Once a little-visited destination, especially when it was called Burma, Myanmar is a country that has been held back in its progress compared to other places in the world. However, therein lies some of its charm and reasons to visit on a Myanmar tour, while on your Asia vacation.
I compare Myanmar to my first and last visits to China. There was no similarity, and although China today is fascinating, the lifestyle and the character have changed dramatically. I am just happy that I was able to experience it as it used to be. I would imagine a Myanmar vacation will be very different one day. Before I ever visited Myanmar, I had a friend who backpacked around Asia. He told me that of all the people he came across on his travels, those of Myanmar impressed him the most because of their natural manner and friendliness. My first visit to Myanmar reinforced his opinion. They are polite, a little shy but very amenable towards foreigners. What fascinated me was the way the local people criticized quietly the then regime in the mildest manner. I think part of this demeanour is due to the fact that Myanmar’s culture is heavily influenced by Buddhism, a “passive” religion. Much of Myanmar’s attraction lies in its temples, pagodas, and historical sites. Let’s look at some of the key places to visit on a Myanmar tour.
What I liked about Yangon (formerly Rangoon) was that you could still see the influences in the city architecture from during the occupation by the British (1824-1948). However, many of the attractive Victorian-style buildings are, unfortunately, run down. (Not unlike Havana, Cuba). Yangon is busy but still not that up to date compared with other Asian capitals. You are conscious of tree-lined streets, markets, small pagodas and temples, and, above all, people going about their daily life dressed in traditional garb. Then there are the ever-present meandering monks in their burgundy-coloured robes quite often walking barefoot. Many children and some women, not often men, wear on their cheeks what appears to be a cream-coloured paste. I am told it has a cooling effect and they wear it as a protection against sunburn.
The first site to head for is definitely the Shwedagon Pagoda. In my opinion, the word “pagoda” is a misnomer. Shwedagon is almost a city within a city, it is so vast. Apart from being visible from almost anywhere in Yangon, it is also the holiest and most revered temple for Myanmar’s Buddhist population. It stands on a hill and is almost 110 metres/360 feet high, with hundreds of gold plates and 5000 diamonds plus 2000 rubies, sapphires, and other gems encrusted on the roof’s structure. It is supposedly over 2000 years old. If visiting, it is essential to dress modestly with arms and knees covered. At night, Shwedagon is illuminated and the glow is visible, again in most parts of the city. It is always busy with locals and visitors alike. I was particularly impressed with the way in which local volunteers would form a line with brooms and go around sweeping the interior grounds on a regular basis. (You have to be careful as they pass by, as you could be swept up!) Needless to say, a visit to the Shwedagon will be an unforgettable experience.
Another revered religious edifice to visit on your Myanmar tour is the octagonal-shaped Sule Pagoda, situated strangely enough on a traffic island in the middle of a busy intersection. This 2000-year-old pagoda, with a golden dome, supposedly housed a strand of Buddha’s hair.
I rather liked Kandawgyi Lake which is attached to a park and an oasis inside the city. It was built by the British as a reservoir. At sunset, the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda is reflected in the lake’s waters. There is a boardwalk around the southern edge of the lake which provides great views. On the north side of the lake, the Utopia Tower is a large pile of artificial rocks which house restaurants, bars, and a viewing deck on the 5th floor. On the ground floor are exhibits of works by local artists.
Perhaps of interest could be Aung San Suu Kyi’s House which was where Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house-arrest for many years. On my first visit to Yangon, I was taken on a detour around some very unmade back streets to get somewhere, and it was due to the fact that she was incarcerated in the house at the time which was located on a main road. Nowadays, it is possible to go and look at the house from outside.
For museum buffs, try the National Museum of Myanmar which has displays of Burmese historical artifacts showcasing the best of Myanmar’s artistic heritage and craftsmanship. There are priceless works of art and historical memorabilia on display.
On my Myanmar tour, I loved visiting the Strand Hotel, the oldest and most famous hotel in the country. It was built in 1901 and is a national landmark. It became very run down but was completely renovated in the 1990s. The inside brings back memories of colonial times (not unlike Raffles in Singapore or the Eastern and Oriental in Georgetown, Penang – but nowhere near as grand).
Bagan is one of the richest archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, situated on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. It’s the perfect stop on an Irrawaddy cruise, enjoyed on a Myanmar vacation. This ancient city was, from the 9th to the 13th century, the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan. An amazing 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries were built during this time. Today, though, there are around 2200 surviving temples and pagodas which are spread out over a vast area, very close to the town of Bagan, and are a truly awe-inspiring sight. The shapes and sizes are extremely varied. One of my favourite times in Bagan was at sunset, gazing down from one of the taller temples and watching the glinting sun beat down on the area creating not just a very special serene moment but a wonderful sight of the temples emanating a magical hue.
Some specific ways of viewing the temples first-hand and enhancing your stay in Bagan can include a hot air balloon ride, a ride in a horse cart and driver (possibly the most rewarding), renting a local taxi, and renting a regular or electric bicycle. All these are excellent ways of exploring the temples on your Myanmar tour.
It is very difficult to pick out just a few major temples to visit as you would need several days to view even the most interesting. The holiest temple is the Ananda Temple, built in 1091 AD, which contains four Buddhas. The Bupaya Stupa is a golden gourd-shaped structure, sitting on top of a complex temple. The Shwesandaw Temple is also known as the “Sunset Temple,” as this is one of the more popular places where, every evening, when the sun sets, people gather to watch the spectacle. The Dhammayangyi Temple has a story attached to it. The king, who ordered the temple to be built, was assassinated before it was totally completed. It is now known as the “Ghost Temple,” presumably haunted by this particular person. I could go on and on about the many temples here but it would be much better to learn more on a visit to Bagan. One other attraction in Bagan is the Night Market, which provides a good way to see first-hand how the locals entertain themselves as they stage concerts here.
Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city and was once the capital. One of the first sights that will catch your eye here is the number of Buddhist monks clothed in their burgundy robes. It is said that half the total number of monks in Myanmar are to be found in Mandalay. The second thing you will be aware of is that it is a noisy city with a lot of traffic. However, don’t be put off by this as, once you get to know it, Mandalay has lots to offer the visitor on a Myanmar vacation. A good place to start is Mandalay Hill, the top of which is reached by a covered stairway. It takes about half an hour to reach the summit. En route, you will pass through a number of monasteries and temples which will make your walk even more interesting. Once at the top, you will be rewarded with great views of the city.
The Mandalay Palace was a royal palace which was once exceptional. Unfortunately, it was partially destroyed by fire during World War 2. However, parts of it are still available to visit which include the city gates, some wooden pavilions, the surrounding moat, and the clock tower. The Mandalay Cultural Museum is located inside the palace grounds. The Shwenandaw Monastery is the most significant of Mandalay’s historic buildings, since this “Golden Palace Monastery” remains the sole major survivor of the former wooden Royal Palace built by King Mindon in the mid-19th century. The Shwenandaw Monastery is an example of 19th Century Myanmar teak architecture and a masterpiece of the woodcarver’s art, with its beautiful intricate carvings of Buddhist stories. Also in Mandalay is the Kuthodaw Pagoda, site of the world’s largest book, the Tripitaka Theravada. It is Buddhism’s most sacred text in the form of 729 white Buddhist stupas, each containing a marble slab with a page of text.
For those seeking some nature on their Myanmar tour, close by Mandalay is the Dee Doke Waterfall. It consists of small, layered waterfalls set in a tranquil and beautiful area with mountainous scenery, which combines well with the natural blue water of the falls.
Inle Lake is a very large lake (22 kilometres/13.5 miles long and 12 kilometres/7 miles wide) bordering Thailand and Laos. It is exceptionally attractive with its mountain backdrop and is natural and unpolluted. Attractions here are the floating villages and colourful daily floating market where hand-made goods for local use and trading are sold. Inle Lake is also the region where over 30 hill tribes live. You will find several accommodation resorts built above the lake on stilts. One unusual venue is the Jumping Cat Monastery, built on stilts and where cats are trained by monks to jump through small hoops.
Myanmar has some lovely and beautiful beaches that could provide a little rest and relaxation while on your Myanmar tour. The best known is Ngapali, where the beach stretches some 3 kilometres/2 miles with white sand and is fringed with coconut palms. There is a 9-hole golf course, an elephant camp, and the ability to take part in water sports including snorkeling and scuba diving. Ngwesaung Beach offers an 11 kilometre/7 mile long stretch of white sandy beach and is known for its seafood. Once again it has excellent facilities for water sports.
This is not all there is to a visit to Myanmar, but the places above will certainly linger in your memory for a long time after your Myanmar vacation.