This statement made by Rudyard Kipling, a famous English writer, is still a truism today. A country which seems frozen in time, Myanmar (known as Burma during the British rule of 1852-1948) is one of the most exotic and fascinating destinations on earth with the most vivid and least Westernized cultures in Southeast Asia. Still undiscovered by mass tourism, it is the land of idyllic vistas, primordial villages where life has barely changed for generations and awe-inspiring art and architecture with roots going back to the first millennium.
Theravada Buddhism, the country's main religion, has shaped Myanmar's cultural traditions and the philosophy of life of its people. Therefore, ordinary people are peace loving, warm, gregarious, hospitable and generous. An old tradition of lending a helping hand is very strong in Myanmar. It is a common sight to see people, especially in the rural areas, participating in communal activities such as cultivating/harvesting crops, repairing houses, digging wells, etc. There is also a tradition of contributing voluntary labor for cleaning pagodas, building roads, monasteries and schools, and performing other duties for the common good. These activities are believed to gain merit for each participant in this life as well as in the next.
A city of 3.5 million people, Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, is one of Asia's most alluring artifacts. The Old Asian atmosphere, which has remained primarily unchanged despite some contemporary developments and magnificent pagodas, make it an appealing and exciting city to explore. A site of an ancient settlement for over 2,500 years, the city became famous because of the construction of the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most striking Buddhist shrines in the world. It is a vast complex of some 100 various structures – a whimsical fantasy of golden spires and sparkling diamonds. It is best to be visited at sunset for the most dramatic views.
An hour and a half flight from Yangon followed by a fascinating ride along a colorful, bustling, country road lined on both sides by gigantic rain trees brings travelers to Mandalay, a city immortalized by Kipling's poem "On the Road to Mandalay" and one of Myanmar's former capitals. Though it is the second-largest city in Myanmar after Yangon, it is much quieter and laid-back than the capital.
Named after the 756-foot-tall hill, Mandalay has long been a spiritual center of the country. It offers visitors a myriad of remarkable monasteries, pagodas, ancient cities, lively markets, and up-close and personal contacts with the local culture. It is indeed a magical experience to watch a stunning sunset by the U Bein Bridge near Amarapura, a long, rickety teak bridge (the world's longest teak span) across the Taungthaman Lake. It is also a perfect spot to observe locals taking care of their daily chores, fishing in the lake, and transiting the bridge. Monks from the nearby Naha Ganyon Kyaung Monastery come here in the evening to meditate and to enjoy the view.
Along with the Royal Palace and the Kuthodaw Pagoda (frequently called the world's largest book) Mandalay's must-see list includes the incomparable Maha Muni Paya, one of Myanmar's most famous Buddhist sites, which contains a highly venerated 15-foot-high seated image of Mahamuni Buddha that is believed to date back to the 1st century A.D. Over the years, it has been completely covered with a 6-inch thick layer of gold leaf by thousands of devoted Buddhists.
An ascent to the top of the Mandalay hill on a crisp early morning will be rewarded with a panoramic view over the Mandalay Palace, the sprawling city below, the Ayeyarwady River and the Shan Hills.
Myanmar's most stunning and evocative imagery is Bagan. Sprawled along 24 miles of the Ayeyarwady River and built over a span of more than 230 years, Bagan's 4,000-plus temples make it the most wondrous sight in Myanmar – on a par with Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat. Hardly any other site in the world can compete with Bagan in the multitude of temples and the lavishness of their design and decoration.
It is nearly a surreal experience to wander through the deserted old town of Bagan. The site is particularly romantic at sunset. To savor the sunset, one can climb on the Thatbyinnyu Temple, the tallest building in Bagan (201 feet), for a sensational view of countless red brick temples spreading in impressive numbers across the horizon. To fully appreciate this unique and unforgettable place, one may fly in a hot-air balloon over Old Bagan or take a pleasant sunset boat trip on the Ayeyarwady.
There is no industry in Bagan and the town lives off tourism and handicrafts. It is an excellent place to shop for traditional souvenirs including sand paintings, lacquer miniatures encrusted with gold leaf, teak woodcarvings, gorgeous hand-embroidered tapestries, bronze handicrafts and stone carvings. We would also recommend a visit to a lacquer workshop to see the fascinating procedure of craftsmen producing lacquered masterpieces out of bamboo, horsehair and teak.
One of the most popular ways to visit Myanmar is in conjunction with other countries of the region, such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, as a part of the Southeast Asia cruise. For a more in-depth introduction to the country in the daily comfort of the modern-world environment, there are 3-7 days itineraries aboard the deluxe Road to Mandalay river cruiser. Group tours and tailor-made programs are also an enjoyable way to explore one of the most visually spectacular places on earth that only recently reopened its borders to international travel.
With firsthand knowledge of the destinations and travel options available, we would be glad to assist with selecting a program to meet your specific preferences.
Photos Courtesy of: Abercrombie & Kent, Belmond, Inle Princess Resort, and The Strand