Highlights of Myanmar
Yangon is the gateway to Myanmar and is unlike any other Asian city today. Despite a new dawn in Myanmar welcoming a new government and encouraging foreign investment, the city has retained the charm and beauty of its colonial past whilst still providing a modern infrastructure of hotels and tourist facilities. The cobbled streets, sleepy tree-lined avenues and crumbling, moss covered buildings hark back to a bygone era of Kipling and crumpets. Yet today, visitors can immerse themselves in the chaotic street-life, thriving markets, charming tea shops or just wander round the bustling capital, in what remains an incredibly safe city. At the very heart of Yangon lies the Shwedagon Pagoda. Rising above the city, this golden marvel is visible at almost every turn. Evergreen and cool with lush tropical tree-lined avenues, shady parks and beautiful lakes, it is no surprise that Yangon has earned the name of the "Garden City of the East".
"For the wind is in the palm trees, and the temple-bells they say: Come you back, you British soldier;come you back to Mandalay." 'The Road to Mandalay', Rudyard Kipling.
Mandalay was the last royal capital of the Burmese kingdom. Geographically and culturally at the core of the country, the city was established by King Mindon as a new centre for the study of Buddhism, and today remains the spiritual artery of a devoutly religious nation. Mandalay is home to more than half of the total population of monks in Myanmar. The former royal capital is itself only 150 years old, but its poetic and lyrical name, immortalised in numerous books and poems, conjures up childhood images of the romance and mysticism of the Orient. The busy, dusty streets, full of rickshaws, old motorbikes and bicycles are bustling with activity and trade, exuding a distinctly commercial atmosphere to the city. To the devoutly Buddhist Burmese, Mandalay is the city that truly reflects their soul. On its doorstep, the mighty Irrawaddy meanders languidly past. On the far reaches of its banks, perched atop a small hillock is the ancient, whitewashed city of Sagaing, the former capital of the once independent Shan kingdom. Just south of Mandalay is another former royal capital, Amarapura, which translates to "city of immortality".
Known as the city of four million pagodas, Bagan (or Pagan as it used to be called) is the cradle of Myanmar civilisation, the first capital of the once mighty Bamar kingdom. Although Bagan's early history is shrouded in mystery, chronicles recount that the city grew out of 19 villages. The city's "Golden Era" was between 1044 and 1287 during which time thirteen kings left their signature on the area in the form of temples, pagodas, palaces and the introduction of Theravada Buddhism to the region and ultimately the country. As with most ancient civilisations, when the end came it came abruptly with the brutal sacking of the city by Genghis Khan's grandson, the enigmatic Kublai Khan. Its history unsure, all that is certain is that Bagan is a sight to behold. Unlike its more illustrious cousin, Angkor Wat, Bagan receives very little in the way of visitors making a visit to this ancient wonder doubly special.
Inle Lake is a gem. One of those places you do not want to tell a soul about in order to maintain its charm and character, but you just can't help yourself. It is a magical, enchanting place set in the hills of the southern Shan state in the east of Myanmar, near the border with China, Laos and Thailand. High hills flank the lake on both sides of the shore. The lakeside and islands are littered with villages on stilts, inhabited mostly by the industrious Intha people. There are also over one hundred monasteries and a thousand pagodas scattered along the shoreline. Crystalline waters, lush green hills, deep, cloudless skies and a calming and serene lake inhabited by a jovial and welcoming people are the perfect ingredients for an idyllic destination. The gentle and melodic way of life on the lake cannot but relax you, whether you are bobbing along in a dug out canoe visiting one of the numerous floating gardens or markets, observing the fishermen with their unique fishing style or simply unwinding on the verandah of your hotel enjoying a timeless scene illuminated by a mesmeric sunset. It promises to be an unforgettably peaceful retreat from the hectic pace of modern day life.
Situated in western Myanmar near the border with Bangladesh is the ancient Buddhist city of Mrauk Oo. It served as a capital city of the Rakhine state from 1430 to 1784. At its peak it was a vast and powerful city with trading links as far a field as Portugal, Spain, Holland and the Middle East. With its perfect hills, ancient temples and pagodas, working farms and meandering river, Mrauk Oo is a picture perfect destination. Mrauk Oo itself is the 'new Bagan'. Nowhere near as spectacular but far more secluded and very few tourists indeed. There are many Temples, Pagodas and Palace ruins to be visited scattered around the surrounding countryside. There are a few Chin tribal villages up north on Lemro River. The journey takes you up into the Chin hills, along a beautiful, crystal clear river and past countless small villages, fisherman working the river, farmers farming the fertile soil and bamboo sellers floating on their asset down stream to Sittwe. Here you will see a typical Chin hill village and the old ladies with the tattooed faces. This tradition is dying as the younger girls of the Chin tribes opt not to tattoo their faces.
Due to its geographic proximity to both Laos and Thailand the area has more cultural affiliation with its two neighbors than it does with the rest of Myanmar. Although the town sits midway between both the Thanlwin River in Myanmar and the Mekong on the Thai, Laos and Myanmar border, there is a mountain range cutting off Keng Tung with the rest of the country thus enhancing the towns both cultural and historical links with the Thais and Laotians. Keng Tung is a small, sleepy little backwater town tucked away in the far east of the Shan state. The town is in the vicinity of the infamous area known as The Golden Triangle, once famed for its opium production and smuggling. The quiet town is situated in a valley and surrounds a picturesque lake. The adjacent countryside is home to numerous ethnic minorities and hill tribes living today as they have done for centuries. It is situated at 1200 meters above sea level in the semi tropical hills of the eastern Shan state. For people keen on walks or seeing an area of South East Asia and Hill tribes, Keng Tung offers a truly unspoiled glimpse at an area forgotten by the rest of the world.