With Myanmar’s (Burma) military government opening up and granting more freedoms to its people, now is a good time to visit this jewel in Asia. Because of the military junta’s oppressing rule and difficult entry requirements, to date, Myanmar has only been visited by hardcore tourists. Myanmar is a beautiful country that remains relatively untouched by modernisation and is characterised by its kind people.
Tourist numbers are steadily rising. Certain areas in Upper and Lower Myanmar are currently out of bounds owing to the past civil war – check with the Embassy or Consulate for the latest information. Tourists should also be aware that foreign nationals are liable to arrest or imprisonment if they criticise the regime in public. Most coastal resorts have now been opened to tourists and Sunday round-trip flights are arranged by Myanmar Travel and Tour to Napali and Sandoway beaches during the dry season.
Unknown to many travellers, Myanmar is home to some incredible historic sites. Although Myanmar ratified the UNESCO World Heritage Convention in 1994, as of 2012, it has no sites listed. However, eight sites are on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage site list and these are well-worth visiting in Myanmar: Bagan Archeological Area, wooden monasteries in Mandalay, Badah-lin Caves, ancient city of Mandalay, Myauk-U Archeological Area, Inle Lake, and Mon cities of Bago and Hanthawaddy. Although, it may not be possible to visit all these sites (depending safely, political situation, and foreigner’s travel restrictions), Bagan and Mandalay are an absolute must.
Yangon (Rangoon), the capital, is a city of Buddhist temples, open-air markets, food stalls and ill-repaired colonial architecture. It has a population of over two million. Although most of the city has been built in the last hundred years, and although it suffered considerable damage during World War II, there are still several examples of a more ancient culture. These include the golden Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most spectacular Buddhist shrines in Asia and reputedly 2,500 years old (although rebuilt in 1769); the Sule Pagoda, also over 2,000 years old; the Botahtaung Pagoda, hollow inside with a mirrored maze; and the Maha Pasan Guha, or ‘Great Cave’.
Outside the capital, places worth visiting include the Naga-Yone enclosure near Myinkaba, with a Buddha figure entwined and protected by a huge cobra – a combination of Buddhism and Brahman astrology; Kyaik Tyo and its ‘Golden Rock Pagoda’, a 5.5 m (18 ft) shrine built on a gold-plated boulder atop a cliff; and Pegu, founded in 1573, with its golden Shwemawdaw Pagoda and market. Just northeast of Pegu is the Shwethalyaung Buddha, revered as one of the most beautiful and lifelike of reclining Buddhas, which was lost and totally overgrown by jungle after the destruction of Pegu in 1757. It was rediscovered in the British era, during the construction of the railway line.
Bagan is one of the greatest historical areas in the country. It is best seen at sunrise or sunset. More than 13,000 pagodas were once spread over this dry plain during the golden age of the 11 great kings (roughly 1044-1287); this came to an end with the threat of invasion by Kublai Khan from China, and this extraordinary area was abandoned. Now there are fewer than 3,000 pagodas. The actual village of Bagan has a museum, market and places to eat and stay; within walking distance of Bagan, there are lacquerware workshops and an attractive temple. There are dozens of open temples in the Bagan area (about 40 sq km/15 sq miles), but places of special interest include the Shwegugyi Temple, built in 1311 and noted for its fine stucco carvings; the Gawdawpalin Temple, badly damaged in the 1975 earthquake, but still one of the most impressive of the Bagan temples; and the Thatbyinnyu Temple, which is the highest in Bagan.
This old royal city is rich in palaces, stupas, temples and pagodas (although the city has suffered several bad fires which have destroyed some buildings), and is the main centre of Buddhism and Burmese arts. There are some excellent craft markets and there are thriving stone-carving workshops and gold-leaf industries. Taking its name from Mandalay Hill (rising about 240 m/787 ft to the northeast of the palace), the city was founded by King Mindon in 1857, the old wooden palace buildings at Amarapura being moved and reconstructed. Sights of interest include the huge Shweyattaw Buddha, close to the hill, with its outstretched finger pointing towards the city; the Eindawya Pagoda, built in 1847 and covered in gold leaf; the Shwekyimyint Pagoda, containing the original Buddha image consecrated by Prince Minshinzaw during the Pagan period; and the Mahumuni Pagoda or ‘Great Pagoda’, housing the famous and revered Mahumuni image. Covered in gold leaf over the years by devout Buddhists, this image was brought from Arakan in 1784, although it is thought to be much older. The base, moat and huge walls are virtually all that remain of the once stupendous Mandalay Palace, which was an immense walled city (mostly of timber construction) rather than a palace. It was burnt down in 1942. A large-scale model gives an indication of what it must have been like. The Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery was at one time part of the palace complex and was used as an apartment by King Mindon and his chief queen. Like the palace, the wooden building was once beautifully gilded. There are some extraordinary carved panels inside and also a photograph of the Atumashi Kyaung Monastery, destroyed by fire in 1890. The ruins can be seen to the south of the Kuthodaw Pagoda, called ‘the world’s biggest book’ because of the 729 marble slabs that surround the central pagoda – they are inscribed with the entire Buddhist canon.
The area around Mandalay contains several older, abandoned capital cities. Sagaing is easily accessible to the visitor, and contains interesting pagodas at Tupayon, Aungmyelawka and Kaunghmudaw. Sagaing was, for a time, the capital of an independent Shan Kingdom. In the 15th century, Ava was chosen as the kingdom’s new capital and it remained so until well into the 19th century, when the kingdom vanished; the old city walls can still be traced. Mingun (a pleasant river trip from Mandalay) possesses the famous Mingun Bell, supposedly the largest uncracked hung bell in the world. It was cast in 1790 by King Bodawpaya to be hung in his giant pagoda, which was never finished, due to the king’s death in 1819. The base of the pagoda alone is about 50 m (165 ft) high. Amarapura, south of Mandalay, was founded by Bodawpaya in 1783 and the city is famous for its cotton and silk weaving.
The East & Northwest
This region of the country offers the visitor opportunities for walking and rock-climbing, and the various hill stations, such as Kalaw, provide a pine-forested escape from the heat and humidity of Yangon. The caves and lake at Pindaya are famous; the caves contain thousands of Buddha images. Near the village of Yengan are the Padah-Lin Caves, containing prehistoric paintings. Inlay Lake on the Shan Plateau is famous for its floating gardens and leg-rowing fishermen. Maymyo is a charming British hill station further north, with attractive waterfalls and a pleasant climate because of its high altitude. Difficult communications usually prevent tourists from visiting the largely tribal Northwest. Many of Myanmar’s minority peoples live here.