Expert Review: Myanmar Tour
Myanmar – this name has always sparked my excitement – whether for its rich buddhist traditions and amazing architecture, history of ancient trading routes or more recent stories of colonial times, reflected in Orwell’s “Burmese Days”. I held a magical image in my head and now was able to confront it with reality. Reality that proved to be more diverse and even more exciting than my visions. And frankly – 8 days in a country like this just makes you hungry for more.
Myanmar Expert Travel Review
I started in Yangon, former capital and an old port, settled back in eleventh century as a small fishing village and later transformed into commercial trade center of British Burma. Today the city still remembers the colonial days. Walk along the main street towards the port exposes the impressive British buildings – some nicely taken care of, some forgotten and close to falling apart. A picturesque background for the street stalls and shops, minding their own business.
Of all colonial structures, The Strand Hotel seems to have been the luckiest – built in 1901 as the first luxury hotel in Burma, now beautifully renovated, invites guests under the very same name as over a hundred years ago. Visiting The Strand takes you back in time into splendors of British Empire. It is said that The Strand ship resembles the hotel and its atmosphere remarkably.
There is no other pagoda in Myanmar like Shwedagon Pagoda. Shrines and stupas, covered with gold, intricate decorations, statues, bells and breathtaking splendor combine with thousands of tourists and pilgrims every day. The biggest stupa in the country, fully covered with 24 carat gold and precious stoned on the very top, was funded while Buddha was still alive. It is said that two monks, who traveled to India, brought Buddhas hair and placed it in the heart of this, over 2500 years old pagoda. Dozens of metal plates, tangled together around the top of of the stupa, jingle in the wind, never quieting, are sending prayers to the spirits. When you visit, find a statue of Buddha on top of a vase with water, and use a silver bowl to pour the water on Buddha’s head and shoulders – this will purify your thoughts and ways of life.
After just a day in Yangon, I ventured deep into the countries eastern parts, to see the second largest lake in Myanmar and its population of 120 thousand inhabitants. The people who in search of tax-free living decided to build their settlement right on top of Inle Lake. Surrounded by the hills the lake on its own is a lovely spot, but with so much to see there – it is a must go for all travelers.
While cruising around in a little motor boat, you pass by multiple boats, most of them almost motionless, while the skilled boys and men drop or drag their nets, standing on one leg, using the other to steer the boat about, both hands engaged in the fishing. The strength and balance of those fishermen is undeniably spectacular. Some will also manage to hold a cigarette or a cheroot cigar, while doing all these things.
Inle Lake area is now announced a pesticide free zone, so there is also a number of men on the boats set out to the lake to collect the water-weed for their natural pesticide.
All this is great to watch, often in a burning sun, but only when you start visiting the “lake villages“ and floating plantations that you realize how interesting this area is. Each village – the houses on stilts – occupies itself with different work. Just in couple of hours I managed to see silver smiths, weavers and silk and lotus thread makers and cigar makers. There is several ethnic groups, easily recognizable by their head covers, living on the lake. They can be easily met at the 5 days market by the lake. The market appears in different spots around the lake 5 days a week. The traders travel from place to place, to make sure that everybody in the area will get access to fresh vegetables and other products. That includes a smith, making knives and tools from old car suspensions and a toy-maker, who’s queue seems to be never-ending.
It is said that the Inle floating tomato plantations have monopolized the country’s tomato market, since they can produce tomatoes all year round. Quick ride through those floating gardens left me astounded by people’s resourcefulness.
Next stop on my trip through Myanmar, was amazing Bagan. The Holy Place of Burma between 11th and 13th century, nowadays a hot tourist and pilgrimage destination. And yes, when I say hot, I also mean the temperature. So it happened that I was visiting Myanmar just on a brink of the raining season. Almost there, but not yet. It already rained twice in Yangon when I visited (literally, I caught the second rain this year) but Bagan was still burning in a hot hot sun. Dry soil, dry trees, dry dust everywhere. The water level in the Irrawaddy River was too low to cruise, temperatures too high to endure. Good side of the season is – there are no queues, no crowds anywhere. But that is for a reason, so if you are planning a trip to Myanmar, check the best time to visit the country.
Regardless of the weather – the splendor of 4 thousand pagodas and temples, many still intact, is astonishing. Last earthquake left some buildings destroyed, but it was great to see so much of restoration work done all around. The New Bagan town, just couple of miles away from all temples – Old Bagan – is a quaint town, full of cafes, restaurants and hotels, embedded into everyday lives of the local community. Both New and Old Bagan lie right at the Irrawaddy river bank. When you arrive here on your cruise, you are right at this holy land and even a short walk already takes you to some of the 13th century pagodas. Nevertheless, it is important to take a guide or join a tour and see those most beautiful and important pagodas out of the 4000 – may it be the King Anawratha and Ananda temples.
Important note – You can only enter the templates in Myanmar with bare feet. Not even socks are allowed. Make sure to wear sandals, or shoes that are easy to put on and take off.
Bagan is where I discovered that fresh tea leaves, not fermented, but just collected - they are edible and commonly use in salads. Tea leaf salad could become my favorite one, if it wasn’t for the tamarind leaf salad, that turned out to be unbeatable by any other Burmese dish. And there was an amount of runners up, just to mention traditional noodle salads or curries. The Burmese like nuts in their food and they eat quite spicy, but the choice of non-spicy dishes is very wide and it seems easy to find something for every taste. Traditionally, they will serve the food family style – with various sauces and condiments added on to your order. Rice still rules on all tables, morning till evening, and even the noodles or pancakes will most probably be rice flour based.
Leaving Bagan behind, I embarked another local flight to reach Mandalay in just a 40 minutes flight.
Every city I visited in Myanmar, including Yangon, felt like a mix of South East Asia and India. That is for a reason, as the Indian influence reaches back to the ancient times of trade and inevitable cultural exchange across the Bengal Sea.
Mandalay, as all other towns, still sees traditional clothing and very common use of tanaka tree paste, used on the faces as a sun protection. Every household has a stone plate and everyone makes their own “cream“ simply by rubbing a bit o tanaka wood on the wet stone. The paste has a golden glow when it dries out on the skin and indeed is very effective with protecting from the sunlight. It also is one of the most natural cosmetics on Earth.
Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar and it is the last royal capital of Burma. The city was only founded in the 19th century, so it doesn’t have the medieval times buildings, but it culturally very reach and it is worth to ask your guide for a tour to some of the local arts and crafts workshops. What is interesting to observe, is that all the religious sites in Myanmar are not only places of worship, but also serve as grounds for social gatherings. Looking at Kuthodaw Pagoda – not only it home to the 729 stone slabs that contain the texts of the sacred Buddhist teachings, but also it welcomes people, especially on holidays and weekends, to spend time, see friends and socialize.
One of absolute gems of Mandalay is the Royal Palace, built in mid 19th century, very intricately decorated and covered with old gold flakes. Gold, in general, is a leading motif of Burmese sights and one can only imagine, how reach and splendid Burma was in the days of the old kings.
After leaving Myanmar after this short visit I am already getting ready for the next one. Having seen a bit of a local loving, I know that my favorite cruise in Myanmar is the unique one up the Chindwin River or the 8 days trip on the Upper Irrawaddy, where lives are even more unspoiled by tourism and even closer to the traditions of this amazing country. For more information about booking a Myanmar Tour, please contact us or call 1-888-215-4555.
This Expert Review was written by our Asia Travel Specialist, Eva.