Myanmar: A pocket guide

Sunset in U Bein bridge, Myanmar

Myanmar is home to 51 million people belonging to over 130 ethnic groups, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim. The Burmese are known for their friendliness and openness toward visitors, and their immense courtesy. What strikes the first-time visitor is the unique atmosphere of spirituality and quiet and absence of materialism, of people striving to create good karma. Myanmar is catching up fast with the rest of the world, but one hopes they will never lose this.

Deep Cultural Roots

Although its history dates back more than 2,000 years, the golden age of Myanmar was the eleventh century, with the spread of  Burmese culture and Theravada Buddhism. Kingdoms rose and fell, the Mongols came and went. In the nineteenth century, Burma became a British colony for 68 years, and an independent nation in 1948, and now a democratic one.

Myanmar is shaped like a kite. In the far north rise the Himalayas, snowy peaks and rivers, and Tibetan influence. To the northwest along the border with India are the remote hills and jungles of the wild Naga tribes, largely inaccessible and undiscovered. The tribes meet once a year for the Naga Festival, a highlight of a Myanmar tour for adventurous visitors. To the west, near the border of Bangladesh, is Mrauk U, a little known temple complex for connoisseurs.  Further down along the coast on the bay of Bengal is Ngapali, possibly the most beautiful beach in Southeast Asia.

Incredible Nature & Heritage

In the center lie the hot flat plains of Mandalay, home to Myanmar’s craft culture and woodcarving, puppets, marionettes, and gilding. Mandalay is the starting point for a visit to Amarapura and the famous U-Bein-bridge, the largest teak bridge in the world. Lake Inle is one of Myanmar’s most beautiful sights, a true pearl, with its floating villages, shining pagodas, and picturesque fishermen.  Silverware and lotus-silk weaving are still practiced in small craft centers visited by longtail boat. On the other side of the hills is Kalaw, a colonial hill station and center for hiking and tribal visits.

Bagan lies on the banks of the Irrawaddy and the best way to view its breathtaking landscape of pagodas, spires, rivers, and dusty village scenes is by hot air balloon. Buy some beautiful lacquerware to take home.

Discovering the Capital

Yangon’s highlights are the old colonial era buildings downtown, the Yangon River, and the famous Scott Market, which with its hundreds of handicraft stalls as well as regular food vendors offers an overview of all that Myanmar has to offer and then some. The golden temple of the Shwedagon, 99 meters high and topped with a 76-carat diamond, is a must; thousands of visitors light the candles around the stupa’s lower perimeter, families celebrate and pray, and the atmosphere all around the pagoda takes on a very special character.

Another highlight is the Golden Rock (Kyaikhtiyo). Said to be held in place by a hair from Buddha, the Golden Rock is one of the iconic symbols of Myanmar. Experiencing the sun setting over the mountainous landscape and making the Golden Rock glow is a reward for those who climb up!

Untouched Beaches

In the far south, in the Andaman Sea, are the 800 or so islands that make up the Mergui chain, mostly uninhabited and pristine with abundant fish and reefs. A cruise down through these is an experience never to be forgotten.

It is worth timing a trip to coincide with some of the splendid festivals that take place throughout the year; the Festival of Boats and the Festival of Balloons are the most spectacular. Once visited, Myanmar will stay in your heart forever.