With a beaming welcome and a delicate bow, hands pressed together as if in prayer, the gentle people of Burma - or Myanmar as it is now known - put the visitor at immediate ease. A delicious extravaganza of cultural and culinary delights awaits discovery in a land still blissfully free of Western influences. Women with faces covered in traditional Thanakha make-up peer inquisitively at the curious visitors; graceful longyi garments sweep elegantly from waist to ankle; bustling markets brim with handicrafts and lacquerware. Attractions abound, from the colonial buildings of Yangon to the plethora of gilded temples where the Burmese display their devotion through elaborate ceremonies swathed in scent and smoke. Most spectacular of them all, Shwedagon Pagoda is for many a once in a lifetime pilgrimage, with thousands more temples and stupa rising through the dawn mists on the mesmerising plains of Bagan. This 26 acre site in central Burma is wreathed in splendour; the setting is divine and scattered throughout are more than 2,000 temples dating back to the 11th and 12th Centuries. To appreciate the true scale of this magnificent archaeological site is by hot air balloon at sunrise; alternatively, for another sight almost beyond superlatives, climb to the top of a pagoda to watch sunset over the Ayeyarwady River. Still the sights come thick and slow… the floating tomato gardens, long-tailed boats and leg-rowing fishermen of Lake Inle… with the dazzling white sands of Ngapali Beach to round off an overload of visual splendour. With so many must-sees and must-dos, Burma is top of the travel aficionado's list, a destination too special to miss, an experience to plan for whilst Burma stands at its unspoilt best.
The best time to visit most areas is during the cooler season from October to February. The hottest months are from March to May when the rainy season begins. The rains last from mid May until the end of September and are followed by cooler, more comfortable weather.
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Located in the upper part of Burma, the capital of Burma's
first dynasty basks in the splendour of more than 2,000 astonishing temples, pagodas and stupas – the largest concentration in the world – mainly located inland the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwady River and dating largely from the 11th and 12th centuries. Explore the city by bicycle or horse drawn cart, or take in the sights during an idyllic sunset boat trip along the river, then rise before dawn to give Alms to the young monks. Fifty kilometres from the town lie Mount Popa and the Popa Taungkalat Monastery which is accessed by 777 steps,
the mount being a designated nature reserve and national park. For a memorable evening a candle lit dinner can be arranged next to an exclusively reserved pagoda complex in the Bagan area.
Formerly known as Rangoon and once the capital of Burma, Yangon is known for its attractive colonial architecture, which although a little decaying in places remains a rare example of a 19th-century British colonial capital. Friendly street vendors hawk their wares to local people dressed in traditional costume, whilst old Chevrolet buses and trishaws add to the impression of being in a living museum. Shwedagon, the heart of Yangon, is the city’s most profoundly revered pagoda which, according to legend, was constructed during the time of the Buddha and is more than 2,500 years old. Towering to a height of 100 metres it dominates the city, it is said that holy hair relics of the Buddha were enshrined here. Widely acclaimed as one the wonders of the world it is covered in thousands of jewels and many tons of gold, its passageways lined with vendors selling bejewelled trinkets. In the National Museum highlights include the Lion Throne of King Thibaw Min, dazzling ceremonial dresses and richly decorated palanquins.
Flowing south through Burma and into the Andaman Sea, the
Ayeyarwady (also known as ‘Irrawaddy’) is Burma’s largest river. A river cruise provides a serene opportunity to experience the enchanting sights and scents of Burma from Yangon to Mandalay and the historic cities of Bagan and Sagaing. Sit back and relax whilst observing the local way of life both on the river and on the river banks beyond, where villages are made of bamboo and teak. Look out for the diverse species that call the river their home including the Irrawaddy Dolphin, to which it gave its name, along with Saltwater Crocodile, snakes and a
number of sea turtle species. In the evening relax on board and enjoy the changing light over the river banks and the memorable sunsets.
Burma's Mystical Mandalay lies between the Ayeyarwady River and the Shan State, overlooked by Mandalay Hill which provides captivating sunset or sunrise views over the plains. Mandalay’s citizens, most of whom prefer to travel by bike, rise early to participate in the offering of Alms, when monks line up to receive food donations. Thirty minutes away in Amarapura, the magnificent Mahagandhayon Monastery draws large crowds who watch the 3,000 monks as they eat and pray. Founded in 1914 it is one of the largest teaching monasteries in Myanmar. Also high on the ‘to visit’ list is the Kyauktawgyi Pagoda built by King Bagan in 1847. It houses a large figure of the Buddha in bright marble, as well as statues of his eighty eight pupils, the entrances being decorated with 19th century wall paintings depicting the signs of the zodiac and scenes from everyday life.
Framed by the misty Shan Mountains, Inle Lake and its surroundings offer the traveller a cooler and drier climate than other parts of Burma. Watch as the fishermen use their legs to row their boats onto the lake, which is surrounded by floating tomato fields and has lush flower gardens anchored to its bed with bamboo poles. In the local village of Thei Lei Oo traditional organic farming methods live on; a one-hour walk from Maing Tauk brings you to a meditation centre where a monk will instil wisdom on how the mind and body flow together as one. Visitors are shown to a private meditation room – a bamboo hut overlooking the lake where you will be left to your own thoughts.