Myanmar, or the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma), is the second largest country in Southeast Asia, with a population slightly over 51 million. Administratively, Myanmar has seven states and seven regions, many of which are divided along ethnic lines.
The famed British writer, Rudyard Kipling, once said about Myanmar: “It is quite unlike any place you know.” That statement is still true today. To many travelers, Myanmar remains a mystery, a destination still off the beaten track, a country where many regions are still left behind by the modern world. That, however, may be one of its charms, especially for travelers looking for something different. What they will find is a treasure-trove of ancient temples, unspoiled beaches, and a rich and unique cultural heritage. The Burmese also happen to be one of the world’s friendliest people.
Even though Yangon is no longer the nation’s capital, it remains Myanmar’s largest and most important commercial city. And while construction seems to be everywhere as the country makes up for years of neglect, a legacy of economic mismanagement is still evident in the city’s slums and overwhelmed infrastructure. The good news is that, thanks to Japanese development aid in the amount of US$5 billion announced in December 2013, a master plan for the city involving 103 projects should make Yangon a more welcoming place for tourists and business travelers alike. The bad news is that much of the city could resemble one big construction site for the next 5-10 years.
Nevertheless, it should still be easy to find pockets of serenity and local culture throughout Yangon. For starters, no trip to Yangon would be complete without a visit to the Shwedagon Paya, a dazzling Buddhist pagoda that attracts pilgrims from all over the world. Over 2500 years old, it is one of the oldest Buddhist structures in the world. Within its walls are a few strands of hair belonging to the Buddha, as well as other holy relics. This makes Shwedagon Paya the most sacred site in Burma. Inside, gold is literally everywhere, and sitting atop the main stupa are 4,531 diamonds, the largest being 72 carats. As one of the wonders of the religious world, Shwedagon Paya is a repository of Myanmar’s heritage and should not to be missed. Reserve at least a half-day as the place is vast, with many interconnecting temples and religious relics throughout.
There are a number of other famous temples in Yangon worth visiting, but for a change a pace travelers can visit Bogyoke Aung San Market, formerly known as Scott Market, named after former British Municipal Commissioner C. Scott. This is the most famous and popular local market in Yangon. The large colonial building housing it was built in 1926 and is home to some 1,640 shops selling a range of handicrafts, lacquer ware, wood carvings, tapestry, silverware, brassware, silk and cotton fabrics, clothing, hardware, and food.
Address: Singutrara Hill, Yangoon
Hours: Daily 4am to 10pm
Bogyoke Aung San Market
Address: Bogyoke Aung San Road, between Shwe Dagon Pagoda Rd. & Shwe Bontha St., Latha Township
Hours: Daily 9am to 5pm
The city of Bagan is one of the most spectacular and holy sites in Myanmar. Situated on the shore of the Ayeyarwady River in the central part of the country, it was once home to some 13,000 temples, pagodas, and stupas. Around 2,200 still remain today. Some are well maintained, while others have been overtaken by the elements. All are considered sacred, which means removing one’s shoes and socks before entering.
Bagan’s temples are incomparable to anything in the modern world and have a rich history dating back over a thousand years. Its holiest temple, the Ananda Temple, was built in 1091 and houses the remains of four Buddhas. Other notable temples include the Shwesandaw Temple, also known as the Sunset Temple, where visitors gather to watch the Bagan sunset. The Thatbyinnyu Temple is the tallest pagoda, measuring 216 feet (66 meters) in height. The shape of each temple, together with their various parts, has significant religious meaning in Buddhism.
Address: Southeast of Tharabar Gate in Old Bagan
Hours: 9am to 5pm (subject to change)
Admission: US$10 (subject to change)
East of Bagan sits Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most iconic destinations. While the area attracts a large number of tourists, the lake’s rural charms are authentic and alluring. Travelers will be treated to some unique Burmese local practices and landscapes: local fisherman rowing canoes with one leg while using both hands to fish, floating gardens bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables, and oxcarts packed with the day’s harvest. Visitors will also be treated to the sight of traditional Burmese homes perched on stilts in floating villages that sustain generations-old cottage industries.
The best way to experience Inle Lake is by boat. A day trip costs around US$17-20 per boat, which can accommodate five or six passengers who sit on wooden chairs. It’s best to negotiate the price and tailor your trip to the sights you want to see and avoid. Most boat tours include time on the lake to see the Inle fishermen in action (most beautiful at dawn), as well as a visit to the rotating five-day market. Boats can also stop at villages hosting cottage industries, including lotus silk weaving, silver smiths, cigar making, and boat building. Many trips start at dawn, when mist covers the lake and it is at its most photogenic. Sunset trips are also popular, though it can get chilly on the water. Most boats provide blankets, but having your own jacket and hat is best.
There are also a number of sites on the perimeter of the lake best explored by bicycle or on foot, including hot springs and other cottage industries. On the north side of the lake is an unlikely site, the Red Mountain Winery, which is famous for its pinot noir and sauvignon blanc wines.
|Chantal de Bruijne / Shutterstock.com|
Address: Nyaungshwe Township of Taunggyi District of Shan State (Shan Hills)
Hours: Dawn to dusk
Boat Rides: US$17-20 negotiable
Red Mountain Winery
Address: Taung Chay Village Group, Nyaungshwe Township,
Southern Shan State
Hours: 10am to 5pm
The U.S., UK, and other countries issue standard travel advisories for Myanmar. They note that travelers should exercise a high degree of caution, particularly in public places, due to the unsettled political situation and the possibility of civil unrest in parts of the country. Because Myanmar is still suffering from internal conflict, acts of politically motivated violence can occur at any time, including in areas frequented by tourists.
Some foreign governments advise against travel to Rakhine state, the border area with Thailand, China and Laos, and the states of Kachin and Shan, due to the risk of civil unrest, sporadic fighting, banditry, and unmarked landmines.
Crime rates in Myanmar, especially involving foreigners, are lower than those of many other countries in the region. While the crime rate has been rising, violent crime against foreigners is rare.
Although many sanctions against Myanmar have been lifted, as of early 2015, no Burmese bank accepts traveler’s checks, and Burmese businesses rarely have capabilities to accept credit cards. While several banks in Burma now accept limited Visa or Master Card ATM-card withdrawals, travelers are encouraged to enter the country with enough cash to cover all expenses, including unexpected ones.
For more details, consult the travel advisories issued by the U.S. State Department and other foreign governments before traveling.