Walk the streets of old Yangon to see leafy lanes and byways filled with enormous timber mansions where British captains of industry once lived. See crumbling, pastel-tinted, century-old buildings with magnificent architecture, reminders of Yangon’s past. The number of colonial buildings still standing in downtown Yangon is nothing short of spectacular. Myanmar’s isolation from the rest of the world during the years after independence resulted in a unique preservation of many of its old buildings. It is heartening to see many of them restored to their former beauty nowadays. Yangon’s colonial streets are a showcase of the best, or most ostentatious, of colonial architecture, an exuberant display of wealth and design. In the past, Victorian and Edwardian architectural details made an impression on local craftsmen. As a result, buildings developed an amazing hybrid style that featured curlicue trims and turrets along with cupolas and pergolas; carved wood trims were also popular. All of these embellishments formed an architectural style unique to Myanmar. But do not stop at old Yangon. The city houses numerous important religious monuments, like the golden Shwedagon Paya, one of Asias finest Buddhist structures.
Bagan is one of the richest archaeological and historical sites in Asia. A large area with more than 2,000 pagodas and temples, all set in a vast plain beside the legendary Ayeyarwaddy River, Bagan dates back a millenium. During the Bagan Era (11th to 13th century), Burmese was written for the first time. Bagan was the origin of Buddhism, as still practiced nowadays, and was the seat of religious learning of clergy and laity. Mingalazedi is one of Bagan’s last great stupas to have been erected and is a fine example of the skills of the temple builders. It is also a favourite spot to catch the sunset. Foreign visitors to Bagan can be found on the steep steps waiting for the magical moment -- as the sun sinks behind the misty Ayeyarwaddy, cameras click almost simultaneously. Bagan now features a variety of good hotels of various standards. It is also the starting and ending point of cruises on the Ayeyarwaddy River, linking Bagan with Mandalay. A unique travel experience is a hot-air balloon flight over the Archaeological Zone, which is available during the winter months.
Bago is renowned for its 55-metre-long reclining Buddha image, the beautiful golden Shwemawdaw Pagoda, and other religious monuments like the old ordination hall built by king Dhammazedi. It has a lively market and, just 10 minutes out of town, you can see authentic rural life, including water buffaloes ploughing the paddy fields. Bago is easily reached by road. The 80-kilometre journey from Yangon takes about two hours. It is situated on the road to the Golden Rock Pagoda and Mawlamying. Bago remains a quiet and easy-going town with a lot more bicycles than cars. It is, however, constantly expanding.
Kalaw was a favourite hill station during the British colonial era. It is a picturesque village surrounded by pine forests, and it has some of Myanmar’s most beautiful gardens. From Kalaw, there are good trekking and hiking possibilities to the neighbouring hilltribe villages, which still function the same as they did centuries ago. Fans of natural beauty and peaceful sites will surely get their money’s worth. The roads leading to Kalaw and Pindaya offer breathtaking sights of the landscape and are somehow reminiscent of the beautiful Alps region in Europe.
KYAIKTIYO / GOLDEN ROCK
The Golden Rock of Kyaikhtiyo is one of the most revered pilgrimage sites for Myanmar Buddhists. The gold–plated boulder is said to maintain its balance thanks to a single hair of the Buddha enshrined inside the pagoda. To reach the top of the mountain, you can either make a 13 kilometre climb (which will take 7 hours or more) or sit on the loading area of open trucks that take passengers to a so-called middle camp through a steep and winding road. From there, all visitors have to walk up the remaining 4 kilometres (500 meters in altitude) on steep tracks. An easy alternative for those who can’t manage the way on foot is to sit on sedan chairs, which are carried by four porters to the top. Once you arrive at the pagoda, you can enjoy a spectacular view, which is particularly beautiful at sunrise or sunset. The whole site has a magic air about it, which is perhaps why it is famous for meditation.
Roughly 20 kilometres long, Inle Lake is a silvery pool of outstanding beauty. On the lake, farmers tend to floating gardens, where flowers as well as tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers are grown with lake weed used as fertiliser. Local villages and markets are always interesting. With the Shan mountain range in the background, both sunrise and sunset over the lake are truly enchanting moments. Every year, on the eve of the full moon in October, the annual Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival is held. The pagoda’s most revered images and relics are displayed on the grand golden Karaweik, a replica of the ancient royal barge, and are taken to several villages around the lake. Unlike other pagoda festivals in Myanmar, most of which last for three days only, this one lasts for 18 days. It also features the famous Inle Boat Races, a spectacle that attracts travellers from near and far.
Located high in the Shan Hills at the centre of the Golden Triangle, Kyaing Tong is one of the country’s most remote outposts and probably the most scenic town in Shan State. At one time, Kyaing Tong was the Shan capital. This ancient city is the gateway to rugged journeys and exotic sights. More than a dozen different tribal groups live around Kyaing Tong. The hills and the vast valley floor are dotted with small villages of at least ten different tribal groups. Living almost side by side in small communities are groups of Ang, Lahu Ahka, Akhu, Padaung, Kala, Shan, Chin, Lishu, Pao, the headhunting Wa, Khun, and Laui. All are living in different stages of development -- some still follow very traditional ways. Whether for better or worse, change will soon come to this remote area.
Lashio is a trading town in a mountain basin 855 metres above sea level, inhabited mostly by ethnic Shan-Chinese and Chinese. This township is located at the southern end of the formerly famous Burma Road. Mya Kantha Hill in the northern part of town offers good views of the city. The steady traffic at Myanmar’s largest Chinese temple, dedicated to the goddess of mercy Quan Yin, stands as a testament to Lashio’s predominately Chinese population.
Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar. Situated in the hot and dry central region of the country, Mandalay is the cultural centre of Myanmar and the last royal capital. It is surrounded by Sagaing, Ava (Inwa), and Amarapura, other ancient royal capitals that are interesting destinations thanks to their historical and religious significance. In Mandalay, visitors can watch traditional handicrafts being made: kalaga tapestries, marionettes, bronze casting, stone works, and woodcarving. Mandalay also houses the most revered Buddha statue in the whole of Myanmar, the Maha Myat Muni. The Buddha is said to have breathed onto the just-finished image, thus giving it some of the His power. People believe that the image is somewhat “alive” and it is therefore treated with the utmost respect. Every morning, monks and locals alike wash the image’s face and make offerings of water, food, flowers, candles, and incense. Another interesting sightseeing point is the 230-metre-high Mandalay Hill, which provides a scenic view of the city, the surrounding plains, the Shan Mountain, and the Ayeyarwaddy River. Mandalay Palace was destroyed by a fire in 1945 and has been largely reconstructed in recent years. Its grounds can now be visited as a museum. Another interesting attraction is Kuthodaw Pagoda (also called the largest book in the world), built by King Mindon after the Fifth Buddhist Council, in which the entire Buddhist Canon is described on 729 marble stone slabs. Mandalay has excellent air, road, and river connections to every part of the country and is the ideal base from which to explore the rest of northern Myanmar.
Monywa lies on the banks of the Chindwin River, 140 kilometres northwest of Mandalay. It is the gateway for excursions to the cave temples of Phowin Taung, situated across the river and reached by ferry. The caves are famous for their Buddha statues, mural paintings, and woodcarvings. There are quite a few legends about the caves, related mostly to nats (the Myanmar spirits). There are supposed to have been over 400,000 Buddha images carved in the caves. Another highly important attraction is Thambuddhe (or Sambuddha Kat Kyaw) Pagoda, completed in 1951 after 12 years of construction. There are over 800 small stupas on and around the pagoda. There are also reportedly 582,357 Buddha statues on the ceiling, walls, archways, and niches in the temple compound.
Mount Popa is an extinct volcano and the highest point within the Bago Yoma range. The main attraction of this region, however, is the smaller, 730-metre-high Popa Taungkalat, also known as the “ Olympus of the Nats” because it is the home of Myanmar’s legendary 37 "Nats," or spirits. To reach the top, you have to climb 700 steep steps while fending off a crowd of curious monkeys. This effort will be rewarded many times over by the extraordinary panoramic view of the surrounding landscape. Near Popa Yoma Mountain is Popa National Park, which claims dense sandalwood forests and rare species of birds and butterflies. Other attractions include two important "Nat Pwes," or festivals, held each year (one in May-June and one in November-December) when people from all parts of Myanmar come to appease and worship the spirits. These spirits are evoked by so-called "Nat Gadaws," or mediums, who offer their bodies for possession. The nats still play an important part in many people’s lives, in spite of the rise of Buddhism.
The capital and largest town of Kachin State is an important trade centre between China and Myanmar. It is an ideal starting point for excursions to tribal villages, jade mines, and the Myitsone River confluence (40 kilometres from Myitkyina), where two Himalayan streams -- Mehka and Malikha -- meet to form the mighty Ayeyarwaddy River. Kachin State is renowned for its scenic beauty: from untouched jungle to the Himalayan Mount Hkakabo Razi, the highest point in Myanmar at 5,889 metres, with its year-round snow-capped peak. This mountain area in the far north is yet untouched by tourism. One of the most important parts of this region is its national park. Some rare wildlife species – declared extinct elsewhere in the world – have been discovered here.
NGWE SAUNG (SILVER BEACH)
A new destination on tourist maps, Ngwe Saung Beach offers visitors unspoilt beaches and tranquility on the coast of the Indian Ocean. A few entrepreneurs have begun developing accommodation for local and foreign visitors. The destination is still in its early stages, however. Ngwe Saung can be reached by car from Yangon in approximately five hours. The journey takes travellers across the wide Ayeyarwaddy Delta region. A stop can be included in Pathein, a busy trading town on the banks of the Pathein River. As an alternative to road travel, it is possible to reach the Pathein River by boat. Float through picturesque scenery, passing by houses and villages that dot the riverbanks. The vast and fertile Ayeyarwaddy Delta is connected to countless tributaries. Up to now, Ngwe Saung Beach has remained a largely unknown destination, a jewel for independent travellers seeking nothing more but sand, sea, and tranquility.
NORTHERN AND EASTERN DESTINATIONS
In the north and east of Myanmar are several small towns still not easily accessible for general tourism. For the time being, hotels and other facilities are extremely limited. For the adventurous traveller, however, such destinations as Hakha, the capital of the Chin State built on mountain terraces and surrounded by magnificent pine forests, or Tongzan, the cultural centre of Chin tribes, or the 2,704-metre-high Mount Kennedy near Teedeim, may soon become accessible. In Bhamo, visitors can see hilltribe people from the surrounding regions. Travelers can reach the mountainous region around Lashio, an important trading centre, by train or road from Mandalay. Further north from Lashio lies the border town of Muse, through which travellers can enter China.
Situated in the delta of the Ayeyarwaddy River, Pathein is the most important port for trade in the region. Pathein is a peaceful little town with a scenic waterfront, many Chinese and Burmese temples, and umbrella workshops. The colourful hand-made umbrellas of Pathein are famous all over Myanmar -- the traditional umbrellas that monks and nuns use, as commonly seen in northern Myanmar, are manufactured here. Pathein, located some 190 kilometres west of Yangon, can be reached in three hours by road, or by overnight ferry through the Ayeyarwaddy river delta.
At an altitude of 1,200 metres, Pindaya is surrounded by hilltribe villages. Its main attraction is the natural limestone cave that displays more than 8,000 Buddha images made of wood, marble, lacquer, brick, stone, and bronze. Many devoted Buddhist pilgrims have placed them there over the centuries. This is a rare sight, indeed. Pindaya also features picturesque Boutaloke Lake, which is set amongst huge old trees. Umbrellas are manufactured here, as well, and visitors can watch these paper trinkets being made in several workshops in town.
A small town on the bend in the Ayeyarwaddy river, Pyay is close to the ancient capital of the Pyu Kingdom, Sri Ksetra. In the surrounding area rest the ruins of this ancient capital. The Thayekhittaya site, dating back to the 5th century, features quite a different architectural style than other periods. Altogether, Pyay stands as one of the most interesting historical and archaeological sites in Myanmar. Pyay is 290 kilometres northwest of Yangon and is comfortably accessible by car (5-6 hour journey).
PYIN OO LWIN (MAYMYO)
This one-time British hill town hideaway, about two hours from Mandalay, offers cool weather, eclectic architecture, and a glimpse of the past. The town dates to the early 20th century. Its main street is part of the famous Burma Road, an important route that leads north to the trading town of Lashio and beyond to the Chinese border. The street is an interesting place to explore. It is lined with a mishmash of styles: iron grillwork, balconies, chimneys, and wood-carved decorations accent the architecture. The town’s clock tower is said to be a present from Queen Victoria, identical to one in Capetown, South Africa. Close to Pyin Oo Lwin are several natural attractions, like waterfalls and caves. Visitors should check out the Peik Chin Myaing Cave, which houses many Buddha images, and some models of Myanmar’s most revered pagodas. It is a favorite weekend destination for local tourists, thanks to the nearby waterfalls. Also of interest is the national Kandawgyi Botanical Garden. Founded in 1915, the garden is home to a large variety of trees and flowers both from Myanmar and abroad. All of these attractions are great, but what really makes Pyin Oo Lwin unique are the brightly painted miniature stagecoaches drawn by lively locals.
SITTWE AND MRAUK OO
Arriving at Sittwe sends you back to a time when airports consisted of just one room with ceiling fans. It is a port city, serving as a major trading point with India during the time of the British rule. Sittwe boasts several interesting pagodas and an exceptional monastery with a collection of Buddha images, some of which date back to the 15th century, when Mrauk Oo had reached its peak. Sittwe is the starting point of the boat journey to Mrauk OO, the ancient capital dubbed Myanmars Angkor Wat. In 1535, a powerful Rakhine kind named Minbin built Myanmars most famous Shittaung temple, and it remains the main attraction of the historic site. You should not miss the ruins of the royal palace and the remains of the city walls.
Twante is a small town that is known for its pottery and weaving. There is an interesting old Mon pagoda in town, too. Located by the Twante Canal, which was dug during the time of British rule to provide a shorter boat ride to Yangon, this town hearkens back to its past. A ride on the canal offers contrasting images: from the buzzing chaos in Yangon to the provincial calmness of the countryside.