Top Must Do in Myanmar
With its misty mountains, lush green riverbanks, 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 significant tour magnet. Bagan, one of its famous sights, has just been named one of National Geographic's Top 2013 Ten Trips. But 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.
Besides, 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.
You can easily choose your favourite jewelry made from your birthstone, probably mined in the country for jewelry lovers. 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. 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 about hotels or other travel amenities. As an example, you can tell them you want your 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 useful guide, too. Your hotel can also help with this arrangement.
It is a big country, and its pristine hills and rivers and its beaches and temples are of great interest.
1. Visit the Shwedagon Pagoda
Life in Myanmar centers 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 only for a short while.
Watch this cleanup crew as they come in with their brooms and big smiles.
These are folks 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 to worship accordingly or join the cleanup 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 action 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 history in your head, the whole adventure will have so much more meaning. Stay or have dinner at The Strand in Yangon, the hallmark of British colonialism in Myanmar.
The Sarkies brothers, Aviet and Tigran, built this Victorian hotel in 1901, locating it centrally. If you need to go around quickly in the city, this is the place to stay. 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. You will see buildings and houses all over Yangon that are vivid reminders of unique colonial history. Yangon's lakes also give it mystery and stillness that you 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 picture will move it apart from the usual 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.
There are also silverware, tribal handicrafts such as the Shan style shoulder bags, traditional puppets, handwoven fabrics, and teak furniture.
4. Buy Myanmar's Precious Stones
Did you know that Myanmar is home to some of the rarest minerals? Painite, considered the rarest mineral on the planet, is only harvested in Mogok and Kachin States in Myanmar. 90% of the world's rubies, one of the most expensive gems, are gathered in Myanmar. Also found in Myanmar is the world's most enormous jadeite boulder. This boulder found in 1982 measures 12 by 6.5 feet.
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. Building 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 42 sq. km with over 2000 well-preserved pagodas and temples of the 11th-13th century. Some of these are contemporary with Angkor Wat and give you a better idea of Asia's richness 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 kind of travel 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.
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 a clear and smooth complexion.
They sell these in cosmetic jars, and you can paint yourself like a clown and still look normal. To attest to the effectiveness of thanaka, Myanmar women, in the past, 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 more relaxed than trousers. You always have a choice of being a spectator or a participant. Somehow just watching seems a waste of a unique opportunity.
6. Take the Road to Mandalay
Let the Mandalay with its Mahamuni Pagoda and Sagaing Hills beckon you. This city is the old royal capital and the second-largest in the country. The area has a cooler temperature. It takes its name from the nearby 240-metre Mandalay Hill, which has many 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 three weeks, you will have a fantastic memory bank to bring home with you. Being the capital before the British rule, Mandalay 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 visiting.
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 kilometre-long bridge over Taungthaman Lake, the U Bein Bridge, made of teak from the old Inwa Palace. Enjoy the sunset there. It is magnificent.
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 China's borders. 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. Snow-capped mountains and spectacular wilderness surround Putao, the northernmost town in Myanmar. So, if you are in for an adventure, go and visit. You might find an old DC 3 or a Yeti looking for you.
9. Head for the Beaches
Go to Ayeyarwaddy. Ayeyarwaddy is at the southern end of Myanmar's central plains, with Pathein as its vital 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 theatre. 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 find out before your various land trips.
11. Explore Myanmar's UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Sri Ksetra, Beikthano, Hanlin
These three recently excavated landmarks sitting on the Irrawaddy basin offer travellers interested in history a peek at the Pyu kingdoms, which flourished for about 1,000 years.
These Pyu ancient cities are mainly unexplored. Sri Ksetra is the most accessible of these because of its proximity to Yangon. Just 5 hours from Yangon, you can see the city walls' remains, 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 artifacts 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 available 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 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 WWII's old Burma Road. 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 fascinating history but also a present worth watching. This interest is worthwhile 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 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 she has never before imagined. This event also helps one understand Myanmar's events and what the people in Myanmar have to go through.
Myanmar and the World Community Lifting Sanctions
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has now given the ASEAN's chairmanship 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 the full civilian government has taken place, 30 March 2016. 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 two 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.
More on other countries in Southeast Asia