Jul 28, 2016

The Golden Land

Discover the exotic beauty of Myanmar, which until recently was untouched by tourism.

British poet Rudyard Kipling said it best, Myanmar ‘is quite unlike any place you know about.

Though known as Burma at the time of Kipling’s visit in 1898, today’s holidaymakers to the South East Asian nation are discovering just how right he was with its floating gardens, unspoilt beaches, glittering pagodas and thriving Buddhist culture putting it on the must-visit hot list since military rule ended in 2011.

More and more overseas visitors are being drawn to Myanmar’s fascinating cultural attractions both on land and water – numbers to the ethnically diverse nation have jumped by one million each year since tourism restrictions were lifted, reaching three million in 2014.

Though new infrastructure, cruise ships and hotels are furiously being built and opened to cater for the world’s fascination with the Buddhist nation, Myanmar’s tourism industry is still developing. 

Though many international hotel chains are building new accommodation in cities and regional resort areas, demand for western style facilities continues to race ahead of supply in some regions.

Its biggest cities – Yangon and Mandalay – attract the bulk of holidaymakers at present with their proliferation of ornate, gold-leaf gilded pagodas and monasteries making it easy to see how the nation became known as the Golden Land.

Few architectural wonders anywhere embody the golden splendour of Burma more than the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon’s major tourist attraction. As one of the most famous Buddhist shrines in the world, Shwedagon attracts pilgrims from all over Asia and though debate thrives around it origins, is believed to be more than 2,500 years old.

Topped by a stupa covered in 7,000 diamonds, rubies, and sapphires, many believe the best time to see this glittering landmark is at sunset when the last rays of sunlight are caught by a giant sky-high emerald before its twinkling lights shine across the city.

Known for its leafy avenues and colonial shopfronts and apartment buildings harking back to British rule, Yangon is Myanmar’s largest city with a population of 5 million.

Teahouses serving cucumber sandwiches and afternoon scones survive as remnants from the colonial era, while Bogyoke Aung San Market leaves visitors in no doubt of the modern diversity of culture that now characterises the former capital. With more than 2,000 shops, this vast covered market has the nation’s largest selection of jade, traditional Burmese and Buddhist costumes, jewellery and ethnic textiles.

The second largest city, Mandalay, sits on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, where cruising the rural heartland of the country grows ever more popular each year. New ships are appearing with many being custom built exclusively to sail the waters that Kipling romantically called ‘the road to Mandalay’.

Like much of Myanmar, religious monuments dominate the sightseeing agenda in Mandalay, with the Golden Palace Monastery and Kuthodaw Pagoda among the most visited.

South-east of Mandalay, in the centre of the country, Inle Lake is fast becoming one of the most visited regions outside the city centres. The freshwater lake in the highlands, 900 metres above sea level, has gained fame for its fascinating floating garden beds where locals grow vegetables as well as distinctive traditional long-tail boats and the fisherman who sail them standing up using a unique one-legged rowing technique.

Private long-boat rides on the tranquil waters of the lake do a brisk trade at sunset, where you can sip your evening aperitif under world’s longest teak bridge, the U-Bein.