Yes it’s another venture into a country that, as with most places in the world, you can’t get to right now. Myanmar is the current name for Burma, a South-East Asian country bordering Bangladesh and Thailand, not to mention China and India. In recent years Myanmar has gone from a place that was hard to get into and controlled by a hardline military dictatorship to an exciting new destination on the South-East Asian touring map. However, there certainly are still questions about the governing of Myanmar and especially its treatment of minorities.
Nevertheless, it’s up to you whether this will affect your choice to go to Myanmar and frankly right now you don’t have a choice anyways! But imagine you do… imagine in fact the year is 2015 and you are me, and step into the country known as Burma. I mean Myanmar.
I flew into Mandalay. It’s sort of a central town I guess when you look at the map, but the north of the country is not nearly as explored by the foreign traveller as Mandalay and the places south of Mandalay. Looking at Google Maps the further north of Mandalay you go, the more the roads disappear from the map. There are experiences and places north that people do visit – there is a zipline experience I think similar to the one in Northern Laos. But for me, I flew into Myanmar with around two weeks or just over to cram in as much as I could.
The first thing I did in Mandalay, was to leave it and head into the hills to Pwin Oo Lwin. This town was admittedly very colonial with its clock tower and appearance, but just the relief from the heat was in itself worth it. There were some beautiful falls to see (the Hampshire Falls) where people come to swim and hang out, but the highlight of these parts is taking the train over the Gokteik Viaduct, some 100 metres high and well over 100 years old!
Mandalay is a pleasant, spread out city still with a lot of unsealed roads which made it feel like the area my grandfather’s holiday house was in back 40 years ago (few sealed roads there then). It has a moated citadel, and that’s worth a look as it houses the last palace of the Burmese Monarchy, built in the mid-1800s. It’s South-East Asia so it’s hot and humid, but still climbing Mandalay hill was my favourite thing. You climb staircase after staircase, stopping at different temples along the way, until finally you reach the very top. Another temple there offering an amazing view of Mandalay and surrounds.
I really enjoyed staying in ‘A Little Bit of Mandalay Tavern’ by the way. Great food, beautiful spot. Not plugging by any means here but very occasionally you vividly remember the place you stayed for good reason. Met a guide here who took me on the back of his motorbike to see the surrounding countryside too which was well worth it.
There’s a lot to see around Mandalay and taking a tour around the region to see temples and more I highly recommend. And a must-see is the U-Bein Bridge, a long wooden bridge across a lake, where people flock at sunset which was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. More images tomorrow!
Bagan is probably the number one tourist attraction. At Bagan, around five hours by bus from Mandalay, you will find countless temples strewn across the fields to explore and photograph to your heart’s delight. Hire a motorbike to get from one to the other, I wouldn’t recommend walking in the heat. If you have the cash and the stomach for it, this is THE place in Myanmar to try a hot-air balloon ride. Especially one that has you up before dawn. Sunsets and sunrises are amazing. This is a dryer part of the country it seemed too. Very hot, but a dryer heat. The temples are spaced out and there is variable vegetation. Not a jungle at all like Angkor in Cambodia.
Inle Lake is eastwards across country. I split the trip I Thazi so that I could catch the amazing, if slow train through the hills. I remember it cooling down a bit before coming down to a town near the lake. This is almost a ‘must-do’ for Myanmar, this amazing lake with floating villages and shops, markets on different days and even restaurants in the middle of the lake on stilts! You’ll find some interesting temples too. People take a boat out (with a guide/driver) for the day. You’ll need to haggle. Many stay out long enough to catch both sunrise and sunset. Fishermen, for a tip, will pose for you on their boats. It’s very touristy but still a bit special.
Yangon was my final stop, formally Rangoon and formerly the capital. It has a bit of a buzz about it and one of the most amazing temples I’ve ever seen – The Shwedagon Pagoda is beautiful and the marble is hot on your feet! It’s also incredibly popular and so when it reopens, presuming it’s closed right now, I wonder how they will do ‘social distancing’.
All in all, I was not disappointed in any way with Myanmar. I’m not sure what my expectations were, but they were easily met and usually exceeded by each place that I went. For those wanting to go, when it’s possible again, I recommend it because it has only recently opened up and slightly lags in development and tourist numbers compared to its neighbours.
Thanks for reading, take care and May the Journey Never End!