Myanmar (Burma)


Myanmar (Burma) destinations

about It's a new era for this extraordinary and complex land, where the landscape is scattered with gilded pagodas and the traditional ways of Asia endure.

Golden Wonders

‘This is Burma', wrote Rudyard Kipling. ‘It will be quite unlike any land you know about.’ Amazingly, over a century later, Myanmar retains the power to surprise and delight even the most jaded of travellers. Be dazzled by the 'winking wonder' of Shwedagon Paya. Contemplate the 4000 sacred stupas scattered across the plains of Bagan. Stare in disbelief at the Golden Rock at Mt Kyaiktiyo, teetering impossibly on the edge of a chasm. These are all important Buddhist sights in a country where pious monks are more revered than rock stars.

The New Myanmar

In 2015, Myanmar voted in its first democratically elected government in more than half a century. Sanctions have been dropped and Asian investors especially are coming to do business. Modern travel conveniences, such as mobile-phone coverage and internet access, are now common. But the economic and social changes Myanmar is undergoing are largely confined to the big cities and towns, and large swaths of the country remain off limits due to ongoing ethnic conflict. The Burmese military continue to play a key, if less visible, role in politics. The new Myanmar is very much a work in progress.

Traditional Life

In a nation of multiple ethnic groups, exploring Myanmar can sometimes feel like you've stumbled into a living edition of National Geographic, c 1910. For all the recent changes, Myanmar remains at heart a rural nation of traditional values. You'll encounter men wearing the sarong-like longyi and chewing betel nut, spitting the blood-red juice onto the ground, women with faces smothered in thanakha (a natural sunblock), and cheroot-smoking grannies. Trishaws still ply city streets, while the horse or bullock and cart is common rural transport. Drinking tea – a British colonial custom – is enthusiastically embraced in thousands of teahouses.

Simple Pleasures

Thankfully, the pace of change is not overwhelming, leaving the simple pleasures of travel in Myanmar intact. Drift down the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River in an old steamer or luxury cruiser. Stake out a slice of beach on the blissful Bay of Bengal. Trek through pine forests to minority villages scattered across the Shan Hills without jostling with scores of fellow travellers. Best of all, you'll encounter locals who are gentle, humorous, engaging, considerate, inquisitive and passionate – they want to play a part in the world, and to know what you make of their country. Now is the time to make that connection.

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Yangon (ရန္ကုန္), Myanmar's largest city, is by far the most exciting place in the country to be right now, as former political exiles, Asian investors and foreign adventurers flock in. As Myanmar's commercial and artistic hub, it's Yangon that most reflects the changes that have occurred since the country reopened to the world. There's a rash of new restaurants, bars and shops. And there are building sites – and traffic jams – everywhere.

But in many ways Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, has hardly changed at all. The city remains focused on Shwedagon Paya, an awe-inspiring golden Buddhist monument around which everything else revolves. Close to it are the parks and lakes that provide Yangonites with an escape from the surrounding chaos. Then there's downtown, its pavements one vast open-air market, which is home to some of the most impressive colonial architecture in all Southeast Asia.

Sights

Mausoleums around Shwedagon Paya

Several prominent Myanmar citizens are buried near Shwedagon Paya. Near the north entrance to the stupa is the Martyrs' Mausoleum, housing the remains of General Aung San and the six comrades who were assassinated on 19 July 1947. The Soviet-style, red-painted concrete complex, surrounded by beautifully manicured grounds, was fully renovated in 2016 in time for Martyrs' Day, the first to be celebrated by a government led by Aung San's daughter.

The original timber mausoleum was destroyed after a North Korean terrorist strike in 1983, which killed 20 people (but not the target, visiting South Korean general Chun Doo-Hwan). To the right of the entrance to the mausoleum look for the smaller, free Korean Martyrs Memorial commemorating those who died in the attack.

South of the stupa along Shwedagon Paya Rd are four mausoleums. The one closest to the stupa is that of former UN secretary-general U Thant. A chapter in The River of Lost Footsteps by his grandson Thant Myint-U recounts the horrific details of U Thant's burial in 1969 when students fought with the military and riots resulted in hundreds of dead, many more imprisoned and martial law being imposed.

Next along is Suphayalat's Mausoleum. Having been exiled to India with her husband and daughters in 1885, Burma's last queen was allowed to return to Rangoon in 1919, three years after King Thibaw's death, but was kept under house arrest by the British colonial authorities until her death in 1925.

Bringing up the rear are the tombs of Aung San’s widow, Daw Khin Kyi, and the famous poet and intellectual Thakin Kodaw Hmaing.

Worth A Trip: Dalah

Until a bridge is completed in 2020, the quickest way to access Dalah is to make the 10-minute ferry journey across the river from downtown Yangon. The contrast between the city's grand colonial edifices and urban buzz, and Dalah's sleepy, rural Myanmar atmosphere couldn't be more acute, and is a large part of the attraction of a visit. Travellers often go straight from Dalah to the pleasant town of Twante, a 30- to 45-minute drive west into the delta. However, there's plenty to see in Dalah, including a lively daily market, a shipbuilding yard and the great social enterprise Chuchu.

The fun starts on the ferry. Along with city and river views, there's a lively scene on board, as hawkers sell everything from sunhats and paan (areca nut and/or tobacco wrapped in a betel leaf and chewed as a mild stimulant) to bags of speckled eggs and sweet snacks. Almost certainly you'll be approached by touts for the trishaw and motorbike taxis in Dalah – even in the terminal before you board the ferry. Beware, as these touts have a reputation for scamming unsuspecting travellers; note that the going rate is K5000 per hour for either a trishaw or a motorbike taxi.

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Sleeping

Many new hotels and hostels have opened in Yangon and more are on the way. There are options to suit all budgets, but quality places with individual character and style remain rare. The widest choice is in downtown Yangon, but Bahan or Sanchaung both make a less frenetic base and are convenient for walking to Shwedagon Paya and Kandawgyi Lake.

Eating

Yangon's dining scene is the best in the country for quality and diversity. You'll find all the regional Myanmar cooking styles, such as Shan and Rakhine, plus an ever-expanding selection of restaurants serving international food, including Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Italian and Indian. Eat early – by 10pm all but a handful of places will be closed.

Drinking & Nightlife

Yangon is experiencing a drinking and nightlife boom, and some stylish places are emerging, but the vast majority of bars still close by 11pm. Locals prefer to hang out in a teahouse, an air-conditioned cafe, or a beer station – the favourite place to catch the football.

Entertainment

There's a short but varied range of entertainment options in Yangon. The best of these are the traditional kickboxing matches and puppet shows, and the occasional live-music gig or dance show. Cinema, including some historic ones downtown, are worth checking out. Tickets are cheap from around K1000 and for some film festivals admission is free.

Shopping

Yangon has plenty of interesting art, furniture and antiques for sale, but much of it is too large to fit in your luggage and there are few bargains to be had. Prices for tailor-made clothes, however, are among the lowest in Southeast Asia, and there's a growing number of outlets for quality traditional and contemporary crafts.

Orientation

Yangon is divided into 33 townships and addresses are usually suffixed with these (eg 3 Win Gabar Lane, Bahan).

Back in the mists of time, Yangon was a village centred on Shwedagon Paya, but the British shifted its centre south towards Yangon River. This is Downtown Yangon. Shwedagon and nearby Kandawgyi Lake are covered mainly by Dagon and Bahan townships; in the latter is the area referred to as Golden Valley, a choice address for the city's moneyed elite.

Further north are more leafy areas surrounding Inya Lake and stretching up to Yangon International Airport. The city's townships also spill south across the Yangon River to Dalah.

Travel with Children

While you might think twice at pushing a pram along downtown's crowded and cracked pavements, Yangon isn't such a bad place for a family vacation. You're likely to find baby-changing facilities at major shopping malls and top hotels. Kids of all ages will need some ground rules about hygiene, and should avoid approaching any of the many stray dogs you're likely to encounter.

There are good free outdoor playgrounds in Mahabandoola Garden, People's Park, where you'll also find the amusement park Natural World, and at the Nat Mauk Rd end of Kandawgyi Lake. A short taxi ride east of downtown there's a chance to splash around at Yangon Waterboom and go tenpin bowling at Asia Point Bowling Centre. If you have a skateboard handy, then head over to the international-standard Mya Lay Yone Skatepark where your kids can join local children and teens learning to skateboard.

Families recommend Parami Pizza not only for its food but also for its supervised indoor fun gym; the Ottoman Room in the nearby Acacia Tea Salon is covered with cushions, doubling as a romper room for energetic kids.

LGBT Travellers

Same-sex sexual activity remains illegal in Myanmar. The Buddhist faith also takes a dim view of homosexuality. Even so, the ongoing political reforms and associated freedoms in media and civil rights have allowed the previously super-discreet LGBT community to become more visible. Yangon celebrated its first gay pride in 2012 and the &Proud LGBT film festival is a fixed point on the city's calendar.

Social enterprise YG organises the monthly Fab Party (www.facebook.com/eventsyg) for the LGBT community and friends. For more information on LGBT issues in Myanmar, see the website of local human-rights project Colours Rainbow (www.colorsrainbow.com).

What to do in Yangon

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Mandalay (မႏၱေလး) will never win any beauty contests. Myanmar's second city is a relatively new creation, founded at the foot of Mandalay Hill in 1857 by King Mindon as his royal capital. The hill, its slopes studded with pagodas, still looms over the city. But Mandalay was bombed flat in WWII and the palace disappeared, along with much else. The palace was rebuilt in the 1990s, and since then Mandalay has undergone a haphazard construction boom that was never about aesthetics. An ever-growing number of motorbikes and cars clog the roads, too, making for a sometimes smoggy city.

But if you can shut out all the honking, Mandalay has its own charm. There are splendid markets, many monasteries, Indian temples, mosques, gold workshops and a bustling, working riverside to explore, as well as a thriving teahouse culture that offers visitors the chance to mingle with the exceptionally friendly locals.

Sights

If you’re fed up with visiting pagodas, this area also has a swimming pool, golf course and a warren of commercial streets and hawker stalls where you can get pleasantly lost.

The World’s Biggest Book

Around the beautiful gilt-and-gold stupa of the mid-19th-century Kuthodaw Paya, you’ll find 729 text-inscribed marble slabs, each housed in its own small stupa and together presenting the entire 15 books of the Tripitaka. Another 1774 similarly ensconced marble slabs (collected in 1913) ring the nearby Sandamuni Paya with Tripitaka commentaries. Collectively these slabs are often cited as the ‘World’s Biggest Book’. Producing the Kuthodaw set alone required an editorial committee of more than 200. When King Mindon convened the 5th Buddhist Synod here, he used a team of 2400 monks to read the book in a nonstop relay. It took them nearly six months. Note that the slabs are placed behind grated entrances in small stupas (and they're written in Pali), so it's tough to make out the text.

Central Mandalay

The downtown area is not the city’s most beautiful. However, you can easily escape into tree-shaded back alleys further west. And amid the smoggy central grid of lacklustre five-storey concrete ordinariness lurk pagodas, striking churches and notable mosques. The colourful, sculpture-crusted gopuram (monumental tower) of Sri Krishna Temple will excite those with a thing for South Indian temples.

Greater Mandalay

Mahamuni Paya and the Stone-Carvers’ Area are conveniently visited as part of a day trip to Amarapura, Inwa or Sagaing. There’s a whole series of monasteries in the area west of 85th St, between 35th and 41st Sts.

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Sleeping

Midrange places dominate the Mandalay accommodation scene, although there are a few hostels and budget options, as well as some posh choices. Unless otherwise stated, rates include breakfast. Many hotels offer large discounts if you book online or through a third-party engine.

Eating

There's no main restaurant area; many better choices require cycling down dark roads, such as 27th St, south of the moat. But if you persist for a few minutes in any direction you're likely to find good street food. For inexpensive barbecue snacks and K800 draught beers, visit one of the countless beer stations.

Many restaurants will close early if business is slow, or stay open later if they're busy.

Drinking & Nightlife

The drinking scene in Mandalay is roughly divided into three camps: high-end bars for the city's young elites (with the odd expat thrown in), loud, bare-bones beer stations serving cheap frosty brews for the working man (and it is mostly men), and drinks at more upscale Western-fusion-style restaurants.

Entertainment

Mandalay has no real nightclubs. You'll find a couple of fun amateur-hour-like karaoke shows at the beer garden. Foreigners are treated with bemused hospitality, although women may get heavy attention.

Several more places, plus cafes and restaurants, form an alternative entertainment district that's strung out along Kandawgyi Pat Rd, the causeway road across the northern side of Kandawgyi Lake.

Shopping

Mandalay is a major arts-and-crafts centre. It's probably the best place in Myanmar for traditional puppets and handwoven tapestries. Beware: items may be deliberately scuffed or weathered to look older than they are. Handicraft places generally have to pay commissions to drivers or guides, so prices may prove better if you visit alone.

Orientation

Siem Reap is still a small town at heart and is easy Central Mandalay city streets are laid out on a grid system. East–west streets are numbered from 1st to 49th, with 12th/26th the northern/southern edges of the fortress moat. North–south streets are numbered above 50th, starting from the main Pyin Oo Lwin road in the east but becoming slightly confused west of diagonal 86th, where some roads are more crooked and unnumbered.

A street address that reads 66th, 26/27, means a location on 66th St between 26th and 27th Sts. Corner addresses are given in the form 26th at 82nd. The ‘downtown’ area runs roughly from 21st St to 35th St, between 80th and 88th Sts. Across the railway tracks, 78th St, 33/34, has the main new shopping malls, while 30th, 35th and 73rd Sts are all developing as busy commercial streets.

Travel with Children

Travelling with children in Myanmar can be very rewarding as long as you come well prepared with the right attitude, the physical requirements and the usual parental patience.

LGBT Travellers

- Homosexuality is seen as a bit of a cultural taboo, though most locals are known to be tolerant of it, for both men and women.
- Carnal intercourse against nature' is legally punishable with imprisonment of up to 10 years. The law is rarely enforced, but it renders gays and lesbians vulnerable to police harassment.
- Gay and transgendered people in Myanmar are rarely 'out', except for 'third sex' spirit mediums who channel the energies of nat spirits.
- Some Buddhists believe that those who committed sexual misconduct (such as adultery) in a previous life become gay or lesbian in this one.
- Public displays of affection, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are frowned upon; a local woman walking with a foreign man will raise more eyebrows than two same-sex travellers sharing a room.

What to do in Mandalay

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Scruffy, busy Nyaungshwe (ေညာင္ေရႊ) is the main access point for Inle Lake. Located at the northern end of the lake, the town was once the capital of an important Shan kingdom (the former palace of the saophas (sky princes), who ruled here is now a museum). These days, Nyaungshwe has become a bustling travellers' centre, with dozens of guesthouses and hotels, an increasing number of restaurants, a few bars and a pleasantly relaxed vibe. If Myanmar can be said to have a backpacker scene at all, it can be found here.

Sights

There are stupas and monasteries all over Nyaungshwe. Most of the latter are clustered around the Mine Li Canal, southeast of the market.

Activities

Boat Trips

Boat trips on Inle Lake are the most popular activity here and almost every visitor takes one. Boats set off from several locations along Nan Chaung canal: there's one jetty near Teik Nan Bridge, another jetty near the western end of Phoung Taw Site St and a third jetty at the western end of Phaung Daw Pyan Rd.

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Sleeping

Nyaungshwe has an increasing number of hotels, guesthouses and hostels, ranging from budget accommodation to boutique places via many anonymous midrange options. Book well ahead in peak season (December to March).

Prices have jumped recently, and some of Nyaungshwe's rooms aren't great value, though discounts are normally available outside high season. All rates include breakfast.

Amenities

Almost all rooms have bathrooms with hot showers, but few places offer air-con because of the natural cooling effect of the breeze passing over the lake.

Eating

The restaurant scene in Nyaungshwe is improving, and Western options are joining the Burmese, Chinese and Shan places that dominate.

For cheap local eats, check out the food stalls in Mingala Market. Also, every evening a very basic night market unfolds off Kyauk Taing Ah Shae St, where you'll find a small selection of Burmese dishes.

Drinking & Nightlife

While the locals stick to their beer stations, visitors now have the choice of a few bars to drink in, a new and welcome development in a town where cocktails were unknown a few years ago. Nyaungshwe, though, remains an early-to-bed place, with everywhere shut by 11pm.

Shopping

Take a trip on Inle Lake and you will be approached by vendors, either in canoes or on dry land, selling craft objects and curios, so there isn’t any great need to buy souvenirs in Nyaungshwe. But it's worth going out of your way to visit any of the five-day rotating market destinations.

What to do in Nyaungshwe

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