Myanmar (or Burma as it used to be known) is one of my favourite countries in South East Asia. Bordering India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand and with more than 100 ethnic groups, it is a melting pot of cultures and stunning landscapes from pristine beaches to sparkling lakes and plateaus sprinkled with gleaming gold spired temples. But what makes Myanmar even more special is the warmth of its people. They are gentle, welcoming and inquisitive and genuinely want to engage with you.
By no means backwards, Myanmar has an untouched quality preserved by years of economic and political isolation from the West (think Vietnam and Thailand 20 years ago). The traditional dress of velvet flip flops and the skirt like longyi is widely worn, whilst faces are white with Thanaka (used as make-up and sun block). Religion plays an important part in daily life and Buddhism is certainly big. The streets are festooned with red robed monks and prettily dressed nuns in pink collecting their daily alms, whilst temples are filled with locals going about their worship.
The start of a trip to Myanmar
A trip to Myanmar will begin in its capital, Yangon. It’s a bustling, noisy town with a colourful street life where locals sell their wares or sit at one of the little pavement food stalls chatting, eating and drinking endless cups of sweet milky tea.
Under the British colonial-era the city would have been very grand indeed. But now once ornately decorated buildings lie crumbling and pavements are littered with crater sized holes.
A must is a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s Myanmar’s most important pagoda and people come from all over the country to visit it, at least once in their life time. At its heart lies a huge golden stupa that glistens in the sunlight, gaining greater depth as the sun sets and the sky darkens. Whilst at night encrusted with over 5,000 diamonds, the stupa twinkles and acts as a beacon over the whole of Yangon.
The easiest way to get around Myanmar is by plane. Short hops from one location to another. Albeit there are also some lovely cruises aboard luxury boats that ply the rivers of the country.
The road to Mandalay
Mandalay, a city so blitzed by the Japanese / British war time struggle that it almost ceased to exist, is home to the beautiful and intricately carved teak Golden Palace monastery.
Whilst sitting at the foot of Mandalay Hill is the serene Kuthodaw Pagoda with its 729 huge marble tablets inscribed with Buddhist scriptures and set inside white stupas.
At the ancient capital of Inwa (Ava) you go back in time as you explore the area in a horse drawn cart, clip clopping along rural lanes to monasteries and past rice paddies tended by local workers.
At Amarapura you can watch as over a thousand monks take lunch at the country’s largest monastery.
Then walk at sunset over the 200 year old U-Bein’s Bridge which is 1km long and constructed entirely out of teak.
Balloons over Bagan
Myanmar is a country of many amazing sites and Bagan is no exception. Here 11th Century Burmese kings, in an ostentatious show, went on a building spree resulting in over 3,000 religious monuments built over about 50 square kilometres. The sheer vastness of the plain and the number of temples are incredible and the best way to experience the site is from the sky. Getting up at dawn and with the gentle whoosh of the gas burners, you rise through the early morning mist in a balloon to be greeted by the sublime sight of thousands of bell shaped temples.
Ever heard the one about the one legged rower?
Inle Lake has some of Myanmar’s most dreamy scenery. The Intha people live on floating villages, in houses built on stilts unchanged in 200 years, with electricity introduced only recently.
The locals tend their floating gardens whilst fishermen row with one arm and one leg leaving the other free to handle the nets.
At the rotating 5-day market you will find the cheroot smoking ladies from the surrounding hill tribes, who are very adept at bartering!
Most places around the lake are visited by long boat, but a bike ride through the countryside and local villages is a way of getting into the heart of local life.
And you may stumble across a vineyard as well for a spot of wine tasting.
Life’s a beach
If finishing your trip on the beach is something you want to do then you could head to the charming and laidback Ngapali. The beaches are nice and it’s far less developed than anywhere in Thailand, with good quality accommodation that’s simpler rather than luxurious.
Or if you are feeling truly adventurous and want to discover a place totally off the radar, head south where, nearly in Thailand, you will find a 9,000 acre private island adrift in the Andaman Sea that is Wa Ale. With a strong conservation ethos, smart tented villas and tree houses, deserted beaches and pristine diving, this is definitely the stuff of dreams. A place where you can completely disconnect and where you will definitely not know anyone else who has been!
During a trip to Myanmar you will witness centuries old traditions, view stunning landscapes and meet warm people. It truly is a very special place.
I realise there is a moral aspect to visiting Myanmar at the moment, given the dreadful human rights atrocities against the Rohingya, and I certainly do not condone the regime in Myanmar. But having been there and seen how wonderful the people are - how they thank you for travelling to their country and rely so much nowadays on tourism - for me not travelling to Myanmar would have such a detrimental effect on many innocent locals, that I feel it would be the opposite of what is needed in this struggling nation.
But it is very important to ensure that if you do travel there, you travel responsibly. I do not work with local government owned local operators. I also do my best to avoid military/government owned hotels, but that isn’t always possible. Plus I try to ensure as much of the money my clients bring into the country goes direct to the local communities by arranging trips that engage with them. However, I do realise that each person has to make up their own mind about travelling to Myanmar. I just know if they do, they will have a truly memorable and fulfilling experience.
If you would like to find out more about a trip to Myanmar of elsewhere in South East Asia, please do get in touch.
Photographs by: Lesley-Ann and Julian