a budget travellers guide to myanmar
Whether we call it Burma, or Myanmar, what we will be talking about is the legendary kingdom of Bagan, the cradle of the present nation and a cultural milestone in Southeast Asia.
This is a wondrous place, privileged with a geography of forests, lakes and forests that cover more than half of the territory; of a beautiful country that treasures artistic and monumental jewels; of a rich ethnic diversity, a place that preserves ancestral ways of life and trades. For that reason, Myanmar seduces even the sternest and shrewdest of travellers of Asia.
At last it seems that Myanmar (or Burma), walks resolutely on the path of democracy, and the everlasting smile and gracious kindness of its inhabitants, look wider and more sincere than ever.
Let's celebrate visiting the country by giving some valuable tips, advice and then some of the best places to go for any discerning backpacker.
Myanmar (Burma) is a republic of South Asia located between the Tibet Plateau and the Malay Peninsula and has a glittering coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. In a word, it is a magical part of the world, and one that simply demands exploration. Myanmar has two international airports, Yangon and (less operational) Mandalay. Passengers from Europe and America can connect to the above airports via Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Doha.
Myanmar has a tropical climate in which three seasons are roughly distinguished: from November to February, you’ll find the temperature is fairly mild and dry; from March to May, it’s time to reach for the sunglasses, as there are high temperatures throughout the country; from June to October, you’ll have to have waterproofs as the ready, due to the long and intense rains. However it is these months that attract many visitors and normally the weather does not affect the normal course of the trip. For enthusiastic backpackers, it becomes part of the fun – and people adapt pretty quickly to the sudden changes in weather. It’s important to note too, that hotel rates from October to March are the most expensive.
WALK THE PATH TO YANGON (RANGÚN):
Located in the south of the country and very close to the Andaman Sea, Yangon houses about six million souls, although it is much less frenetic and congested than other Asian metropolises of similar population. A mix of Burmese, British, Chinese and Indian colonial elements, Yangon is one of the most picturesque cities in Southeast Asia.
The Shwedagon pagoda is one of the most impressive and awe-inspiring monuments in the country and one of the main places of devotion in the Buddhist world. If you are touring the region, then this is one spectacle that must not be missed.
VISIT THE WONDROUS LAKE INLE:
A utopian and timeless world inhabited by the amphibious Intha, "the children of the lake", villages, temples, orchards and markets, all float on the lake. If you seek the extreme communion between human and natural environment, then this is a true example of a sustainable way of life. The iconic images of the fishing art of the Intha are among the most widespread in the country.
DELIGHT IN THE MAJESTY OF BAGAN:
This splendid valley full of monuments is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular cultural landscapes in Asia: an archaeological and monumental park of 42 square kilometres whose visit could easily justify the only trip to Myanmar.
Nestled in this fantastical region are preserved a thousand temples, pagodas and stupas raised between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. Despite the outrages perpetrated by the military government of Myanmar, the place still has all it’s magic, and will quickly spellbind anyone lucky enough to stumble upon its well worn paths.
CLIMB THE STAIRS OF MOUNT POPA:
Mount Popa, 60km from Bagan, can be visited on a day trip from Bagan. It is a cliff of volcanic origin crowned by a Buddhist monastery, pagodas and centres of worship to which it ascends through a staircase of 777 steps. Tough going, but well worth it for the views and photographic opportunities!
SURROUND YOURSELF IN THE RICH HISTORY OF MANDALAY:
The most Burmese city in Myanmar, It was the capital before the conquest of the country by the British and is today the second city of the country. From here you can embark on one of the fascinating cruises through the Irawadi, and also easily accessible are the fascinating tours of Amarapura, Ava and Sagaing, historical capitals of the Burmese kingdom.
EXPLORE THE TEMPLES AND CAVES OF MONYWA:
136 km west of Mandalay on the route to Bagan lay Monywa. It stands out for the Thambottay pagoda, a set of Buddhist temples with a central stupa that resembles that of Borobudur in Indonesia and is surrounded by more than 800 smaller ones. Pretty spectacular, to put it mildly. In nearby Hpo Win, you can visit almost a thousand of sandstone caves carved and decorated with images, paintings and sculptures of Buddhist tradition.
TREK THE KEN TUNG PARADISE:
Located in Shan State, east of the country and near the triple border with China, Laos and Thailand, you’ll find the marvellous Ken Tung. Visiting Ken Tung allows you to discover a region of enormous ethnic richness where trekking and experiential tourism activities take place in an almost untouched natural environment.
One of the best things about Myanmar is that much of its territory is still to be discovered. Many areas of the country, closed to tourism for decades, are still a blank map where increasingly new routes and great natural, monumental or cultural landmarks are beginning to be identified.
Time will continue to open and make them safer. To give an example, there is another Bagan in Rakhine State, to the west, not far from the border with Bangladesh. It is Mrauk U, ancient capital of the Kingdom of Arakan, with hundreds of temples among leafy hills, and of which it is said to visit no more than 5000 people a year (if we divide it between days of the year that comes to an average of 13 visitors per working day).
It is curious that a country of Southeast Asia with almost 2000 kilometres of coastline does not attract more talk about its beaches. Ngapali is Burma's Phuket (saving distances because it does not have 1% of the same tourists or infrastructures) but many people do not know that there are countless islands of paradisiacal islands and abundant white sand beaches still wild.
Take for example the archipelago of Mergui, where there exceeds 800 islands, mostly uninhabited. And that’s not even speaking of the Andaman Sea, the same that bathes Thailand further south - so it is impossible to really get the idea of the number of postcard beaches and possibilities of diving or snorkelling in that area.
The best experience you can have in Myanmar is to mingle with the people. Within a few hours of arriving in the country it is easy to see that they are the best treasure of the country, far above the beautiful temples of Bagan or the great Shwedagon Pagoda. The people of Myanmar are the raison d'être of travellers who discover a destination that still retains that purity not too easy to see in other countries of the world.