Languid charms of Myanmar
Cut off from the rest of the world by its isolationist military junta for several decades, Myanmar has attracted much attention in recent times as an exotic tourism destination whose glittering pagodas have earned it the sobriquet of the Golden Land
Although itâ€™s in the news for all the wrong reasons, the neighbouring nation of Myanmar aka Burma (pop. 54 million) â€” currently experiencing a massive saffron revolt against the oppressive military junta which has ruled it with an iron fist for the past five decades â€” is perhaps the most unspoilt country of the contemporary world â€” the last Shangri-la. Sited at the junction where Asiaâ€™s two great civilizations â€” India and China â€” meet, Myanmar stretches from the Cocos island in the south, right up into the Eastern Himalayan mountain range. It ranks among South-east Asiaâ€™s largest (area: 678,500 sq km) and most culturally diverse countries.
Although a military dictatorship, Myanmar is a safe country for tourists. Boasting perhaps the lowest tourist crime record worldwide, Myanmarâ€™s military junta recently unveiled ambitious plans to modernise and improve tourism infrastructure to attract at least 500,000 international tourists annually, against the current inflow of 234,900.
This is not an over-ambitious target (unless tourists shun the country for ideological reasons), because Myanmar is a treasure trove of attractions. Languid and peaceful, the country offers unpolluted sandy beaches, natural tropical beauty, snow-capped mountains, a tranquil Buddhist culture and splendorous architecture. Moreover the Buddhist traits of serenity and gentleness are quite evident in its people, who go about their business with sandalwood paste daubed on their high cheek bones to guard against the blistering sun. This is a curious sight for first time visitors.
Myanmarâ€™s rich and glorious history spanning over two thousand years is evident in its spectacular monuments and ancient cities. Moreover modern-day Myanmar is home to 135 uniquely different ethnic groups. The countryâ€™s seven administratively convenient ethnic divisions (tain) are: Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy), Bago (Pegu), Magway (Mandalay), Yangon (Rangoon), Sagaing, and Tanintharyi (Tenassarim). These are the admin capitals of the seven ethnic states (pyi nay): Chin, Kachin, Kayin (Karen), Kayah (Karenni), Mon, Rakhine (Arakan) and Shan.
Topographically as well, the country is diverse with its central lowlands circled by steep, rugged highlands. As in most of South-east Asia, the cool season extends from October through February with mean temperatures averaging 20-240C; the hot season, from March through May when the mercury rises to 30-350 C; and finally the monsoon, from June through September when mean temperatures drop to 25-300C. Obviously the best time to visit Myanmar is during the cool winter months.
Richly endowed with natural resources such as gas and petroleum, timber, tin, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal and limestone, and globally renowned as a major source of imperial jade and pigeon blood rubies, Myanmar is primarily an agricultural country with 50 percent of its GDP derived from agriculture, livestock, fisheries, and forestry. Manufacturing/industry contri-butes only 15 percent of GDP and is strictly controlled by the military junta. According to official figures, the countryâ€™s GDP has been growing at 10 percent plus annually since 1999-2000. But these statistics are of doubtful authenticity as according to the UNDPâ€™s Human Development Report 2006, the per capita income of Myanmar is a mere $1,027 (PPP) cf. Indiaâ€™s $3,139.
Cut off from the rest of the world by the isolationist military junta for several decades, Myanmar has attracted much attention in recent times as an exotic tourism destination, whose glittering pagodas have earned it the sobriquet of The Golden Land. Much of this mountainous country is covered by dense forest abounding in wildlife. Snow-capped peaks in the north and the Ayeyarwady river that serves as the riverine artery of Myanmar, offer exploratory opportunities even as its ancient Buddhist culture and monuments have transformed Myanmar into one of the richest archaeological regions of South-east Asia.
Inevitably this ancient country has an interesting history. On several occasions the country was fragmented, but unified three times. The first unification was during the reign of the Bagan (Pagan) dynasty in 1044 AD, known as the Golden Age in Burmese history. Theravada Buddhism was introduced in Burma during this time, and the Bagan kings built a massive city with thousands of pagodas and monasteries along the Ayeyarwady river. The Bagan dynasty ruled until 1287 when Mongol invaders destroyed the kingdom.
Later, from 1486 to 1752 the Taungoo dynasty ruled the nation, but there was little cultural development during this period because the rulers were constantly involved in internal power struggles and warfare. During their reign Burma was unified as a large, multi-ethnic kingdom.The Konbaung royal dynasty established its sway over Burma in the second half of the 18th century under the rule of King Alaungpaya. Following the example of the Taungoo kings, the Konbaung rulers focused on wars with the ethnic Mons, Arakanese and Siamese. This period also witnessed four invasions by the Chinese and three devastating wars with the British who were establishing themselves in neighbouring India. At the end of the third war in 1885, the British acquired complete control of Burma, annexing it with India.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Burmese nationalists led by General Aung San joined the Japanese forces moving westward after taking Singapore in 1942, in a vain bid to drive out the British. After the war General Aung San demanded complete political and economic independence from Britain. A constitution was formulated in 1947 and independence granted in January 1948, although General Aung San and most of his cabinet members were assassinated before the constitution became effective.
After acquiring independence, Burma became Union of Burma with U Nu as its first prime minister. But democratic rule ended in 1962 following a military coup led by General Ne Win who ruled for nearly 26 years. In 1988, student-led disturbances broke out in Rangoon (Yangon). At a rally, military forces massacred more than 1,000 demonstrators. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, emerged as the leader of the pro-democracy forces. But in September 1988, the army deposed Ne Winâ€™s Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP), suspended the constitution, and established a new ruling junta called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1989, Burma was renamed the Union of Myanmar.
In 1990, for the first time after independence, free elections were held resulting in a landslide victory of NLD (National League for Democracy), the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi. But the ruling junta refused to respect the electoral verdict. It placed Suu Kyi under house arrest and under a new nomenclature â€” State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) â€” has continued to rule the country with an iron hand.
Myanmarâ€™s native population is primarily ethnic Burmans (70 percent), with other tribes such as Shans, Karens, Rohingya, Arakanese, Kachins, Chins, Mons, and smaller ethnic groups comprising the rest. Indians and Chinese are the largest non-indigenous groups in the country. Although Burmese is the most widely spoken language, other ethnic groups have retained their identities and languages. English is spoken in the few cities which tourists are allowed to visit.
YangonFormerly known as Rangoon and the capital of Myanmar, clean and green Yangon (pop.5.5 million) is known as the Garden City of the East. Its magnificent Buddhist temples, open-air markets, parks and serene lakes are focal points for tourists. Located in the fertile delta area of southern Myanmar on the banks of the Yangon river about 30 km inland from the coast, itâ€™s one of the most charming capitals in Asia. There are vestiges of colonial grandeur in its wide avenues and decrepit period bungalows, and the teak panelled Strand Hotel truly evokes the setting of a Somerset Maugham story. Contemporary Yangon spans over 400 sq km, strewn with ancient pagodas and modern shopping complexes.
The main attraction here is the holiest of Buddhist shrines â€” the 2,500 year old Shwedagon Pagoda in midtown Yangon, between the Peopleâ€™s Park and Kandawgyi Lake. On full moon nights, the mystical chanting, heady incense and flickering candles create a magical aura. Also worth visiting is the nearby Sule Pagoda, renowned for its tall chedi (stupa). Estimated to be over 2,000 years old, the monument has been restored and is well maintained, because the central stupa is believed to enshrine a lock of the Buddhaâ€™s hair. Another must-visit monument in Yangon is the Chauk-tat-gyi Pagoda, originally built in 1907, restored in 1966, enshrining a 70-metre long reclining Buddha.
A visit to the National Museum, housed over five floors of a large modern building is also recommended to learn about the history and culture of Myanmar. The main floor showcases the magnificent eight metre high Lion Throne of King Thibaw Min, the last king of Burma (1859-1916). Other exhibits include the Mandalay Regalia, a collection of gem-studded arms, swords and jewellery, and works of art of Myanmarâ€™s most renowned modern painters.
Other tourist attractions in Yangon include the Nga-tat-gyi Pagoda, Lawka Chantha Abhaya Labbha Muni Buddha Image, Kaba Aye (World Peace) Pagoda and Mahawizaya Pagoda. The residence of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi can be viewed from a distance. Almost every visitor to the Burmese capital gazes reverentially at the house where the countryâ€™s most heroic figure resides in enforced silence.
Excursions ex Yangon. There are several excursion options available to modestly adventurous travellers. Sited 11 km north of Yangon is the 34 metre high Kaba Aye (â€˜World Peaceâ€™) Pagoda, built in 1952 to welcome delegates to the Sixth Buddhist Synod (1954). For visitors keen to take a break from viewing temples and monuments, the Hlawga Wildlife Park (35 km), which stretches across 1,650 acres and hosts over 70 species of herbivorous animals and 90 bird breeds, is a refreshing option. Elephant rides and fishing facilities are also available.
Shopping. Yangon is an affordable destination for alternative shopping. The covered 70-year-old Bogyoke Market aka Scott Market is a cornucopia of Burmese handicrafts, textiles, gems and jewellery, lacquerware and Shan shoulder bags, T-shirts and cheroots.
Accommodation. Myanmarâ€™s tourism infrastructure offers a wide range of hotels, from five-star hostelries to guesthouses in all major cities, as also upscale mountain and beach resorts. According to official statistics there are 492 hotels and motels which offer an aggregate 13,984 rooms to visitors. Yangon being the capital city and base point of all expeditions, hosts a major chunk of the hotel accommodation available.
Top-end: The Strand Hotel ($480-510 per night), Grand Plaza Park Royal ($88-118), Nikko Royal Lake Yangon ($92-105). Mid-range: Traders Hotel Yangon ($78-90), Kandawgyi Palace Hotel ($72 onwards), Seasons of Yangon Hotel ($72-90). Budget: Sedona Hotel Yangon ($63), Dusit Lake Hotel ($53), Nikko Royal Lake Yangon ($ 49).
Mandalay The capital of Burma until the British took charge of the country in 1885, Mandalay (pop. 1.2 million) is Myanmarâ€™s second largest city. About 668 km from Yangon, it is a bustling commercial hub and the repository of Myanmarâ€™s cultural heritage. With its ancient monasteries, Mandalay is a showcase of 19th century native art and architecture in particular. The city boasts a large population of traditional artisans who carve exquisite handicrafts out of wood, stone and precious metals. Embroidery and lacquerware are old and popular crafts of this region.
While in Mandalay visit the Shwenandaw Kyaung, an extant remnant of a once extravagant royal palace. Mandalay Hill with its spiralling stairways, temples and the ancient Rakhine Buddha image at Mahamuni Paya is definitely worth a visit. A short excursion away are ruins of the abandoned cities of Amarapura, Sagaing, Ava and Mingun, each with a rich archaeological history. Mingun is accessible only by river and the boat ride from Mandalay offers scenic rural vistas. Its unfinished pagoda claims to have the largest ringing bronze bell in the world.
Accommodation. Top-end: Mandalay Hill Resort ($100-115 per night), Sedona Hotel Mandalay ($96-115). Mid-range: Swan Mandalay Hotel ($54-66), Mandalay City Hotel ($43), Treasure Hotel ($48). Budget: Sunrise Hotel ($27), Emerald Land Inn ($29), Pacific Hotel ($35-50).
Located in the dry zone of central Myanmar, Bagan is an important historical site. With thousands of religious edifices, it is one of the archaeological treasure houses of Asia. Baganâ€™s period of grandeur stretched from the 11th to 13th centuries after which the city was ransacked and destroyed by invading Mongol armies under Kublai Khan in 1287. Among the masterpieces of temple architecture are Ananda, Thatbyinnyu, Htilominlo, and Gawdawpalin temples. Enveloped in an eerie silence, some of these temples afford magnificent sunsets and panoramic views of the Bagan plain.
Accommodation. Top-end: Popa Mountain Resort ($120-150 per night), Bagan Golf Resort ($114-120), Tharbar Gate Hotel ($102-110). Mid-range: Bagan Hotel ($78-90), Thante Hotel ($62-68), Thanzin Garden Hotel ($60-66). Budget: The Bagan Thante Hotel ($24-30), Emerald Lake Hotel ($30-36).
Shan State. The largest in the country, Shan covers nearly a quarter of Myanmarâ€™s land area. Its most famous exhibits are the Leg Rowers of Inle Lake, the Floating Markets and Gardens, its Long Necked Women, the Shan shoulder bag and the longyi, Myanmarâ€™s national dress.
The hilly Shan plateau borders China to the north, Laos to the east, and Thailand to the south and includes five administrative divisions of Myanmar. Representing a true slice of the countryâ€™s distinctive culture and diverse ethnicity, Shan offers unique attractions: the famous Inle Lake where the Intha people live in floating villages; Nyaung Shwe plain, the second largest natural expanse of water in Myanmar, shallow but 14 miles long and 7 miles wide; the vast limestone Pindaya Caves, which contain 6,226 Buddha images. These are not-to-be missed sights of the Shan state.
Bago, formerly known as Pegu, is the capital of Bago division. Sited 80 km from Yangon, its most notable attraction is the Shwethalyaung Buddha, a 180 ft. recumbent Buddha, the second largest reclining statue of the philosopher sage in the world, after the 266 ft. Buddha in Dawei (Tavoy).
Built in 994 AD, during the reign of Mon King Migadepa, it was lost in 1757 when the district was pillaged. However the Shwethalyaung Buddha was rediscovered in 1880 and partially restored in 1881.
Pathein (Bassein). Located in the Ayeyarwady delta about 190 km west of Yangon, this port city is noted for its handicrafts and the Shwemokhtaw Pagoda. To visit, catch the overnight ferry from Yangon, travel down the Twante Canal and through the delta waterways. Itâ€™s a scenic journey in a country where inland water transport is a major mode of communication.
Thaton. Long before the rise of Bagan, a Mon kingdom thrived here. Today little remains of the ancient city other than traces of its massive walls and some charming pagodas. The townâ€™s core is a leafy area situated on either side of the highway, with a pleasing mix of colonial mansions and thatched-roof homes. A picturesque canal network irrigates rice fields and fruit orchards. Thaton is well connected by road and rail links.
Pyay (Prome). Close to the ruins of the ancient Pyu capital of Thayekhittaya (Sri Kshetra) is this remote district, with its pagodas, crumbling walls, quaint railway station and small museum. Pyay has been the centre of intensive archaeological work carried out in Myanmar recently. The nearby Gautama Hill contains numerous Buddha images in niches.
Festivals. While visiting a country so richly endowed with a distinctive ethnic culture and traditions, itâ€™s advisable to coincide your holiday with some of its colourful festivals. Among them: Full Moon Day of Tabaung (March), Water Festival and Myanmar New Year (April); Buddhist Lent (July-August) and Light Festival (November) are very popular. The annual Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival on the shores of Lake Inle creates a fairy tale ambience in the villages of Shan.
Myanmar travel advisoryThe Republic of Myanmar has enjoyed only a brief period of democratic rule (1948-62). Since then under the rule of General Ne Win (1962-88) and subsequently, it suffered decades of isolation and brutal oppression. Only in the late 1990s under the rule of a military junta â€” which describes itself as the State Peace and Development Council â€” has the country opened up for tourism. For the politically and ideologically sensitive these are not good times, what with even normally peaceful, apolitical monks up in arms against the ruling junta. Therefore caution and restraint is advised, especially in transactions with officials and ubiquitous army personnel.
Airport Tax. All passengers departing Burma on international flights are obliged to pay a departure tax of US $10 per capita.
Credit Cards. Credit cards are not accepted anywhere in Myanmar since November 2006, following an arbitrary diktat of the military junta. Therefore sufficient amounts of cash in US dollars for personal expenses is a vital necessity. Although the Indian Rupee is well accepted, exchange of foreign currencies such as the Euro, Yen and Pounds Sterling is time consuming and difficult. Most authorised money changers throughout Myanmar accept only US dollars.
Drinking Water. Bottled water is readily available everywhere, and is the safest for drinking.
Visa requirements. A single-entry visa for a maximum of 90 days in Myanmar costs Rs.900 for Indian tourists. This amount is required to be submitted to the Myanmar embassy in Delhi or Kolkata, together with the following documents: passport (valid for at least 6 months), tourist visa application form (in duplicate), three passport photos and confirmed air ticket copies.