With Myanmar opening its doors to the world, discover a pristine land that hasn’t yet been overrun by tourists
For decades, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) had been isolated from the rest of the world by its military regime. But with the release of pro-democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, lifting of international economic sanctions and the Junta’s efforts to align the country with the modern world, the mystique of Asia’s hidden gem is finally poised to step into the spotlight.
Visiting this country presents a thrill quite unlike some of its overly commercialised tourist-centric neighbours. Myanmar’s infrastructure is admittedly relatively immature and the tourism industry still in its infancy but that only adds to the thrill and excitement of discovering uncharted territory.
Despite having withstood one of the harshest regimes in modern history, the country has managed to keep intact a precious treasure — its people. Thankfully, their sincere and friendly dispositions haven’t succumbed to the usual vagaries of commercialism, yet. As the world’s most religious Buddhist country, this ethnically diverse nation (with as many as 35 distinct ethnic groups) boasts one of the lowest tourist crime records. Few places in the world will make you feel as welcome as Myanmar.
It entices with its spectacular monuments and ancient cities, virgin jungles, snow-capped mountains and pristine beaches — in other words, all the traditional delights of Asia, and more. Here are my top five favourites.
Golden Rock on Mt Kyaiktiyo, Bagan
This 25ft-high pagoda built atop a gold leaf-covered granite boulder defies the laws of gravity, perpetually appearing to be on the verge of rolling down Mt. Kyaiktiyo. Legend has it that the rock is precariously perched on a strand of the Buddha’s hair.
Dotted with over 4,000 stupas, this centuries-old religious capital of ancient empires and home to bygone emperors is considered to be one of the richest and most impressive archaeological sites in south-east Asia. Hop on a hot air balloon to witness a breathtaking sunrise or sunset over the stupas and get a bird’s-eye view of their magnificence and the mighty Ayeyarwaddy River.
Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon
One can’t help but be awed and humbled by Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist pagoda. Dominating the capital’s skyline, the largest and oldest golden monument in the world glitters at the break of dawn, radiates a calming glow during the day and reflects the deep red of the setting sun at dusk. It houses the relics of Gautama Buddha (eight strands of his hair) and three other Buddhas who preceded him.
Romanticised for posterity by Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, Mandalay, the last royal capital of the Burmese kingdom was, and still is, the cultural centre of the country. In the old royal city, rich in palaces, stupas, temples and pagodas, the once-stupendous Mandalay Palace and the largest man-made book housed in Kuthodaw Pagoda are not to be missed.
Surrounded by magnificent views of the blue mountain ranges and paddy fields, Inle Lake is most popular for its scenic photo ops. The shallow freshwater lake is home to the Inthas, who live on stilt houses on or beside the lake. You won’t be wrong in thinking that this is heaven on earth as you relax in one of the many luxury resorts here, watching the fascinating floating gardens and residents paddling around in long boats at a leisurely pace.
Getting there: There are no direct flights from Hyderabad.
Air India flies from Kolkata to Yangon twice a week.
Fares start from approximately Rs.25,000.
Time difference: IST + 1 hour
Currency: Rs.1 = 16 Kyat (pronounced chat). Not all places accept credit cards, so cash in hand is a better option.
Visa: Required for Indians. Can be obtained from the Embassy of Myanmar in Delhi.
Connectivity: Internet and mobile access are a bit of a hit-and-miss. But then if you’re on holiday you won’t be needing them anyway!