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The Golden Land
Authentic, friendly and diverse is how most travellers to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, describe this country, which has been one of the least accessible countries in the world up until very recently. The fact that the country has been inaccessible for so long has meant that Myanmar has been relatively untainted by the excesses of modern life and retains an aura of a bygone age.
Myanmar is the largest country in the South-East Asian peninsula stretching 2000km from north to south and over 900km from east to west and covering the area of Great Britain and France combined. Three quarters of Myanmar is covered by mountains and jungle and there are no less than 135 ethnic groups living in the country. Flat plains and wide rivers characterize the geography of the centre of the country while mountain ranges run along the Thai border up to the Himalayas in the east. The southern coast of the country borders the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Myanmar's main river is the 2000km long Ayeyarwady River, formerly known as the Irrawaddy, around which most of the country's best farmland is found.
The main destinations visitors to Myanmar head for are Yangon, the former Rangoon of colonial times, Mandalay, the royal city surrounded by former ancient capitals, Bagan, with impressive ruins of the once famous Buddhist centre in Asia and Inle Lake with it’s serene nature and colourful hill-tribes. As a destination Myanmar offers the authentic sights and sounds of Asia with great natural sceneries, magnificent archaeological sites, stunning pagoda and temple architecture, colourful bustling markets, impressive colonial buildings, and a very friendly, hospitable population: in Burmese language there is no word for tourist, there is only a word for guest!
Yangon, the former capital city, has an impressive colonial and spiritual heritage, which makes it one of the most fascinating capitals of Southeast Asia. Although a city of 4 million inhabitants, much of Yangon still retains a feeling of space, with wide tree-lined streets and many reminders of its colonial past.
Parts of the city look as if they have been transplanted from the shires of England with red brick houses surrounded by walled gardens. Fine examples of colonial architecture from the days of British India survive everywhere in the city especially around Sule Pagoda with the City Hall, the Supreme and High Court Buildings, the General Post Office, colonial offices on Pansodan Street and the beautifully restored Strand Hotel.
Yangon’s most famous sight is the Shwedagon Pagoda whose giant golden dome and stupa dominate the capital’s skyline. Originally built around 2,500 years ago to house eight sacred hairs of the Buddha, the pagoda has changed beyond all recognition over the centuries. The first structure was only 9 metres high and it was not until 1774 that it reached its current height of 107 metres. The great bell-shaped dome is covered with 60 tonnes of gold leaf and the top of the stupa is encrusted with thousands of diamonds, rubies and sapphires. On the bustling terrace build around the stupa you will see devote Buddhists from all around the country paying respect to the pagoda by offering flowers, pouring water over the different Buddha statues or shopping around in for Buddhist artefacts to take home. A mysterious and impressive place to visit around sunset.
The Sule Pagoda situated at the centre point of the city dates back over 2,000 years and has a 48-metre high octagonal golden stupa. The Kyauktagyi Pagoda is famous for its enormous 70-metre reclining Buddha and definitely worth a visit. The National Museum contains some interesting items including the 8 metre-high Lion Throne that was used by Burma’s last monarch, King Thibaw, at the Royal Palace in Mandalay. In the small downtown area a stroll over Mahabandoola Street is a must to see how diverse the population of Myanmar is! Walking through Indian town you will encounter street-stalls with Indian spices, mosques and colourful Hindu temples. Arriving in bustling China town you can stroll over the night-market, visit the mysterious temples with a strong incense smell or do some shopping.
For souvenir shopping the place to head for is Bogyoke Market, a sprawling mecca for bargain hunters, established by the British in 1920s as Scott’s Market. Here you can find an enormous selection of Burmese souvenirs including woodcarvings, lacquerware, basketware, Shan shoulder bags, colourful textiles “longgyis” used as sarong, monks’ umbrellas, gems, jewellery and cheroots, the famous Burmese cigar. For dining Yangon offers a variety of restaurants influenced by Myanmar, Indian, Chinese, Thai or western cuisine; from a simple “mohinga” soup till a top-western restaurant.
An interesting day excursion from Yangon is Bago, 80km to the north west of the capital. Formerly known as Pegu, Bago was the capital of the Mon Kingdom in the 15th century and its Mon style Shwemawdaw Pagoda with its 114-metre high stupa is one of the most venerated in Myanmar. Bago is perhaps most famous however for its huge 55-metre reclining Buddha, known as the Shwethalyaung Buddha. Another day-excursion on the opposite site of Yangon River brings you through rice paddies and small villages to the famous pottery village Twante, idyllic situated along the river.
A 6-hour drive to the east of Yangon is Mon State home to one of Myanmar's most important Buddhist sites, the magnificent “Golden Rock” at Kyaiktiyo. A huge boulder covered in gold leaf and said to contain a hair of Buddha is perched on a cliff at the peak of Kyaiktiyo Mountain. An incredible sight in a beautiful area covered with trees.
- Shwedagon Pagoda with its enormous glittering golden dome
- The Strand Hotel, High Court, City Hall, Pansodan Street and General Post Office for British colonial architecture
- Bogyoke Market, the Scott’s Market of old Rangoon, for the best in Burmese handicrafts
- Sule pagoda, Indian town and China town with mysterious temples and bustling street-sceneries
- A day trip to Bago for the Shwemawdaw Pagoda and the Shwethalyaung’s huge reclining Buddha
- A two day excursion to Kyaiktiyo for the extraordinary “Golden Rock“ balancing on the edge of the mountain
The magnificent archaeological site of Bagan, 690km to the north of Yangon used to be one of the great Buddhist centres of South-East Asia. Bagan is a truly remarkable sight. Scattered over an arid plain by the banks of the Ayeyarwady River are some 3,000 pagodas, temples and other brick structures dating from the 11th to 13th century. Originally there were well over 10,000 temples, an impressive landscape of ruins and restored temples, unique in the world. At some of the temples you will be the only person around to enter or climb the structure from which you have a magnificent view over this historical side amongst rice fields and toddy palms. The area that covers more than 40 square kilometre is great to visit by horse cart, bicycle or by car!
Ananda Temple, one of Bagan’s largest and best-preserved temples, is often referred to as Bagan’s masterpiece. Built in 1905, the design of Ananda inspired the style of later Burmese temples of the Middle Bagan period. Ananda is a perfectly proportioned temple with a central gold pillar with further gilded spires in the four corners. The four huge carved teak Buddha statues facing out from the centre of the temple to the north, west, south and east are a feature of Ananda. Just next to Ananda is Ananda Okkaung, one of the few surviving brick monasteries from the Early Bagan period.
The largest and one of the oldest of Bagan’s temples is the Shwezigon, with its beautiful bell-shaped stupa. Shwezigon Temple is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for the Burmese and is said to contain the Buddha’s collarbone and one of his teeth. South of Shwezigon is the 13th century Wekkyi-in Gubyaukgyi Temple with its Indian-inspired pyramidal spire. The interior of this temple was originally decorated with fine frescoes depicting scenes from the jatakas but unfortunately many of these were removed.
Htilominlo Temple is a two-storey redbrick temple standing close to the road from Bagan to Nyaung U, the main town of the Bagan area. Built in 1211 by King Htilomino at a height of 46 metres it is one Bagan’s larger temples. There are good views of the surrounding plain from the upper levels of Htilomino and some good examples of the original stucco decoration survive on the temple exterior. At 62 metres high, Thatbyinnyu Temple is the tallest of Bagan’s structures. It was built in 1144 and is a classic example of Middle Mon architecture. The construction is based on two enormous cubes with wide terraces leading to the top.
Other temples that are worth seeing in the little-visited Minnanthu area include the 13th century Leimyethna with its frescoed interior, and Payathonzu and Nandamannya which both contain fine Sino-Tibetan influenced murals. To the east of Bagan is the massive Dhammayangyi Temple an impressive looking structure. Right behind Dhammayangyi is Sulamani Temple, a fine example of Late Bagan period temple architecture. The use of small bricks, arches and elaborate stuccowork of Sulamani are characteristics of this period.
One of the not-to-be-missed experiences in Bagan is to watch sunset (or sunrise for early-birds) at one of the old temples. The upper terrace of Myauk Guni Temple, the Shwenandaw temple or Tayoke Pyay at nearby Minnanthu are fantastic places to see the sun go down behind the mountains with a background of centuries old brick temples and the big Irrawaddy River. According to many tourists the most beautiful sunset in the whole country.
The village of Nyaung U is a perfect place to walk around the colourful market, where woman are smoking cheroots while selling their agricultural products. Apart from exotic fruits and vegetables the market also offers a good range of lacquerware and other souvenirs. In the nearby village of New Bagan or in Myinkaba a visit to a local lacquerware factory is certainly very interesting. According to a centuries old process different kind of plates, boxes etc are covered several times with lacquer before skilled craftsmen decorate the lacquerware with a traditional design, a very affordable and great souvenir of Bagan.
On the banks of the Irrawaddy River there are always women doing the laundry, men loading boats or children playing in the water. A boat-ride from here takes you over the majestic river with a beautiful landscape with the temples of Bagan on the east-bank of the river.
Just over 50km from Bagan is the extinct volcano known as Mount Popa. Rising to 1518 metres above sea level Mount Popa is the most magical of Myanmar’s mountains and has been a place of pilgrimage for over 700 years. Myanmar’s most powerful nats, Burmese spirits associated with natural features, are said to live here making Mount Popa the country’s centre for nat worship. On the way to this interesting spirit-place you will pass several small villages where people climb until the top of the palm trees to collect toddy-juice to make toddy sugar or sweet cookies, a local delicatessen!
- Ananda Temple, the architectural masterpiece of Bagan with its four standing teak Buddha’s
- A horse cart ride or bicycle tour through an area with thousands ancient temple ruins
- Shwezigon Pagoda for its magnificent golden stupa
- A panoramic sunset view of Bagan and the Ayeyarwady River from the top of an ancient temple
- A trip to magical Mount Popa, an extinct volcano and pilgrimage site
- Colourful market in the cosy village Nyaung U
- A boat trip over the Irrawaddy River
Mandalay & the North
Mandalay, less than 200 km to the north east of Bagan, is the cultural capital of the country as well as being the economic and religious centre for Upper Myanmar. From 1861 until 1886 when the British arrived, Mandalay was the country’s capital.
Among the religious sites to visit in Mandalay are the Mahamuni Pagoda, famous for its venerable golf leaf covered Buddha statue and the nice covered hallway to the Buddha statue full of shops where all kinds of Buddhist artefacts are for sale like Buddha’s, monks robes or pictures of famous monks. The beautiful Shwenandow Monastery is noted for the exquisite woodcarving that covers both the inside and outside of the building.
Another interesting religious site, the Kuthodaw Pagoda has 729 white marble slabs of Buddhist scriptures, giving rise to Kuthodaw’s nickname “the world’s biggest book”. The slabs took eight years to complete and for a monk to recite the full scripture would take about two years!
Mandalay’s Royal Palace complex, originally built in the 1860s by King Mindon, consisted of fabulously ornate carved teak buildings surrounded by moats. Unfortunately the buildings were completely destroyed in fighting at the end of World War II and have recently been rebuilt in concrete.
It is a 30-minute climb to the top of Mandalay Hill, from where there are commanding views of the city including the Royal Palace compound. This 236 metre-high hill dominates the town and is a favourite spot for locals and visitors to watch the sun set over the mountains, river and paddy fields around Mandalay.
Mandalay is well known for producing some of the best traditional handicrafts in Myanmar and there are many workshops in and around the city producing gold leaf, marble Buddha-sculpture, tapestries, woodcarvings and other handicrafts. A visit to the simple workshops is truly a visit back in time.
A not to be missed day trip from Mandalay takes you to the former capitals cities of Amarapura, Ava and Sagaing. The 18th century capital of Amarapura is the site of the largest monastery in Myanmar, the Mahagandayon Monastery, which has over 1,000 monks. The 1.2km long U-Bein Bridge was built over 200 years ago from teak taken from the Ava Royal Palace and is always a lively place where you will see people walking over the bridge carrying all kind of goods to the other side of the small lake. Ava, also known as Inwa, was the capital between the 14th and 18th centuries. After crossing the river you can take a horse cart and enjoy a great ride passing villages and ruins of the former capital. The beautiful teakwood Bagaya Kyaung Monastery is a quiet stop on the way, hidden in a picturesque scenery with toddy-palms, rice-fields and ox-carts ploughing the fields. Sagaing, on the opposite bank of the Ayeyarwady River is generally regarded as the religious hub of the country with over 600 pagodas and monasteries. From the top of the hill you have a fantastic view over the area dotted with white pagodas.
Mingun, an old city at the other side of the Irrawaddy River is perhaps the most interesting city around Mandalay to visit on a day trip. The boat trip on the Irrawaddy River gives a great view at the bustling banks of the river and people on passing sail boats (with sails often made out of cotton sarongs) will certainly start waving to welcome you. After a 1 ½ hour boat ride a stroll through the nowadays small village brings you to the huge bell of Mingun and the brick unfinished-pagoda with it’s impressive crack caused by an earthquake.
Around 140km to the west of Mandalay on the east bank of the Chindwin River is Moniwa, a typical Burmese town. Moniwa is the major trading centre for agricultural products from the surrounding Chindwin Valley. The Thanbokde Pagoda with its 6,000 Buddha images, the Boddhi-tataung Pagoda with its grove of 1,000 sacred banyan trees and the huge reclining Buddha are the main sights of Moniwa. On the opposite bank of the Chindwin River are Po Win Daung Caves, a recently opened extraordinary complex of caves containing thousands of mural paintings showing daily life at the Royal Court, some dating back to the 14th century.
A short drive to the east of Mandalay on a plateau 1,000 metre above sea level, is the former British hill station of Maymyo, now known as Pyin U Lwin. Many reminders of the colonial era are still present in Pyin U Lwin, including brick and timber houses with British names, the old clock tower and the recently renovated botanical gardens in the south of town. A visit to the market and a drive around town or to the gardens in one of the many antique horse carts is not to be missed. Train fanatics shouldn’t miss the ride from Mandalay to Maymyo, a beautiful track with stunning views and a zig-zag system to climb forward and backward upon the mountain.
Mandalay & the North Highlights
- Visit Mahamuni Pagoda with the bustling market, Kuthodaw Pagoda and the Shwenandaw monastery
- Climb the Mandalay Hill for a birds-eye view of the city
- Visit the family workshops around the city for bargain handicrafts and souvenirs
- A day trip to the deserted former capitals of Amarapura, Ava and Sagaing and watch over 1000 monks receiving their daily lunch
- A boat trip over the Irrawaddy River to Mingun
- Moniwa for the extraordinary Po Win Daung Caves
- Pyin U Lwin for colonial architecture, antique horse-drawn carriages and botanical gardens
Inle Lake & Shan State
The beautiful Inle Lake is one of the must see destinations on a Myanmar tour. Over 1,300 metres above sea level, the 22km long lake is in a picture postcard setting encircled by wooded hills. Inle is home to the Intha people and is famous for its unique leg-rowing fishermen. Travelling on Inle Lake by motorboat is an exhilarating experience for nature lovers and a chance to observe the unique traditions of the Intha people: the leg-rowing fishermen, the “floating gardens” (built up from strips of water hyacinth and mud and anchored to the bottom with bamboo poles). A trip also features Ywama, one of the floating villages, Phaung Daw Oo pagoda, the main shrine on the lake and local handicrafts industries (traditional weaving, silversmiths and cheroot, the typical Burmese cigars). The beautiful teakwood Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery build on stilts on the lake is one of Myanmar’s most unusual religious sites with its hoop-jumping cats. In the villages around the lake a local market is organised on a 5-day rotating schedule. A very colourful and authentic place to visit since all kind of hill-tribes in traditional clothes come and visit the market from the surrounding mountains. By canoe you can visit the smaller canals and less visited villages built on stilts on the lake.
Certainly don’t miss In Dein in the south of the lake. After going by motorboat to the middle of the lake, the boat will turn to the right to take a small canal leading to the village called In Dein; a recently opened area in Shan State. Take a walk around the village, passing a local school where you can take the covered stairways to the beautiful Alaung Sitthou area where ancient stupas and ruins of old temples are partly covered by vegetation. From here you have a magnificent view over the lake.
Kakku is a hidden treasure, 46 kilometres south of Taunggyi with an unusual, magnificent collection of centuries old Buddhist stupas. More than 2000 stupas lie here in a small area of just one square kilometre, surrounded by mountains and trees. Until very recently this area, which is inhabited by the colourful Pa-O tribes with their distinctive habits, was closed for tourist. A 2-hour drive (or a 5 hour trekking through rice-fields and Pa O villages) will take you from Nyaung Shwe to Kakku, passing the capital of Shan State; Taunggyi. A Pa O guide will lead you around the area and introduce you to the customs and life of the Pa O people when you visit one of the villages.
Kalaw is another former British hill resort in the west of Shan State and about 70km from Inle Lake. Kalaw is a little higher than Pyin U Lwin at 1,320m but has a similar faded colonial atmosphere with its ramshackle country houses and other colonial buildings. The cool mountain air, pine forests and ethnic minority villages make it the perfect starting point for good trekking in and around the Kalaw area. During a day-trek you can visit several Palaung and Danu village and have lunch on the way. If you want to have a more adventurous trekking it is possible to do a 3-day monastery trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake. During the trekking a local English-speaking guide will accompany you to explain more about the traditions of the different hill-tribes. Porters will go with you to carry the food and other luggage. Simple accommodation is arranged in the local villages in the mountains in the monastery of the village, a unique experience! The main luggage will by transported by car directly to the hotel where you arrive after the trekking.
The road from Kalaw to Pindaya is very scenic with panoramic mountain views passing area’s where often people are working on the fields. Pindaya is famous for its caves carved out of a limestone ridge overlooking a small lake in the middle of the town. The caves contain over 8,000 Buddha images, all in different size and shape that are spread out in the cave, whatever direction you look you will see Buddha statues.
Kengtung, Myanmar's gateway to the Golden Triangle, is a small town, often compared to Chiang Mai 50 years ago, a treasure trove of traditional architecture with old style houses and their intricately designed wooden balconies so characteristic of Shan architecture. A great area to visit the different ethnic minority communities of the Golden Triangle area as the red clothed Palaung tribe, the Akha people or the Lahu tribe. Make certainly a stop at the beautiful Pin Tauk Waterfall. Further places to visit in and around Kengtung are the market, the meeting point for many hill tribe people, a traditional pottery workshop, the village of colourfully dressed Li Shaw people and the unique Wan Kwan mud houses.
Inle Lake & Shan State Highlights
- Inle Lake for its serene natural beauty, floating gardens, its bizarre jumping cat monastery, local handicraft workshops and famous leg-rowers
- In Dein and Kakku, newly opened areas with ruins of ancient pagoda’s
- A canoe trip through the less visited villages built on stilts on the lake
- Kalaw for faded colonial atmosphere, pine forests and walks to ethnic minority villages
- A trekking in the area to visit and stay overnight at a monastery in one of the hill-tribe villages.
- The amazing Pindaya Caves with more than 8,000 Buddha’s
- Kengtung in the centre of the Golden Triangle with spectacular views from the mountains, waterfalls and colourful hill-tribes as Lahu, Ahka and Li Shaw.
Western Myanmar is made up from Rakhine State, formerly known as Arakan, and Chin State, bordering Bangladesh and India. The main attractions of Western Myanmar are the ancient city of Mrauk U in Rakhine State and the deserted sandy beaches on the Bay of Bengal. A newly opened area is Mount Victoria in Chin State, the over 3000 meter high mountain is part of a beautiful National Park, a great place for people who like adventurous expeditions to places where only a few people go, and who don’t mind a lack of international facilities.
Back in its 15th century heyday Mrauk U was one of the richest cities in all of Asia but today the town is more like a sleepy village. There are however still many places of interest to visit in the ruins of this once great city including the well-preserved Shittaung Temple, Laungbanpyauk Pagoda, with its exquisite carvings, the ornate Sakyamanaung Pagoda and the largest of Mrauk U’s stupas, Yadana Mannaung. Also of interest are the ruins of the Royal Palace and the Archaeological Museum. From Mrauk U it is easy to make a daytrip to the nearby local Chin villages. One of their most unique customs is the tradition for women to tattoo entirely their face. Mrauk U is reached by a 5-hour boat journey on the Kaladan River from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State.
Chin State is an area in the west of Myanmar bordering India and Bangladesh. A state that was until recently closed to foreigners but that is partly opening. The mountainous area is offering great views and astonishing landscapes! Visit the small villages where it looks if time stood still for centuries. People are working in the paddy fields while in the villages some older men are sitting peacefully at the local teashop enjoying their hand rolled cigarette. Kanpetlet (at almost 1400 meter altitude) is a small village built at the foot of Mount Victoria (3.150 meter). The views from the village are simply breathtaking! Kanpetlet is inhabited by the Chin people who are having their own culture and language. During the Bagan period (11th century) the Chin people were afraid that their women were taken to serve the king in Bagan; therefore the woman started to tattoo their face to make themselves too strange for the Bagan kings to be asked to come and live in Bagan, so they could stay in the mountains in Chin State. Starting from Kanpetlet excursions to Nat Ma Taung National Park can be easily made. The beautiful park covers a big area with dense jungle forest, pine trees at a higher altitude and finally oak trees at the second base camp. Not only is there a diverse flora, also the fauna is unique with many kinds of rare, colourful birds (as for example horn bird). Mount Victoria is the highest mountain in the park, with superb views from the top! A trekking to the top is not as hard as it sounds since it is possible to go up to the second base camp by jeep from which it is only a 2 ½ hour walk to the top. An expedition to Mount Victoria is only possible in the dry season (October – April), keep in mind that the jeep tour to Mount Victoria is partly over unpaved roads and only very primitive shared accommodation is available.
Myanmar’s best beaches are to be found 200km to the south of Mrauk U on the Bay of Bengal. Ngapali is the country’s premier beach destination and has long stretches of sandy beach, swaying palm trees and some very nice small-scale hotels. From the small fishing village of Ngapali you can make a day tour by boat to “treasure-island” for snorkelling, have a ride around the rice-fields by bicycle, or just enjoy the empty beach and the clear and refreshing sea and have some delicious and cheap fresh seafood.
Further south, near to the city of Pathein, is Ngwe Saung, another area with a 14 km long pristine sandy beach, a clear blue sea and palm trees. This newly opened beach destination has some charming, international standard hotels (with swimming pool), offers different kind of water sport activities and serves excellent seafood. A charming tourist class cruise boat with private cabins started recently with interesting overnight boat trips through the green Irrawaddy Delta to Pathein, which can be reached in less then 2 hours by car from Ngwe Saung Beach. An excellent alternative for Ngapali if you want to combine sightseeing in the Irrawaddy Delta with a boat cruise and a stay at a pristine beach.
Western Myanmar Highlights
- Mrauk U for the impressive ruins of this once great Asian city and Chin villages inhabited by Tattoo women
- An adventurous expedition by jeep to Mount Victoria; spectacular jungle drives, Chin villages and beautiful nature in a National Park
- An overnight cruise from Yangon through the Irrawaddy Delta discovering the busy river life and green nature on the way to Pathein
- The Bay of Bengal for pristine sandy beaches like Ngapali and Ngwe Saung