OFF-limits for years, Myanmar can now be freely visited.
In recent years, conveniences such as mobile phone coverage, internet access and internationally linked ATMs have all improved or made their debut.
Relaxing of censorship has led to an explosion of new media and an astonishing openness in public discussions of once-taboo topics, including politics.
A WORLD APART
“This is Burma,” wrote Rudyard Kipling. “It is quite unlike any place you know about.”
More than a century later, Myanmar retains the power to surprise and delight even the most jaded of travellers. Be dazzled by the “winking wonder” of Shwedagon Paya.
Contemplate the 4000 sacred stupas scattered across the plains of Bagan. Stare in disbelief at the Golden Rock at Mt Kyaiktiyo, teetering on the edge of a chasm. These are all important Buddhist sights in a country where pious monks are more revered than rock stars.
In a nation with more than 100 ethnic groups, exploring Myanmar can often feel like you’ve stumbled into a living edition of National Geographic, circa 1910. The country, for instance, has yet to be overwhelmed by Western fashion – everywhere you’ll encounter men wearing skirt-like longyi, women smothered in thanakha (traditional make-up) and betel-chewing grannies with mouths full of blood-red juice. People still get around in trishaws and, in rural areas, horse and cart. Drinking tea, a British colonial affectation, is practised in thousands of traditional teahouses.
The pace of change is not overwhelming, leaving the simple pleasures of travel in Myanmar intact. You can still drift down the Irrawaddy River in an old river steamer, stake out a slice of beach on the blissful Bay of Bengal, or trek through forests to minority villages scattered across the Shan Hills without jostling with scores of fellow travellers.
Best of all you’ll encounter locals who are gentle, engaging, humorous, considerate, inquisitive and passionate.
MYANMAR’S TOP FIVE
1. Shwedagon Paya
Visible from almost anywhere in Yangon, this is one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites. The 99m zedi (bell-shaped monument), adorned with 27 tonnes of gold leaf and thousands of diamonds and other gems, is believed to enshrine eight hairs of Gautama Buddha as well as relics of three former buddhas.
Four long, graceful entrance stairways lead to the main terrace which, depending on the time of day you visit, can be quiet and contemplative or bustling and raucous.
2. Inle Lake
Inle Lake is 22km long and 11km wide, but up close it’s hard to tell where the water finishes and the marshes start. Most of the time, the lake’s surface resembles a vast silver sheet, interspersed with stilt-house villages, island-bound Buddhist temples and floating gardens.
Commuter and tourist motorboats and flat-bottomed skiffs navigate this watery world, adding to the aura.
Despite centuries of neglect, looting, erosion and earthquakes, temple-studded Bagan remains a remarkably impressive and unforgettable vision. In a 230-year building frenzy up until 1287 and the Mongol invasions, Bagan’s kings commissioned more than 4000 Buddhist temples. These brick and stucco structures are all that remain of their grand city. Many restoration projects have resulted in an archeological site that can barely be described as ruins.
4. Mrauk U
Myanmar’s second most-famous archeological site, Mrauk U (pronounced “mraw-oo”) is different from Bagan in just about every way. The temples are smaller and younger and, unlike Bagan’s, are predominantly made from stone, not brick. Also unlike Bagan, Mrauk U’s temples are dispersed throughout a still-inhabited and fecund backdrop of busy villages, rice fields and rounded hillocks. And you’re likely to have them to yourself – in a good year, only about 5000 foreign visitors visit.
Founded as a hill station by British civil servants fleeing the heat of the plains, Kalaw still feels like a high-altitude holiday resort. The air is cool, the atmosphere is calm, the streets are leafy and green, and the surrounding hills are the only place in Myanmar where travellers can trek overnight without prior permission.
These days, getting a visa is relatively simple. The key things to know are:
– Everyone requires a visa to visit Myanmar.
– Start the process no later than three weeks before your trip, a month before to be safe.
– If you’re crossing the land border to enter the country, you will need to have your visa already in your passport.
We cannot stress enough the need to bring pristine “new” US dollar bills to Myanmar – that means 2006 or later bills that have colour and are in absolutely perfect condition: no folds, stamps, stains, writing marks or tears. Anything else may be rejected when you come to pay. While $US100 bills get the best exchange rates, it’s also a good idea to bring lots of small dollar bills.
– A tax of at least 10 per cent goes to the government no matter where you stay.
– Stick with budget family-run guesthouses and mini-hotels, if you prefer the bulk of your money to go to local enterprises and people.
– Flights: Fast; reasonably reliable schedules, but government or crony-owned businesses.
– Bus: Frequent; reliable services and generally privately owned; overnight trips save on accommodation.
– Car: Total flexibility but can be expensive; some destinations will need a government-approved guide and driver.
– Boat: Chance to interact with locals; pleasant sightseeing but only covers certain destinations.
– Train: More interaction with locals and countryside views but also uncomfortable, slow and frequently delayed.
Check Travel Advisories: smarttraveller.gov.au
This is an edited extract from Lonely Planet Myanmar (Myanmar) (12th Edition) by Simon Richmond, et al. © Lonely Planet 2014. Published this month, RRP: $37.99.
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