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Burma: An ancient land waiting to be re-discovered

Updated on June 7, 2016

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The Most Interesting Places

I know this is a provocative subtitle, as views will certainly differ as to what are the most interesting places to visit. These are just my personal preferences.

We began in the south in Yangon, moved north to Mandalay, took a cruise down the Irrawady to Bagan in the west and then moved east to Inle, finally returning to Yangon on our way back. We spent a total of ten nights, spending two nights in five locations.

Though all of the locations were well worth the visit (and I wouldn't have missed any of them) our special favourites were the river cruise, a spectacular balloon ride over the the hundreds of pagodas on the Bagan plains, and the view of life on Inle lake, more on each of them later.

The Shwedagon

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Yangon

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Yangon

However many pictures one may have seen before, nothing really prepares you for the first sight of the golden Shwedagon pagoda, dominating the city and defining the country like the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal.

My first, somewhat quaint observation as we drove into the city was that though the country drove on the right, most of the cars on the road were also right hand drives! When I enquired into this peculiarity, I was told that the country mainly imports pre-used cars from Japan, and Japan of course drives on the left and uses right hand drive cars.

Being a citizen of a commonwealth country my next question to our very knowledgeable guide was how come the country drove on the right while every other country with a British connection drove on the left. The answer was that initially, following independence from the British, the country did drive on the left but this was subsequently changed to erase any history of colonialism.

We stayed in a lovely old 30 room hotel called the Savoy, a restored colonial mansion, the rooms, bathrooms and public areas glistening with lovingly maintained old teak. The atmosphere was cosy, the service professional and unobtrusive. The hotel also has an atmospheric bar called the the Captain's Bar. Another quirky feature, all the old and heritage bars in Yangon, like the Strand Bar (a must visit) and the Captain's, allow smoking inside as a continuing tradition from the past. The guest is suitably warned when entering, and the smoke filled interiors can be fun if you are in the mood for it, but can only be taken in short doses.

Back to the Shwedagon. Since this is so extensively covered in every guidebook, I am not going to spend too much time on it, except to say no description of this place, especially at sunset, can be exaggerated. The place is clean and well maintained, considering it is the most visited spot in the country, and there is a lift if you are averse to climbing the many steps.

We also took a short journey on the circle train, the principal mass transit for the city. This gives you a great glimpse of local life and takes you off the beaten track for tourists. One must also make a quick visit to the tea shops to get another perspective on the day to day life of the city.

My wife also bought some Burmese jade (though not the very expensive variety) in the Scotts Market, another place which I understand is well worth a visit (though I did not go there myself).

The U Bein Teak Bridge

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The Old Palace in Mandalay

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Mandalay

Mandalay is much older than Yangon, was the capital of Burma before the arrival of the British,and perhaps made most famous by Rudyard Kipling. On our first day in Mandalay, we set of directly for the old capitals of Ava and Amarapura.

Our first stop was Ava, the capital of the old kingdom from the 14th to the 19th centuries. We took a shuttle boat to cross the Ava river and took a pony trap! Very touristy but possibly the best way to explore this wonderfully atmospheric old city. Set in a dry and arid landscape with the countryside dotted with crumbling zedi and other remnants of the city's imperial past. a highlight was the teak monastery of Bagaya Kyaung which is supported by hundreds of teak posts.

We carried on to Amarapura, the successor capital to Ava and the capital of the kingdom till the new capital was constructed nearby in Mandalay in the second half of the 19th century. The most impressive sight in Amarapura is the U Bein teak bridge, at over a kilometer long, it is an amazing piece of architecture. We boarded boats to take us onto the Lake (which the bridge spans) to get a great view of the bridge. It was dusk, and with sun setting beyond the long wooden bridge, teeming with pedestrian traffic, it was a surreal and beautiful experience. Definitely not to be missed.

The next day we explored Mandalay, where the railway bazaar was a fun experience. It is a street market selling vegetables and local produce on both sides of and on the railway tracks. As soon as a train is sighted (moving very slowly) the vendors move their baskets and stalls away from the tracks, and as soon as the train goes by everything moves back into place. A different set of health and safety rules here!

Another amazing sight was the Mahamuni temple, where we could see devotees coating the huge Buddha statue with pure gold leaf.

Cruising the Irrawady

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Young Nuns

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Villages on the Irrawady

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The Irrawaddy Cruise; from Royal Mandalay to Ancient Bagan

We cruised on the RV Paukan, an old teak ship now completely modernised, with 16 cabins on two decks. Comfortable and cosy, with glistening old teak all around you it was the perfect way to relax for two days as we sailed placidly down this great river, with rural life unfolding in front of us as we relaxed on the sun deck. We soon got to know most of the guests, especially during meal times. The boat stopped several times for shore excursions, we took some but were too lazy to get off for some. One quaint excursion was to the village of Yandabo, which specialises in pot making.

On the first night the boat moored on a sandbank and a cultural performance was organised on the sand bank by local artists showcasing the music and dance forms of that part of Burma. Watching the performance from the deck, with the makeshift stage lit up with flaming torches, while all around was the pitch darkness of rural Burma was a surreal experience.

But for me the best part of the cruise was the broad, placid river itself. Wth it's shifting sandbanks and constantly changing course, the riverbanks populated with an unending stream of villages thriving on the rich farmland on both sides, running from the Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south, it was at once apparent why this great river was so important to the life and ethos of this country.

Ballooning over the Bagan Plains

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Magnificent Bagan from the Balloon

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Mount Popa

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Bagan

I have to begin by talking about the Bagan Thande Hotel, where we stayed. Located in old Bagan (the other hotels are all located in new Bagan), with Bagan's wonderful pagodas all around you, the hotel was built in 1922 for the visit of the Prince of Wales at the height of the empire. The hotel itself is cosy though a bit faded. But the best aspect were the riverside rooms which looked out on the river, which flowed behind the strip of farmland adjoining our rooms. Coming here after spending two days on the river was to continue our communion with the Irrawaddy, what we had seen from the water earlier we were now experiencing from the shore.

Bagan is justifiably a world heritage site. Sprinkled across a huge plain are hundreds of pagodas, creating an unforgettable landscape, and the best way to see it was to literally through a bird's eye view. We took off on board one of the several balloons operated by Oriental Ballooning, the giant balloon rising up into a clear sky just as the sun was beginning to rise. We then glided across this incredible plain, with its hundreds of pagodas stretching out below us, some where in the middle of a convoy of some thirty odd balloons. I am running out of adjectives, but around us in the air, surrounded by the giant balloons and the pagodas sparkling below us, it was a wondrous sight, without doubt the most important highlight of our Burma visit.

Back on the ground again, we visited several of the individual pagodas. Two deserve special mention, the Ananda and the Shwezigon. The Ananda is a beautiful gem, now being lovingly restored over several years by the Indian government. The pagoda was originally constructed hundreds of years ago by master craftsmen from India invited by the ruling king of Burma.

Contrasting with the beautiful simplicity of the Ananda was the Shwezigon, its huge dome covered in gold leaf, ornate and perfectly proportioned, another spectacular monument.

The next day we drove out to Mount Popa. On the way we stopped at a local village and sampled some freshly brewed toddy. Mount Popa is a sheer outcrop of rock rising vertically for several hundred feet with an ornate pagoda sitting on the top with it's shining golden dome. Since we did not want to climb to the top by braving the 818 steps we retreated to the Popa mountain resort, another hill which is a little higher than Mount Popa with a hilltop resort hotel. We had lunch sitting on the open balcony with the Mount Popa pagoda glistening across from us.

The Bagan region is also famous for traditional Burmese laquerware, and we picked up some interesting old as well as new pieces.

Inle's One Legged Rower

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The Inle Princess Resort

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Market Day on Inle Lake

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The Irrawady from our Room at Bagan

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Inle Lake

The next day we flew to Heho to explore the Inle lake area. Located in eastern Burma, this is the home of the Shan tribe, a people with their own cultural traditions. On the ride out from the airport we stopped at the Red Mountain vineyard for some wine tasting and lunch. Burmese wine is of recent vintage but seems destined for a good future. Looking out over the vineyard from the al fresco reataurant was a landscape quite different from elsewhere in the country and a little unreal, shades of Tuscany in an oriental setting!

We were booked at the Inle Princess Resort. For the final stretch we boarded row boats. It was quite an experience. There was a single rower standing at the bow with the passengers sitting on chairs in a row behind him in the narrow boat. The rower rowed by using his hands as well as by winding the oar around his feet, have never seen anything like it. The Inle Princess Resort was quite spectacular. Our large lake side chalets were perched above the water on stilts and as we relaxed on recliners on the wide deck with the wildlife of the wetlands swimming and flying around us, and the sun going down, it felt as if the whole world was at peace.

The Inle lake area is unusual because the entire local community lives and make their living from the lake which stretches for miles in all directions as far as we can see. Besides fishing, the community has created floating farms with all kinds of vegetables and fruits growing on them. The entire community lives in shacks perched on stilts above the water, all the restaurants and shops selling locally woven silk and cotton textiles are also similarly perched on stilts.

The Inle area also gave us a taste of Shan tribal culture and life, very different from the mainstream of Burmese life, and in a sense rounded off our visit. The Inle Princess was an outstanding resort, comfortable, quaint, with great cuisine and superb service.

And so to the end!

Thus ended a ten day visit to a remarkable country on the cusp of change, and we came away with a lifetime of memories.

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