Yangon & Its Surrounding
Walk the streets of old Yangon to see leafy lanes and byways filled with enormous timber mansions decorated in the unique Myanmar style, where British captains of industry once lived. See century-old buildings with magnificent architecture, which act as reminders of Yangon’s past. The number of colonial buildings still standing in downtown Yangon is nothing short of spectacular. Myanmar’s isolation from the rest of the world during the years after independence resulted in a level of preservation that is unique in the region. It is heartening to see that at last, some of them are being restored to their former beauty. Yangon’s colonial streets are a showcase of the best, or most ostentatious, of colonial architecture an exuberant display of wealth and designer dexterity. The influence of Victorian and Edwardian architectural details made a deep impression on the local and Indian craftsmen, who embraced the styles wholeheartedly. Buildings developed an amazing hybrid style that resulted in an array of curlicue trims and turrets along with copulas and pergolas that adorn so many of the early buildings. Carved wood trims were also popular, all adding together to form an extraordinary architectural style unique to Myanmar. Yangon is perhaps the last authentic example of an Asian tropical city still featuring its former colonial origins, huge parks, shady trees and lakes and, of course, religious monuments. Of the latter, the most legendary, graceful and majestic of all is the Shwedagon Pagoda, built around 2,500 years ago.
Bago is renowned for a 55-metre-long reclining Buddha image, the beautiful golden Shwemawdaw Pagoda and many more religious monuments, such as the old ordination hall built by King Dhammazedi. It has lively market and just 10 minutes out of town one can see authentic scenes of rural life, such as yoked water buffaloes ploughing paddy fields. Bago can be reached easily by road; the 80-kilometre journey from Yangon takes about two hours. Situated on the road to Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda (Golden Rock) and Mawlamyine, Bago remains a quiet and easy-going town with a lot more bicycles and motorbikes than cars.
A small town that is well known for its pottery industry and cotton weaving, as well as its old Mon-style pagoda. The town is situated on – and gives its name to – the Twante Canal, which was constructed during the colonial period to improve access from Yangon to the Ayeyarwady delta. A ride on the canal offers contrasting images: the buzzing chaos in Yangon is replaced by the provincial calmness of the countryside only a few minutes outside the former capital.
Thanlyin is situated at the confluence of the Yangon and Bago Rivers. To the south of Thanlyin is a ridge named Utaringa Kon, better known locally as Shin Mwe Nun Kon, on which Kyaik Khauk Pagoda stands. The colonial town of Syriam was built by the British for its port and petroleum refinery plant. Today a sleepy town, it is a 30-minute drive from downtown Yangon across a 2-kilometre bridge.
Mandalay & it’s surrounding
Mandalay is the second-largest city in Myanmar and situated in the hot and dry central region of the country. It is considered the cultural centre of Myanmar and was the last royal capital. Surrounded by other ancient royal capitals, including Sagaing, Ava (Inwa) and Amarapura, Mandalay also acts as a base for sightseeing trips to these places of significance. In Mandalay, visitors can watch traditional handicrafts being made, such as kalaga tapestries, marionettes, bronze items and stone and wood carvings. Mandalay also houses the most revered Buddha statue in the country, the Maha Myat Muni image. The Buddha himself is said to have breathed on to the just-finished image, giving it some of the Buddha’s power. People believe that the image is somewhat “alive” and it is therefore treated with the utmost respect. Early each morning, monks and laypeople come to the pagoda to wash the image’s face and to make offerings of water, food, flowers, candles and incense. Another interesting sightseeing point in the city is the 230-metre Mandalay Hill, from where one has a scenic view of Mandalay and the surrounding plains, the Shan Mountains and the Ayeyarwady River. The hill is famous as a place to view beautiful sunsets. Mandalay Palace was destroyed by fire in 1945 and has been reconstructed in recent years and its grounds can be visited. Another interesting attraction is Kuthodaw Pagoda (also called the largest book in the world), built by King Mindon after the Fifth Buddhist Council, where he decided to inscribe the entire Buddhist Canon on 729 marble slabs. Mandalay has excellent air, road and river connections to all parts of Myanmar and is the ideal base from which to explore the rest of upper Myanmar.
Sagaing lies 21 kilometres southwest of Mandalay on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady river. Sagaing is a religious centre and in particular a place of meditation. A living centre of the Buddhist faith, Sagaing features some 600 Buddhist pagodas, temple and monasteries.
Amarapura is a southern suburb of Mandalay and lies on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady Rive. It is also known as Taung-myo (Southern Town) or Myo-haung (Old City). Founded by King Bodawpaya in 1783 as his new capital, Amarapura means “city of immortality”. Today most visitors come to walk on the world’s longest teak bridge; although a bit rickety in some parts, its 1700 huge teak pillars have withstood the storms and floods of the past two centuries. The 1.2-kilometre bridge is named after its donor, U Bein, and work began in 1782. Amarapura is also famous for its silk-weaving industry, which produces the akyeik longyi (skirt worn by both men and women) that are used in formal ceremonies.
Also known as Ava, Inwa is located 20 kilometres southwest of Mandalay across the Myitnge River and was the capital of the Myanmar kingdom for nearly 400 years. All the major buildings that were not destroyed during the earthquake of 1838 were transferred first to Amarapura and then to Mandalay when the capital moved. Only the 27-metre-high (90 feet) masonry Nan Myint watchtower, also known as the “learning tower of Ava” remains of the palace built by King Bagyidaw. The Bargaya teak monastery, famous for its 267 wooden pillars, can also still be seen.
Located across majestic Ayeyarwady River, about 12 kilometres north of Mandalay, Mingun is famous as the home of the world’s second-largest ringing bell, weighing 90 tonnes, as well as a giant unfinished pagoda. Mingun Payagyi was supposed to be the world’s largest monument, however what stands today could better be described as the world’s largest pile of bricks. A visit to Mingun invariably means a boat trip from Mandalay’s Gawwein jetty and takes about one hour upriver and 40 minutes downriver. With plenty of activity to see on the river, a boat trip to Mingun is a pleasant way to pass the morning or afternoon.
Monywa lies on the banks of the Chindwin River, about 140 kilometres northwest of Mandalay. It is the gateway for excursions to the cave temples of Pho Win Taung, situated across the river and usually reached by ferry. The caves are famous for their Buddha statues, mural paintings and wood carvings. There are quite a few legends surrounding the caves, mostly related to famous nat spirits. There are supposed to have been more than 400,000 Buddha image carved into the caves. Another highly regarded attraction is Thanbhodday (or Sambuddha Kat Kyaw) Pagoda, completed in 1951 after 12 years. There are about 800 small stupas on and around the pagoda, as well as 582,357 Buddha statues in and on the ceiling, walls, archways and niches of the building.
PYIN OO LWIN
At more than 1000 metres above sea level, Pyin Oo Lwin is a popular hill station about 70 kilometres from Mandalay on the fringe of the Shan plateau. It is well known for its colonial-style houses with large compound and pine trees, eucalyptus and silver-oak abound in town. Delightfully cool and pleasant the whole year round, in sharp contrast to the rest of upper Myanmar.
Bagan & It’s Surrounding
Bagan is one of the richest archaeological and historical sites in Asia, featuring more than 2,000 pagodas and temples all set on a vast plain beside the legendary Ayeyarwady River. During the Bagan era (11th to 13th centuries), Burmese was written for the first time and it was at Bagan that the modern form of Buddhism – still practised widely today – developed. The city was the seat of religious learning of both the clergy and laity. Mingalazedi was one of the last great stupas to be erected at Bagan and is a fine example of the skills of the Bagan temple builders. It is also a favourite spot to catch the sunset. Foreign visitors to Bagan can be found on the steep steps waiting for the magical moment; as the sun sinks behind the Ayeyarwady, cameras click can be heard almost continuously. Bagan now features a variety of good hotels and is also the starting and ending point for cruises on the Ayeyarwady River to and from Mandalay. A unique travel experience is a hot-air balloon ride over the archaeological zone, which is available during the winter months.
Mount Popa is an extinct volcano and at 1500 metres is the highest point in the Bago Yoma mountain range. The main attraction of the region, however, is the smaller, 730-metre conic rock Popa Taungkalat. Also known as the “Olympus of the Nats” because it is the home to Myanmar’s legendary 37 “Nats” (animist spirits), one hast to climb 700 steps accompanied by a crowd of monkeys to reach the top of the volcanic plug, with its many shrines and monastery. This effort is also rewarded with an extraordinary panoramic view of the surrounding landscape. Around the area of Mount Popa is Popa National Park, which features dense sandalwood forests and rare species of birds and butterflies – certainly worth a walk or trek. Other attractions include two important “Nat Pwes” (or festivals) held each year – one in May-June and the other in November-December – when people from all parts of the country come to appease and worship the spirits. These spirits are evoked by so-called “Natkadaws” (mediums), who offer their bodies to individual ants. The nats still play an important part in many people’s lives in spite of the dominance of Buddhism.
Visitors to Bagan often make the 40-kilometre trip south to visit Salay, an ancient town rich in Myanmar culture. Also located on the banks of the great Ayeyarwady River, another pleasurable way to reach Salay is by one of the small motor boats available for hire at Bu Paya jetty. It is worth visiting for it’s exceptional 18th century wood carved monastery, known as Yoke Son.
Inle Lake & its surrounding
Inle Lake is roughly 20 kilometres long and an outstanding natural and cultural attraction. One of its many unique features is the cultivation of floating gardens where flowers as well as tomatoes, beans and cucumbers grow. Local villages and markets make interesting sightseeing spots, while visitors also enjoy mouth-dropping sunrises and sunsets over the Shan mountains. Every year, on the eve of the full moon day in October, the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival is held, which sees the pagoda’s revered Buddha images displayed on the golden Karaweik – a replica of the ancient royal barge – and taken to villages around the lake. Unlike most other pagoda festivals in Myanmar, which typically run for about three days, the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival goes for 18 days, and also includes boat races that attract spectators near and far. The races provide exciting additional entertainment and are well worth watching, with separate events held for men and women.
Kalaw was a favourite hill station during the colonial era and today is a picturesque town, surrounded by pine forests and with some of Myanmar’s most beautiful gardens. Kalaw offers good trekking and hiking possibilities to neighbouring hill tribe villages, some of which still function the same as they did centuries ago. Fans of natural beauty will feel sated here, and the road between Kalaw and Pindaya offers particularly breathtaking views of the landscape.
Pindaya is situated at about 1,200 metres above sea level and is surrounded by hill tribe villages. Its main attraction is a natural limestone cave that has more than 8,000 Buddha images, made of wood, marble, lacquer, brick, stone and bronze. Devoted Buddhist pilgrims have placed the images over the centuries and the collection is unique and well worth seeing. Pindaya also features the picturesque Boutaloke Lake, which is set amongst huge old trees. A major handicraft industry in Pindaya is umbrella manufacturing. Handmade from paper, the umbrellas can be seen in several workshops in town.
Taunggyi is the capital of Shan State and has a population of approximately 200,000, making it the fourth-largest city in Myanmar. Taunggyi sits at an elevation of 1,400 metres above sea level and its name means “big mountain” in Burmese language, a reference to a ridge on the east side of the city. Although it is located in Shan State, Shans do not make up the majority of the city’s population, with the Intha and Pa-O dominating. Prior to British colonisation, Taunggyi was a small village of a few huts. Lying on a wide shoulder of the Sintaung Hills of the Shan Plateau, it was populated by the Pa-O at that time. The signs of the original village of Taunggyi are long gone, but nearby villages can still be discerned quite easily. During British occupation, the town became the chief city and capital of the Southern Shan States. Taunggyi’s modern development began in 1894, when the British moved their administrative offices from Maing Thuak (Fort Stedman) on the eastern shores of Inle Lake to the higher elevation of Taunggyi, for health and geographical reasons. Although geographically within the state of Yawnghwe, the town was denoted as a “notified area” by the British, exempt from the administration of the Sawbwa, the hereditary Shan ruler. By 1906 the town had 1000 houses. Because of civil unrest throughout the Shan States during the early 20th centuary, Taunggyi served as the chief garrison for the military police.
In recent years the previously hidden Kekku Pagoda has become one of the most visited places in southern Shan State. It is situated near Mway Taw village in Taunggyi town
ship, about 25 kilometres from Taunggyi proper.
Sittwe & Mrauk U
Arriving at Sittwe makes you step back in time, with an airport consisting of just one room with ceiling fans. A port city, Sittwe served as a major trading point with India during the time of the British. Sittwe boasts several interesting pagodas and an exceptional monastery with a wonderful collection of Buddha images, some dating back to the 15th century when Mrauk Oo reached its zenith. Sittwe’s main importance for tourists lies in the fact that it is the starting point for a boat journey on the Kaladan River to the ancient capital and important archaeological site of Mrauk U. Most of the sites in Mrauk U date back to the 15th and 16th centuries, such as Shittaung Pagoda, which was built by King Minbin in 1535 and remains the main attraction for visitors. As well as a host of other pagodas, the ruins of the royal palace and the remains of the city walls are worthwhile sightseeing points.
Balmy days spent lolling on the golden sands of Ngapali make a fitting end to a rigorous tour of Myanmar’s upcountry region. Languorous palm trees, soft waves, excellent cuisine and comfortable chalets make Ngapali Beach a preferred destination. Ngapali is the sort of resort that beach-lovers dream about: peaceful and idyllic without too much to do besides enjoying the sea, sand and the quiet rural surroundings. It offers beach resorts of an international standard along with water activities and many facilities, such as international restaurants, pool bars and beauty spas. Evenings are spent enjoying fresh seafood at magically cheap prices at the local restaurants. There are regular airline services between Ngapali and Yangon. During the high season there are usually also connections from Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake.
NGWE SAUNG BEACH
A relatively new destination on Myanmar’s tourism map, Ngwe Saung Beach offers its visitors unspoiled beaches and tranquillity on the edge of the Bay of Bengal. Hoteliers at the beach recently marked the 10th anniversary of its establishment as a tourism destination and from humble beginnings Ngwe Saung boasts more than a dozen top-class hotels. The beach can be reached by car from the capital Yangon in approximately five hours and the journey takes travellers across the wide alluvial Ayeyarwaddy delta region. A stop can be included in Pathein, a busy trading town on the banks of the Pathein River. As an alternative to road travel, it is possible to travel from Yangon to Pathein by boat, which will see you float through picturesque scenery, passing by the many houses and villages that dot the river banks. The vast and fertile Ayeyarwaddy Delta is connected to countless larger and smaller river tributaries; it’s an ideal area for rice cultivation. Ngwe Saung Beach is a jewel for independent travellers seeking nothing more but sand, sea and tranquillity.
With fine, beige sand backed by coconut palms trees, Chaungtha Beach lies 40 kilometres west of Pathein. It is about five hours drive from Yangon. Visitors often enjoy a visit to Chaungtha Beach before they wind up their trip to Myanmar. Chaungtha is more popular with local visitors so expect a more lively and raucous experience.
Situated in the delta of the Ayeyarwady River, Pathein is the most important port for trade in the delta r egion. The region is the heart of Myanmar’s paddy cultivation industry but Pathein remains a peaceful little town with a scenic waterfront, many Chinese and Myanmar temples and umbrella workshops. The city’s colourful handmade umbrellas are famous all over Myanmar and are traditionally used by monks and nuns. Located some 190 kilometres west of Yangon, Pathein can be reached in three hours by road or by overnight ferry through the alluvial Ayeyarwady delta.