Stretching from the Eastern Himalaya to the Andaman Sea, Myanmar has emerged as one of Asia’s most exciting hot spots, unique, mysterious, with a 2000 year old heritage at the crossroads of civilisations. Cut off for decades from the outside world, it preserved its culture and, whether you call it Burma or Myanmar, it is, as Kipling wrote in 1898, ‘unlike any land you know about’.
For many Burmese, Yangon remains the soul of the nation, a vibrant city bursting with colour and culture, more significant than the new purpose-built capital further north, for up on Singuttara Hill stands the country’s spiritual icon, the magnificent Shwedagon pagoda.
Rising to 99 metres, guarded by lion-like statues and mythical figures, it is covered in gold plates and crowned by a sacred bejewelled Umbrella. The chanting of monks echoes across the marble courtyard, the scent of jasmine drifts around a forest of gilded spires while pilgrims from all over the country and beyond walk clockwise around the relics’ shrine, praying and pouring fresh water over the statues symbolising the day of their birth. By late afternoon, Shwedagon is at its most stunning with layers of gold glowing in the setting sun.
Meanwhile at the heart of town, on the 20th floor of the Sakura Tower, the Sky Bistro reveals a fabulous cityscape from morning to night, stylish mansions draped in bougainvillaea, glistening office blocks, red-brick colonial buildings, tree-lined avenues and quiet lakes, the romantic Inya with the waterside residence of Aung San Suu Kyi, and Kandawgi with its nature park and golden replica of a royal barge.
Downtown the Scott market claims to be the best place to buy gems, jade and gold, but just steps away, pavement stalls beckon with dragon fruit, durian, roses, chillies, cakes, herbs, Chinese dumplings and Indian samosas. It’s lively, crowded, especially by the Yangon River where ferries and traditional boats painted orange and green jostle for space in a jumble of paddles and oars and flocks of shrieking gulls.
(Young Buddhism novice is relaxing after class in temple in Mandalay)
(Hot air balloon over plain of Bagan in misty morning)
(Kyaikhtiyo or Kyaiktiyo pagoda, Golden rock, Myanmar.)
(Chantal de Bruijne Inle Lake, This temple contains hundreds of buddha statue’s in alcove’s in the walls)
Larger vessels drop anchor in the estuary south of the city but for anyone on an ocean cruise sailing up from the Gulf of Martaban as far as Thilawa, it’s the perfect introduction to Myanmar, taking in the myriad pagodas dotted on the edge of the fields.
An hour’s flight north of Yangon, the legendary Mandalay has long been immortalised in poems and songs. Today the modern world is catching up, from motorbike taxis to the escalators rattling up sunset hill, but the charm remains in the palaces and temples and along the banks of the Irrawaddy.
Even though it is mostly out of bounds, one of the most striking features is the vast palace compound, a perfect square neatly cut out of the town centre, enclosed by red crenellated walls with 12 gates and 48 bastions reflected in a deep moat.
Other attractions include the Golden Palace Monastery – the gold has weathered away but teak carvings are superb-, the traditional crafts including wood, marble, weaving and gold leaf, and the vast complex of Mahamuni Pagoda, home to a seated Buddha where male devotees apply gold leaf all day long.
There are arcades full of memorabilia, miraculous statues and after the harvest, colourful processions when young boys are initiated into the monkhood, accompanied by traditional musicians, flag bearers, ladies sprinkling flower petals along the way and the occasional decorated elephant. But Mandalay’s most memorable highlights are out of town, U Bein, the world’s longest teak bridge, stretching 1.2 km across Taungthaman Lake, most photogenic in the late afternoon, and the Sagaing Hills where wooded slopes are speckled with temples and shrines.
It’s a popular retreat for Buddhists but everyone can gaze in wonder at the colourful colonnade of 45 seated Buddhas in Umin Thonze. Far below, the Irrawaddy looks almost surreal, shimmering in the afternoon haze before turning all shades of orange and red when the sun sets over the hills.
Born at the confluence of the N’mai and Mali rivers in the northern hills, the Irrawaddy is Myanmar’s most important waterway, flowing in a southerly direction almost in a straight line all the way to the Andaman Sea. For every Burmese, this is the ‘Mother of the Country’, irrigating the land, carrying people and goods for over 1000 years and swarming with fish.
Rushing through dramatic gorges at first, it is wide and placid by the time it reaches Mandalay where comfortable river boats sail downstream to Bagan. The journey might take most of the day, especially if your boat needs to deliver supplies along the way, but that means ample time to relax and discover the old Burma, unchanged through the centuries or so it seems: bamboo villages at the water’s edge, fishermen dragging their nets, tiny plots of wheat growing out of the sand, garlic, rape seed, house boats, canoes pitching and rolling as a cargo ship sails past and flocks of water birds.
Laundry dries on the sandy banks, ramshackle ports unload great piles of logs and in the busy sections, there is much whistling and calling out as all sorts of crafts wait for their turn to avoid the shallows. When the first Bagan temples pop up on crumbling cliffs, it’s simply magical.
On the red desert plain, Bagan has its own golden pagoda, the Shwezigon, as impressive but quieter than Yangon’s, and the Ananda Temple where a serious-looking Buddha appears to smile as you move away, but Bagan is first of all an archaeological site.
At the height of its power, from the 11th to the 13th centuries, some 10,000 temples and monasteries were built around the old capital. Over 2000 remain, restored, rebuilt or forgotten, small clusters of red-brick stupas and shrines scattered on golden sand.
The best way to explore is to cycle or walk off the beaten track or hop on a horse-drawn carriage as the locals do. With so many monuments on such a large area, it’s easy to get away from the crowds and imagine the splendid city which flourished on this arid land. Sunset is the most inspiring time as a golden light sweeps across the temples and before long, towers and pinnacles bristle all around, silhouetted against a darkening sky.
Temples aside, Bagan is the place to buy lacquerware from local workshops, watch traditional marionettes, wander around the market awash with mini-aubergines and honey mandarins or rise before dawn for an unforgettable balloon ride over a vast sleepy landscape studded with stupas and temples.
As the sun rises over the mountains in the distance, the mist begins to shift and the mighty Irrawaddy appears, glistening like silver. It’s a breath taking scene and as you dream of the dawn of time, villages begin to stir far below, children look up and wave and you prepare to land, toasting your success with a flight certificate and a glass of Champagne.
After the heat of Bagan, Inle Lake welcomes you with plenty of fresh air and Nyaung Shwe, ‘the forgiveness monastery’, where a superb wooden structure, gilt work and mosaics display the best of Shan architecture. Framed by the Shan Hills, at 889 metres, the lake stretches over 17 km, attracting wild birds, including endangered species such as whistling ducks and yellow neck egrets, and supporting around 200 villages both on land and water.
Rice and sugar cane are grown on the land, vegetables and flowers on ingenious floating gardens built of silt and water hyacinths, anchored with bamboo poles but easy to move around. Farmers paddle their canoes along narrow channels, here picking sweet tomatoes, there mending a fence, leg-rowing fishermen keep their hands free to manoeuvre the nets while wide-eyed visitors bounce past in great showers of spray as they head for the Inthein market, held on a five day rota around the nearby villages.
Others make their way to the Hpaung Daw Oo Pagoda to see the small Buddha statues so heavily covered in gold they have lost their shape, but no one seems to mind. The autumn festival draws people from all over the country as the images are paraded on a golden barge escorted by decorated boats.
The land has its own attractions, luminous paddies, bamboo groves, walking trails and ancient temples hidden among the trees, but sooner or later, the lake calls you back with its floating hotels and waterside resorts, craft shops high on stilts selling lotus fabric and paper umbrellas and quaint restaurants serving Shan noodles, deepfried tofu and Inle fish.
It’s a lovely place where everything moves on the water, from monks on their alms rounds to farmers and floating markets or longtailed boats with parasols and blankets for visitors. It can be cool when the sun goes down but the scene is superb, flaming sky, hills shimmering in purple shades and the water glowing like gold as the last fisherman paddles home.