Perhaps better known by its old name, Burma, this is a country that conjures up
the romanticism of colonial days, the beauty of an ancient civilisation's
architectural legacy, and more recently, harsh oppression by a military regime.
It has only recently opened up to the outside world after four decades of
isolation, and there has been much talk on whether one should visit Myanmar or
not. I don't intend this article to be a discussion of the politics of tourism in
Myanmar, although I recommend you research the matter before deciding to go.
Myanmar is a difficult place to get around. If you're trying to keep as many
of your tourist dollars away from the government as possible, Myanmar is a
very difficult place to get around. Roads are poor, and vehicles
depressingly unreliable. It's not unusual for a 10 hour bus ride to turn into an
18 hour nightmare because of four breakdowns along the way. It's therefore best
to be conservative in planning your itinerary. Al and I spent four weeks there in
June/July 2002, and comfortably managed to visit the highlights of the centre of
the country: Yangon (Rangoon), Mandalay, Shan State, Inle Lake, and Bagan. It's
worth noting that this time of year is the rainy season — Yangon is very wet, but
further north is much drier.
Most people fly into Yangon from Bangkok. You'll certainly want to spend some
time in this unique city, but I recommend that you keep it until last, and allow
a few days at the end of your trip to soak up its atmosphere. Our first stop, as
soon as we've worked out how to get there, is Mandalay.
For many, Mandalay typifies the romance of the Raj. In fact, it's quite a
modern city: founded in the mid 1800s, it was capital for only about 30 years
until the British took it in 1885. More recently, trade with China has become a
strong influence. The city is laid out on a grid system, and sprawls a long way
from the bottom of Mandalay hill, so getting around on foot is not really
practical. This isn't a worry, as Mandalay's army of trishaw drivers are never
Perhaps the first stop on any visit to Mandalay should be a walk up Mandalay
Hill. At 230m, the summit provides a fine view over the city and its surrounding
plain. Back in town, one of the best ways to get a feel for local life is to
visit the Zeigyo, or Central Market, a bustling area of crowded alleys
fairly close the main budget accommodation area. Some of the sights and smells
are not for the faint hearted, especially in the "fresh" meat section.
There are a number of attractions in the city, but unfortunately many carry
(relatively) hefty admission fees, of around US$5 per site. Mandalay fort is
certainly in impressive structure: the four walls of this huge square complex
each measure over a kilometre in length. However, the palace itself was a wooden
structure, and was completely destroyed by fire during World War II, so there's
not much to see from the inside. We decide to get out of the city, and head for
what are arguably Mandalay's real attractions: the royal cities of Amarapura,
Inwa, and Sagaing, and the massive Mingun Paya.
Amarapura is the location of the famous U Bein's bridge, a teak walkway (the
longest of its kind in the world) across Taungthaman lake. It has an atmosphere
all of its own, as the late afternoon light illuminates the locals wheeling their
bicycles home across the bridge. Nearby is Mahagandhayon Kyaung (monastery),
where if you visit in the morning, you'll find several hundred young monks eating
breakfast in silence.
Inwa was the royal capital (on and off) for 400 years, until it moved to
Amarapura in 1841. There's not a great deal to see, since most of the buildings
were either destroyed by a large earthquake in 1838, or salvaged for re-use
elsewhere. However, it's the transport that really makes this trip — horse drawn
carriages take you along the tree-lined tracks between the sights, our favourite
of which is Bagaya Kyaung, a beautiful teak monastery dating from the 1830s.
Sagaing, just across the Ayeyarwaddy river, was capital for a short while
before Inwa. These days it's primarily a religious centre, with a number of
monasteries, and fine examples of Buddhist architecture spanning the last four
Amarapura, Inwa, and Sagaing are all close to each other, and easily visited
in a day, especially if you find an enterprising local with a car! If you want to
explore Sagaing thoroughly (there's a lot there), there are places to stay in the
A visit to Mingun is a separate day, since it's further up the river and only
accessible by boat. The trip takes about an hour from Mandalay, and it's best to
go early in the morning, although you'll find the light can be harsh even by 9am.
If construction had finished, Mingun Paya (built by King Bodawpaya) would be the
world's largest zedi (or stupa — a religious monument.) However,
work stopped when the king died in 1819, and the 1838 quake caused significant
damage to the progress so far. Nonetheless, it's still 50m high, and 70m on each
Mandalay makes a convenient hub for travel to Shan state to the west, and
Bagan to the east. We make two separate trips into the highlands of Shan state,
the first to Pyin U Lwin and Hsipaw, and the second to Inle Lake. While it may
seem a roundabout route to go back through Mandalay in between, it's a lot easier
than travelling within Shan state itself. The trip from Mandalay to Inle Lake is
an arduous bus journey, especially when you're plagued by the ever-present
Pyin U Lwin is a welcome respite from the heat of the planes, as it lies 1000m
up in the Shan hills, which is why it became so popular with the British in the
late 19th century. Its main attraction is the beautiful botanical
garden, occupying over 200 acres just outside town. However, staying there can
also be half the fun — we stay at the Candacraig, a teak mansion built for
employees of the Bombay Burmah Trading Company in 1906. It's a real throwback to
the colonial era, and we have the entire place to ourselves. Another relic of the
British days are the horse-drawn enclosed carriages that are the town's taxis.
The combination of the two — drawing up to the gates in a candle-lit carriage at
night — takes you back 100 years. Pyin U Lwin is also home to a military training
academy — don't even think about photographing the many soldiers you see around
Hsipaw is a quiet town further along the road towards China. It has become
somewhat of a backpackers hangout, partly due to the cool climate and relaxed
atmosphere, and partly because of the town's fame as the home of one of the last
Shan Palaces. Built in the 1920s, it is remarkably reminiscent of an English
country home, and was the seat of the last sao pha (Shan prince) until his
arrest by the military regime in 1962, and subsequent disappearance. Twilight
over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess, a memoir by Inga Sargeant, who became
the sao pha's wife in the 1950s, makes interesting reading.
Another long and uncomfortable bus ride takes us back to Mandalay, where we
recover for a couple of days before the trip to Inle Lake. The town at the head
of the lake, Nyaungshwe, is the main base for trips onto the lake itself, via a
channel that runs through the town. There are plenty of boat owners who will
happily take you onto the lake for anywhere between a couple of hours and a day.
I also recommend paddling around the quieter channels for an hour or two,
visiting some of the kyaungs that lie a little way off the beaten
On the lake itself there are a number of attractions — the defining image of
the area is an Intha fisherman rowing with one leg as he looks over the lake at
sunset. There's also a monastery where the monks have taught cats to jump through
hoops (when asked why, one monk apparently responded "Because we were bored!") A
visit to one of the area's markets is an interesting trip across the lake — they
change location on a rotating schedule.
For many, Bagan is the highlight of a trip to Myanmar, or indeed Asia. More
than 2000 monuments, dating from between the 9th and 13th
centuries, cover an area of some 40 square kilometres in a bend of the
Ayeyarwaddy. What you're be able to see depends on how much time you have, but Al
and I spend three days there, and manage most of the major sites. It's easy to
hire bicycles to cover the ground, or even a guide and car.
Bagan is serviced by Myanmar's airlines from Mandalay and Yangon. The flight
from either is around an hour. If, like us, you're travelling by bus, it's an
all-day ride. The two accommodation centres are Nyaung U to the north, and New
Bagan to the south. We stay at the former, where we find plenty of good value
If you're visiting Bagan towards the end of your trip to Myanmar, you'd better
hope you've got plenty of film left! The light's obviously at its best at the
start and end of the day, when people gather at some of the taller monuments to
watch the sun rise/set over the Bagan skyline. In recent years, some of these
structures have been closed, ostensibly for conservation reasons, so your choice
of spot has become a little more limited. During the day, you'll find plenty of
detail in the magnificent pahtos (temples) and stupas to keep you
Our last stop on the trip is Yangon, where we spend a few days exploring
before we fly back to Bangkok. There's a huge difference between the two: while
Bangkok seems to be solidly in the fast lane, Yangon has a rather more relaxed
feel, combining faded colonial grandeur with gilded stupas. Unfortunately, when
we arrive, the rainy season is in full swing, and Yangon's decrepit drainage
system isn't really up to the task. Being ankle deep in rainwater isn't so bad,
but it's worrying if you happen to be in a taxi at the time.
The highlight of any trip to Yangon has to be Shwedagon Paya, the most sacred
Buddhist site in the country. The central gilded stupa rises 98m above the base,
and can be seen glittering in the distance from much of the city. Though it's a
pretty busy place, it still has a peaceful atmosphere.
There are many other payas around the city, and the markets are well
worth a visit, but you really get a feel for the place just by walking around the
streets in central Yangon, and joining the locals for a cup of tea in one of the
Film-wise, you'll want to bring it all with you. I've heard people saying that
the Burmese customs will only allow you to enter the country with a small amount
of film — we had about 40 rolls, and passed through customs without a hitch. Hand
checks were also provided without a problem.
You'll soon discover that the Burmese are a gracious people, and usually happy
to be the subject of your photography. It certainly helps to greet people with a
"Mingalaba!" and ask their permission first.