Myanmar, Burma...who cares, just visit the damn place
Roughly this time two years ago I decided to indulge myself in a months travel. After all, the whole point of stepping back from climbing up the greasy corporate pole and loosening my grip on life was to have more adventures!
After much saving and deliberation with my friend Jen, we decided upon Burma...or Myanmar as it's now officially named - but no-one has a bloody clue that's a country unless they've been there, so Burma it is.
Needless to say we had a magical time, hence this post.
That is until we left it for a final week of beach in Thailand...which might as well have been Zante, Malia or Magaluf. But that's another rant for another time - short version, don't bother doing Phi Phi if you want local culture. It's ruined.
But back to beautiful Burma. Here are the top five reasons you should go there...
- It's authentically Asian - For those of you who've been lucky enough to travel around South East Asia you'll know that unfortunately thanks to the huge influx of us Western wankers, much of it has become very touristy. And touristy means inauthentic. Because the borders to Burma only opened up a few years ago after 50 years of strict military rule, it has managed to retain all of its Asian magic. The downsides being that not many people speak English and travelling around can be quite complicated due to the lack of infrastructure - but if you like a bit of an adventure, then that is exactly what makes this place perfect!
- Cheap as chips (or peanuts) - Getting to Burma isn't a direct or cheap affair. You have to stop off in Thailand and given that's an 11 hour flight away, it averages around £800 in peak season (UK or USA winter). To bring the cost down we opted to fly to Bangkok and then move to the "cheap" airport (Suvarnabhumi Airport) for a £60 transfer flight, as opposed to a £250 one from the international airport you usually land in. However, this did mean that our entire journey from London to Burma took 36 hours. I'll leave you to decide whether it's worth it. What I will say is that the money saved will go a long way in country. Burma is incredibly cheap once you're actually there. A litre of the delicious local beer (Myanmar lager) costs £1 (we drank it with every meal), a 7 hour rickety train journey is a mere 25 pence and the average meal for two £5...smothered in peanuts, as all food in Burma is (at no extra cost). It's not the destination for anyone with a peanut allergy.
- The Plain of a Thousand Temples - Otherwise known as Bagan, was easily the top highlight of our trip. I'll just leave you a little link to a quick Google image search here and you'll see instantly why. It's is an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region. During the kingdom's height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone, of which the remains of over 2,200 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day. The best, albeit rather sweaty, way to explore them is to hire a bike and spend a day meandering around. Every single one is different. Some you can go in, some you can climb to enjoy the spectacular views at sunset and if you've feeling flash, you can even hire a hot air balloon for a birds eye view. *NB we were not that flash. We did however splash out on a hotel with a pool.
- The Floating Gardens of Lake Inle - After all the heat of the South of the country, Lake Inle offers some deliciously cooling respite. It's a bit of a whopper at 13.5 miles long and 7 miles wide. So much so, that you could easily think you're out at sea. The only thing to bring you back to land is the array of stilt-house villages, floating farms (farmers here actually grow their crops floating on the Lake's surface, it's mind blowing) and the fishermen who are out at first-light balancing themselves on one leg. It is a truly stunning and peaceful place. The only way to explore is by boat. Renting your own one for a driver with the day is around £15. There are also some slightly dubious natural hot springs on the Western edge of the lake if you fancy a day trip. Again, it's very cheap and easy to hire bikes and cycle there. Not many people have cars so cycling feels pretty safe.
- The Golden Rock - Is exactly what it says it is. It's an enormous boulder covered in gold leaf balanced precariously at the top of a mountain. Apparently it balances on a strand of Buddha's hair, which is why it's a serious pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Getting up to see it is quite an experience. The only way up the steep and windy road is via shared open-top jeep bus 'things'. Catching one of these involves a bit of a elbow fight with the hundreds of locals doing the same. Once you're actually up the mountain, the wander to the rock itself is a slow meander past traditional monks banging gongs and praying people. The rock is of course huge and very golden. And the views are stunning.
Hopefully that's sold it to you intrepid travellers looking to avoid the crowds. But shhhh, don't tell anyone else or it'll become the next Phi Phi...
P.s. Some of you might also be aware of the plight of the Rohingya muslims, who live in the remote North of the country and are being systematically wiped out by the authorities. If not, you can read about it here. It's tragic but I feel important to say it doesn't reflect the nature of the rest of the people in the country - just the corruption of government *sigh* Please do make a donation to Save The Children who're working hard to help those who've survived the attacks.