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Calendar >  Travels With TR – Myanmar – Now Open Again to Visitors

Travels With TR – Myanmar – Now Open Again to Visitors

By   /  November 6, 2014  /  No Comments

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tom & carol

After years of internal conflict, keeping visitors to the country once known as Burma restricted, tourists can now travel safely to most of the beautiful sites in this amazing country. Burma, now known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, went through a long period of civil war. Some parts of Burma are still having political unrest today and only journalists and those with special travel permits are allowed. The main conflict deals with the ethnic minorities and the countries struggle toward democracy.  But, for the most part, the majority of the country is open to travelers.

I had the good fortune, along with a small travel group, to spend some time in Yangon and Pagan (Bagan) a short while back. The country had just opened up for safe travel for tourists a year or so before our trip. Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar and Bagan is the portion of Myanmar known for the numerous temple complexes. Myanmar is a country of 50 million people and is surrounded by 5 other countries and two bodies of water. Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, Thailand, the Bay of Bengal, and the Andamon Sea border Myanmar. The country has been populated by human species for over 400,000 years. Homo erectus remains have been found in cave sites and Homo sapiens appeared around 11,000 BC.

Today, jade and other gems, oil and natural gas help the economy, but the hope is tourism will help drive the country’s economy. The currency is called Kyat, but most of the hotels, restaurants and gift shops will accept American dollars, but they must be new, crisp with no folds. Up to the time we traveled in Burma, this was a country you could travel in and not see a Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King or any other fast food establishment.  This may have changed by now, but it was nice to see a country where western civilization had not yet crept into their lifestyle.

The country went through a tumultuous period years ago culminating in the elections of 2010 where the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party elected a leader. The UN and some Western countries declared the elections as fraudulent; mostly because the Union Solidarity declared the opposing party, the National League Democracy, illegal and placed the party’s outspoken leader, Aung San Suukyi, under house arrest. Since this time, Aung’s house arrest has ended and the hope is other political parties will be allowed. Since the 2010 elections, the government has embarked on a series of reforms to direct the country towards liberal democracy, a mixed economy and reconciliation, although doubt persists about the motives of the reforms.

Travelers to Burma mainly come to see the incredible temples. Theravada Buddhism the predominant religion. In Yangon, the Shwedagon Pagoda can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.  This gilded pagoda is 325 feet tall and is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda. It is also the oldest in the world, existing for over 2,600 years.  The city most visitors come to see is Bagan.  At one time over 4,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries existed here.  Today, the number is around 2,200.  There are several ways to get from Yangon to Bagan, boat, train and plane.  On an Anthony Bourdain ”No Reservations” episode, he took a rather adventurous train ride.  Our group flew, which allowed us to see the temple landscape as we landed.

Bagan was founded in the 9th century and was once the capital of Burma. It has been declared an archaeological zone.  Many of the temples are still used today for various functions and services. They can be seen for miles across the Bagan plains.  They are constructed in two styles, stupa style (solid temple) and gu-style (hollow temple). For the stupa style, their tall shape is a representation of the Buddhist cosmos symbolizing Mt. Meru and the umbrella carved on the brickwork symbolizes the Earth’s axis. The gu-style temples are structures for meditation, the devotional worship of the Buddha.  For these temples they are designed with either one entrance or four entrance styles. Dhammayangyi is the largest, That Byin Nyu Temple is the tallest and Ananda Temple is the most famous.  We were allowed inside most of the temples we wanted to go in and were allowed to climb the steps to the top portions of many of the temples. We arranged a horse and cart tour of many of the temples and took dirt roads around the complexes.  Another way to view the temples is by taking a boat ride on the Irrawaddy River.  We took the sunset boat ride and the view of the temple structures during the setting sun was spectacular.

Another tour we took in Bagan was a walking tour of the market area and lacquerware wood working shops. The lacquerware is made from tree sap. The fruits and vegetables on sale to the locals showed quiet a variety of foods. The restaurants offered a variety of soups, rice, meat curries, chicken dishes, seafood and vegetables.  Beef and pork is avoided.  Ginger salad was tasty.  The national dish is rice vermicelli in fish broth.  The curried chicken with wheat noodles and rice noodles with seafood was   popular with the tour group. Many of the Burmese dishes have a strong Chinese and Indian influence as well as other ethnic inspirations.

A bus ride out of Bagan took us to Mt. Popa, a volcanic mountain rising above the plains of Bagan. The mountains in this area rise to 5,000 feet. On the top portion of Mt. Popa at an elevation of 2,417 feet is Popa Taung Kalat Monastery.  We climbed 777 steps, barefooted (no shoes allowed), up a twisty, curvy stairway to the Monastery, dodging Macaque monkeys and their droppings to arrive at the complex situated at the top of this volcanic range. Mt. Popa is considered the  holiest of sites and Buddhist monks wander the steps and the temple area with the tourists. From the walls you get a  beautiful view of the Bagan valley.

This is a country that will be making significant changes in the years to come.  If you can get to Myanmar before Starbucks and others arrive you will see a country as the locals see it, non-westernized. It is a rare experience to see such a country in today’s world.

Reminder – There are some savings offered now for those signing up to go with us to Croatia and Slovenia September 2015.  Drop me an e mail to trobertsasb@yahoo.com for a brochure and pricings.

Photos by Tom Robertson

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