Perhaps Southeast Asias most interesting --- and controversial --- country to visit is Myanmar. Even the correct name of the country (should it be called Myanmar or Burma?) can result in fierce debates. Due to the complex political situation, many travelers have avoided visiting Myanmar over the past few decades, but after you weigh the pros and cons, the benefits of going there become more apparent. There are many ways to spend your money wisely and help independently owned and family-run businesses, as well as local schools and orphanages. Myanmar is a stunningly beautiful country populated by delightful and curious people who sincerely want more tourists to visit.
Due to its relative isolation over the past several decades, Myanmar has retained more of its traditional culture than more modern countries in the region. It not only FEELS different (some say that visiting the country is akin to taking a trip back in time) but things LOOK different. Most people --- both men and women --- wear a longyi, the traditional Burmese garment that resembles a sarong or skirt. Many women and children also apply a light yellow paste called thanaka on their faces. This paste acts as a both a sunscreen and skin conditioner. And its also considered very attractive when applied creatively. Festivals known as pwe are commonly held during full moon periods. Few foreigners attend these festivals, but those who do are always struck by the fun and spirited atmosphere --- and the loud noises.
The countrys largest city is Yangon (Rangoon), home to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. Other historic pagodas worth seeing include Sule Paya and Botataung Paya. Walking around Yangon reveals a rich variety of old architecture and colorful street life. From Sule Paya to the river, near the famous old Strand Hotel, you will pass many interesting sights.
The countrys second largest city, Mandalay, is worth several days of your time. It may not be the tropical oasis that people imagine (especially if you saw the old film The Road to Mandalay), but this chaotic and dusty city has many charms if you are willing to get off the main roads and do some exploring. The southwest part of town is a particular delight, packed with a few old teakwood monasteries and many newer ones that are home to very curious and personable monks. Visiting a Burmese style teashop while in Mandalay is also a great way to relax, enjoy a good cheap meal and cup of tea, and immerse yourself in the local scene.
In close proximity to Mandalay are several interesting towns that make for convenient half-day or full-day excursions. The ancient capitals of Inwa (Ava) and Sagaing are fun to explore, and nearby Amarapura is home to the famous, and much photographed, U Beins Bridge, the longest teakwood bridge in the world. Also in the Mandalay vicinity is Paleik, a small town that features a Snake Pagoda (three huge Burmese pythons are fed and bathed each morning at the pagoda where they make their home) and a grove of old stupas and temples near the river. Further down the river is Mingun, site of the mammoth Mingun Paya, the unfinished pagoda that was damaged by an earthquake. You can climb to the top of ruins for a great view of the area.
Bagan is another must see place in Myanmar. It is home to several thousand ancient pagodas --- and more continue to be built! Try to budget at least two or three days just to get a feel for the size and scope of this archaeological wonder. For touring the old pagodas in Bagan most tourists opt for a horse cart ride, but you can also rent a car and driver, or hop on a bike and see things at your own pace. If you get tired of pagoda touring you might consider a boat trip on the river, or take a 90-minute road trip to see Mount Popa, an extinct volcano that now serves as a very famous nat shrine.
One of Myanmars more popular destinations is Inle Lake. Surrounded by craggy green mountain ranges, the lake is home to the famous leg-rowing fisherman and many ethnic villages. A network of canals criss-crosses the town of Nyaungshwe, which serves as the gateway for visitors to Inle. Even if you are not taking boat trips on the lake or canals, walking or cycling around Nyaungshwe is guaranteed to be fascinating. Just north of town is Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, and old teakwood monastery with huge oval windows. Stop by to take some photos and chat with the friendly novice monks in residence.
But that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Other towns of note in Myanmar include Mawlamyine (Moulmein), Pyin U Lwin, Thibaw, Kalaw, Mrauk U, Kyaing Tong (Kengtung), Pathein, Monywa, Myitkyina, Bago, and Kyaiktiyo (home of the famous Golden Rock). Beach lovers will want to head to Chaungtha, Ngapali, or Ngwe Saung.
Recommended Guides & Tour Companies
Htein Linn: Golden Bowl Tour Services
Htein Linn is the personable and knowledgeable man who runs Golden Bowl Tour Services in Nyaungshwe, the Gateway to famous Inle Lake in Myanmars Shan State. His office if located on Yone Gyi Street, just east of the morning market, near the Amazing Nyaungshwe Hotel. Htein Linn can take you on half-day or multi-treks to hill tribe villages in the area, as well as arrange boat trips on the lake, or transportation tickets (bus, private taxi, or plane). He also can take you to see the boys and girls orphanages in the nearby village of Myaing Thauk. Golden Bowl also sells secondhand books in various languages.
Yone Gyi Street, Nyaungshwe, Shan State
Golden Princess Tours: Ma Pa Su
Another very friendly tour services provider in Nyaungshwe is Ma Pa Su (you can call her Sue) at Golden Princess Tours. Her office is located on Myawady Road in central Nyaungshwe, near the May Guesthouse. Like Htein Linn, she can arrange all types of tours and ticketing for your travel needs.
Myawady Road, Nyaungshwe, Shan State
Good News Travels: William Myatwunna
They are recommended in Lonely Planet and other guidebooks, and after experiencing the excellent service of William and his staff you will agree with the raves. They are also a winner of the Conde Nast Traveler award in 2008.
Bogyoke Aung San Road (next to Bogyoke Market), FMI Centre, 4th Floor, Unit 18, Yangon
Tel: (+95-1) 375 050, (+95-9) 511-6256
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org , email@example.com
Myanmar Travel Ltd. Ko Ye & Ma Soe Soe
Another friendly and efficient tour agency is Myanmar Travel, owned by longtime Yangon resident Myriam Grest. Her employees are well trained and very eager to help you with all your travel needs.
Pansodan Office Tower, 3rd Floor, 189/195 Pansodan Street, Yangon
Tel: (+95-1) 204 046, 391 015