It vies for the title of most photogenic country on earth. Bigger than Thailand, with a similar size population, Myanmar has through years of international financial sanctions fallen behind the rest of the region in terms of influence and standing, with a military government that didn't tolerate threats to its authority. Nevertheless it has some of the region's most variegated scenery _ from mountain trekking to pristine beaches _ stunning temples and sites, delicious food, and the great sincerity and beauty of its people.
On April 1, national elections put Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi _ whose National League for Democracy party won the 1990 elections only to be barred from power as Mrs Suu Kyi was subjected to 21 years of on-off house arrest _ in parliament, the military continued to loosen its hold on government somewhat, and the US and Europe began easing sanctions.
While the transition to democracy will likely be long and fraught with difficulty _ such as last month's flaring of ethnic violence in Rakhine State _ the stage is set for a unique travel experience, to a place that is truly different, with a rich culture and tradition less tempered by hectic postmodernity than most of Asia, making it both very foreign and very familiar.
RETURN TO YANGON
It has been five years since our last visit to Yangon _ the country's economic and cultural centre, if not its capital, which moved to Nay Pyi Taw in 2005 _ and on the surface little seems to have changed. The delicious Indian restaurants of Anawrahta Road, lakeside vistas of Inya and Kandawgyi, roving money changers at the lively Bogyoke Aung San Market, the pubs of Lanmadaw Street and favourite coffee shops and tea stalls from our last visit are still here. And of course the national symbol that is Shwedagon Paya (pagoda), glowing majestically in the night sky. No new skyscrapers, no horizon littered with construction cranes. There is a new 5,000 kyat note (200 baht, the highest denomination of local currency, though 10,000 kyat notes are also set to be introduced), a bit of inflation, a slight rise in tourist numbers and a few new restaurants.
Electricity still fluctuates, there are still potholes in the roads, utilities work haphazardly and infrastructure is in places rudimentary. During our visit there was a protest at Sule Paya in downtown Yangon, with people upset by the continued power fluctuations. Their permit to assemble was denied, and the dozens gathered anyway, in a show of defiance that a few years ago might have been brutally suppressed. It also suggests another marked change that bodes well for democracy _ that people will hold politicians to their campaign promises.
The biggest difference in the city, however, seems to be one of mood. There are new art galleries, bars and bands, new artistic and cultural ventures into the unknown. A gestation of ideas, hopes and possibilities, slowly taking form, translate into a new optimism, the notion that the near future will be better than the recent past.
THE BIG FOUR
Because it lies off of most of the hyped travel circuits, the grandness of the monuments, the opulence of temple complexes and former palaces never fail to surprise the first-time visitor. It's hard to describe the country without using an array of superlatives and it's hard to take a bad photograph. The landscape and people are irresistible, with a sincerity little affected by social conditioning; smiles are smiles, resentment might be equally frank.
Travellers speak of the ''big four'' destinations of Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan. These could easily be expanded to include Bago and Kyaiktiyo's precariously balanced Golden Rock, as well as the southern beaches, a ''golden half dozen'' of sorts.
One problem for the visitor, however, remains the distances involved, and the country's dysfunctional infrastructure. Roads are poor, buses break down, in the rainy season rivers swell into the towns. Flying remains the most convenient way to reach places such as Inle Lake in Shan State, with its floating markets, fishing using ageless techniques and traditional handicrafts.
Once reached, Inle is scenic and unique. It can feel like a tourist trap at moments, as boat tours of the lake take you past several handicraft workshops and markets as a way to maximise commissions. The tours are inexpensive, though, a way for locals to get by, and there is no pressure to buy anything. Seeing the artisans at work _ making silverware or lacquerware or pounding lotus fibre into cloth _ can be fascinating. And the fishermen on the way, towing the oars of the canoes with their legs, lowering conical nets into the water, and abundance of waterbirds seen against the setting sun, provide an inimitable visual backdrop.
The ruins of Bagan take days to explore. Bagan is Myanmar's Angkor or Sukhothai, or for that matter the Giza Pyramids _ a former capital sprinkled with immense relics of a bygone age. Hundreds of pagodas sprinkle the landscape as farmers and herders plant their crops or graze cattle in their shadows. There are no high-rise developments in the vicinity, and the sense is of rural timelessness rather than abandonment. The sun can be brutal, though, with wind and dust layering the inside of the throat, so the tour groups mainly make appearances at sunrise and sunset. Take your camera to the top of a pagoda, claim your viewpoint, and watch as the lowering sun casts layers of gold and red against the purple landscape.
Nearly as impressive is the northern commercial centre and former capital of Mandalay. The incredible density of monasteries and temples means half of the country's monks and nuns live in the area. A bustling city, the food on offer is high in quality and the prices lower than in Yangon. Decent roads and trains between Mandalay and Yangon have improved the transport options. Day trips to surrounding communities such as the U Bein Bridge, the world's longest teak bridge at Amarapuram, mean you could spend a week here without running out of fascinating excursions. Kuthodaw Pagoda has the world's largest book in its 729 stupas, and Mandalay Palace and Mandalay Hill are rich in cultural significance. Watching the sun set into the moat waters of the palace or the river in the evenings alone makes a visit worthwhile. Mandalay is also the home base of the Moustache Brothers, a comedic trio who still give performances despite spending several years in and out of prison for satires of the government that hit a little too closely to home.
A STEP FORWARD
Although the military may have loosened its grip slightly on power, it maintains considerable political and economic influence. Many hotels, domestic airlines, companies, lucrative properties and high-end restaurants remain owned by senior military figures, in whole or in part.
With the easing of sanctions, in the short term the generals are likely to benefit even further, as the economy grows and their side enterprises benefit.
George Orwell wrote in Burmese Days in 1934 with sympathy for the local population and criticism for the patronising attitude and hypocrisy of the colonial system, one that was ''undermining the better side of human nature''. Now that the second colonialism _ by its own military _ is easing its grip, Myanmar has a chance to rise again to former glories.
Thais might imagine Myanmar through filters of other contexts, as a former invader that sacked Ayutthaya, or as a provider of cheap labour for construction in the North, maids in the capital and workers in fisheries, among other examples of legal or illegal migrant work. But Myanmar is so much more. A cliche is to speak of the country in temporal terms: ''It's like Thailand 30 years ago.'' In that case, visit the country before it catches up; it has much to offer that other places in their rush to progress have forgotten. Hopefully Myanmar will remain itself, inimitable, beautiful and grand.
If you have a few days to spare, travel by boat or train. The journey up the Irrawaddy River to Bagan takes five days, and more remote outposts can be very rewarding. Or a day journey without a destination can be a great way to spend a day. For US$1 (31 baht) you can take a circular train on a three-hour journey around Yangon, ending where you started, but it takes you through the urban centre, suburbs and rice fields as it carries people to work, school or market. An easy way to catch a glimpse of delta life is simply to take a ferry (also $1) across the river and back.
If you have the luxury of time, there's no need to rush through scenery this intense.
YANGON TREASURES: Above left, a novice monk at Chaukhtatgyi Temple, which houses a little visited 72m-long reclining Buddha (above); below, local transport; and right and far right, at Shwedagon Paya.
BAGAN’S BOUNTY OF WONDERS: The hundreds of pagodas (top, and above left and right) dating from the 11th century in rural Bagan, and, in town (left), a monk collecting alms.
INLE: Above, lakeside temple; below, children and local transport; right, floating market.
THE ROAD TO MANDALAY: Right, Kuthodaw Paya; far right, Mandalay Palace at dusk; below and below right, two kinds of taxis for excursions.
Yangon is a 90-minute flight from Bangkok on THAI (from around 10,000 baht return), Bangkok Airways, AirAsia (5,000 baht) or Myanmar Airways International. Twenty-eight-day tourist visas are available at the Myanmar embassy on Pan Road or, as of June 1, for some business travellers on arrival at Yangon-Mingaladon Airport, though this should be confirmed in advance through a travel agency.
The country has no ATM machines, and at the time of visiting even five-star hotels weren't accepting credit cards. Travellers' cheques are likewise unlikely to be useful. Bring enough cash to last the duration of your visit, ideally in US dollars, which are widely used and accepted and the easiest currency to exchange to kyat, although only crisp, new notes are accepted. Most hotels and airlines will ask for payment in dollars, while most restaurants or shops will bill in kyat. Official exchange rates have edged closer to black market ones, and money can be changed at major hotels, banks or exchange bureaus such as at Bogyoke Aung San Market. Despite the necessity of carrying large amounts of cash around, in terms of the likelihood of street crime Yangon is one of the safest big cities in Asia.
Most hotels include breakfast and are slightly more expensive than similar categories in Bangkok, such as the five-star Parkroyal Hotel (from around $100) or the simple but homey Three Seasons Hotel ($20).
Major destinations within the country are covered by domestic flights, buses and trains. There are a range of domestic carriers to choose from, including Air Mandalay, Air Bagan, Asian Wings or Myanmar Airways, with one-way flights costing around $100 or less. Mandalay, Bagan and Yangon are connected by the Ayeyarwady River, and boat is a more time-consuming but relaxing and scenic way to journey.
About the author
- Writer: Ezra Kyrill Erker