It had been on my wish list for years, and when Burma opened up ever so slightly to
tourists……I was checking visa requirements, brochures and guide books, before you could say Mingalabar Myanmar! (That’s Hello Burma in Burmese!)
Burma, as it was, Myanmar, as it is now, has been closed for decades, under
military rule. However politics have been changing slowly, and trade sanctions with
the rest of the world are easing.
Outside of Rangoon (now Yangon), visiting Myanmar is like a journey back in time, a simple agrarian society, fishing and farming without machinery or computers and everyone devoted to the spiritual. A combination that gives a mix of kind and smiling people, blessed in their harmonious and close family life, and content if they just have enough to eat. They don’t try to change the world, but look to better the plight of those people and animals who are less well off around them.
They live by the teachings of Buddha and their preoccupation of him shows in the temples and images of Buddha that are everywhere. At Bagan there are literally thousands of stupas and pagodas, mostly crumbling, but all magnificent, spread across the plains. And what a sight at sunset! Bagan is a must on any trip to Myanmar. It was the capital of the first Myanmar Empire and is one of the richest archaeological sites in South East Asia. People have been inspired by its magic for nearly a thousand years.
Inle Lake is another must to include in your visit to Myanmar. Inle is a vast shallow Lake, in the Shan State of Myanmar which borders Thailand and Laos up at the infamous Golden Triangle. The Lake is over 900 metres above sea level, misty and flat, and is surrounded by mountains, so understandably its cooler here.
The Intha people live around the lake in floating villages and houses built on stilts.
Mostly they live by fishing and they have developed a way to paddle and steer
their fishing boats with one leg, keeping their hands free to cast and trawl their
nets. The quiet of the lake, the mists over the water and the sheer isolation of it all
has an eerie beauty. I felt that I had left the cares and worries of the rat race far
Indeed getting to Myanmar from the rat race is a challenge! There are no
direct flights, but I found Thai Airways via Bangkok the simplest journey – from
Yangon it was a short flight to Inle Lake, and then a transfer through some scenic countryside to the lake itself, followed by 20 minutes on a long water-boat to our hotel. Set out on the lake, on stilts, it was a wonderful retreat with all the comforts we westerners need, hot outdoor showers, good food and a four poster draped with mosquito nets!
Yangon itself is a beautiful city, we had a walking tour picking out the old colonial
buildings with a guide who had lived through all of Yangon’s history from British
rule to Independence and beyond. But the absolute jewel of Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda –
dazzling gold and studded with precious jewels at its top – Shwedagon stands high on a
hill looking down on the city. There is nothing modest about Shwedagon, but you must
be modest! All religious places pagodas, temples, stupas and monasteries require you to cover up (men too! no knees!) no shoes or socks so wear easy to kick off and on
flip-flops as you could visit many, many, holy places in the space of one day!
You will see monks in their orange wraps everywhere, for every man and boy will
experience life as a monk during their life at some point. Every day they go out to the streets with their bowls to collect rice and vegetables from the people in the towns and
villages (who have very little to spare any way).
There are more than 300,000 monks in Myanmar at any one time, no one knows
exactly how many there are, some will commit for life and some will just be a monk for a few days.
At Bagan, I joined the Belmond river cruise ship called The Road to Mandalay and I
sailed to Mandalay on the Irrawaddy River. This was the icing on the cake for me! Life on the river was wonderful, lots of stops and excursions during the day, but also lots of time to be lazy and relax on the top deck by the pool. Exquisite meals and fine dining and followed
by local cultural entertainment or talks about our forthcoming excursions was the routine in the evenings.
There are very few places left in the world where you can truly appreciate the
horizons you broaden – and Myanmar will change rapidly. Foreign investments are changing the landscape already, 4 and 5 star hotels being built, fleets of shiny white taxis in Yangon’s streets will bring traffic jams – tourists will bring the changes, because tourists need hotels and taxis!
For now Burma, as I prefer to call it, will hold memories of a most beautiful country of welcoming and sincere people, happy to show us all their treasures.
How lucky we are to accept their friendship and welcome!