Gleaming stupas, majestic rivers, and ancient glory are the thoughts that come to mind when I think of Myanmar.   I wanted to visit this land that time forgot ever since I’ve arrived in Asia.   However, isolated and ostracized by the international community for its military corruption and political unrest, I had to decide where my moral ground laid and whether I should visit.   I decided to go.  I loved my trip and I’m glad I went.  I made new friends and learned a lot about what life can be like without the democratic freedom and economic wealth most of us take for granted.   Myanmar has a rich and historical past that is filled with intriguing destinations that will make you feel like you have been transported to another time and place.  So begins my story to Myanmar…

Yangon
My adventure in the “Golden Land’ began in Yangon.  Greeted by my Yangon guide, we drove into the city and I was amazed by how lush and green the city was.  With a rainy forecast for the day, we visited Shwedagon Pagoda in the afternoon.  I was wowed by the dazzling mix of pavilions, stupas, buddhas and bells.  The top of the golden pagoda was covered with diamonds and gems, with a 76 carat diamond solitaire at the tip! I had no idea that Myanmar was so grand and rich! The rain started to pour in the late afternoon so we ran for shelter at the indoor reclining Buddha.  In the evening, we headed to Kandawyi Lake for a puppet show buffet dinner.  We had front-row seats and the show was entertaining and colorful.  To end the evening, we had a moonlight view of Shwedagon over the lake.

Bagan
From Yangon, I journeyed into Bagan, an archeological zone with over 2000 pagodas as far as the eye could see near the Irrawaddy River.   As the plane prepared for landing, I peered out the window, hundreds upon hundreds of temples and stupas came into view.  This was the reason I wanted to come to Myanmar, to see all of its ancient glory.  The tour started at a temple with a high viewpoint of the surrounding area so that we are able to get our bearings of the thousands of temples. Some of the temples were large and elaborate while other stupas were crumbling and falling apart.   It was a wonder of Buddhist art and architecture.   I learnt a lot that day from my Bagan tour guide, about Burmese history, temple shapes, and how Buddhism began in Burma when a Sri Lankan monk brought one of Buddha’s original teeth as a gift to the reigning King..  After a sumptuous lunch by the river, we continued temple hopping – on bicycle. It was an enjoyable way of visiting the temples as there were few vehicles on the road and I was able to take in the beauty of the place at leisure and I enjoyed a beautiful sunset on top of one of the highest temples.

The next day, I took an excursion to Mt. Popa, an extinct volcano in a green oasis near Bagan.  Along the way, my guide entertained me with Burmese children stories, I watched palm sugar being made and stopped by a local village to meet and see how locals lived.  It was an enjoyable way to pass the time.   Mt. Popa was a welcome relief from the heat surrounding Bagan.  Upon arriving at Mt. Popa, I learnt that the mountain top held a temple for pagans and was a sacred area for honoring spirits and the peak would honor us with amazing views, so I decided to ascend to the top.   A third of the way up, we had to remove our shoes and continue barefoot.  Monkeys & monkey feces were everywhere.  As we moved further up, local Burmese would repeat to us laughingly, “Dirty, Dirty”.   The steps were filthy but I was rewarded with amazing views at the top.   Afterwards, I returned to Bagan for a horse-cart ride around more temples and to visit a local village where laughing children ran out to greet us “Hello! Hello!”.  I ended the day with a serene sunset boat ride over the Irrawaddy River.

Mandalay
With my trip halfway over, I headed to Mandalay, the last capital of the ancient Burmese dynasty.  It was a different city altogether. I marveled at the U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world.   It is definitely one of the highlights in Mandalay, walking on the bridge to enjoy the sunset over the river and observing the locals carrying out their daily activities. Also, I visited a monastery that allowed me to gain a deeper insight into a monk’s life. From the young to the old, every Burmese male is required to go into monkhood for a portion of their life and learn the teachings of Buddhism.  Other sites included visiting Shwenandaw Monastery, to look at wood carvings, Mahamuni Pagado, where worshipers put gold-leaves on the Buddha, and Kuthodaw Pagoda, renowned as the world’s largest book for its stone slabs of Buddhist scriptures.  To top off the day, I enjoyed the view of Mandalay on top of Mandalay Hill.

The next day, I took a pleasant river ride up to Mingun, the site of what would have been the world’s largest zedi had it been completed and the largest hung uncracked bell in the world.   On the way to Mingun, my Mandalay guide shared with me his views on his country, the corrupt government, the religiously devout, and the helplessness of his people.   It was very eye-opening but heart-rending to hear and it made us want to do more for these kind people we’ve met along the way.  (Discussion of politics to tourists is punishable by imprisonment in Myanmar so my guide would have been in trouble if I was a Burmese spy!).  On my way back to town, I decided to visit a female orphanage. We headed to Zegyo Market, Mandalay’s’ largest market to wander and buy small gifts for the kids.  At the orphanage, managed by nun, we were greeted by 80 girls, starting from 2 years old.   They all looked so happy to see us and were so well-behaved.   Trying to keep my emotions at bay, I put on my best happy face and toured the orphanage with the kids.  Saying my goodbyes, I wished I could have done more for these children.  I left feeling sad but also more educated to see this other side of Myanmar.

Inle Lake
Final stop: Inle Lake!   A place known for its shallow lake, beautiful scenery and fisherman leg-boat rowers.  Life seemed carefree as I roamed around the lake in a long-tail motorboat.  I was able to take in the beauty of the lake and the mountain with rainbows spreading across the blue, blue sky, as time seems to come to a standstill. Boatmen rowing their boats with one leg with both hands holding onto their fishing nets, tomatoes growing in the middle of the lake, ducks swimming leisurely on the water and the locals washing in the water were common sights during the boat trip. Such serenity…

Morning came and I was going to go trekking in the Inle Lake area.  Hopping onto my boat, my Inle Lake guide and I headed into the backpacking town, Nyaung Phyu.   From there, we met up with our trekking guide and walked all the way up into the mountains.  Along the way, I saw farming villages, children playing, ruined temples in the middle of the mountain and a cave where Japanese invaders hid during wartime.   In all, the trek took 3 hours and I got great views of the mountain and lake.    After the hike, I visited my guide’s home and I met his family.  They welcomed me with conversation, homemade snacks and smiles.   It was a wonderful way to end my journey.

Should You Visit?
Isolated and ostracized by the international community, Myanmar is rarely visited because tourists believe their money goes towards sustaining the military dictatorship.  However, this is not true.   Myanmar is rich in precious stones like jade and rubies, lacquer-ware and gold, all of which is exported.  Although a portion of tourism dollars is sent to the government, the vast majority of it is put into the hands of the Burmese.   The Burmese people are kind, considerate, devout, engaging, and intelligent and they deserve a better future: A future that can be realized if more people came to visit their beautiful country.

Myanmar is truly an amazing gem.  Everyone should visit.  I went to Myanmar because I wanted to discover Myanmar’s ancient glory from all the pictures I’ve seen of Bagan.  I left with memories of ancient temples, a deep sense of Buddhist culture, picturesque lake-view scenery and an admiration for the Burmese people and the kindness they have towards strangers.

Travel Advice:

  • Best Time to Visit – October to February and it’s the only time of year you can take a hot-air balloon ride over Bagan (a must-do).  Summer temperatures reach up to mid-40s Celsius.  Monsoon Season is from May to June
  • Money – Bring lots of US Dollars in small increments of $1, $5, $10 & $20.  Money has to be brand new, no creases or marks.  Otherwise, it will not be accepted.  Credit Cards & ATM Machines are not available.
  • Dress Code – Conservative.  Women should wear shorts or skirts down to the knees.  No low-cut tops and tank tops.   Men with t-shirts & shorts are okay.  Burmese are very religious and Myanmar is a very conservative country.   Or go with tradition, and buy a longji (Burmese sarong) to wear around the streets.   Sandals/Flip-flops recommended because you will have to take off your shoes to enter temples.  Don’t forget your sunglasses and sunscreen.
  • Mobile Phones – Cell phone roaming is not available.  Be prepared to have no contact with the outside world or get a Myanmar SIM Card, it will cost US $20.  Call is US $1 a minute.

Bonnie Chao is the Marketing Executive of Country Holidays Travel. Out of all the countries she’s visited in IndoChina which includes Cambodia and Vietnam, Myanmar was by far, her favorite.  But she hasn’t visited Laos yet so who is to say that won’t be her favorite afterwards…  To find out more about travel to China, Asia and the rest of the world, visit www.countryholidays.com.cn