Myanmar: The Hidden Gem of Southeast Asia
There has never been a better time to visit Myanmar. With previously off-limit areas opening up to travelers and the traditional ways of Asian life enduring, a trip to Myanmar can feel like stepping into a time machine. The Western ways of life have yet to overwhelm these lands, with locals still dressing, traveling, and eating as they have for centuries, and most importantly, the laid-back pace of life allowing visitors to enjoy the simple pleasures.
From the dominating Shwedagon Paya to the astonishing array of sacred stupas scattered across Bagan, to the gravity-defying Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo, it is clear that you have entered a country where Buddhism dominates the public consciousness.
Explore nature and culture at Inle Lake, get lost in the country’s most famous city at Mandalay, beware of the Nats at Mount Popa, relax on the beach at Ngapali, discover ‘Bagan-lite’ at Mrauk U, and delve into the caves at Pindaya. Myanmar is a country to be savored and enjoyed, a Starbucks and McDonalds-free land where you can still feel like adventurers stumbling upon a new nation for the first time.
Although no longer the official capital of Myanmar, Yangon remains the country’s largest city and maintains the role of the most commercially significant city in the nation. Formerly known as Rangoon, the city’s infrastructure is considerably underdeveloped in comparison to other major cities in Southeast Asia. However, it boasts the highest number of colonial buildings in the region as well as the ‘winking wonder’ of Shwedagon Paya, a Buddhist temple that dominates the skyline. Yangon can also be considered the most exotic of all Southeast Asian cities – street signs are written in the local alphabet, monks wander the streets in burgundy robes, and the locals seem comfortable walking around barefoot.
The city was known as the ‘garden city of the East’ during the British occupation and maintains some wonderful green areas including the Zoological Gardens which date back to 1906, Mahabandoola Garden which houses the Independence Monument, People’s Park, and the largest lakes in the city, Inya Lake and Kandawgyi Lake. There is also a range of small to medium-sized museums and monuments throughout the city including Martyrs’ Mausoleum, National Museum, Aung San’s House, and Bahadur Shah Zafar Grave.
Bagan is seen by many as an equal to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. During the golden age of Buddhism, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries were built, of which approximately 2,200 remain today. The Ananda Temple is Bagan’s holiest temple, built in 1091 it houses four Buddhas facing the cardinal direction, representing the four Buddhas who have attained Nirvana. Shwesandaw Temple is known as ‘sunset temple’ due to the spectacular views of the Bagan sunset from the top levels. Take a hot-air balloon ride to have a bird’s eye view of these magnificent ancient ruins.
The former capital and second largest city in Myanmar, Mandalay is primarily used as a transport and day trip hub by tourists. The city itself may lack immediate beauty, however, hidden beyond the grid of lackluster concrete buildings lurk a host of beautiful churches, Indian temples, pagodas, and stunning mosques. Known for its cultural diversity, Mandalay and the surrounding areas play host to half of Myanmar’s monks, and there is plenty of cultural curiosity and fascination to be found in the variety of arts performances and craft shops throughout the city.
The main attraction in Mandalay is the Royal Palace, which is a walled city within the city. The palace contains several pavilions and chambers as well as a range of palace memorabilia such as religious paraphernalia, court dresses, furniture, armory, and other items.
Inle Lake is the largest lake in Myanmar after Indawgyi and is one of the highest with an elevation of 880 meters. The area around the lake is densely inhabited by numerous tribes, residing in stilt-house villages. The area is protected as the Inle Lake Bird Sanctuary with herons, warblers, wild ducks, and egrets among the birds inhabiting the lake and surrounding marshlands.
The lake is best explored by hiring a boat. Along with the pleasing scenery, you can also watch and know about Inle fishermen. If you’re lucky, you may have an opportunity to visit the floating market which runs five days a week in various locations around the lake and a stop at one of the restaurants is also a wonderful experience.