Burmese Days

Smiling people, dazzling temples, urban sights and rural delights. The buzzing energy of this emerging economy makes Myanmar a seductive travel destination. Brian Johnston tells us all about this alluring region.

Yangon (once Rangoon) is many travellers’ introduction to Myanmar. Concrete and humidity rise, but street markets and Buddha-laden temples linger. Streets are lively with open-fronted restaurants. This blend of history and contemporary buzz sets Myanmar apart: expect ancient palaces and grand golden temples, but also neon-lit shops and modern cafes and restaurants in a country on the cusp of change. Emerging from 50 years of inertia, Myanmar transitions between past and present. 

Yangon’s highlight is Shwedagon Pagoda, a stunning pile of stupas atop a city-centre hill. Myanmar’s most important religious sight is draped in 28 tons of gold leaf. An endless perambulation of flip-flopping monks and ladies in silk circle to pray amid an enticing clash of discotheque glitter, gaudy architecture and serene Buddhas.

Finding the Centre
Central Myanmar has two big drawcards. Inle Lake is encircled by mountains and bird-haunted marshland that dissolves into a web of canals. From every vantage-point you see a gleam of gold pagodas. Fishermen’s villages hover on stilts, and farmers tend to astonishing market gardens afloat on clumps of reed. Tribal villagers are bright with colour in the markets and on the lake, where they row boats with a foot-operated oar.

Mandalay is Myanmar’s former royal capital and still its spiritual centre. Temple-dotted hills surround a moated palace complex and lively market streets. Just up-river, Amarapura is a centre for craftspeople such as Buddha makers, wood carvers and the weavers who create the shimmering silk longyis worn so gracefully by Burmese women. Nearby, pedestrians walk between lake and sunset sky across venerable teak U-Bein Bridge.

River of Life
Between blue hills and golden temple spires winking in the sun’s warmth, the magnificent Irrawaddy River meanders through Mandalay and the heart of Myanmar. Exploring this country by river is ideal for easy access to the iconic sites, and the luxurious Irrawaddy Explorer makes for a cool and calm retreat. The Irrawaddy has always been a transport artery, and its banks are a passing scroll of Burmese history, culture and a thousand smiling Buddhas.

You barely have to cruise half a day downstream before the first treat arrives. Ava has been a royal capital four times, yet its monasteries and stupas are set in an almost rural landscape. Shadowy teak Bagaya Monastery is a delight, carved with lotus-flower and peacock patterns. Further afield is trading town Monywa, where nearly 500 Buddha statues are carved into Hpowindaung Caves. The river showcases everyday life too, in villages such as Yandabo, known for its centuries-old pottery works, or Hnaw Kone, where bamboo-cane baskets are made.

Beautiful Bagan
The Irrawaddy’s plains around Bagan are a remarkable sight, dotted with 2,000 pagodas dating back to the 11th century, some burnished with gold, many in picturesque ruins. Some remain active village temples. Whatever way you admire them, it will have you feeling like Indiana Jones. An oxcart ride provides roughshod beauty and encounters with school children and passing monks. A hot-air balloon ride is a serene float above a glorious, mountain-fringed landscape.

Among highlight temples is Shwezigon Pagoda, the forerunner of all Burmese-style pagodas, with its golden stupa and small surrounding shrines; Ananda Temple with its four giant Buddhas; and terraced Shwesandaw Pagoda with its unbeatable sunset views of one of the world’s greatest architectural ensembles, patch-worked in farmer’s fields and red-earth tracks, and backed by purple hills – simply incredible! 

Southern Charms
The chance to explore Myanmar’s daily scenes as well as monuments is one of the delights of cruising here. Life unfolds along the riverbanks. At destinations such as Mingun, Bagan and Magwe, you can plunge into street markets teetering with buckets of water-splashed vegetables, bundles of sugarcane and betel leaves, and nose-twitching dried fish. You can investigate thanaka, the tree bark used to create the white cosmetic paste smeared on Burmese women’s faces. 

Markets are a great way to learn about the fresh, and often fruity, Burmese ingredients. The cuisine is a highlight of any visit, from noodles to rich curries, grilled river prawns to the odd joys of fermented tea leaf salad, or Shan-inspired papaya salad. 

South of Bagan, the Irrawaddy flows on between great sandbanks and green farmland. Village life is an always-changing spectacle of fishing villages and farmer’s fields, orange-robed monks and flaking temples, trundling oxcarts and floppy-eared cattle. At graceful religious centre Salay, yet more picturesque monasteries (one contains Myanmar’s largest Buddha, made of lacquer covered in gold) are interspersed with sedate colonial-era buildings.

As you sail downstream, Pyay (or Prome) is your last stop before you return to Yangon. It’s long been an important trading town, which has bequeathed it a lively riverfront and spectacular hilltop Shwesandaw Pagoda, which blends expansive views with a cluster of golden stupas. Like all Myanmar destinations, it provides a fascinating window onto a nation at a moment of great change. Go now to experience Myanmar’s age-old charms and old-fashioned atmosphere, but rejoice in the country’s newfound sense of energy and transformation, too.

Evergreen’s Irrawaddy River Cruise program starts in February 2019.