"We have not yet come to the point where we encourage people to come to Burma as tourists."
Those were the words of Aung San Suu Kyi ten years ago, under house arrest and fearlessly fighting for democracy in her beloved country. She has since lifted this sentiment, as Myanmar continues to evolve and reveal her raw beauty to the world. Tread the not-so-trodden paths through ancient temples; trek untouched routes through spectacular mountains. Though the regime has been rocky over the past century, you can always rely on the unwavering spirit and hospitality of the Burmese people. Breathe in the Buddhism that is not just a religion, but a way of life. Smiles will greet you as soon as you step into Myanmar, and you will leave with a smile that shines with respect and peace.
The British colonists may be long gone, but Yangon, or Rangoon (meaning End of Strife), still holds evidence of their presence; in fact, it holds the highest number of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia. Other international influences can also be found around the city, with evidence of Chinese and Indian influences in the other architecture. Despite the outside influences, Yangon firmly remains a Burmese city of the past, with its longyi-wearing, betel nut chewing pedestrians, burgundy-clad Buddhist monks, and traffic signs written mostly in the local alphabet. The Shwedagon Paya is unmissable, both literally and in your Myanmar itinerary; the pagodas golden spire shooting up into a magenta sky will leave you mesmerised. Eclectic, engrossing, enlightening: cosmopolitan Yangon is not only the first port of call with its international airport, but a fulfilling part of your Myanmar adventure.
A gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sound of monks robes: only Marco Polo could so precisely capture the essence of this historical region. Once the capital of the Pagan Kingdom, the first kingdom to unite regions that now form modern Myanmar, Bagans cities can provide for every traveller. If you love to visit ancient temples, then the Bagan Archeological Zone will certainly spoil you: it has the densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, ruins and stupas in the world. Over 10,000 Buddhist temples were built in the 11th and 13th centuries; 2,200 have survived, and continue to age with dignity. Stand back and savour the silhouetted spires and spiky palmrya trees against a soft pink sunrise. Trek up the extinct volcano Mount Popa and feel the power of the nats (spirits). If you fancy something different after a long day temple-hopping, try Myanmars answer to Marmite, pon yan gyi: there will be no debate about whether you love or hate this dish.
Myanmars cultural and economic hub, Mandalay buzzes with young life and anticipation for the future. However, she also has a significant past: not only was she was the last Burmese royal capital, but she holds many important ancient pagodas. Follow in the great Buddhas footsteps and climb up the 230m Mandalay Hill; one look down at the beautiful view below, and you will see why Buddha, upon reaching the hills summit, prophesised the building of a great city at its foot. Sadly, Mandalay Palace was lost in a Second World War fire, but as the walls and gates still stand, you can appreciate its splendid scale. The great Rudyard Kipling was inspired to write a poem after visiting Mandalay: let her infused history, modernity and culture also inspire you.
In the middle of the Nyaung Shwe valley, against a misty blue mountain backdrop, lie the glistening indigo waters of Lake Inle. As well as admiring the lakes serene beauty, here you can marvel at the local Inthas fishermans skills in leg rowing: a distinctive rowing style that involves standing on one leg at the boat stern and wrapping the other leg around the oar. You can spot the Intha wives at the lakeside, with thanaka (an acacia-bark paste) all over their faces to protect from the sun. The lakes magic continues with temples floating on the surface, the most unusual being the Nga Hpe Chaung Monastery, or the Jumping Cat monastery, so-called after the monks once trained resident cats to jump through hoops. If you are lucky enough to visit during September and October, you are in for a treat; the Hpaung Daw U Festival lasts for three weeks. Be sure to catch the traditional boat racing, with dozens of competing leg-rowers in Shan dress, as well as the procession of revered Buddhist statues on a decorated royal barge. As well trying one of the nine world-exclusive fish species in the lake, a visit to this region is not complete without tasting the Inle dish Htamin jin- a rice, tomato and potato or fish salad with fried onion, Chinese chive roots, whole dried chilli, and much more. A visit here is more than just a lake trip, it is also an insight into the local lake-peoples fascinating lives and customs.
Hailed as the open-air museum of the local Rakine peoples art and culture, Mrauk U may prove to be the surprising highlight of your Myanmar trip. The serenity starts even before you arrive, as Mrauk U is only accessed by boat along the tranquil Kaladan river. Once you arrive, escape the temple-traipsing masses and take a temple all for yourself; Mrauk U is not often crowded, and is full of undiscovered treasures. The Shittuang Temple is a must-see, known for its labyrinth of tunnels and Shittuang Pillar, a ten foot sandstone pillar that is considered the oldest history book in Myanmar. Though Mrauk U may seem like a sleepy village today, the region was once the capital of a strong empire, and continues to make a strong impression on anybody who steps foot here.
Imagine yourself at a hilltop, looking down at a view of coffee plantations, vibrant villages, pristine rivers, jaw-dropping mountains and even elephants working in the pine forests: welcome to Kalaw. At 1320m on the Shan Plateau hills, Kalaw is the perfect place to plan a trek that wont burn your pockets. Breathe in the cool fresh air, walk a little slower than usual, and feel the peace and calm of this hill station. The only flurry you will experience is at the colourful Kalaw market, the perfect spot to sample the local food and liqueurs. For the more adventurous, take a cultural trek between here and Lake Inle, with the unmissable opportunity to stay at a Buddhist temple. Both nature- and history- lovers will find a haven to call their own on the Kalaw hilltops.
Myanmars 135 tribes are undoubtedly one of the many delights that the colourful country has to offer. Discover the diversity within and between the tribes, with the Kachin, Kayah, Chin, Mon, Bama, Rakhine and Shan tribes each having different customs, tribal dress and languages.
Settling in Myanmars Thanton region around 1000BC, the Pa-O have grown to be the second largest ethnic group in Shan State. Though the Pa-O people once wore indigo-dyed clothing colourful clothing, when enslaved by King Anawartha and forced to wear it, many now wear Bamar clothes, such as longyi for men, and htamain for women. See the tribe at its most gloriously adulatory at the Full Moon of Tabuang, celebrated as the Pa-O National Day.
The Chin people are prolific not only in their native Myanmar, but also in neighbouring Indian states such as Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur and Assam. In past times, the Chin people lead labour-intensive lives. When visiting this tribe, you will notice that many of the older women have intricately tattooed faces; this was a rite of passage in their younger years. This bizarre, yet beautiful custom allegedly originates from long ago, when Chin men did not wanting their women to be stolen by Burmese kings. Friendly and fascinating, an experience with the Chins is not easily forgotten.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Recent winner of the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the United States highest civilian accolades, Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration not only to the Burmese people, but to the world. Her house arrest, effective for 15 of the last 23 years, has gripped the globe since she was first captured by the military junta on 20 July, 1989. In her tireless campaign to make her country a more democratic place, the Lady- as she is known by the Burmese people- refused the offer to leave Myanmar in exchange for her freedom. Suu Kyis non-violent protest methods were heavily influenced by both Gandhi and Buddhism, with her father, the war hero Aung San, playing a huge role in developing her determined spirit. There is no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi has secured her place in the hearts and history books of Myanmar. Be a part of history, and visit her treasured country at this celebrated time.