Myanmar — known as Burma until 1989 — is the most enigmatic country in Southeast Asia. Enfolded by jungle-clad hills, its central river valleys were for centuries the heartland of a classical civilization little known by the outside world. The democratic reforms which began following Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2010 are now slowly but steadily transforming the country and the future is looking bright.
After 50 years in the economic doldrums, Myanmar remains locked in a kind of time warp. The former capital, Yangon (Rangoon), may be sprouting skyscrapers, but elsewhere horse-carts outnumber cars. Walking the streets of Mandalay in the early morning, you’ll see hundreds of monks queuing for alms and young women with fragrant thanaka paste smeared over their faces. Beautifully patterned batik sarongs are worn by nearly all women, and most men. The everyday smells in the street can be just as strikingly unfamiliar, along with the wonderful flavors of Burmese cooking, with its pungent mix of spices, seafood sauces, limes and fresh green leaves.
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Myanmar has more world class monuments than you could possibly see on a 28-day tourist visa, a wealth of vibrant arts and crafts traditions and, not least, inhabitants whose resilience, gentleness and hospitality impress every visitor.
Much of the country is now completely open to foreign tourists, although some areas (mainly in the east and far north) still require a permit to visit. Exploring Myanmar on a pre-organized tour is a convenient option, saving you the hassle of dealing with the country’s rudimentary and antiquated transport infrastructure.
A typical 18-day package tour will take in the main highlights, usually featuring the “Big Four” (Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan) with perhaps a side trip to Ngapali Beach or a night or two on a luxury cruiser down the majestic Irrawaddy River.
Five sights not to miss:
1. Shwedagon Pagoda
This gigantic golden stupa is the supreme symbol of Burmese Buddhism and national pride.
Around 2,200 ancient religious buildings are on the arid Plains of Bagan, one of Southeast Asia’s greatest archaeological sites.
3. Golden Rock Pagoda
Teetering on the rim of a clifftop in the coastal hills of Mon State, this extraordinary gilded boulder ranks among the country’s most magical pilgrimage sites.
4. Inle Lake
“One-legged” Intha rowers, floating gardens, stilt villages, ancient Shan stupa complexes and beautiful scenery are just some of the attractions of this lake in the Shan Hills.
5. Mrauk U
This amazing lost city of ruined temples, palaces and shrines is hidden away in the remote west of the country
For more advice on traveling in Myanmar, go to www.insightguides.com.