Incredibly, over 100 years later, Kipling’s Burma still has the capacity to excite and delight even the most seasoned adventurer. Quite simply, there is no one word or single image that can capture the chimera that is Myanmar today. In the north, snow-capped mountain peaks are home to the Kachin people; out west, the Muslim Arakanese continue their centuries-old quest for recognition; down south, in the Mergui Archipelago, the nomadic Moken people or “sea gypsies” follow the fish. With the relaxing of visa restrictions and the introduction of visas online, now is most certainly the time to visit this magical place, where centuries-old customs still prevail, where sunsets are splashes of gold on pale purple skies and where the landscape reveals hidden treasures around every corner.
 

People

When meeting the people of Myanmar, be prepared to be greeted with a huge smile. Predominantly Theravada Buddhists, they are warm, welcoming and inherently hospitable. The population is made up of over 135 ethnic groups who remain rooted in the traditional ways of Asia. As a result, exploring Myanmar can often feel like you've travelled there not by plane, train or boat, but by time machine, propelling you back a hundred years into the past. The country, for example, has yet (many would say fortunately) to be taken over by Western fashion. Instead, you'll see men wearing the skirt-like longyi, women wearing thanaka, a traditional face paint which is yellowish-white in colour and has been worn for over 2,000 years, and betel-chewing grandmothers with blackened teeth and mouths full of blood-red juice. Many people still travel in trishaws and, in the rural areas of the country, horse and cart.

Places

With the first democratic elections for over 2 decades, Myanmar is now opening up to the world. Rich in history and culture, there is much to see and much to do for the traveller visiting for the first time. However, if you only have limited time to spend, these 4 destinations are an absolute must.
  
Yangon
A gateway to Myanmar, former official capital Yangon is the country’s largest city with a population of 6 million, a wealth of tree-lined avenues, lakes, parks and a bustling city centre of colourful market stalls. In nearly every direction you look, you will see a glittering golden pagoda, the most famous and the most magnificent unquestionably being the 2,500 year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, the iconic landmark of Myanmar, and a must for every visitor. Also a must is the Bogyoke Aung San market (or Scott’s Market) and trying mohinga, the unofficial national dish of Myanmar. A thick, luscious fish stew flavoured with lemongrass, turmeric and pepper and usually served for breakfast, it’s the perfect way to start exploring the city, so keep a look out for the hawkers who sell mohinga on almost every street.
  
Mandalay
Another gateway to Myanmar, Mandalay was the last Royal Capital of Myanmar and is still considered the centre of Burmese culture with a wide variety of craft workshops and arts performances. A bustling, dusty city, ringed with ancient monuments, the first thing that strikes you is that ‘the spicy garlic smells’ of Kipling’s famous poem, are still very much present. Maybe because whilst Mandalay’s Burmese population largely belongs to the dominant Bamar race, the city’s proximity to the rural Shan State has contributed to the local cuisine. Try local delicacies like the garlic-laden shan tohu (chickpea-flour tofu fritters) and wet tha chin (minced pork in rice). Then, wend your way along the geometrically laid out streets to find hidden temples, churches and mosques with the sacred Mandalay Hill towering over them.
  
Bagan
Built by King Anawrahta in 1044 and the capital of Myanmar’s first dynasty, Bagan is one of the world’s greatest archeological sites, a rival to Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat. The magnificent Unesco-restored temple architecture, sublime mural and fresco paintings, brilliant stucco carvings, and breathtaking Buddha images, all tell the history of the fascinating ancient Bagan dynasties. The setting is glorious – a green-covered, 42 square-kilometre plain, part-covered with groups of palm and tamarind, caught in a curve of the slow-flowing Ayeyarwady river and framed by the misty silver of far-away mountains. Only a handful of the temples are visited regularly, and though the number of tourist is on the increase and hawkers are beginning to appear, Bagan remains, compared to sites of a similar beauty and importance, a gloriously unspoilt destination.
  
Inle Lake
Situated in the Shan State, 1000 metres above sea level the home of the Intha people and many other ethnic minorities, every traveller to Myanmar should take a boat trip on Inle Lake if time allows. A wide lake with a host of villages on stilts against a background of misty mountain ranges, fishermen in their shallow boats cast their cone-shaped bamboo down in the lake to trap the fish, and the lake dwellers tend to their floating gardens - growing flowers or tomatoes, chillies, cauliflowers and other vegetables - from their canoes. Watch out for the flat-bottomed skiffs navigating their way around, propelled by the unique Intha technique of leg rowing – in which one leg is wrapped around the paddle to drive the blade through the water in a snake-like motion.
  

Pleasures

One of the greatest pleasures of Myanmar is the cuisine. Formed from ethnic inputs, it’s a mixture of Thai, Chinese and Indian food with common dishes being curries (hin) , steamed vegetables, seasoned onions and rice and noodles. Most dishes are flavoured with garlic, ginger and chilli peppers and an ubiquitous local ingredient, nagapi, a pungent fish or shrimp paste. The side dishes that accompany them offer something for everyone; pickled vegetables, balachaung (dried shrimp mashed with garlic), my gyi ywet Thoke (an utterly delicious salad of young tamarind leaves) or Thoke Phet, a refreshing salad of tea leaves with tomatoes and peanuts. Other local favourites include Onnokauswe (noodles cooked in coconut milk with chicken or pork), and Shan Noodles (rice noodles stir-fried with chicken in bean sauce, topped with chopped roasted peanut, bean sprouts, cabbage, scallions and chilli flakes). When eating in a local restaurant, remember that the way to attract the attention of a server is to make a kissing sound with your lips! Drinking tea – a legacy from British colonial days – is also a highly popular pastime in the thousands of traditional teahouses scattered through Myanmar’s towns, cities and villages. In terms of nightlife, enjoying it in Myanmar can be something of a challenge. In fact, compared to other SouthEast Asian destinations, it can appear somewhat subdued. Nevertheless, the bigger cities do have pubs, clubs and discos, the best of which can generally be found in the 5-star hotels.
  

Do

Take off your shoes when entering any temples or a private space. Introduce yourself, or offer or accept an item, by placing one hand firmly under the elbow of your extended arm.
Exchange your money at the bank, rather than the airport or your hotel. You will get a much better rate.
Have cash readily available as very few places accept credit cards. Learn basic words like “Ming-la-ba” (“Have an auspicious day”) and “Je-su-ba” (“Thank you”). It will be appreciated.
Be aware that WiFi is slow and patchy. In heavy rain, the signal often shuts down completely.
  

Don’t

Wear shorts when visiting a temple or pagoda.
Sit with your back to an image of Buddha.
Refuse hospitality. It is considered highly impolite.
Bother getting a SIM card. For foreigners, it could cost as much as US$200 for a SIM.
Touch a woman or someone’s head. It is a grave insult.
Step on a monk’s shadow or point your feet at him. In addition, women should not touch a monk.
  

Best time to go

Like much of South-East Asia, Myanmar's dry season runs from October through to May and the wet season from May/June through to early October, when the south-west monsoon starts to blow. Do note that at the peak of the wet season, some regions can become almost totally inaccessible and some, such as Ngapali Beach, close altogether in preparation for the high winds and heavy rainfall that annually batter the coast. Within each season there are variations in temperature, with the dry months leading up to the wet season (March and April) and the early wet season (May and June) usually being the hottest of the year when temperatures may exceed 110°F (43° C). The colder months follow the end of the rains, from October to December/January, when it is cool in the foothills and highland areas, especially at night. The driest regions of the country, avoiding much of the annual rain, are the plains surrounding Bagan and Mandalay which remain relatively dry aside from the odd heavy downpour, all the way through to August.
  

Best way to go

Whether you’re looking for adrenaline-packed adventures along the way or just total relaxation, one of the best ways to travel Myanmar is by boat. Cruise the turquoise waters of the Andaman sea, maybe taking in a spot of fishing or scuba diving as you go, or simply lie back and enjoy the stunning scenery as the world floats by. Choose from a timeless wooden sailing yacht, an elegant catamaran, a magnificent schooner or any of the beautifully equipped vessels.
Tags
Myanmar