Myanmar, having only opened up to visitors in the last decade, it is without a doubt one of Asia’s purest travel destinations. As the largest of the mainland Southeast Asian countries and yet the fact that they are still adapting to tourists, getting around the country is a little harder and may take that bit longer than what you are used to. However, we would never quite consider this to be an inconvenience, but rather an opportunity where you are able to fully submerge yourselves in the Burmese way of life, giving you a true insight into what life is really like.
As Myanmar’s largest city and former capital, Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) is likely to be the starting point for most journeys and a great way to acclimatise yourself. The main focal point of the city and spiritual heart of the country is the remarkable golden Buddhist shrine, Shwedagon Paya. At 99m tall, built atop the high Singuttara Hill and with an unimaginable 7,000 diamonds, rubies and sapphires encrusted in its stupa, this golden pagoda is visible from most places across the city as its dazzles in the sunlight. With it potentially being the oldest pagoda in the world (built 2500 years ago) and a symbol of national identity, it is referred to as "The crown of Burma." In addition, downtown Yangon is also home to other gleaming Buddhist pagodas and extravagant Hindu temples along with some of Asia’s most impressive colourful colonial architecture. With the city far from being short on sights, its historical charm and energetic existence provides for an engaging introduction to the country.
Bike it in Bagan
Once known as Pagan, Bagan is an ancient city which was once the capital of the powerful Pagan Kingdom that ultimately unified the regions to establish what is modern day Myanmar. During the heights of its rule between the 9th and 13th centuries, thousands of Theravada Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built in an area today known as the “Bagan Archaeological Zone”. These central arid plains which cover an area of approximately 100 square kilometres is one of South-East Asia’s most impressive archaeological sites and home to an unimaginable spectacle that gives the likes of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat a run for its money. Despite its belated admission, Bagan is today recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Located on a sweeping bend of the Irrawaddy River, Old Bagan is at the heart of this sacred landscape and located within the old walled palace where you will find the largest concentration and most popular temples and pagodas. With the integrity of Bagan vulnerable due to natural disasters, environmental pressures (land erosion due to the close proximity to such a powerful river) and the influx of tourism, all inhabitants were relocated around 1990 to ensure the conservation of the area where possible.
With over 2000 stupas that scatter the arid temple plains, a large part and the beauty of Bagan lies in the exploring and searching for these ancient Buddhist monuments and picking out your favourite. With sizeable distances between some of the pagodas, and with temperatures climbing above 30°C in the heights of summer, having some form of transport to get around is almost essential. A traditional horse and carriage may be a romantic opportunity however e-bikes and bicycles are by far the most common and practical way for whizzing around the dusty roads. Having your own transport does also mean you are able to get away from the hordes of tourists and venture out to the more isolated and obscure monuments which are found off the beaten track.
Although Bagan as a whole has dwindled from what was once a city of supposedly up to 200,000 inhabitants to now a small town, in amongst the temples are still a number of traditional local villages who today continue to produce their ancient handicrafts in the hope of appealing to visitors.
A Longtail Boat Ride on Inle Lake
Cast yourself back in time as you explore Myanmar’s second largest lake and without a doubt one of the country’s highlights on most trips. The scale and serenity of the lake gives more than enough reason to be amazed, but it is actually the nature of life out on these waters that really catches most people’s attention.
Fringed with marshlands and amongst their floating gardens it is out on the waters where the Intha people, “Sons of the lake”, have built their wooden stilted villages and base their existence. Slightly further out in the deeper waters you will also be able to see the iconic sight of fishermen using traditional conical nets, propelling their boats using their distinctive leg-rowing technique.
In order to fully submerge yourself in this unique way of life, a day trip out on your own private narrow longtail boat is commonplace. Typically, a day on the water primarily revolves around visits to the stilted villages where you are able to mooch through an array of timber clad workshops, markets and even a monastery. Two of the more interesting stops and well worth a visit are those of a Lotus weaving factory and a cheroot (local cigars) making workshop.
In addition to the unique habitation on Inle Lake, the Shan state is also the perfect mantle to highlight the nation’s diversity when it comes to their multiple fascinating ethnic groups. In spite of political changes over recent years, rural Myanmar does however continue to embrace traditional values with none more so than those from the Padaung Tribe; a sub group of the larger Kayan Tribe.
Although the tribe is indigenous to the Kayah State further South, many have moved to reside in villages surrounding Inle Lake for the financial benefits thanks to the influx of tourism. As talented seamstresses you will often find them on the lake in some of the workshops where they spend their days weaving brightly coloured bags and accessories. With their characteristic brass necklace, the women continue an old tradition whereby these heavy polished coils are continuously added over time in order to stretch their necks giving them a unique and very attractive look. Depending on who you speak to, some say that the use of the term “Padaung Long Neck Women” is somewhat of a derogatory term and therefore maybe be mindful of how you refer to them.
Amidst the captivating life on the lake, there is also the opportunity to visit the local villages which sit along the periphery. As a rural nation at heart, detach yourself from the more developed areas such as Nyuang Shwe and enjoy the countryside along the quiet narrow roads which ramble amongst acres of lush paddy fields and dense sugar cane plantations.
Separated by a distance of 625km from Yangon, Mandalay is the commercial hub for the most northern regions or Myanmar and is the country’s second largest city. As a relatively new city, its rapid growth has very much favoured functionality as opposed to its aesthetics, causing it to also be quite a chaotic city.
Somewhat like Yangon and amidst its layers of smog and chorus of hooting horns, Mandalay does have its unique cultural charm, even if it does mean you have to search for it amongst the commotion of its gridlocked streets. Despite most first impressions trending in negativity, there is however plenty of reason to actually visit.
If you fancy finding your bearings whilst taking in a stunning view of the city, Mandalay Hill is probably the best place to start. At 240metre high and what is practically the only elevation for as far as the eye can see, this vantage point gives some impressive views of the surrounding areas. At the summit sits Sutaungpyi Paya and it is here on its wide open terrace where visitors gather every afternoon to appreciate some extraordinary sunsets.
Having visited an outrageous number of pagodas during your journey across Myanmar, you probably will start to feel a little “pagodad out”, however there is one more you have to see. Built in 1857, the Kuthodaw Pagoda is located at the base of Mandalay Hill and is home to the “World’s Largest Book”. The large central gilded pagoda is an impressive sight within itself but the true spectacle lies within the surrounding formation of 729 tightly packed stark white stupas. Within each and every one of these pagodas is a single five foot tall marble slab which has been inscribed on both sides in Burmese script, representing the pages of a book. Engraved with text from the Tipitaka, it is in essence the teachings of Theravada Buddhism. Systematically lined and in perfect formation, the sheer scale of the site and density of pagodas is simply mesmerising!
It is no secret that Myanmar has a fairly tainted political reputation, an ugly human rights history and today still faces ethnic unrest in its remote regions, however this is hardly representative of the country as a whole and any boycott would simply effect the local populations. Despite the countries problems, the Burmese still remain optimistic and are undoubtedly some of the friendliest people you will meet on your travels. These incredibly welcoming people, along with their ancient traditional culture, magnificent landscapes and awe-inspiring collection of temples have firmly put them on the world travel map. Having only reopened its borders to visitors in 2012, it is fair to say they are still finding their feet when it comes to visitors but this is what makes travelling Asia’s purest and most diverse country so special!