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‘The best thing a Burman can wish for a good Englishman, is that in some future existence, as a reward of good works, he may be born a Buddhist and if possible a Burman.’

Sir James George Scott in 1882

Myanmar is made up of a large number of ethnicities, dominated by the Bamar people living principally in the central swathes of the country. The culture of Myanmar reflects this ethnic diversity. Despite the claimed ‘bamarisation’ of the states and divisions inhabited principally by the smaller ethnic groups, in places such as Kachin and Chin States travellers will notice a marked difference in costume, cuisine and culture. Indeed the Tai people of Shan State share more in common in terms of language and lineage with the Thai and Laos over the border than with their Barmar compatriots.

As in much of the world, the ancient cultures of the Myanmar people have been infused with that of its neighbours and domineering world powers. In particular, over the centuries Myanmar has seen sustained immigration from China and India. Travellers to Rakhine State may recognise the five-spice Bengali combo ‘panch phoron’ in the Arakan fish dishes, and when visiting cities towards the eastern border one will see a heavy peppering of Chinese Mahayana temples and second-hand Jialing motorbikes.

Cultural influences from further afield are also evident. British Colonial rule not only left in its wake grand architecture and railway lines but also installed in the Burmese people a love of football and ‘British tea’ or la-pay-ye bi-leh. In beer stations throughout the country, if it is not the English Premier League playing on the television, then it will most likely be a drama from South Korea. Though American music is beginning to take a stronger hold since the country began opening up to the West, in the nightclubs of Yangon, K-Pop will fill the dancefloor faster than Taylor Swift.

All that aside, the isolation in which the country has existed since the coup d’etat in 1962 has preserved much of the Myanmar culture’s ancient traditions and conventions: most of the men still wear the longyi, women and children continue to apply the bark paste thanaka to their faces to cool them down, and the Burmese cheroot and betel nut are preferred to Camel cigarettes.

The Myanmar People

Herbert Hoover once called the Burmese people the ‘only genuinely happy people in all of Asia.’ Although neat and easy, one should be wary of reducing a nation - especially one as diverse as Myanmar’s - to simple generalisations. Furthermore, the Myanmar people have had more than their fair share of things not to be happy about over the last few generations and for many life continues to be a struggle. That said, when reading about the country or speaking to those who have visited, one will find themselves constantly coming across the sentiment that a traveller will never feel more welcome than when amongst the easy-smiling, quick-to-laugh Myanmar people.

Novice with alms bowl, Mandalay, MyanmarBoy in Putao, Kachin State, Myanmar | Valeria Trott

Chuckling is frequent, usually bubbling up when all other lines of communication have failed. The habitual displays of spontaneous generosity and openness of heart continue to surprise even those who have lived in and known the country for years. The wary eyes and cautious expressions that may greet travellers in some parts of the country, can almost invariably be broken into creased smiles and waves by no more than a cheery ‘Mingalabar!’, which means ‘hello’ in Burmese.

Ethnicities of Myanmar: Language and Race

Both the names Myanmar and Burma derive from the Bamar ethnicity - the ethnicity that makes up the majority of the people in Myanmar. Generally speaking, terms such as ‘Myanmar people’ or ‘the Burmese’ refer to the entire population of the country, whereas 'Bamar' or ‘the Bamar people’ would refer to solely that ethnic race.

Ladies at Phuang Daw Oo Pagoda Festival, Inle Lake, MyanmarOver 100 recognised languages are spoken in Myanmar spanning 135 distinct ethnic groups that make up eight ethnic races, as categorised by the former government.

The Bamar make up the majority of the population, roughly around 69%. Widespread throughout the country, the Bamar heartland was traditionally the fertile plains of the Ayeyarwady Delta.

The Shan are the second biggest ethnic race at around 8.5%. They refer to themselves as ‘Tai’, sharing the same ethnicity, as well a similar language and culture, of the people of Thailand and Laos.

The Mon were one of the earliest inhabitants of the region, and formerly the second largest force in the land after the Burmese. Shwedagon Pagoda was built by the Mon in the old fishing village of Dagon. Mt Kyaikhtiyo remains in Mon State, the capital of which is Mawlamyine.

The Kayin or ‘Karen’ are estimated to number between 4 and 7 million, spread over linguistically and culturally diverse smaller ethnic groups.

The Kayah are principally found in the small and mountainous Kayah State. They are estimated to make up only 0.5% of the Myanmar people, and live primarily agrarian lives.

The Chin refer to themselves as the ‘Zo-mi’ or ‘Lai-mi’, both of which mean ‘mountain people.’ They incorporate a variety of ethnicities and the Chin language is an amalgamation of these. Although principally Christian, Chin State also has the highest proportion of animists in Myanmar.

The Kachin in the far north of the country were prized by the British as the best soldiers in Myanmar. Today about 36% of the Kachin population is Christian, mainly Baptist and Christian. Since independence, relations between the Kachin and the National Government has been turbulent, and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is one of the most tenacious insurgent groups battling the Myanmar armed forces.

The Rakhine to the west of the country share much of their culture, in particular food and music, with the Indian subcontinent. Principally Buddhist, the Rakhine (or Arakanese) claim to be among the first followers of Buddha in Southeast Asia.

Those not versed in Myanmar culture may nonetheless be familiar with other ethnicities in the country, such as: the Kayan, whose women appear to be remarkably long-necked due to wearing numerous gold necklaces which lowers their ribcage; the Inthar who fish on Inle Lake and steer their boats with one leg; the Wa, termed ‘the Wild Wa’ by the British for their penchant for headhunting; and the Moken, or Sea Gypsies, a nomadic people living on the islands of the Mergui Archipelago.

When visiting the villagers of the ethnicities that make up these eight principal ethnic groups, it is hard to keep up with the stream of different customs and beliefs that each hold, and one comes to appreciate just how varied the ‘Myanmar people’ and the culture of Myanmar is.

Land of Golden Pagodas:Buddhism in Myanmar

‘A Burman does not notice the multitude of the religious edifices in his country till he leaves it and finds how more sparing other nations are in their place of worship.’

Sir James George Scott

During colonial rule, disgruntled staff who would have rather taken a softer posting in India, were known to have grumbled that Burma was made up on nothing more than pagodas, pongyis and pariah dogs (‘pongyi' being the Burmese word for monk). It is a catchy line and therefore caught traction with the similarly uninspired. Naturally there is much more to Burmese culture than these three things. That being said, when it comes to pagodas and pongyi, it is impossible to downplay the role that Buddhism plays in Myanmar daily life.

Young nun in Salay, Magway Region, Myanmar | Nina Rastovic

An estimated 89% of the Myanmar people are Buddhist. Freedom of faith is enshrined in the constitution, but Buddhism naturally enjoys its position as the dominant Myanmar religion. The country practices Theravada Buddhism, differing from the Mahayana (Large Vehicle) school, in believing that the individual strives to achieve nirvana, rather than waiting for the entirety of humanity to be ready for salvation. Theravada is the more austere and ascetic of the two.  

It is remarkable to note, perhaps because no one day in the week has been set aside for faithful obeisance, how prominent a role religion plays in the daily thoughts and actions of the Myanmar people.

Travellers to Myanmar are initially taken aback by the ardency of Buddhism in Myanmar, in particular the sheer number of pagodas, glittering like golden nipples at the summit of every hillock and around every street corner.

The word ‘pagoda’ is thought to originate from the Sanskrit word for shrine or relic, ‘dhatu garba’. For a construction to be classed as a pagoda it must be built over some remains or possessions of Buddha, or, if these cannot be found replicas of such. The Lord Buddha left no instruction upon the construction of pagodas in the holy texts, only saying that a small mound in the form of a heap of rice should be raised over his bones. This is principally where the shape of the pagodas come from, though one can also see in them a likeness to the Buddha sunk in meditation or indeed a lotus bud.

So long as they remain respectful, visitors to Myanmar are encouraged to visit the pagodas of the country and join in with any celebrations taking place. For all their sanctity, these sites hold little severity, seemingly serving as a meeting point for friends and families as much as a place for meditation and reflection. When rounding a corner in a pagoda, you are as likely to find snapchatting teenagers as you are to come across meditating monks.

If in Myanmar during the full moon, it is worthwhile paying a visit to a pagoda in the evening, there to witness the scattered procession of the pious of all ages ringing bells, lighting incense, making donations, laughing, smiling and revelling in the occasion.

After the pagodas, the most evident sign of Buddhism in Myanmar are the monks and novices. Clad in their saffron robes, the pongyi collect alms from the people early in the morning, but are often evident throughout the day meditating at the pagodas, snoozing at the monastery, or in the case of the young novices or ‘ko yin’, playing football wherever they can. Strictly speaking, all Buddhist males in Myanmar should enter the monastery twice in their lives: first as a young boy, and secondly as a grown man. The novitiation ceremonies, where the boys are dressed up and paraded as princes before having their heads shaved and entering the monastery, occur most frequently in spring before the Buddhist Lent, and are one of the most intriguing expression of Buddhism in Myanmar to be witnessed.

Women are not obliged to spend time as a nun, but you will still likely see ladies and young girls in their pink robes, especially when in hubs of Buddhism in Myanmar such as Mandalay and Sagaing. Whereas the boys usually stay mute when out collecting alms in the morning, the young nuns are known to sing while on their way.

You can have a look at our Buddhism in Myanmar board on Pinterest. 

Animism and Nat Worship

The second Myanmar religion is arguably the curious nat worship, widespread in the country and thought to long predate the life of Buddha. The word nat is derived from the Pali word meaning ‘lord’ or ‘guardian.’ The nat are commonly spirits of humans who have died in dramatic or tragic circumstances. In Burmese folk tales the idea of a violent of unsuspected death transforming a person into something celestial is common. This derives from the belief that a violent death merely cuts off the allotted span of life, whereas a fatal disease indicates that the span has been exhausted. They are commonly regarded as sources of good fortune, so in this way are similar to Catholic saints. 

It is believed that there were 36 nat at the time of King Anawrahta founding Bagan. Recognising that nat worship was too prevalent to be easily expelled, in Anawrahta’s attempts for Theravada Buddhism to become the predominant Myanmar religion, he shrewdly added a 37th nat, Thagyamin, a Hindu deity based upon Indra, the supreme Deva and lord of Svargaloka, a level of heaven in Hinduism. Anawrahta crowned this Thagyamin ‘King of the nat’. As Indra was known to have paid homage to Buddhism, this insertion thus placed Buddhism at the top of the cosmological hierarchy.

Alas, the complex world of the nat is becoming less and less familiar to younger generations. 

Myanmar Today,Myanmar Tomorrow

As Myanmar opens up to the world and globalisation is embraced, many of the peculiar and idiosyncratic features of the Myanmar customs and culture may come under threat, slowly being pushed into the shadows or sustained only as tourist attractions. Longyis will begin to be replaced by Levis; betel-nut will be abandoned in the pursuit of Hollywood-white teeth, and languages will literally disappear. Naturally the Myanmar Government, stakeholders and conscientious travel operators such as Sampan Travel are striving to not only preserve but vitalize Burmese culture and the communities and ways of life that are threatened by increased exposure to the outside world.

Harvest scenes in Myanmar

However by opening itself to the world Myanmar is beginning to reap the benefits of monetary, infrastructural and emotional investment in the country. There are hopes that the base poverty so many in rural Myanmar have lived in for generations can begin to be seriously tackled; and a rejuvenated relationship with the wider world offers greater opportunities for the ambitious bright young things of Myanmar.

Sule Pagoda at night, Yangon, Myanmar | Marie Starr

Furthermore, many of the most charming aspects of the Myanmar character are likely to remain in spite of a renewed engagement with the international community. For example, the people will continue to donate lavishly to the pagodas, monasteries, and monks; fundraising loudly and heartily for suffering parts of the country and picking themselves up and dusting themselves down after personal or national disaster. Men will continue to tattoo themselves to prove their courage, and continue to dance with frenzied abandon at pagoda festivals and on national holidays. Tea shops and beer stations will remain the heart of any village, town or city, and rice noodles and fried samosa will continue to be served on the streets of Yangon and Mandalay each morning. The lottery carts traipsing through downtown blaring out garish pop will endure; so will the love of song, the slender cheroots, Myanmar Beer, and the playing of football or chilone under street lights at night.

And more than any of this, the Cretan-hospitality that the Myanmar people have displayed for centuries will only thrive as they are offered the chance to introduce travellers to their spectacular country.

Come with Sampan Travel and experience the intoxicating Myanmar culture yourself.