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Tours in Myanmar - Asia's best kept secret

by Tony Jones

Of the Southeast Asian nations, Myanmar attracts fewer tourists than the more 'trendy' spots such as Thailand, Malaysia and recently Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. But a country that is known by two names evokes its own cloud of mystery and is sure to pique the interest of adventure seekers and the more intrepid traveler.

Burma was a British colony until independence was granted in 1948. In 1990 the country's name was changed to Myanmar (which means all national races) to better reflect all the diversity of ethnic groups. It has affectionately been called the 'Land of Ten Thousand Pagodas' and the 'Golden Land': both names are apt. In some cities temples can be found on nearly every corner and - while this may not differ from nearby countries - many of these highlight the extraordinary relationship that the Burmese have between their beliefs and the land.

Myanmar has approximately 45 million people who are divided into over 165 recognised ethnic groups. It shares its borders with Bangladesh, Laos, China, Thailand and the Bay of Bengal. The country is rich in natural resources - it has lovely pearls, rubies and gems - and its landscape includes pristine beaches, lowland plains and snow -capped mountains.

Unlike other neighboring nations, Myanmar has had little foreign investment: it is one of a handful of countries that remain unscarred by globalised food chains. As a result, traveling in this land induces images of ancient Asia and provides an opportunity for complete immersion in a culture untainted by westernisation.

No trip to Myanmar is complete without visiting some of the following: Mt Popa, the Pindaya Caves, Kyaiktiyo, Bagan, The Thanbode Temple, Mandalay, Inle Lake and the capital Yangon.

Mt Popa in the eastern part of the country is an amazing geographical and man-made spectacle. The mountain is an extinct volcano that because of its sheer-sidedness resembles an inverted bowl; however, it is the Monastery built on the plateau that catches the eye. At 1518 metres it can be seen from all directions and its white walls and golden trimmings resemble a fairytale castle.

Nearby the Pindaya Caves are another example of a remarkable union between nature and mankind. Situated behind the main attraction (the Shweu {Golden Cave} pagoda) tunnel-like limestone caves snake into the mountain. Within this maze, 6000 Buddha images flicker in the candlelight creating a surreal effect that will be sure to leave the visitor more enlightened.

Not to be outdone by these two attractions is the remarkable Kyaikhtiyo pagoda. It sits upon a golden rock that balances atop Mt Kyaiktiyo. The large golden boulder can actually be rocked back and forth and is said to balance because of a precisely placed Buddha hair. The legend is that 2500 years ago a hermit was given a hair by the Buddha and sought an appropriate place for such a sacred object. He found a rock that resembled the Buddha's head and secured the hair in a pagoda on top. Many villagers make the pilgrimage to the 1100 metre high site, which, having survived several earthquakes, is truly one of the world's wonders.

Also in the eastern mountains at 700 metres above seas level is Inle Lake, a gentle body of water bound by reeds and canals. Two hundred villages surround the lake and many houses rise out of the water on stilts. The lake is an important resource of the 150,000 people of the Shan state, providing for their main activities: fishing and weaving. It also serves as a marketplace where canoes are used as stalls and people paddle through the flotilla browsing and buying all types of wares.

The Ayeyarwady River splits Myanmar down the middle, running from China to the Bay of Bengal through Mandalay and alongside the capital Yangon. Both these cities are dotted with temples and pagodas, most notable are; the Kuthodaw pagoda in Mandalay, famous for its marble writings from the Buddha cannon; and the pristine, 2500 year old Shwedagon in Yangon with a spire that towers 100 metres.

The Mandalay region was the last Kingdom of the Myanmar dynasty before the English took control. Now the city remains the cultural center of Myanmar and offers tourists a trip back in time........ by the river water buffalo teams can still be seen bringing in logs! A boat trip up the Ayeyarwady also reveals an insightful look into village life and an opportunity to mix with the hardworking and friendly locals. If you are still interested in pagodas, they line the banks!

Myanmar is also home to two of the largest abandoned cities in the world: Bagan and Mrak U. An ancient capital between 1044 and 1287 AD, Bagan is thought to be the birthplace of the Myanmar civilization. Today it's a very popular tourist destination; the city is clean and spacious and provides a base to visit the 2000 or so temples built on the 16 square kilometer site. In contrast, Mrak U is only accessible by a five-hour boat ride out of the small village of Sittwe and at present many of its temples are being restored.

The giant temple of Thanbode is one temple that must be visited. Situated just outside of Monywa it was built between 1939 and 1952 and is home to 582,257 Buddha images: possibly the largest single collection of Buddha statues in the world. Two white elephants, that symbolize fertility and knowledge, guard the collection.

The Burmese people are very friendly and almost tribal in nature. Their family and friends are extremely important in their life and they extend this friendship to foreigners: often seeking them out and initiating conversations. With such a fusion of cultures this makes for an exceptional travel experience unlikely to be replicated elsewhere.

In 1898 Rudyard Kipling wrote, "this is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you will know." This statement rings true today as Myanmar remains a rare gem; the people, culture and scenery combining to make it a unique experience in an ever-shrinking world.

About the Author

Explore-Myanmar is one of the premier tour companies operating in Myanmar, guaranteeing all our customers a truly wonderful holiday experience. For more info please check out our web site.

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