Everyone here wears the longyi. Women look like war queens with thanaka smeared on their faces. The men have bright red lips; thanks to their betel nut chewing habits. They seem to have a confused style of driving, as they drive on the right side of the road with a right hand drive! The country and its way of living seem so archaic to outsiders. Its people always smile and are eager to help and learn. That’s Burma for you, one of the hottest destinations in South East Asia.
Burma is a land of exotic attractions, unique cultures, colonial architecture, lots of religious fervour and lovely people. As this country was closed from the outside world for about half a century, its pace is different, its people are unspoiled by modern fads and its charm is unique. Its old world temples, teak forests, jade mountains and precious gems still remain. And all of this put together give tourists an experience that is unmatched by any other country.
Yangon—It all starts here!
A Burma holiday typically starts in Yangon, its erstwhile capital, it is the largest city with the busiest airport. I too began my month long Burmese holiday right here. Straddling the Yangon River and an integral part of the Iyerawaddy delta, this city dazzles you with its 1970s look, colonial architecture, busy markets and, of course, its many golden temples. I got my travel fix simply by walking its many streets near the busy Sule Pagoda area. The shops, the liveliness, the archaicness and the hospitable people amazed me. My stomach in the meanwhile loved the amazing street food and the Falooda I gorged on. The largest temple in Burma, the Shwedagon Pagoda, is located here in Yangon. A visit to this temple during the praying hours in the early morning and late evening is quite a surreal experience.
Bago—The land of temples
While I was staying in Yangon, I made two separate day trips to the nearby cities of Bago and Twante. Bago, about two hours away from Yangon, can be reached either by train or by road. I chose to take the rickety-rackety metre gauge trains [which is quite an experience in itself] to reach this city, which is filled with sensational temples like the Sleeping Buddha, the Mahazeti Pagoda, Shwe Tha Lyuang temple [Smiling Buddha], Shwe Ma Daw Pagoda and many more. The number of massive temples in such a small area is in itself a marvel.
Twante—The pottery town in the Iyerawaddy Delta
On my other day trip, I crossed the Yangon River by ferry and headed deep into the delta to a town called Twante, where traditional handmade pottery workshops are located by the Yangon River. Clay from the delta is used to make these pots. This is the kind of place you would want to visit if you wish to see country life and see the local artisans at work.
Bagan—Ancient land of temples
Next on my itinerary was Bagan. Situated in the heart of the country, Bagan is undoubtedly Burma’s prized jewel. It is an ancient land that was once home to as many as 14,000 temples. Today 4,000 pagodas still remain standing and offer a sight that makes it Burma’s most visited tourist destination. These 11th to 13th century pagodas, situated by the Iyerawaddy River are spread over the fertile plains of Bagan and were all built during the reign of the Anawratha kingdom. The highlight of a trip to Bagan is catching the sunrise and sunset from over a temple top. This view shows you temples across the land, as far as the eye can see. Some beautiful and famous temples here are the Dhammayangi temple, Thatbinyu temple, Htilo Milo temple and the Ananda temple.
Inle lake—Unique Burma
While Bagan is extremely beautiful, my favourite part of Burma is Inle Lake that is located in the mountainous Shan state. It is one of the first places in the world to have started hydroponics [farming crops in water without soil]. Its style of fishing is very unique and it is home to some of the most distinctive cultures in the world. It is here that you can meet and interact with local tribes like the long necked Karen, the Akha and many more. Clothes made here are from the threads of the lotus stem. The traditional cheroot workers, silversmiths and blacksmiths make this area one of the important hubs of indigenous businesses in Burma. And, as with the rest of Burma, they also have their share of beautiful temples and did I say, floating villages. Now you know why this place is my favourite!
Mandalay—Gateway to precious gems
After Bagan and Inle, most tourists travel north to Mandalay, a name that has been immortalised by the movies. This colonial city is home to many Indians and Chinese, especially those who came in search of gold and precious stones. The jade and gold belt of Burma lies to the north of Mandalay. Similar to Yangon, Mandalay is a business hub, but with much less population. Mandalay has some beautiful colonial architecture and is home to a Royal Palace, many beautiful temples and monasteries. Mandalay Hill, U Bein Bridge and Amarapura are some of the top attractions located close by. It has water puppet shows and the classic dance sessions that were my favourite events to attend. And while you are in this town, don’t forget to shop for those precious jewels and locally made handicrafts.
Other holiday destinations in Burma
Burma’s economy has opened up to tourism. However, there are many sectors that are still out of bounds for tourists due to lack of safety. Listed below are other holiday places in Burma that are located within the safe zone:
Ngapali Beach: One of the prettiest beaches on the Bay of Bengal, this is located on the west coast of Burma and is Burma’s most popular beach destination.
Mawlamyine: This fishing town located on the east coast of Burma is a very scenic and quiet beach destination.
Golden rock [Kyaiktiyo Pagoda]: Like Bago, the Golden rock is a place of immense divine value and is home to a beautiful temple.
Lashio and Hsipaw: Located in the Shan state of Burma, this is one of the top trekking areas of Burma and is famous for its people, food and scenic terrain.
- The best season to visit Burma is between October and February when the weather is pleasant But if you can withstand the hot weather, I would recommend visiting during the water festival of Thingyan, held in the middle of April
- The cheapest flights to Burma [from India] take-off from Kolkata and Chennai
- It is best to fly in to Yangon and fly out of Mandalay as this will ensure that you don’t have to do too much air travel within Burma
- If you are carrying US Dollars, do ensure that they are printed after 2006 and are in an absolutely pristine condition
- Buses and trains are a good way to travel in-between cities. Though buses would be much faster and offer a very interesting experience. For intra-city commute, a taxi or a tri-shaw would be the preferred options
- Myanmar doesn’t offer a visa on arrival to Indians, so you need to get one before you leave the country; but getting a visa is a fairly easy process
- If you plan on visiting temples, please ensure that you are fully covered.
This was first published in the August 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.