Myanmar (Burma) has long been known as a pariah state, distinctly removed from the world map and somewhere where only the most adventurous traveler would set foot. In recent years this has all changed with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in November 2010 and it is her, who has put this magical destination on the worldwide map, making it the hot pick of 2013.
Vicky Hogg, from our Asia-Pacific team, and Louisa Verney from our Africa team, have just returned from a 10-day adventure traveling through the relatively unfamiliar destination of Myanmar and share some of their overwhelming experiences.
With China, Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh and India as neighboring states, Myanmar has long been a forgotten land, hidden on the map of South-East Asia; but how things have changed. Unlike all my previous trips to Asia (and there have been many), I could sense that there was something very different about my journey to Burma – it was the unknown. A country I knew very little about; I was not only excited, but full of intrigue. One thing I knew, was that I was extremely fortunate to experience this mysterious destination before tourism spirals out of control.
Our journey began in Yangon, or in colonial terms Rangoon, which is the former capital of the country and remains the capital of the Yangon Region. Although, since March 2006, the military government has officially relocated the capital to Naypyidaw, with a population of over four million, Yangon continues to be the country’s largest city and is the gateway to most people’s adventure. A bustling place, the city is overshadowed by the breath-taking presence of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which according to legend, has existed for more than 2,600 years, making it the oldest historical pagoda in not only Burma but the world. Take a visit at sunset when the pure gold stupa glistens in the evening sun – the perfect Kodak moment.
“The Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset”
Bagan was my next stop, and after an early start for my 2 hour flight (the domestic flight system isn’t for the faint hearted), I realised that my early morning wake-up call was definitely worth it. With over 2,200 temples and pagodas (there were over 10,000 between the 11th and 13th centuries), dotted across the countryside of Bagan covering over 26 square miles, it is here that makes you really appreciate this enchanting land. Days were spent exploring the unknown by traditional horse and cart, and climbing up the many historic ruins to witness the beautiful sunsets across the plains; and the best thing about it was the beauty of traveling in the “green” season, where we had these pagoda’s all to ourselves. A blissful experience…
“Views across the plains of Bagan”
“Louisa and I winding through the pagodas by horse and cart”
A short flight across to Mandalay, the second-largest city and the last royal capital of Burma, saw us explore the historic teak U-Bein Bridge, highlighted by the red robes of the local monks wandering across. It is here that you can board some of the traditional vessels that journey down the Irrawaddy River across to Bagan, and although I didn’t have time to fit this into my busy schedule, it would have been an insightful way to witness local river life. For the more active, enjoy a strenuous stroll up Mandalay Hill in time for sunset – the views are just breath-taking.
“The view from Mandalay Hill”
Another short flight, but this time to Heho, brought me to my final pitstop on my Burmese adventure – Inle Lake. With the stunning mountain backdrop, the lake is filled with small boats and local fishermen with their unique rowing technique (they row with one leg!). The setting is serene, and the way of life is far more relaxed than the likes of Mandalay or Rangoon.
“A local fisherman rowing with one foot!”
A visit to the 5 day market is an intriguing adventure, where you can witness the locals trading for their daily essentials, mainly fresh fruits and vegetables (they are so fresh, unlike our supermarkets back home!). Surprisingly enough, Inle is also home to 2 vineyards, both of which produce local Burmese wine. I tasted some of the Red Mountain produce, and I have to say it slipped down rather easily!
“The locals at the 5 day market”
Inle Lake was the perfect end to an incredible journey. My only disappointment was that I was unable to explore the pristine white sandy beaches of Ngapali, in the heart of the Bay of Bengal and home to some of the most phenomenal diving and snorkeling. I would have welcomed a few days relaxing on a sun lounger to reflect on my adventure, but due to the weather, the region is partially closed from May to September. That said I cherished the fact that I explored Burma in the height of summer and away from all the busting crowds – something that I would highly recommend.
Burma is an absolute hidden gem, bursting with ancient pagodas, genuine smiles, fascinating culture and hidden beaches, however, it does not come without its difficulties – infrastructure is virtually non-existent (international mobile networks are yet to be introduced and internet is extremely poor, if you’re lucky to get it at all) and with the continued rapid growth in tourism, this will put the country in a state of flux. Despite all of this, if you are the adventurous traveler, who can pack a sense of humor, and you want to discover the undiscovered, I would highly recommend putting Burma at the top of your must do list now, before it’s too late. And when you’re there, relax and just enjoy the genuine Burmese hospitality – it’s magical.
Top tips for Myanmar
– Avoid the hideous crowds and travel in the summer. Despite a few showers, you will feel like you have the whole country to yourself, and will also avoid the problems with limited hotel rooms.
– Make sure you have enough cash on you to get you through your trip. Not only are cards not widely accepted, but ATM’s are scarce as well. This will be changing but you don’t want to be unprepared.
– Wearing clothes that cover your legs and shoulders is extremely important in this spiritual country, especially when you are visiting the many pagodas and temples.
– As you have to take your shoes off every time you enter a temple, wearing shoes that are easy to put on and take off will save you a lot of time!
– Make sure you bring a decent camera, as this is the most photogenic country in the world.