As a travel writer it is the norm to be asked for my favourite destination. After a visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, I concur with Rudyard Kipling: “This is Burma. It is quite unlike any place you know about.” I’ve explored most of Asia yet was unprepared for this country’s impressive offerings. Here I’ll share the highlights.
A few basics: situated in the heart of southeast Asia it has been under a military government since 1962 but is slowly edging towards a more democratic government since 2010. At that time, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and opened the door to tourism. Today she holds a government position as a specially created post of state counselor, similar to being prime minister, but she cannot hold that office as her two sons are British.
Travelling solo, I chose a well-paced excursion with World Expeditions. The small-group, tour company was among the first to bring travellers to Myanmar in 2011. Flights arrive in Yangnon. (Note: I had problems getting a visa on line so had the tour company do it for me. Upon arrival, some young women who had acquired theirs on the website, had it refused and were required to buy them again!) Formerly known as Rangoon, Yangnon melds ancient Buddhist temples and vast markets into a busy city scene. At the National Museum (you need your passport to purchase a ticket), lighting and signage are poor but the gold, jewel-encrusted Lion Throne was my first clue of the grandeur that I was about to see. Like the 2,606-year-old Shwedagon Paya, an amazing collection of gold gilded spires and stupas, decorative alcoves, bejeweled Buddha and dazzling, marble walkways all dominated by a massive, golden, sky-reaching dome. It is the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar.

From Yangon, we took a hop skip and jump around the country.
If ‘the road to Mandalay’ conjures up exotic images, you won’t be disappointed. I was mesmerized as oxen pulled carts heaped high with produce and people along a dusty road bordered by tall trees. Fields of sunflowers, watermelon, wheat and sesame flourished in the backdrop completing a magical rural scene befitting Kipling days.

We visited ancient cities, crossing the Irrawaddy River by boat to Mingun to be dazzled by the beauty of the white Hsinbyume Paya and the 1808 Mingun bell, the world’s large bonze bell. In Amarapura, at the Maha Ganayon Kyaung Monastery we observed some 1000 monks, in two long, silent lines heading to their dining hall.
Nearby, we walked the rickety looking U Bein’s Bridge, at 1.2 km it is the world’s longest teak footbridge; it crosses a shallow lake where fishermen cast huge nets and is surrounded by lush peanut crops. Later we returned at sunset to take a boat and view the startling sight of the stilted bridge and parade of monks and villagers silhouetted against a scarlet glow — one of my many remarkable Myanmar memories.
From Mandalay we drove southwest, through far-between, tiny villages, stopping occasionally for a market or temple to arrive at Mt. Popa Resort, a classy retreat on the lush slopes of the volcano, with arguably one of the world’s best views. It looks out upon a 740-metre high, steep finger of land formed at the last eruption some 250,000 years ago. Atop sits a collection of temples – think fairy-tale and you’ve got it. It’s much more enjoyable looking across at this from the resort’s restaurant than climbing the 777 steps of the shrine. However, this area being the centre of nats – spirits – it’s always a good idea to hedge your best and ward them off with a temple visit.

If Myanmar has only one must-see (truly, it has so many) it is Bagan where myriad temples (some books say as many as 3300) are sprinkled throughout the gentle valley. Known as Myanmar’s first kingdom, it is believed more than 10,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas existed between the 9th and 13th centuries that today is a 42-square kilometre archaeological zone. Suffice to say that we were shoeless often and the more rugged roads and lanes we followed the more we saw. Highlight? Climbing the precipitous steps to perch on Shwesandwo Pagoda and watch the sun set over the temple-rich valley and the Irrawaddy River.
More on Myanmar in a future blog.