Burmese arts & architecture
The most conspicuous and impressive evidence of Burmese artistic culture is undoubtedly to be found in the country's ancient architecture. The most recognisable symbols of the nation are the dramatic, awe-inspiring symbols of Buddhist devotion, from the Shwedagon in Yangon to the pagodas of Bagan.
Theatre & dance
Most classical dance forms found their way to Burma via Thailand in around the 18th century, so it is unsurprising that they share most of their characteristics with dance forms from Thailand. Meanwhile, indigenous dance forms, often performed to pay homage to Burmese nat spirits (in ceremonies called nat pwe), can also be found throughout the country.
Much Burmese theatre takes the form of dance-drama, such as zat pwe (a type of all-night staging of a story from legend), yamazat (a performance based on the Hindu epic Ramayana), and anyeint pwe (a combination of music, dance and comedy).
Burma has a strong tradition of marionette theatre, developed during the Konbaung Period (1599-1752). In fact, this form of theatre was so successful that it formed the basis of the still-popular zat pwe, a sort of theatre performed by people rather than puppets.
The golden age of puppet theatre ended with the advent of cinema, and today it is very rare to see marionette theatre performed unless in tourist venues in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan.
As is the case in much of Southeast Asia, almost all traditional Burmese art was devotional in nature and produced for display in or around temples and pagodas. Unfortunately, many such sculptures have been plundered over the years and can now be found more frequently in overseas auction houses than in Burma.
Burma's traditional crafts include textiles, tapestries, lacquerware, woodwork, metalware and paper parasols.
Mandalay is the best place to find traditional tapestries (kalaga), which are generally heavily embroidered in silver and gold thread, metal sequins, and beads, and depict scenes from Burmese mythology. Textiles produced by ethnic minorities such as the Chin, Naga, Kachin and Karen each have their own distinctive designs, techniques and traditions by which they can be recognised.
Lacquerware, meanwhile, has existed as a craft in Burma since the 11th century, and is influenced by both Chinese and Thai techniques. You might come across workshops in Burma where you can watch lacquer being applied to various items - a process that can take up to six months for a top-quality piece.
Kammawa are and parabaik are two traditional crafts unique to Burma. Kammawa are essentially manuscripts lacquered on narrow wooden slats, recounting extracts from the Vinaya Pitaka (a Buddhist scripture). The slats can also be made from lacquered cloth, cane or very thin brass, decorated with red, black and gold lacquer. Parabaik, meanwhile, are manuscripts produced on palm leaves and folded in a concertina.
Golden age architecture
Since secular structures were historically always built from wood, the only buildings to have survived from Burma's golden age are the country's ubiquitous Buddhist temples.
Most of these temples fall into one of two categories: stupa-style solid temples of gu-style hollow temples, and they were originally influenced by the building techniques of early Pyu civilisations as well as India and Ceylon. Due to frequent earthquakes in Burma, many of these temples (including Shwedagon Paya) have been rebuilt multiple times throughout history.
Though stupas can be seen throughout Burma, the most memorable examples for most travellers are the temples of Bagan, which cover an area of 13 by 8 kilometres in the Mandalay region of the country. Today there are over 2,500 structures remaining, but at the height of the Pagan kingdom, between the 11th and 13th centuries, there were over 10,000.
Despite the site's impressive historical and cultural wealth, the temples of Bagan have never been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. This is due to botched restoration efforts made by the Burmese military government in the 1990s, which paid little heed to existing structures or historical accuracy, damaging the integrity of the site sufficiently for UNESCO to withhold their endorsement.
Burma's single most famous stupa, meanwhile, is not found in Bagan at all but in Yangon. Shwedagon Paya is the country's most important stupa, and is easily recognisable thanks to its dazzlingly shiny, gold exterior. According to Shwedagon's official website, the structure originally stood just 8.2 metres tall before improvements by successive monarchs raised it to its present height of nearly 110 metres. Tradition dictates that each Burmese king must add his own body weight in gold to the structure, which legend claims is over 2,600 years old - making it the oldest Buddhist pagoda in the world. (Historians and archaeologists, however, put its age at a more modest 1,100-1,500 years old).
Besides Burma's ancient religious buildings, the country also has a few excellent examples of colonial architecture dating back to days of British rule. These, however, are few and far between, as very little effort has been made thus far to preserve Burma's colonial heritage. If you are interested in seeing colonial-era Burmese architecture, there are some interesting examples to be found in Yangon, Pyin Oo Lwin, Mawlamyine and Myeik.
Traditionally, most buildings in Burma (apart from temples and pagodas) were built from wood, and most Burmese still live in wooden houses today - especially in rural areas.
The most famous and photographed wooden structure in Burma is U Bein Bridge - a 1.2 km teakwood bridge that was built in 1850 and believed to be the oldest and longest such structure in the world.
- Hpa An
- Golden Rock
- Pyin Oo Lwin
See Burma through the lens of its colonial past as you visit key destinations from the days of British India.
14 nights: from US$3577 pp (twin share) Read more >
- Mt Popa
- Inle Lake
Our Classic Burma tour is the perfect introduction to the country; exploring its cultural, historical and scenic highlights.
15 nights: from US$3240 pp (twin share) Read more >