Apparently, Gibraltar isn’t the only old British colony where place names are often confusing. Is it Caleta or Catalan Bay? Calle Comedia or Castle Steps? Head eastward and you’ll find another (former) British colony which, until recently, hasn’t been synonymous with traditional holidaymakers. That place is officially named The Republic of the Union of Myanmar or, more commonly, Myanmar. Of course, most people just call it Burma. Confused yet?
During the military dictatorship which ruled the country for over 50 years, Burma was renamed Myanmar, although various political parties refuse to acknowledge the name change as part of a refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the military rule. Since 2005, the military has slowly been releasing its grip on the country (although there are still very powerful party members in play), which has resulted in less international sanctions, thus opening up the country a bit more to the prospect of tourism. Technically, the government has been promoting tourism for a while now, but there’s been a bit of an international boycott, what with all the crimes against humanity. However, as things work their way towards democracy, visiting the country has become more appealing and socially acceptable. So, what can you expect from such a jaunt?
By and large, April is the hottest month in Burma and rain is not on the menu, so make sure you pack your white linen suit and plenty of sarongs. Depending on how far in advance you book your flights, things can actually be surprisingly cheap. A well organised person can expect to find flights (return from London, direct and all) for around the £350 mark. Being right next to Thailand, a lot of people toy with the idea of tacking Burma onto the end of a South East Asia loop, but beware, travelling overland is notoriously difficult (perhaps impossible) for the average person, and gaining a visa from the embassy in, for example, Bangkok can be an extremely complicated process. As you cannot exchange your pounds or euros into Burmese kyat, you’ll have to take dollars with you, the crisper and newer the better. Seriously. Any dollars with too many creases, too much dirt, or with too many years behind them will be rejected. Make sure you tell your currency exchange that your dollars are for Burma, they’ll know what to do.
After you book your relatively cheap flights into Yangon, accommodation can be surprisingly pricey and booking in advance is highly recommended. Burma is one of the few places I’ve been where wandering around looking for accommodation often leaves you homeless for a lengthy period, and having to settle for whatever you can get (usually overpriced). On your ride from the airport to the town, you may notice a few things about the traffic. Firstly, this is definitely Southern Asia, but where are all the motorbikes? Rumour has it that at some point a motorbike crashed into the side of a high ranking generals car, said general was displeased to say the least and banned the use of two-wheeled transport in the main parts of the city, bicycles included. Fair enough. Another thing to look out for is locals jumping out of buses into the middle of the road, causing a real-life version of Frogger as they scramble towards the nearest pavement.
Colonial Burma obviously followed British customs, this included right hand drive cars and driving on the left hand side of the road. In 1970, an overnight law change meant cars switched to driving on the right hand side, but of course, they were still right hand drive, leading to the dangerous bus alighting scenario we see today. The change in law could have been the dictatorship’s act to refute the ways of their past colonial overlords, but I prefer the version that General Ne Win’s wife’s astrologer said that the country would be better off driving on the right side of the road.
After dropping off your bags, you’ll want to head out to explore the city. On walking around you’ll notice a distinct lack of skyscrapers and a relative abundance of slightly-worse-for-wear-yet-beautiful colonial buildings. Soak in the architecture and perhaps saunter into one such as Bogyoke Aung San Market (sometimes referred to as ‘Scott Market’) where you can find a selection of souvenirs in the form of Burmese handicraft: clothes, jewellery, puppets, and the like. This area is a relatively safe place to exchange your pristine dollar bills for the local Burmese currency, kyat, which often looks as though it’s been in circulation for a few decades, dropped in mud, then unsuccessfully washed several times. Apparently, the fascination with clean currency isn’t extended to the poor old kyat. Scott Market will offer you a better exchange rate than your local hotel, and a safer environment from the numerous money changing scams dotted around the city. Be very careful when exchanging money.
Where would this article be without mentioning Buddhism? As beautiful a religious building as anything I’ve seen, and as spiritual a place to boot, the 99 metre, gold plated Shwedagon Pagoda governs the Yangon skyline. The sacred Buddhist shrine is said to contain hairs from the head of Gautama Buddha, amongst relics from the three other Buddhas of the aeon. Take off your shoes on the way up, and walk clockwise around the pagoda taking in the calm and serenity oozing every inch of your surroundings. For maximum tranquillity, I’d suggest visiting at night (before 10pm, when it closes) which will allow you to realise your new found spiritual self without the blistering heat of a thousand concurrent summers beaming down on you. The place all lit up at night is also a breathtaking bonus.
The final ‘must see’ of Yangon has to be Inya lake. A long walk or a short taxi ride from the city centre is a picturesque scene which can be enjoyed with an air of romance, with friends, or as a solitary being. The lake is often blanketed by morning mist, which can be enchanting but rather spoils the view. Similarly, make sure you skip the midday heat as the wooden walkways only offer sporadic shade from trees. Keep an eye out for the house in which Aung San Suu spent a total of 15 years (over a 21 year period) under house arrest.
For those staying in Yangon for more than a fleeting visit, other attractions include a couple of decent museums, a cathedral, and a pretty big Buddha.
There are a lot of interesting and unique locations to visit in Burma, however, they are generally a double figure hour bus journey away from each other. Furthermore, due to half a century of pretty poor governing, the roads are not in favourable condition. Ready yourself for some discomfort. The first stop, a famous pilgrimage to the Kyaiktiyo pagoda can be done as a day trip or overnight stop from Yangon, being only around five hours away (which I believe is the traditional means of transport for Buddhist pilgrims). The pagoda stands on top of a rock, covered in gold leaves, precariously situated on the edge of a cliff, which is said to be held in place by a strand of Buddha’s hair. The site is fairly commercialised and a little bit out of the way for a day trip but worth seeing if you have the time and enthusiasm. There’s also a small theme park nearby with a terrifying ferris wheel.
Typically, if you are taking a bus, write the day off as a ‘travel day’. Some people choose to sample the kind of beach life Burma has to offer, the tourist hot-spot in this case being Ngapali. I’m sure there is a plethora of untouched white sand beaches and small paradise islands dotted all along the coastline, unfortunately, lots of Burma still remains out of bounds. In any case, you can take long tail boats (in the form of tours or private rental) out to nearby islands and beaches for a change of scene. Again, in the area, there are plenty of pagodas to visit, although I’d save your pagoda visits for later on in the trip and focus on other activities such as kayaking, trekking, or perhaps even renting a little quad bike to add some noise and air pollution to the area, contributing to the inevitable demise of the setting you’ve travelled so far to experience. Only joking. Sort of.
Further inland we come to the pagan capital, Bagan. If you think you’ve seen a lot of pagodas so far, you’ve really not. In it’s heyday, Bagan sported over 10,000 pagodas built over 250 years by the city’s rich and powerful. Nowadays, due to general wear and tear, along with the fact that Mother Earth unfairly decided to bombard the area with numerous earthquakes, only about a quarter of these remain. I say only a quarter, but there are still enough to keep you sufficiently busy. Being in an earthquake zone, Bagan is fairly consistently losing its’ temples; as recently as August last year, a massive earthquake struck the area wiping out almost 400 of them. Nevertheless, the skyline is unparalleled. Sunset and sunrise are particularly beautiful times of day to gaze out into the distance and see countless temples and monuments as far as the eye can see. The site is so impressive it even made it into my coveted facebook cover photo section. During the day, you can rent a bike and cycle round trying to find the most impressive pagodas. Somewhere in the middle of all this is a slightly taller pagoda, which you can pay to go up for a better view. For the more financially endowed traveller, hot air balloon rides can be purchased which offer a once in a lifetime panorama. No matter how touristy this place becomes, it’s not to be missed.
Inle lake, the second largest yet most popular lake in Myanmar, should also be on your list of places to visit. Stilt houses, temples, and markets are scattered throughout this scene with marshes and floating gardens framing the lake and completing the perfect picture. A rickety old diesel powered boat will privately escort you past fishermen on their rowing boats. Look carefully at their rowing technique, which has them standing on one leg and with either skill or magic, wrapping the other round an oar and happily rowing away. Apparently, this style evolved in order for the fisherman to see above the tall reeds in the lake. For some reason, only men practice this technique, whereas women, perhaps more sensibly, opt to row with their hands while in a comfortable cross-legged position. Passing these fisherman frequently offers an opportune moment to practice your photography skills and capture the picturesque scene as the boats are often surrounded by gulls diving for a free lunch.
Your boat tour will take you through villages of huts elevated on wood and woven bamboo sticks where people actually live, largely self-sufficiently. There are communities of people who actually make a living from either farming or, increasingly, tourism. The local staple diet consists of fish caught from the lake and fruit and vegetables grown on floating gardens. Not a bad lifestyle at all. On your way through, you’ll be accosted by merchants rowing up to you in order to sell you bracelets and other souvenirs. Depending on your marinero you may make several stops throughout the village. This can feel akin to being in a Bangkok tuk-tuk stopping at the drivers’ friend’s tea shop or tailor-made suit shop. You may even find yourself conversing with a tailor in the middle of a lake in Burma, considering which material would best suit your complexion. One of the more fun/less annoying stops will probably be watching the locals make the cheap cigars that everyone seems to smoke. You can have a go at rolling a few yourself before leaving it to the professionals, but be prepared to purchase one or two for the privilege of this life lesson.
Other stops on the itinerary will include going to a market, seeing a few more pagodas, stopping at a local place to eat lunch, and a rather strange monastery where sleepy cats stretch out and make themselves at home throughout. Apparently, the monks have taught them to jump through hoops, although most of them seem to have fallen into a state of self-entitled apathy.
Yangon, Inle Lake, Bagan, and one more destination make up the so-called ‘Big Four’ of Burma. The final piece of the puzzle is Mandalay, although if you have to choose, unless you have any particular desire to visit Mandalay, I’d choose Ngapali instead. Mandalay, like Yangon, has a more recent historical presence and remains of cultural and economic importance for Upper Burma. The rebuilt palace stands as an impressive structure complete with moat after being destroyed in World War 2. Elsewhere is a fairly unremarkable walk along the river and a number of decent markets, selling everything from fruit and veg through to jade and fabrics. Head to Mandalay Hill for a panoramic view of the city and (you guessed it) lots of pagodas.
The planned city of Naypyidaw became the capital city in 2005. The government cited that Yangon had limited potential for expansion and had become overcrowded. Various sources have their own theories about why the capital was changed including wanting to geographically centralise the government for military and trade reasons and fear of foreign invasion on Yangon. Apparently, a belief popular among the locals is that an astrologer presented a military chief with the warning, so they hot-footed it across country. I guess astrology is held in high esteem. The fun and unique aspect of this city is that it has (or is developing) the infrastructure for a major city, but is relatively underpopulated, for example, the gaping 20 lane highway taking you into Naypyidaw is usually completely bereft of traffic.
The city has a few sites, notably a replica of the Shwedagon pagoda and the imposing parliament building, which looks incredible, but you aren’t actually allowed to go anywhere near it. There are also few parks (including a water park!) and a zoo. Other than that, the main reason for visiting is to be able to experience the vast empty space of a capital city, safe in the knowledge (but still questioning) that you aren’t in the opening scene of a zombie movie.
Other places of note include the recently opened Ngwe Saung beach, south of Yangon, a nine mile stretch of white sand surrounded by little villages. Monywa has a 700 year old temple showered with Buddha statues and bonsai trees, vaguely resembling the famed Borobudur of Indonesia. Pyin Oo Lwin would make my ‘Big Five’, with its picturesque countryside, subtropical vegetation, and British-built bungalows. Horse and cart is the most likely method of exploration for this beautiful hill top town. Pindaya has caves full of images of Buddha and nobody can explain how they ended up there. Exploring caves and finding countless religious relics is sure to bring out your inner Indiana Jones. Finally, Mrauk U houses the remains of a 15th century kingdom, a fascinating albeit slightly deserted part of West Burma.
As you can see, Myanmar (or Burma!) is a unique place of beauty, only just opening its eyes and arms to the democratic world and consequently allowing us a glimpse at its splendour. With so much to see already and, I’m sure, much more of the country to open up in the future, Myanmar makes the perfect alternative Asian getaway. Whether you have only time to visit the main attractions, or get stuck in to the depths of this unknown world, you won’t be disappointed.
P.S. Don’t google Burmese python.
words | Chris Hedley