“Beauty,” wrote George Orwell in Burmese Days, “is meaningless until it is shared,” – a statement that could so perfectly apply to Myanmar itself whose loveliness was, for 49 years, kept largely hidden thanks to a military junta that held the country in an iron grip. Now Burma is shaking itself free from those shackles, flinging its arms open to welcome tourists and getting ready to share a beauty that is beyond compare.
From the highlights of Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay, this is a country where spectacle and spiritual merge. A country going through a rebirth, though now is the time to see it in its fullest; while its feet are buried in the past and its arms are outstretched towards its future.
Formerly known as Rangoon, formerly a capital and currently Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon pulses with verve and vitality. High rises, motorways, shopping malls and other signs of hectic boomtown progress are springing up, but standing in their shadow are traditional tea houses and haunting images of the city’s real treasures – its ghostly, mostly derelict, colonial buildings. They’re a riot of every architectural style and though unlikely to be restored anytime soon, their remains give enough of an indication of why they were among the British Empire’s most important buildings in Asia.
Highlights: Burma’s most sacred pagoda, Shwedagon. This gold-plated, 100m high, 2,500-year-old monolith, known as the Crown of Burma, has a gem-encrusted tip, topped with a 76 carat diamond. Relics from four Buddhas, including strands of hair from the Supreme Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, are consecrated here, but there are also some stupendous art works, including paintings and sculpture. Visit at dawn to experience its enveloping serenity, or at dusk when it vibrates with life as families gather to meditate, make their offerings and to socialise.
There’s nowhere else on earth quite like Bagan. Seen from above, from a hot air balloon – its 2,200 pagodas – a fraction of the 10,000 that once dominated its arid plains – pixelate the landscape.
Highlights: Among the most notable pagodas are Shwezigon, built on shimmering, golden terraces; Gu Byauk Gyi, with its beautiful 13th-century frescoes depicting the past lives of Gautama Buddha, and the aptly named Ananda Temple, variously translated as beauty or grace.
In contrast to those extravagant stupas built by kings to accrue karma, is our home visit to a local family who cook for us. It’s an opportunity to ask them how they feel about their fledgling democracy, but free speech doesn’t yet come easily, so we drop the subject and instead allow them to lead the conversation.
It’s a joyful evening: our hosts are warm, gracious, hospitable – and musical – entertaining us with Burmese folk songs and a startling rendition of John Denver’s Take me Home Country Roads.
Inle Lake, a Unesco World Network of Biosphere Reserves, is a place of remarkable beauty. Weaving in long-tail boats through its unfurling, curling, tentacled canals, we travel backwards in time to glimpse Burmese life as it has always been. We glide through floating gardens, catching the scent of tomato plants on the warm breeze, and past teak villages built on stilts.
Peddlers paddle towards us, gripping our boats with one hand while flourishing knick-knacks with the other. And all around us, veiled first in early-morning mist and then in the haze of the noon-day sun, are the leg-rower fishermen who row with one leg wrapped around an oar, leaving their hands free to work their conical nets in mesmerising, balletic movements.
Highlights: Shwe Indein, a dense, alien forest of 1,000 terracotta, gold and white pagodas teetering on a hill in Indein village, is a truly extraordinary place and one I would urge all visitors to Burma to see. I loved it, loved wondering among those 17th-century stupas, so many of them in ruins, loved listening to the chimes of the brass umbrellas that sit at the top of their slender spires, and loved those beautiful, ethereal carved images peering out at me from the foliage that enshrouds them.
Inthar Heritage House, an exceptional initiative that’s conserving Inle’s culture through a cookery school, a restaurant and a Burmese cat-breeding programme. (Their population had declined almost to extinction after the Brits left in 1948 but numbers are now rising, thanks to this project.)
It’s easy to dismiss Mandalay, Burma’s last royal capital, as a crowded sprawl that will over not-much time morph into a faceless megalopolis and to use it merely as a one-night stopover when you fly into or out of Burma. Linger a while longer, though, and its charms will become apparent. Even within its concrete heart you’ll find monasteries and mosques, churches and temples that will calm and still you. And the walk up Mandalay Hill, hot and clammy though it is, is a worth the effort.
Highlights: Kuthodaw Pagoda where the world’s largest book is kept. Its 730 stone “pages” are inscribed, front and back, with Buddhist writing. Each measures 1.5m x 1m and sits in its own blinding-white dome: together they look like meringues around a golden cake of a pagoda
U Bein Bridge is also a record-breaker – the longest and oldest teak bridge in the world. Built in 1850 from wood salvaged from the dismantled palace of Amarapura, yet another former capital, it measures 1.2 km, and is a perfect place to sit and stare. You’ll see Burma’s past, in the form of the fishermen standing neck deep in the river below, and its future, in the laughing eyes of the children who run up to greet you.
Xenia Taliotis travelled to Myanmar with Trafalgar. Trafalgar offers an 11 day Secrets of Myanmar trip from £2,645 per person and includes 10 nights B&B accommodation, welcome reception, a be my guest dinner with a local family in Bagan, five additional dinners, VIP airport transfers, sightseeing and the services of a professional travel director throughout.
Feature image via Maps of World.