I first visited Burma back in 1995. Despite the short-duration visa, some cat-and-mouse antics trying not to change money at ludicrous rates at Yangon’s rudimentary airport, and vast swathes of the country remaining off-limits to tourists, it was clearly a rather special destination. Its people were utterly charming, the monuments were dazzling – sometimes literally with gold ‒ and it exuded a distinctive, almost wistful ‘lost in time’ feel.
Returning last month, little of this has changed. Even that particular charm seems to have weathered years of trade sanctions and tour embargoes rather well, never mind the on-going and much-publicised struggle to achieve real democracy. British visitors are now returning in some numbers, their interest in Burma fuelled by a combination of glowing reports and pent-up interest rooted in a two centuries-old colonial connection.
Several destinations form the heart of any itinerary. Yangon, the capital, is the entry point for most but it’s certainly no slouch in terms of sights. Studded with jewels and partially gilded with gold, the ravishing hilltop Shwedagon is among Burma’s most spectacular and revered pagodas. Even now it’s almost a talisman of the nation’s fortunes and political temperature ‒ just last month, it hosted a huge festival involving ceremonial processions and relays of chanting monks, the first time in twenty years the authorities had allowed such an event to proceed.
To the north, Bagan’s enigmatic plain of pagodas set in idyllic countryside ‒ some small, forlorn yet doubly atmospheric; others huge, imposing and thronged with visitors at sunset ‒ is possibly the most memorable sight of all. The silty Ayeyarwady River slips past nearby and on its far bank stands the massive base of what would have been the largest pagoda of all, its brickwork cracked dramatically by a 19th-century earthquake.
We headed to Mandalay, Burma’s second city, on whose fringes stands the world’s longest teak bridge, its slender piles looking particularly picturesque at sundown as locals, monks and tourists crossed Taungthaman Lake. Using pony carts we explored a couple of part-ruined ancient capitals where the remains of pagodas, fortifying walls, moats and even an extraordinary monastery with huge pillars of teak stand in pretty countryside of paddies and banana groves.
Rimmed by hills and a shoreline dotted with village houses perched atop long stilts, Inle Lake proved the most relaxing of destinations. Our long-tail boat weaved through canals and up rivers where at times it was beautifully unclear where lake and land ended or began.
The in-depth nature of this itinerary also took us on the path less-trodden to places sometimes refreshingly free of conventional souvenirs and throngs of tourists. At Mawlamyine I ascended the hill’s ancient covered walkway to the town’s loftiest pagoda with only monks for company. At Golden Rock atop one of Burma’s most sacred mountains, we hiked up a hill with keen pilgrims past stalls selling everything from an elixir of herbs and goats’ heads to toy bamboo machineguns. In Sittwe, you can see and feel its proximity to Bangladesh, while nearby Mrauk U offers an even more enigmatic version of Bagan. Here as the mist and plumes of wood-fire smoke wafts serenely among dark ranks of ancient pagodas at dawn, you’ll likely feel that Burma is among Asia’s most bewitching destinations.
By Amar Grover
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