Myanmar has had a tumultuous history, having been both the invaders and victims over the centuries. It has had a tenuous relationship with its border countries and has been influenced by the many different ethnic groups that have immigrated in. However, throughout time, the country’s fertililty has meant that people could live off the land and thrive. Agriculture still remains an important part of Myanmar’s economy and food stability meant that much energy could be spent on other parts of life, such a developing the arts and music.
The first inhabitants of Myanmar date back to the Bronze Age, with settlements and artifacts found by archaeologists in and around the Irrawaddy River basin. The early inhabitants used agriculture to sustain themselves which remains an important part of the economy today.
The Mon are considered to be the first major inhabitants of Myanmar, who settled in the central part of the country during 6 BC and onward. There are records of the Mon in the Irrawaddy delta who were led by the King Rajadhirat. It is believed that they initially brought Buddhism to the country, with its close trade ties with India.
During 1st century AD, the Pyu settled in Myanmar, founding highly civilized cities, which peaked during the 7th and 8th centuries AD. The most important was in modern day Pyay in Central Myanmar, along the Irrawaddy River. The ruins of this civilization can still be seen today, with one of the most extensive archaeological excavations in the area. The Shwesandaw Paya offers the best views of this old city.
The Nanzhao of China, the original people of Myanmar, emigrated from southern China, today’s Yunnan. Although powerful and conquering the Pyu cities, the Nanzhao empire faded by the 10th century. It was King Anawrahta, during the 11th century, with its capital in Bagan that united Myanmar for the first time. It was this Bagan Empire that covered an area bigger than modern Myanmar and visitors can still see remnants of this amazing kingdom in Bagan today. By sheer number of temples, stupas, pagodas, and monasteries, the Bagan Empire exuded wealth and prosperity.
The Bagan Empire fell after the invasion of the Mongolians during the 13th century, and they reigned and terrorized many parts of Asia. Under this turmoil, the Shan state was formed and the Mon created a new empire in the south. It was during the reign of King Bayinnaung in the 16th century when Myanmar invaded siam, capturing Chiang Mai and sacking the capital of Ayutthaya. They were based in Bago northeast of current Yangon, a capital that grew in importance as a trading city. This era also started the back-and-forth wars with Siam, today’s Thailand.
In 1886, Myanmar became a British colony and remained so until 1948. In the early 20th century, a nationalist movement was born by General Aung San. The struggle also involved fighting with the Japanese, who occupied Myanmar for a short period during WWII. General Aung San remains a national hero and is the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of Myanmar’s democracy movement. Unfortunately, he never saw the fruits of his labor after being assassinated in 1947.
In 1962, the military led by General Ne Win took control of the country and Myanmar has been under their reign ever since. The oppressive dictatorship has led to many protests and unrest, with many rebels killed or held without trial. In 1990, the military government held "free" elections for the first time in 30 years and Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won by an 80 percent majority. However, this outcome was nullified. The country’s name was officially changed from Burma to Myanmar by the military, which continues to rule today, but is beginning to open up. Aung San Suu Kyi still leads the NLD and in 2012 won a seat in the lower house of parliament.
In recent years the country’s leadership has surprised everyone with the rapid pace of democratic change. Having taken the country from breadbasket of Asia to basket case, the Military shed it’s stubborn face with the retirement of strongman Than Shwe and made an about face in reforming the administration and freeing political prisoners. Sanctions are now being dropped as this backwards country of 70 million embark on a rapid economic emergence from a dark era.
Myanmar’s culture is heavily influenced by Buddhism, the main Bamar people, the Mon people, and the Chinese. This is true of the literature, dance and arts which visitors will be able to see during their visit. The people of Myanmar tend to be very religious and will observe all major Buddhist festivals.
Just a few years ago, all men in Myanmar were still wearing longyi, a sarong, but this is giving way to jeans and pants, especially in the cities. In the countryside, travelers will see plenty of men still wearing longyi. Most women, however, still dress in the traditional skirts and blouses. At the Bogyoke Market in Yangon, visitors can easily get traditional dresses made-to-measure.
Travelers should always dress conservatively, especially when visiting Buddhist shrines and temples – no shorts, tank tops or revealing clothing are allowed. Respecting local customs is important in Myanmar and donations at temples are seen as a nice gesture by visitors.