Top Must Do in Myanmar
With its misty mountains, green lush river banks, ethnic communities, pagodas, temples, stupas and monasteries, Myanmar offers a magnificent adventure of amazing things to do.
Why Visit Myanmar
This heart of the Old Empire in the 19th century, is soon becoming a major tour magnet. Bagan, one of its famous sights, has just been named one of National Geographic's Top 2013 Ten Trips.
Why visit? The old Burma lingers in the memories of many. Kipling's poem Mandalay (where the flying fishes play), triggers memories of the Raj and forecasts the jungle wars of the 1940s that still haunt the memories of many who lost grandfathers there in that almost overlooked sideshow. In addition, Cyclone Nargis in 2008 devastated so much of the country, killing so many people and galvanizing world attention.
Today, the world has almost abandoned all sanctions as Myanmar started to open itself to the world. President Obama made history as the first US President to visit Myanmar.
Recently, however, the ethnic conflict has again placed Myanmar in the news. Still, Myanmar is a fascinating destination and as Myanmar's government continues to show its determination to become a recognized member of the world community, the tourists are back.
Nowadays, flights and hotels are often full and prices have gone up. So time to pack your bags and be on the road to Mandalay.
Top Must Do in Myanmar
Myanmar offers visitors so many unspoiled places. You can visit Mandalay with its purple hazed highland jungles, Yangon with its colonial houses and bustling markets, Bagan with its stunning temples, the pristine shores close to the Andaman Bay and, finally, the snowcapped mountains in the north.
For jewelry lovers, you can easily choose your favorite jewelry made from your birth stone probably mined in the country. The only drawback to all of this is the lack of the usual tourist conveniences.
The tourist infrastructure is still a bit...ahhhh...a bit....emergent. So make sure you take a tour from established and experienced tour operators so things are arranged for you and can go like clockwork. In this way, there is always someone to take care of whatever may come up. Wandering about alone is still not a great idea.
You can also make choices within those tours with regard to hotels or other travel amenities. As an example, you can tell them you want your own car and guide so you have the flexibility of visiting only the places you choose and at more convenient times, as you don't have to wait for anyone.
If you don't want to book with tour operators, fly to Yangon or Mandalay, book a hotel in any of these places and make your arrangement once you are there and have better information. You can get a car and, often, your driver may be a good guide, too. Your hotel can also help in this arrangement.
It is a big country and its pristine hills and rivers as well as its beaches and temples are of great interest.
1. Visit the Shwedagon Pagoda
Life in Myanmar is centered around Buddhism and the Shwedagon Pagoda is the most important holy site in the country. Don't just flit around the pagoda and leave. Dress with respect.
Stay longer and watch the local visitors do their worship. Watch the locals in processions offering gifts to the temple. Stop walking for 10 minutes and sit. Look and see, not just tourist-glance. Become an insider, part of a different culture, even if just for a short while.
Watch this clean up crew as they come in with their brooms and big smiles.
These folks happen to be born on that day of the week, so they come to worship and clean the temple. Know the day of the week you were born so you can worship accordingly or join the clean up gang.
Wash your animal symbol in Shwedagon
Know the day of the week you were born before you go to Myanmar. I was born on a Saturday so our guide brought me to my animal symbol and I washed it. This is incurring favour from these holy symbols.
2. Experience A Bit of Myanmar's Colonial Past
Do a bit of homework before you sign on to Myanmar. With a bit of the history in your head, the whole adventure will have so much more meaning. Stay or have dinner at The Strand in Yangon. Built in 1901, it is centrally located making it easy to go around from there. If this is too much for your budget, at least have a drink in the bar.
The hotel has been refurbished in the 1920's theme and strongly reminds you of the country's old colonial past. Squint your eyes and see Colonel Blimp at the far bar stool or a plantation manager dressed to the nines for a dirty weekend in town! The hotel is not the only reminder. All over Yangon, you will see buildings and houses that are vivid reminders of an amazing colonial history. The lakes in Yangon also give it mystery and stillness that you surely don't anymore feel in most big cities.
3. Shop in the Bogyoke Aung San Market
Myanmar has a tradition of crafting beautiful things. Take a picture of the crafter making what you purchase. Now, that is a great story to tell. This is not airport art. In Yangon, visit the Bogyoke Aung San Market situated in the heart of the city . This market houses around 2,000 shops where you can buy folk dolls, coconut masks, gold leaf and gold embroidery, precious stones such as rubies, sapphires and jade, Kalaga embroidered tapestries, lacquerware, leather crafts, stone and wood carvings, silverware, tribal handicrafts such as the Shan style shoulder bags, traditional puppets, hand woven fabrics, and teak furniture.
5. Visit the Temples and Shrines in Bagan
Go to Bagan where the thousands of shrines, mostly constructed before the 13th century, crowd the skyline. Constructing these holy places, the Buddhists believe will bring them faster towards Nirvana.
One of the richest archaeological sites in Asia, Bagan is located on the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River. This ancient capital of the Myanmar Empire has an area of 42 sq.km with over 2000 well-preserved pagodas and temples of the 11th-13th century. Some of these is contemporary with Angkor Wat and gives you a better idea of the richness of Asia while Europe was a mud puddle.
Daily flights between Yangon and Bagan take an hour and ten minutes. Other alternatives include express flights from Mandalay and Heho to Bagan, which only take 20 minutes. There are also "express" trains from Yangon and Mandalay with a stop at Thazi Junction, from where Bagan is accessible by road.
Remember, the slower you travel, the greater your chance to meet and talk with people. This is the foundation of great memories. From Thazi Junction to Bagan, the drive is about three hours.
You can also take a river cruise and view these magnificent sights from the Ayeyarwady river on board the "Road to Mandalay". This luxurious river cruiser features 28 superior cabins and 38 more spacious State cabins serving you in the style and comfort for which the Orient Express is known.
6. Take the Road to Mandalay
Let the Mandalay with its Mahamuni Pagoda and Sagaing Hills beckon you. This is the old royal capital and the second largest city in the country. It is cooler as well. It takes its name from the nearby 240-metre Mandalay Hill, which is dotted with monasteries and pagodas.
You can fly from Yangon to Mandalay and, of course, vice versa. Or take the road trip (670km). You can rent a car and ask for a guide. You can see and visit other places on the way like the Htauk Kyant War Memorial Cemetery. Located in Mingaladon township, it has 27,000 stone-graves of Commonwealth and Allied Forces Fallen Soldiers in the Myanmar Campaign.
If you plan a 2 week visit over 3 weeks, you will have a fantastic memory bank to bring home with you. Mandalay, being the capital prior to the British rule, is home to traditional artisans and you can watch them in their workshops. The gold leaf workshop where they still hammer gold by hand to make those gleaming paper thin sheets that they rub on Buddha at the temples is worth a visit.
While in Mandalay, visit the Shwe Nandaw Kyaung Temple Grounds, which houses the only remaining building of the once sumptuous moated palace. A short drive out of town is the kilometer- long bridge over Taungthaman Lake, the U Bein Bridge, made of teak from the old Inwa Palace. Enjoy the sunset there. It is magnificent.
7. Try one of Myanmar's Local Custom
Try thanaka. All over Myanmar, you will find women and children with painted faces that to a foreigner look like they have smudged their faces with wet yellowish powder.
Thanaka is a bark paste that the locals use for protection from the sun and for clear and smooth complexion.
They sell these in cosmetic jars and you can paint yourself like a clown and still look normal. Thanaka may be effective as it is said that in the distant the past, Myanmar women were highly sought after as brides.
Wear a Lungi. Lungis are sarongs tucked at the waist. It somehow makes you less of a foreigner when you try a local custom and they are much cooler than trousers. You always have a choice of being a spectator or a participant. Somehow just watching seems a waste of a unique opportunity.
8. Trek the Northernmost Part of Myanmar
To do this, you have to go to the border with Kachin State, the northernmost part of Myanmar which shares borders with China. Myitkyina is the largest town in Kachin State. There are regular flights from Yangon and Mandalay to Myitkyina.
Other than Mt. Kakaborazi, there are other mountains to trek. Putao, the northernmost town in Myanmar is surrounded by snow capped mountains and spectacular wilderness. So, if you are in for an adventure, go and visit. You might just find an old DC 3 or a Yeti looking for you.
9. Head for the Beaches
Go to Ayeyarwaddy. Ayeyarwaddy is situated at the southern end of the central plains of Myanmar with Pathein as its key city. It is essentially a delta region with an area of 13,566 square miles.
It is only a four hour drive from Yangon so its newly opened beaches are attractive: Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung.
10. Attend Myanmar's Ceremonies and Festivals
Celebrate with the people their ceremonies and festivals. Some of these festivals bring you Zats, a variety of dance, song, short and long plays and Anyeints in which jokers caricature current situations (somewhat delicately in today's environment).
Watch performances of Pwe, an excellent example of local folk theater. Nat Pwe pays homage to the spirit world and Yok-Thei Pwe uses puppets up to a metre high. You will not only enjoy watching the expertise of the local puppeteers but gain respect for their talent and support traditions that we will all be the poorer for if they are lost. If you have a good driver, he will know of local festivals or can find out before your assorted land trips.
11. Explore Myanmar's UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Sri Ksetra, Beikthano, Hanlin
These 3 recently excavated landmarks sitting on the Irawaddy basin offer travellers interested in history a peek at the Pyu kingdoms which flourished for about 1,000 years. These Pyu ancient cities are largely unexplored. Sri Ksetra is the most accessible of these because of its proximity to Yangon. Just 5 hours from Yangon, you can see the remains of the city walls, about 500 ha. There is also the cylindrical stupa of Bawbawgyi, a prototype of the Bagan pagodas, and the Rahanta Cave Temple.
Beikthano (1st century BC-5th century AD) is a day trip from the current capital of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw. Though the smallest of the Pyu cities, it is the best excavated.
Hanlin, north of Mandalay, was a prominent Pyu city in the first century AD so artefacts included silver coins, gold necklaces, pottery and stone inscriptions. There are also skeletons in the excavated cemetery.
How does one go to Myanmar?
Yangon International Airport and Mandalay International Airport are the main gateways and there are regular daily flights to Yangon from Bangkok and Singapore. The domestic airlines, Myanmar Airways, Yangon Airways and Air Mandalay regularly connect Yangon to Mandalay, Bagan, Heho, Kyaing Tong, Tachilek, Thandwe, Kawthaung and other tourist destinations. Passengers on charter flights and cruise ships are granted Visa on Arrival status providing prior arrangements have been made.
Recently, Visa on Arrival(VOA) is again granted to citizens of several countries. Check if your country is listed. To be sure, check as changes take place sporadically.
Visa for Myanmar
You can get a visa upon arrival or better, get a visa from one of the Myanmar embassies close to where you live. If there is no Myanmar embassy where you live, you can get a visa in Thailand , Singapore or China, depending on where you fly first. A travel agent can easily arrange this for you in Bangkok or in Beijing/Shanghai. You can fly to Bangkok and catch a plane from there to Myanmar, either Yangon or Mandalay.
You can also go to China and travel by road passing by the old Burma Road of the WWII. If you have seen "Bridge on the River Kwai"...well...this is the real story of those thousands of forgotten prisoners. Or another option is to take an Orient Express Cruise and enjoy the sunrise and the sunsets in the Irrawaddy and other Myanmar shores in the elegance of the Road to Mandalay decks.
Visa exemptions for 14 days are already in place for some ASEAN countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. Myanmar has not only a very interesting history but also a present worth watching. This is true nowadays when the government seems to signal a desire to be part of the world community.
While it is true that Myanmar still is beset with problems, the road to development is unstoppable. Investments are pouring in and tourist visits are increasing every day. The economy is humming and with its wealth in natural resources, it will not be long before Myanmar becomes an economic player.
In the recent elections, Aung San Su Kyi and her party came to power and there seems to be acceptance of the results by the ruling party so there is hope for change. There is so much to look forward to in this country's history.
Know Myanmar Better
Watch this movie and know the sacrifice that Aung San Suu Kyi did and continues to do for Myanmar. Mind you, not only her but so many others, too. You can see in this movie how much people have given to achieve what Myanmar has accomplished now.
It is touching to see how one person's life takes a turn for a mission that even herself has ever before imagined. This also helps one understand the events in Myanmar and what the people in Myanmar have to go through.
Myanmar and the World Community
Lifting of Sanctions
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has now given the chairmanship of the ASEAN to Myanmar in 2014.
Several countries including the US, EU, Canada and Australia have eased sanctions and have again established their presence in Myanmar. The World Bank has also recently done this.
Myanmar's economy is fast becoming the best performing in the region. It will continue to do so as the historic shift to full civilian government has taken place, 30 March 2016, when Thein Sein handed over the Presidential seal to the new president, Htin Kyaw whose National League for Democracy Party led by Aung San Suu Kyi won 80% of the parliamentary seats in the last election.
Aung San Suu Kyi has taken over the post of Foreign Minister as having 2 sons as foreigners, she is not allowed under the Constitution to be President of the country. But she is clearly in charge and people expect much.
Are you hopeful about Myanmar's future?
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“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust