What to see in Myanmar (Burma)
By Matt Preston
With the first democratic elections for over 2 decades, Myanmar is finally opening up to the world and is sure to become the next tourist destination of choice in South East Asia. Formally known as Burma, this country rich in history and culture has been all but cut off from outside influences and tourist practices, making it a very real and unique experience in this part of the world. All this is set to change in the coming years so there is no better time to plan a Myanmar holiday. Here’s my selection of places you really can’t miss out on.
Once called Rangoon by the British, Yangon is most people’s first experience of Myanmar. While the airport is modern and clean, the city is a mixture of historic colonial buildings, grand hotels and dusty streets. The taxis are an experience in themselves, many of them are older than their owners, these cars have definitely been around the block a few times and within a few years will disappear thanks to a car exchange program the government is starting. The drivers are always friendly and can take you to all the best sights. On everyone’s list is the Shwedagon Temple which is well worth a visit especially at sunset. I would recommend going on a Friday as monks come from miles around to chat with tourists about Myanmar and practice their English. A real education while you wander the truly stunning temple complex.
A short flight away or a 17 hour bumpy train journey from Yangon, is the city of Mandalay. Wildly considered the centre of Myanmar’s culture, arts and crafts, there’s so much to see in Myanmar’s second largest city. The Mahagandhayan Monastery is the place to go around 10:30am to witness the monks convening for an early lunch. Lining up in their colourful burgundy robes to collect their meal, there can be up to 1,500 monks eating together. The grounds of the Monastery are an interesting place to walk and witness traditional Burmese life.
The temples of Inwa (or Ava), South of Mandalay is a great excursion away from the busy city streets and into rural Myanmar. A short boat journey across a river tributary brings you to a land of horse and carts, all brightly painted and shining in the sun. These aren’t just for the tourists but a real means of transportation in Inwa. The peaceful surroundings of this temple complex only add to the beauty of the temples and stupas that fill the horizon and glisten in gold and white.
Back in the city you’ll find the world’s largest book at the Kuthodaw Pagoda. While it may not be made of paper and bound together, it still deserves the name. 729 buildings make up the Library, each containing a 5 inch thick marble monolith engraved with Buddhist scripture. If this were presented as a book it would be over 27 feet high and weigh over 90 tonnes. Well worth visiting in late afternoon is the 730th building, a large gold leaf covered stupa in the centre of the complex. Then, before sun sets, be sure to visit Mandalay Hill and enjoy the view from the temple at the top. An unbroken view across Mandalay as the deep red sun drops like a stone.
When it comes to ancient temples Angkor Wat in Cambodia may be the most famous but Bagan in Myanmar must be the most abundant. In the 11th to 13th centuries over 10,000 temples, pagodas and stupas were built. Over 2,200 remain and cover this flat landscape so much that it seems you’re never more than a 100 metres from one. An increasing number of hotels and restaurants in this region are built amongst this deluge of ancient Buddhist architecture.
As some temples crumble after years of weathering, others are restored to their former glory. Many of the hotels here have guided tours and you can also hire bicycles for the day. I’d highly recommend a visit to the Ananda temple and the Shwesandaw Pagoda is a great place to watch the sun set. You can also view the temple filled landscape at sunrise by hot-air-balloon. Bagan is likely to be the highlight to any Myanmar holiday.
Situated East of Bagan is the beautiful expanse of water called Inle Lake. You can fly to the nearby airport at Heho and get a noisy boat from the quiet town of Nyaung Shwe. There are a number of hotels in the town but for the real Inle Lake experience you can stay on one of a few hotels on the Lake. A collection of wooden buildings on stilts that give you a unique experience on this idyllic lake. You’ll also be closer to local life all conducted in buildings on stilts. Everything from homes and restaurants, to shops, factories and temples can be found on the lake and its surrounding wetlands. Tours of the lake are a must and the local guides know their way around the villages.
Highlights include the heritage building where you can meet some real Burmese cats, the floating gardens which seem to go on forever and watching boatmen without engines rowing their single oar with one foot.
There are also some great places for lunch where you can sit and watch the villagers go about their daily lives, a truly unique experience.
Things you should know about Myanmar
While Myanmar does have its own currency call Kyat (pronounced chyat) tourists often have to pay for things in US Dollars. As of 2012 there are no ATMs in Myanmar that accept foreign cards so you’ll need to bring all the US dollars you’ll need for your trip with you. Not only that but you’ll need to make sure your US dollars are in pristine condition, crease and blemish free, otherwise they won’t accept them. Current (unofficial) exchange rate for Kyat is around 750 to 1 US dollar.
There are many ways to travel in Burma, flying is definitely the most comfortable. There is an extensive railway network but the trains have long since seen better days. Buses too can be an experience but with the right tour company you can find decent modern buses, although the journeys can be long. I can recommend a river cruise down the Ayeyarwady river as a great way to see the country in style.
While you’ll see internet cafes here and there, the internet really hasn’t reached much of Myanmar. If you’re looking to send emails or catch up with friends on Facebook, expect slow and patchy connections.
The Buddhist people of Myanmar believe in a “warmly welcome” to foreigners and English is taught in schools too. Expect people to be curious of you and don’t worry, most aren’t trying to sell you anything. You’ll learn so much about local customs and history by your random conversations with strangers. The monks especially like to welcome you to their country and can teach you all about the temples and pagodas.
Thanks to Selective Asia
I had an amazing time in Myanmar, it was a real travel experience in a country filled with stunning sights and friendly people. I’d like to thank our partners Selective Asia for sponsoring this trip. I highly recommend visiting Myanmar soon as tourism will undoubtably grow in the coming years.