Ever since Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “Mandalay”, Burma (or Myanmar as it is called today) has been synonymous with Eastern mystique in Western literature. Romanticized as a place of exotic beauty, as well as honest and affable people, this fiction is not too far from reality.
Despite a tumultuous political climate, Myanmar remains a relatively safe place for travellers and thanks to an increasing openness and an influx of foreign visitors, this former “hermit kingdom” is slowly but steadily changing.
“From Rangoon to Mandalay…”
One of the best ways to discover the true beauty of Burma is an Irrawaddy river cruise, where you can witness life along the river banks as you journey through the heart of this vast country. Although Kipling’s poem refers to the Irrawaddy River as the “road” from Rangoon (present-day Yangon) to Mandalay, it is actually more convenient to ride down-stream in the opposite direction.
Mandalay is easily accessible from Yangon by plane, as well as some international airports such as Bangkok. This charming town served as the Royal Capital of Burma, between 1857 and 1885. The reconstructed Mandalay Palace is a sprawling complex and beautiful example of Burmese architecture that can easily provide a few hours of exploration. Mandalay is also home to an array of stunning temples (like almost everywhere in Burma), with the white stupas of the Kuthodaw Pagoda being of particular interest.
Each of the 729 stupas contains a marble slab, inscribed on both sides with a page from the Tripitaka, the most sacred text in Theravada Buddhism. For this reason, the Kuthodaw Pagoda is often referred to as the “world’s largest book”.
You could spend days exploring the outskirts of Mandalay, but should be careful not to overdo it by trying to visit all the pagodas, as you will see many more on your journey. The must-see attraction, besides Mandalay Palace and Kuthodaw Pagoda, is Sutaungpyei on the summit of Mandalay Hill. This brightly coloured pagoda offers panoramic views of the area and is the perfect place to enjoy the sunset.
“Where the flyin’-fishes play…”
It is possible to make the entire journey between Mandalay and Yangon in 4 days, but it is recommended to take a slower trip to appreciate the enchanting scenery and culture along the Irrawaddy River. You can also opt for a leisurely 3-day cruise from Mandalay to Bagan, and continue on a flight from Bagan airport to a number of other destinations.
The advantage of taking a shorter cruise over more days is that you will have the chance to enjoy the fascinating scenery and daily life of those living along the shore and working on the river. This allows you to really appreciate the friendliness of Burmese people, as crowds of children, washerwomen and fishermen wave and smile at the passing ships.
Kipling’s poem is mostly a product of his imagination, and there are no actual flying fish in the Irrawaddy River. In this case, the reality is perhaps even more magical, as the river is home to the fascinating Irrawaddy Dolphin. These amazing mammals have traditionally existed in an amazing symbiotic relationship with local fishermen, helping to herd streams of fish into their nets in exchange for a cut of the daily catch.
“For the temple-bells are callin’…”
Old Bagan, with its roughly 3000 temples, is probably the most well-known travel destination in Burma and with good reason! The awe-inspiring views of a seemingly endless forest of temple spires, piercing a golden sunrise, are nothing less than spectacular.
It is recommended to stay at least two full days in Bagan, as there is an endless assortment of impressive temples and mysterious ruins to explore. Although the coveted sunset photo from atop an ancient ruined temple is extremely sought after, visitors should be aware that it is actually forbidden to climb to the top of most temples.
Although these rules are loosely enforced, and many choose to disregard them, they are in place to protect the temples from the wear and tear of millions of tourists, as well as for the safety of visitors. Would-be explorers should also take care to wear appropriate clothing and remove their shoes when entering ANY temple, as they are considered holy even when abandoned and in disrepair.
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else…”
Yangon, or Rangoon, is a world unto itself. A microcosm of Asia, where Indian, Burmese and Chinese traditions intertwine in the markets, streets, and neighborhoods, creating a uniquely dynamic and diverse atmosphere.
By far the most fascinating thing to do in Yangon is visiting the many market streets that sell fresh vegetables, fruits, flowers, and other produce. The long and narrow streets can get quite crowded, and visitors are immersed in a fantastic world of sights, sounds, and smells.
Other attractions include taking a ferry across the river to the township of Da La or riding on the Circle Line train to witness the fascinating daily life of commuters as they make their way around the city. It is also worthwhile to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, said to house several of the holiest relics in Buddhism, including eight strands of hair from Gautama Buddha himself.
For the perfect ending to your Burma adventure, why not indulge in an afternoon tea at the legendary Strand Hotel? The Strand is one of the most renowned Heritage Hotels in Asia, thanks to the Sarkies Brothers who also founded the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
Yangon has a rich architectural heritage left over from the colonial period. Notable buildings include the Minister’s Building, the former seat of administrative power in British Burma. This building is currently being restored, but it is possible to gain access to see the incredible Victorian wrought iron staircases and discover the buildings tumultuous history.
If you would like to learn more about traveling in Burma, visit our website to browse a selection of the best tours and experiences. You can also discover more interesting facts about travel in Burma on our Travel Blog, as well as read our guide to Responsible Travel in Myanmar.