You visit Myanmar to see a way of life that is fast disappearing in Southeast Asia. Yes, skyscrapers and other signs of modernity are encroaching, but you will still see men in traditional skirt-like garb and women in distinctive traditional makeup. British colonial buildings and an adopted passion for tea stand beside people getting around in trishaws and thousands of Buddhist temples and stupas (dome-shaped shrines).
A trip here will appeal to travellers who want to experience the mystery, spirituality and history of the Far East, but far from the usual crowds. It’s a land where you can travel safely among friendly, quiet people. You can have an active adventure, biking and hiking among natural wonders, wildlife and remnants of old civilizations, or have a more leisurely time, perhaps on a river cruise – an increasingly popular way to explore in Myanmar and elsewhere – or on a hot air balloon ride over thousands of sacred shrines.
Temples and Bikes
As part of a privately guided journey with Belmond, the experiential travel and hotel company, my friend and I started our trip in Cambodia, visiting one of the largest and most spectacular religious monuments ever built – Angkor Wat (Temple City). Once the capital of the Khmer Empire, it contains hundreds of temples spread over 500 acres. My favourite was the Bayon, built in the 12th or 13th century, carved with a multitude of calm and smiling stone faces, as well as two impressive sets of bas-reliefs.
However, Angkor Wat is a major draw for tourists. As an antidote to the crowds, you can also take a guided bike tour through the countryside, interacting with locals, seeing their way of life, stopping to shop in a marketplace, visiting small temples and spending time at a farm.
Because of the language barrier in Cambodia and Myanmar, the difference between a good and great trip can be your guide. They are not created equal and you take your chances arranging for one without a recommendation.
Chen, the guide on our trip, was really engaging. He really knew his history and interspersed his talk about what went on with Vietnamese, Americans and Khmer Rouge with personal anecdotes from his family.
The Melting Pot in Yangon
In Myanmar, we visited first Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the country’s largest and most commercial city. Here modern high rises stand beside old colonial buildings and temples. You look down alleyways and see this bustling chaos of electrical lines and and people that make you want to explore further.
It’s a city that offers a melting pot of ethnic influences – there’s the Chinese area, the Indian area and areas devoted to some of the countries hundreds of indigenous ethnic groups. You also get all these different influences in the Myanmar cuisine. With a tasting menu, you can fill your table with a multitude of delicious dishes – curries, Thai noodle dishes, local fish delicacies and so much more.
A Golden Opportunity
Dominating the skyline of Yangon is the 2,500-year-old golden Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist temple in Myanmar, attracting thousands of pilgrims. It stands 99 meters high and is surrounded 64 smaller pagodas, as well as four pagodas at the four cardinal points.
With my network of contacts, we were able to arrange access to a special candle-lighting ceremony (something I can also organize for clients). After the final rays of sun are caught on the golden exterior, hundreds of candles and sticks of incense are lit and burnt as offerings by the faithful at stations around the main stupa, as monks chant their prayers in the background.
A Bridge Over Water and a Balloon Over Temples
In Mandalay, the world’s longest teakwood bridge (1.2 kilometres!) gently curves across the shallow Taungthaman Lake. A good time to cross U Bein is just after sunrise, when villagers and monks make their daily commute. While you might be entranced by the view from the bridge, don’t be surprised if visiting pilgrims are amazed by their first sight of foreign visitors and ask politely to have their picture taken with you.
One of Myanmar’s chief attractions, Bagan, is rightly known as the “temple town,” with more than 4,000 sacred stupas scattered across 40 square kilometres of plains. One of the best ways to appreciate this sight is in a hot-air balloon ride at sunrise, which will also take in views of the Irrawaddy River winding to the west and mountains soaring in the east.
The skillful balloon pilot navigates changing breezes to take you over the most interesting temples and narrates the tales behind them.
We finished our Myanmar adventure in the magical water world of Inle Lake. You travel the 21-kilometre freshwater lake in a comfortable, narrow wooden boat fitted with outboard motor, which has to be quickly lifted – with whining complaint – when the still, reflective water becomes too shallow.
The 45-minute boat ride takes you past villages on stilts, floating gardens and Buddhist temples on islands, and fishermen moving their vessels with a unique one-leg paddling technique. There’s one grouping of 1,000-year-old temples on an overgrown hillside, behind a restaurant, that is going through a restoration that may eventually make it a major attraction like Angkor Wat. But for now you can explore the 8th-century Shwe Indein Pagoda, with its famous stupas and rows of shops, at your leisure, without competing crowds.
Trekking enthusiasts can also climb up Mt. Shwe U Daung, 3,000 feet above sea level, in an ascent that takes about 90 minutes.
We’ll Drink to That
Myanmar also surprises with delicious attractions from other cultures. For example, outside Yangon, you can have a fabulous French meal in colonial architecture overlooking a lake, enjoying perhaps Wagyu steak or truffle risotto, while rabbits roam the restaurant grounds.
You can also indulge in some very nice local wines. The country has two wine estates, located near Inle lake. To prevent the grapes from being burned by the hot Myanmar sun or damaged by fungus bred through humidity, the growers plant their vineyards high in the mountains.
Since the estates don’t produce enough wine for export, you have to visit Myamar to taste them. . . . Any excuse will do.
(Featured photo on top by Thomas Schoch)