By Roger Allnutt
In the four years since the general elections in November 2010 which saw major changes in Myanmar and an increase in freedoms for most inhabitants the country (previously known as Burma) has become one of the most popular ‘new’ tourist destinations.
This new popularity has been hampered somewhat by lack of infrastructure especially better class hotels and an increase in the price of touring in the country. However the people of Myanmar are delightful and friendly and a visit to Myanmar should be high on anyone’s ‘bucket list’.
Until 2005 Yangon, previously known as Rangoon, was the capital of Myanmar. The central part of the city, close to the Yangon River, is a mix of old colonial style buildings and more modern but slightly tatty markets and shopping arcades. Among the reminders of past glory are the railway station, City Hall, St Mary’s Cathedral, Independence Monument, and the Post Office where services appear unchanged since the 1940s. On the promenade facing the river is the famous and elegant Strand Hotel rather like Raffles in Singapore.
The undoubted highlight of Yangon (and of Myanmar) is the amazing Shwedagon Pagoda. Legend has it that the pagoda is 2500 years old but it is more likely to date from 6th to 10th centuries. The huge edifice with various entrance ways and a multitude of domes and spires is visible from virtually everywhere in the city. Gold and silver plating is everywhere and the scale and wealth of the many structures is mind blowing. It is best to visit late afternoon staying until sunset when the pagoda is dramatically lit and many pilgrims and devotees congregate making offerings.
Nay Pyi Taw
The new capital lies half way between Yangon and Mandalay and is one of the oddest places I have ever visited. It was built because an astrologer (the Buddhists are superstitious) told the leader of the country at the time he needed to build a new capital there. Although there is an enormous series of Parliament buildings and public servants have been moved there none of the diplomats based in Yangon want to move. To cater for the ‘demand’ there are around 75 large hotels in three zones, all very remote and practically empty. It is bizarre driving on 8 lane roads in the city with no traffic.
Apart from some nice gardens the main attraction is the lovely Uppatasanti Pagoda a replica of the Schwedagon but hollow inside. Adjacent is an enclosure which contains a number of the Royal While Elephants – very cute.
Made famous by the song ‘On the Road to Mandalay’ the city is a bustling place close to the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) River. A huge moated area in the centre of the city contains Mandalay Palace now used as an army barracks. The nearby Shwenandaw Monastery or Golden Palace is noted for its wood carvings. Kuthadaw Pagoda is remarkable for the 729 stone slabs with Buddhist scriptures carved into the stone.
There are two places worth visiting from Mandalay. Maymyo (now called Pyin Oo Lwin) is a 1 ½ hour drive to the foothills of the Shan plateau. It was a popular hill station for colonial rulers away from the heat of the plain. The old Governor’s Residence has been refurbished to a boutique hotel (they also have villas) and it would be like living in the world of Somerset Maugham.
There is a defence training college in the town and from the groups of trainee soldiers walking purposefully round the streets they want to live up to the motto on the entrance gate ‘the triumphant elite of the future’.
About 3 hours’ drive from Mandalay after crossing the river is Monywa which has Thanboddhay Pagoda with over 500,000 Buddha images both inside and out. When we were inside a huge rainstorm descended and the beating of the rain on the roof was deafening.
The excellent Mandalay City Hotel is located right in the busy city centre but being located down an alley on the site of the old bus station is an oasis of peace and quiet.
Cruise companies now ply the river with the trip between Bagan and Mandalay and northward the most popular. There is also a ferry but the ride is not very interesting and a flight between the two cities is a better option…
Bagan is amazing. Over 4000 temples and pagodas of all shapes and sizes, whole areas dotted with these fantastic structures. Among the outstanding examples are Shwezigon Pagoda with its magnificent golden stupa, Htilominlo Temple with its fine plaster carvings and glazed sand decorations and Ananda Temple an architectural masterpiece of the early-style temple with four impressive standing Buddha images.
Watching the sunset over the Ayeyarwaddy at Mandalay or Bagan either from a river boat or by climbing a temple is a popular way to end the day. A good perch is on the top terrace of Shwesandaw Pagoda.
Bagan is famous for lacquer ware and you can visit factories and see the whole process. The work is not expensive and makes a good souvenir. A special technique in Bagan is the use of sand from the river ‘glued’ onto a piece of fabric and then a work of art produced by either painting or etching on the sand. A popular design is a row of monks in colourful garb.
About 50km from Bagan is Mt Popa, an extinct volcano regarded as the home of the Nats or Spiritual Beings of Myanmar. From the excellent Popa Mountain Resort you look across the valley to Taungkalat a cluster of temples perched on top of an rocky outcrop. You can climb the 777 steps to the topbut I didn’t go as we heard the monkeys along the path are reported to be pretty vicious.
One of most unusual places in Myanmar is Inle Lake on the southern Shan plateau. Most of the action takes place on or close to the edge of the large lake. Even the resorts are located on the water but are somewhat remote and I would advise staying at a hotel at the town Nyuang Shwe at the top of end of the lake.
All touring is down on an engine driven ‘long boat’. Crossing the lake you pass many fishermen who propel themselves about using a unique rowing action with one leg hooked round a long paddle. It looks cumbersome but the fishermen seem perfectly balanced as the throw their nets into the water to capture the fish. They also collect weeds from the lake as fertiliser.
Many of the houses in which the fisher families and other live are made from bamboo and are perched on stilts. As well as fishing some villages have their own unique crafts including weaving silk, cotton and even lotus plants, knives and other metal equipment, silverware and painted umbrellas.
A highlight is the floating gardens where tomatoes and cucumbers are grown on huge frames stuck into the lake – the ultimate in hydroponic farming. The tomatoes from Inle Lake are highly regarded for their colour and taste.
Phaung Daw Oo is the main pagoda on the lake and when we visited a local market (which rotates around the villages on a five day cycle) was being held nearby. Much of the produce is brought in from villages around the lake and the headdresses worn by the women are usually brightly coloured in tartan like patterns. Some of the tribes people walk for three hours then by boat for an hour to get to the market and at the end of the day reverse the journey home only to do it all again the next day.
As Burmese cat lovers we were delighted to visit a house perched on the lake where a wealthy Myanmar man has imported cats form UK and Australia to try to strengthen the breed. 27 Burmese cats mainly brown and blue varieties rushed around us obviously aware that we were aficionados.
Myanmar has over 500,000 monks and nuns and it is a regular sight to see them with their food bowls collecting food from the local people each morning. Male monks can collect food from locals every morning but nuns only once a week. About 80km north of Yangon the town of Bago has the Kyakhatwine Monastery where each morning around 10am the 1000+ monks who study and live there gather in long lines to take their last meal of the day. The day I visited the meal was a very tasty looking vegetable curry with rice. The meal is taken in silence. A similar event occurs at Mahagandayan Monastery in Mandalay, this monastery has over 1200 monks many of them looking less than 8 years old. The food left over is given to beggars, poor children and even dogs.
Bago has its own famous Shwemawdaw Pagoda at 115m the tallest in Myanmar while Shwethalyaung Pagoda has a famous 55m long reclining Buddha (with a smiley face). Local villages do traditional weaving in their houses and we watched two women make handmade cheroots- they do about 1000 a day..
Between Bago and Yangon near Taukkyant is a beautifully maintained World War II war grave cemetery – a few Australians but mainly UK, Indian and Canadian casualties.
In the last four years the range and quality of hotels at the major tourist places has improved considerably but is still struggling to meet demand. Prices have risen sharply. Quality is reasonably good (most offer free wi-fi which is a bonus) and Englisdh is widely spoken in hotels although not uniformly.
Some good options include Summit Parkview and New Aye Yar in Yangon, Mandalay City in Mandalay and the Aye Yar River View in Bagan.
Australian passport holders require a visa for Myanmar. Visas can be obtained from the Embassy of the Union of Myanmar in Canberra, via an e-visa or on arrival at Yangon International Airport.
The best time to visit Myanmar is from November to April.
There are no direct flights to Yangon from Australia, connections are through Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Local currency is the kyat (pronounced chat) which can be used for smaller transactions. Although there are now limited credit card facilities in Myanmar it is best to take US dollars. However be aware that only new or good quality notes are accepted. Most hotels have change facilities from USD to kyat.
For more information check website www.tourism-myanmar.org