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Marveling in Myanmar

By Gena Reisner

I'm standing barefoot in the temple complex of Shwedagon, Myanmar’s (Burma) most mesmerizing sight. And I'm going through film at a great rate, because in a lifetime of exotic travel, I've never seen anything like this.

All around me are astonishing pagodas in different shapes -- some edged in gold, some covered in glittering mirror mosaic -- and at the center, a magnificent stupa covered in gold and tipped with diamonds. Everywhere, Burmese are worshipping or strolling gracefully by; the air is scented with incense.

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It's a dazzling scene, and one worth savoring and we're determined to soak it all in.

Over the next sixteen days, my friend Julie and I would see most of the highlights of the country: starting in the capital, Yangon, an hour's flight from Bangkok, and continuing on to Bagan, a boat trip along the Ayeyarwady River, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Pindaya and Golden Rock (Mt. Kyaikityo). Myanmar today is still one of most untouched places in the world, and we wanted to see as much of the country as possible before it changes, as places inevitably do.

On our second morning, we discover what will turn out to be our other favorite spot in Yangon -- the huge Scott Market (Bogyoke Aung San Market). Immediately, we're shopping madly: Burmese handicrafts are unique and the prices are all bargains. Most fascinating are the mysterious items at the stalls where the Burmese are shopping: my favorite is the tiny booth glittering with green foil headdresses, which are used as temple offerings. Hours later, we're dragging our purchases out the door, giddy with success. Back at the hotel, we spread out our loot for a second look: sequin tapestries and pillowcases, gilded marionettes, wood carvings, a painting, a blouse in local style and some local skirts (the ubiquitous longyi, worn by both men and women).

Then it's time to fly to Bagan -- a little-known archaeological gem that dates from around the turn of the last millennium (850 — 1300 AD). Over 2000 pagodas crowd an arid plain of only 42 square kilometers that was the ancient capital of Myanmar. We spend the day exploring the temples, barefoot over the rough stones -- shoes must be removed in all Burmese temples. The ubiquitous horse-and-buggies are a wonderful way to get around the sights. Near sunset, our guide takes us to one of the sunset temples. I gingerly climb the steep narrow steps to the top; my reward is a vista of ancient temples turning rosy in the sunset.

The next day, we're sailing slowly up the Ayeyarwady River to Mandalay, relaxing on deck and watching life along the river. Through my binoculars I can see a way of life that can't have changed much since Rudyard Kipling wrote about this trip nearly a century ago: yoked bullocks plowing fields, women bathing and doing their laundry, boatmen poling hand-hewn canoes, a raft of teak logs floating down from the North. There are several boats that ply the river, from the luxurious Orient-Express Road to Mandalay to the atmospheric RV Pandow, to an inexpensive daily tourist boat between Bagan and Mandalay that makes the trip in about eight hours.

After taking in the sights of Mandalay -- a carved teak monastery, dazzling main temple, view from Mandalay Hill -- we head to the food market to get a glimpse of real life. Here we're the only tourists. Drinking fresh coconut milk, we stop at every pile of vegetables and fruit, quizzing the merchant and our guide about the unusual produce.

The next day we're on the move again, flying to Heho Airport, a strange place where tour guides aren't allowed to meet their travelers. We struggle out of the terminal building, lugging the loot we've acquired, and find our car, driver and guide. We go immediately to the five-day market in Heho, where men in turbans and indigo skirts haggle for buffalo. Over the next three days, we're lucky enough to catch four of the five-day markets -- so-called because they're held every five days rather than once a week.

Over the mountains in Inle Lake, people live in stilt houses and cultivate floating gardens. Soon we're whizzing across the lake's surface in a long-tail boat (similar to the ones in Bangkok), and once again, madly snapping pictures. In the golden sunset light, one of Inle's famous leg-rowers is gliding by with balletic grace, one leg wrapped around his oar, leaving both hands free to pull in his fishing net.

After a whole day touring the lake -- the highlight, a monastery where the abbot has taught his cats to jump through hoops -- we're on the road again. It's a long trip back over the mountains to Pindaya, where a mammoth cave is filled with Buddha images. But the journey is sensational: we happen upon two festival processions, and jump out of the car to follow each one. At the end of the day, we stop by the side of the road to watch farmers drive their bullock carts home in the setting sun, while the young kids ride the water buffalo.

On final day with a visit to Golden Rock (Mt. Kyaikityo), a gilded boulder that balances mysteriously on the edge of a cliff balancing on a hair of the Buddha, assert the Burmese, who flock there on pilgrimage. Getting there isn't easy: it's a bone-jarring truck ride up a twisty mountain road just to get to the start of the trek, then a precipitous climb up a steep track to the top. After just one turn in the road, I'm delighted to scramble onto a litter hauled by four men and be carried, in grand style, up the mountain.

The scene on the mountain top is worth the rough trip: in the clear high air, crowds of the faithful light candles and incense, ring gongs, and press thin squares of gold onto the rock, which glows with the intensity of real gold. Barefoot in a Burmese holy place one last time, I wander the broad marble plaza and drink in the scene as deeply as I can. Burma has more than lived up to my expectations: exotic, surprising, spiritual and nearly untouched by western ways. Get there soon!

Gena Reisner is a writer living in New York City. Copyright 2000. Gena Reisner. All rights reserved.

Editor's Notes about Myanmar

GETTING THERE

Plane
Yangon has direct air-links with Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Moscow and Vientiane on Thai Airways, Myanmar Airlines and others.Overland
Special Border-Pass Permits are required to enter the country by land and there are entrance points from Yunnan, China and a few along the Thai border (outside of the dangerous Golden Triangle area). See the VISAS AND OTHER OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS for information.
GETTING AROUND

If you're on your own, there are tri-shaws and three-wheeled taxis in Yangon and Mandalay, and horse and buggies in Bagan. Private cars may also be hired. Tourist boats and long-tail boats ply the rivers and local minibuses offer a rough ride, with excess passengers hanging off the back.

It's also possible to travel throughout the country by train. Myanmar has a large rail network and Myanmar Railways operates many lines of which Yangon-Mandalay is the main with many trunk lines. Special counters are opened for tourists at Yangon, Thazi and Mandalay stations.

For a splurge, take the Orient-Express Road to Mandalay Cruise between Bagan and Mandalay.
Tel: 800-524-2420
www.orient-expresstrains.com

ATTRACTIONS

The main attractions are on the Yangon-Bagan-Mandalay-Inle Lake route.There are several side trips from the major sights that are accessible and worth seeing. There are also a few beach towns that can be visited. But bear in mind that just about anything else is severely restricted, and very difficult to get to.

LODGINGS

There are a number of hotels and guesthouses, ranging from expensive to cheap, in all the major tourist cities. Trader's Hotel, a modern 4-year-old property, has good rooms and an affordable restaurant, as well as guest laundromats. (see contact info at right).

For additional hotel listings, visit asiatravel.com

HAPPENINGS

In addition to the Pagoda Festivals, fun fairs held for each pagoda around the country, there are many other important religious holidays and festivals throughout the year.

Thingyan Water Festival--April
This traditional festival falls around 13th April and ushers to the Myanmar New Year.
The Kason Festival--May
The full moon of Kason (usually Early May) is a day of threefold significance--the day the Buddha was born, the day He attained Enlightenment and the day of His demise. Men and women of all ages go to pagodas in procession to pour water on the sacred Bo Tree.
The Waso Festival--July
Full moon day of Waso in July commemorates the Buddha's first sermon. It also marks the beginning of Buddhist Lent. New robes and other temporal requirements are offered to the monks in the pomp and pageantry. Young people also go out and gather flowers of the season to offer at the pagodas. Thadingyut Festival (Festival of Lights)--October
Held on the full moon day of Thadingyut in October, this festival marks the end of the Buddhist Lent. It lasts for three days during which houses and streets in cities and towns are brilliantly illuminated. Pagodas are also crowded with people doing meritorious deeds. Kynuk-se in Upper Myanmar, situated some 26 miles to the south of Mandalay, is noted for the elephant dance which is performed at this festival. But the elephant dance has become one of the highlights in many auspicious celebrations throughout the country. Phaungdaw Oo Pagoda Festival--October
The festival of Phaungdaw Oo Pagoda in Inle Lake in the Shan State held in October is the biggest occasion of the Lake. The images of the Buddha from Phaungdaw Oo Pagoda are placed on a decorated royal barge and taken around the Lake, stopping at villages for people to pay homage. Fun fairs, boat races and dances are also held.

Tazaungdaing Festival–mid-November
This festival is held on the full moon day of Tazaungmon according to the Myanmar Calendar (mid-November). Houses and public buildings are colourfully illuminated everywhere. Specially woven robes are offered to the great images of Buddha.

SHOPPING

Shopping is fabulous and cheap. Bargaining is customary. Scott’s Market in Yangon is a treasure trove. Buy lacquerware in Bagan, sequin tapestries in Mandalay, local crafts like hand-woven shoulder bags at the 5-day markets in the Inle Lake region. Rubies are plentiful and inexpensive; buy them at licensed stores only.

Several local markets offer imported goods, as well, but they are somewhat expensive, by
Southeast Asian standards.

WEATHER

It's best to travel during the dry season, November through February.


HEALTH & SAFETY

The usual Southeast Asia health precautions apply, including the need for a malaria prophylactic. See cdc.gov/travel/index.htm. Do not drink or brush your teeth with the water; cheap, clean bottled water is available everywhere and is generally supplied in hotel rooms. Eat only fully-cooked meals or pealed fruits and vegetables. Bring along medicine to treat digestive upsets.

For more information on the political situation in Myanmar, see the US State Department Consular Sheet at travel.state.gov. There are no warnings or watches for Myanmar, which is considered a safe place to travel.

VISAS AND OTHER OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS

All travelers need a visa to enter Myanmar, which is valid for a 28-day stay and costs $18.
If you're booking with a tour operator, they will either obtain the visa for you or refer you to a visa company; your visa will be good for entry for three months after issue. If you're not traveling with a tour operator, your visa is good for entry for one month after issue.You can get a visa in Bangkok, if you are planning to travel elsewhere in Southeast Asia before arriving in Myanmar.With a Border Pass, you can enter overland from Yunnan, China, and can enter Lwage, Namhkan, Muse, Kyukokand Kun-lone. Organised groups can travel up to Yangon via Lashio and Mandalay. These change frequently, so do your homework before you go.On the Myanmar-Thai border, tourists with Border Passes can enter from Mae Sai (Thailand) and travel to Kyaing Tong. From Kyaing Tong, organised groups can go to Sipxhaungbana (Yunnan) via Mai-Lar. Day Return Cross-border traffic is also allowed at Ayeyawaddy, Three-Pagoda Pass and Kawthaung.

Since these entry requirements are subject to change, be sure to obtain the most up-to-date information by calling the Embassy of the Union of Myanmar, or the Permanent Mission of Myanmar to the U.N. (See Resources)

MONEY

All independent travelers are obligated to exchange $200 into FECs (Foreign Exchange Certificates) upon entry, either in the form of cash, travelers checks or credit card. Hotel bills and airplane/train tickets must be settled in FECs; you can also use credit cards and travelers checks in major hotels in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan.
US dollars are readily accepted for handicrafts; take along lots of $1's, $5's, $10's and $20's, all in crisp new bills. The local currency, the kyat (pronounced "chat"), is exchanged on the black-market only (It’s illegal to exchange dollars, but not FECs) and is useful if you are not staying in "approved" accommodations. If you are using FECs, you can often get a better rate on the black market, too.

You will be required to pay a US $10 exit fee when you leave the country. Make sure you have the cash.

COMMUNICATIONS

The Yangon Central Post Office is located at 39, Bo Aung Kyaw Street. All post offices in Myanmar are open 9:30 am. to 4:30 pm., Monday through Friday. Mail Boxes at most hotels and postage stamps are available at reception counters. Overseas calls can be made through operators at the hotels and Central Telegraph Office. IDD telephones are also available, but only at some Government Offices, companies, and hotels.Public telephones are available at the airports, railway stations and department stores. It costs about $7/minute to call the US from Myanmar and vice versa, and e-mail communication is uncertain.

RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL TO MYANMARSince the takeover in 1988, civil wars, the drug trade, persecution of democracy leaders (including elected leader and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Aung San Suu Kyi) and other internal tensions have made travel to Myanmar difficult, but not impossible. Many travelers have also opted not to visit the country to protest the current regime’s oppressive policies.There are still severe restrictions on where and when foreigners–especially independent travelers--may travel, and there are still issues that responsible travelers must consider. The good news is that Suu Kyi was freed in Spring 2002, so this is likely to be good news for political stability in the years to come. Many Western aid agencies, pro-democracy movements and representatives in Myanmar, including Aung San Suu Kyi, express the desire that travelers not support the current regime. If you do plan to travel to Myanmar and are concerned about supporting the current government, there are a few responsible travel guidelines you can follow.

  • If possible, avoid staying in government-owned hotels. Instead choose private, locally owned hotels and guesthouses.If possible, don't use tours or transportation controlled by the MTT (The Mandalay Express train and the Mandalay-Bagan tourist boat). Use independent and local guides, ordinary public transport or private vehicles, etc.
  • Buy handicrafts directly from the artisans rather than from government shops

Fore more information on Responsible Travel, see The GoNOMAD MINI GUIDE TO
RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL

For more information on ethical travel dilemmas, see also GoNOMAD MINI GUIDE
to OFF-LIMITS COUNTRIES

RESOURCES

Myanmar government website
myanmar.com

asiatour.comasiatravel.com

Embassy of the Union of Myanmar
2300 S Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
Tel: 202-332-9044/6

Permanent Mission of Myanmar to the U.N.
10 East 77th St.
New York, N.Y. 10021
Tel: 212-535-1311

 

 


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