ancient wooden architecture teams with a colonial legacy to outshine the few modern buildings, and nature is untouched by excessive development. The typical surliness and disinterest of the 21st century have yet to arrive, too - so far Burmese are some of the most hospitable people in the world, the only nation in the region to rival Indonesia in this aspect.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Man-made: towns and temples

Even Yangon, despite being a capital until recently, or perhaps because of it, offers a lot to see. Shwedagon Pagoda is the most famous, but other monasteries are just as good. The city center is dotted with grand but dilapidated colonial buildings; old neighborhoods hide artisans' workshops; the lifestyle is as traditional as you might hope to see anywhere. Multiply this by ten for Mandalay. The latter is surrounded by smaller ancient cities, now in various stages of ruination. Monasteries are of course kept well-maintained and functioning. The abundance of teakwood in Myanmar means many of those are majestic structures of carved wood, with tall pillars made of single tree trunks. The bridge of U-Bein, the longest wooden bridge in Asia, has become a popular tourist destination. Cave and mountain temples are also found throughout the country, particularly in the limestone Mon and Kayin states. Last but not the least, the fascinating plains of Bagan, "the valley of a thousand pagodas", and Mrauk U, a similar area in the west full of neglected ancient temples, provide an insight into Asian history in addition to incredible views.

Bagan, Mandalay division
Bagan, Mandalay division
Old Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)
© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Evolved: nature and culture

For anthropologists and culture photographers, professional or amateur, Myanmar is hard to beat. This is where the last Asian pygmy tribe was discovered in the late 20th century, only to die out shortly after. The existing tribes are diverse, and many of them maintain unique traditions. Kayah women wear brass coils on their necks, pushing the shoulder blade down over the years to make them look like the Asian dragon that, mythologically, was among their ancestors. The tribes of Southern Chin tattoo their faces, each ethnic group having its own unique pattern. In early spring, Shinbyu ceremonies, colorful and joyous, are staged all over the country, as young boys are temporarily ordained as Buddhist novices. In addition to Theravada Buddhism, Burmese preserve their faith in nat, spirits - nat pwe, spirit worship festivals, can easily be seen everywhere. Nature is equally fascinating. The south of Myanmar is predominantly karst, offering caving and rock climbing opportunities. Tourist infrastructure is slowly growing on the beaches of Ngapali and Ngwe Saung, perhaps turning them into a future alternative to Bali. Mergui archipelago could compete even with equatorial island countries, but is so far only accessible by group tours. The famous Inle Lake supports a whole water world culture - floating markets, floating gardens, stilt villages. Relative lack of roads means there are massifs of the jungle where nobody has ever felled a tree or ventured at all. And in the extreme north, Myanmar even has its own patch of Himalaya, but again, only group tourists are so far allowed to trek there.

Maing Thauk, Inle Lake
Maing Thauk, Inle Lake
Maing Thouk Wooden Bridge, Taunggyi, Myanmar (Burma)
© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Best time to do it

Myanmar is thankfully not yet a very popular destination among foreign travelers, but visiting it has been made much easier in recent years. Most nationalities can now apply for the visa online through a simple, straightforward process. No special permits are any longer required to enter the country by land from Thailand or India. The combination of relatively modern amenities with a decidedly medieval environment and lifestyle generates a striking impression of time travel. And it will not last forever - Myanmar is rapidly traveling in time by itself, in that boring, common direction, forward, where everything appears bleak, homogenous and covered in plastic. If you want to see a possible alternative, the good old Asia, do it now.


The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

Stories you might also like