Getting Acquainted with Burmese Culture and Heritage

Day 1: Yangon

Our trip began with an afternoon of sightseeing in Yangon, the commercial hub of Myanmar. While the nation’s capital was moved to Naypyidaw (a planned city built by the military government, which remains virtually uninhabited) in 2006, Yangon remains the center of business and the country’s largest city, with a population of approximately 5.2 million inhabitants.

The downtown center of the city is full of colonial architecture built during the British occupation leading up to 1948. Sule Pagoda, a beautiful gold stupa in the middle of the old city, is often referred to in Yangon as a point of reference – locations were once described as distances from Sule, the central hub of the city. Several grand colonial buildings surround the pagoda, alongside narrow streets filled with shops, restaurants, and apartments.

Near sunset, we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist shrine and a legendary landmark with its golden stupa soaring above the city’s skyline. The shrine encloses eight hairs from the Buddha and is visited by large numbers of Buddhist monks and Burmese, particularly at dusk, a time of many offerings and general hubbub around the lower terraces of the complex. The topmost point of the pagoda is set with a priceless 76-carat diamond and the upper spires are constructed of centuries-old solid gold plates. In their historic visit to the country in 2012—the first by a sitting U.S. President—President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Shwedagon Pagoda in between meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi and speeches at the University of Yangon.

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Dusk at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Days 2-3: Bagan

We traveled to the ancient city of Bagan to learn more about the country’s history and experience the region outside of Yangon. The region is scattered with the ruins of over 2,000 monasteries, temples, shrines, and stupas from the 11th to 13th centuries, when Bagan was the imperial capital of Myanmar. The pagodas range in size from grand stupas built by kings to small shrines built by local families, and all are available to explore. Unfortunately, as we learned in our meeting with UNESCO, the site is poorly managed and having a difficult time gaining World Heritage Site status and the funding and support that would come with it, but it’s a stunningly beautiful place nonetheless. We also visited the nearby Mount Popa, a revered center of Nat worship located atop a small mountain of volcanic rock.

Group selfie at Taung Kalat Buddhist Monastery atop Mount Popa!


One of my favorite moments was when we hiked up the steep steps of Shwesandaw Pagoda at dusk to soak in the views from the top. These few days offered a deep cultural understanding of the country leading into our week of business meetings in Yangon, as well as the opportunity to spend time getting to know each other as a group – and a fantastic one at that!

– Kate Canfield ‘17

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