Myanmar or Burma as it is more popularly known to us has been a place lost in the history books. Many of us would remember reading that it was a part of the British Empire and that it had strong ties with us. Those who read Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Glass Palace’ would know of the plight of the last king of Burma and his deportation to India. Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army was formed in Burma, and Japanese had reached till there during WWII. But what happened after that? Some would mutter the name of Aang San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Suu Kyi who fought for their independence. But after the years of military dictatorship the nation became closed to the rest of the world, its sights and wonders beyond the reach of common travellers.
Present situation : Times changed by 2010, the government though still very much in the hands of military regime had relaxed the travel policy, started offering visa on arrival facilities (since 2014) and markets are being opened up, though not as much as in other neighbouring countries like Thailand or Malaysia. ATMs started springing up (since early 2015) and mobile-access came as a revolution (also since 2015). Travel is still very much regulated as in tourists can travel only to certain cities/villages that are allowed and through specific routes, but you wouldn’t find police/military everywhere. Although it has not become a backpacker’s central like Thailand, and still falls in a medium-budget traveller’s plan, Myanmar holds a lot of potential in terms of the cultural sites, innumerable pagodas, dense forests, untouched hamlets and amazing places to get-lost-into. Pictures of the skyline over Bagan filled with temples had been tempting me and I had been planning to go there since a couple of years but finally made it in the month of August 2015. It wasn’t the most ideal month going by convention that it fell during the rainy monsoons season, but luckily while there were floods in the northern and coastal regions of Burma, I was having days of sunshine during my trip which concentrated on Central Burma.
Flights : I was able to get cheap tickets on AirAsia for Bangalore-Yangon return (via KL – no visa needed for Malaysia since it’s a stopover) for around 16,000 INR (booked 3 months in advance). Visa for Myanmar can be bought online paying 50 USD. From Yangon it was a road trip using buses for around ten days. Each of the bus rides would be 12-15 USD.
Day 0 – flying India-KL-Yangon and landing in the evening. took overnight bus to Mandalay.
Day 1 – Reached Mandalay morning around 6AM, we checked into our hotel (they are used to people arriving early and rooms were available anyways) and starting the day with the Burmese national dish ‘Mohinga’ – a rice noodle and fish soup. Mandalay was the seat of power of the last kingdom. This would be apparent to every visitor as city is built around the palace, which is now converted to a military cantonment (hence off limits) and only the main area open to visitors. Nevertheless the city abounds in a lot of Buddhist pagodas (many with an interesting history – like the world’s biggest book Pagoda) and Mandalay Hill has the best views for the sunset. Hiring a car for the whole sightseeing was a better idea since there were three more friends travelling with me.
Day 2 – Next day we went around to the three heritage villages of Mingun(having the world biggest Pagoda which got broken and world’s biggest bell), Saingaing, Amarapura and the U-Bein bridge which is the longest wooden bridge in world (1.4 kms). we checked out of the hotel and took an overnight bus for Nyaungshwe.
Day 3 – Nyaungshwe sits right on the shores of Inle Lake, a lake that has small villages built on stilts all around it, even Pagodas! A boatman took us around the lake for the whole day (8 hrs) charging only 18 USD in total. He did take us to touristy traps – but we liked those as well. night stay in Nyaungshwe.
Day 4 – We took a morning 10AM bus to Nyaung U town, since the whole route is through curving roads through mountains which is best enjoyed in daytime. We reached there before sunset and managed to visit one of the pagodas and climb atop to catch the sunset vistas.
Day 5 to 7 – Nyaung U is the ideal base for exploring Bagan – a site so immense that the only comparison to it is Angkor Wat! Build by local kings, queens and rich courtesans during 11-12th century the plains of Bagan are dotted with more than two-thousand Pagodas big and small. This was the most important of the places on my list and so I spent three days here whizzing around on an e-bike from one Pagoda to another, and finding crazily outrageous murals in one to Tomb-Raider-esque experiences in another. Bagan is the place where one can easily spent a month without repeating same sights. But we had to come back so we took another overnight bus for Yangon.
Day 7 – Reached Yangon early morning, checked in and relaxed for few hours before heading out to visit the graves of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, which has been turned into a shrine since he was venerated as a saint posthumously. Then the other half of the day walking around the old part of the Yangon where building from the British times – Telegraph office, River Shipping Corporation, old Banks still stand. Yangon was the capital of Burma under the British and till 2006, when the Government decided to move to a small town Naypyidaw. Being the biggest and most populated city it still stands as the smorgasbord of Burma. Bengali traders and shops still stand to this day and none of the locals would consider us as foreigners. Many a times migrants from India who had settled generations ago would see us talking in Hindi or some other Indian language and would come to us and try to strike a conversation about old places they have heard of. In the evening time I visited the most sacred site in all of the country – Shwedagon Pagoda, which is supposed to hold eight hairs of Buddha, and three more sacred relics from previous incarnations of Buddha. During the evening times it is illuminated brilliantly and locals could be seen pouring water and milk over statues to venerate them. Archaeologists date it to be built between 6-10th century A.D and legend has it that it has been there in a different form for over 2,600 years, making it the oldest Pagoda in the world. It was time to sample the local delicacies for which the Downtown Yangon is the best place with delicious seafood dishes and that’s where I headed next. Small stalls selling satay sticks with various meats and sauces dotted around every corner with locals sitting around them on low stools. In retrospect I would say that contrary to what many find Yangon a bit drab, to me it felt as a history-buff’s paradise with old world charms and streets of an era that India got rid of due to the rapid development.
Since it was the monsoons I was not able to travel to the beachside places like Ngapali beach, time locked places like Mrauk-U and the jungles in the north. One has to understand that there is only a part a traveller can see, and the rest remains in wishes for the next time.
Myanmar is ready for tourism, with many small hotels opening up, English-speaking taxi drivers and friendly locals and an amazing variety of cuisine rich in influences from India and Thailand. It is ideal to visit it now, than later when it gets overrun by tourists and its charms lost away.
Mandalay – Smart Hotel – 2,300 INR for double room with breakfast
Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) – Grand Nyaung Shwe Hotel – 2,100 INR for double room with breakfast
Nyaung U (Bagan) – Bagan Empress Hotel – 2,500 INR for double room with breakfast
Yangon – Clover City Center Hotel – 3,200 INR for double room with breakfast