Southeast Asia’s final frontier: 5 ways to see Myanmar | Independent

Since the National League for Democracy (NLD) took power last year, Myanmar’s political landscape — arguably now better known by its new name, Myanmar — has become increasingly beautified, and it improved further this week. A law designed to allow the country’s former military rulers to detain people without charge and impose the death penalty for crimes seen as treason was cheerfully repealed by the new parliament.

It’s just another way that Myanmar, a country once spurned by the international community — subject to economic sanctions and known for human rights abuses — is trying to become more popular. After the National League for Democracy won the 2015 election and Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for 15 years for trying to bring democracy to the country, became head of the government, Myanmar reopened business activity quickly and impressively.

Just last month, the United States announced the lifting of economic sanctions against the country, three years later than the European Union. When the trade starts, the flights follow – Emirates launched a new route from Dubai to Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon (known in colonial times) in August, while Jetstar Asia added three new routes in December Flights from Singapore to Yangon.

So, yes, this is certainly a new era for Myanmar – one that may very well end the country’s “last frontier” feeling. Though there are still reasons for caution — from armed clashes between rebels and the military in northern and southeastern Myanmar to the case of a Dutch tourist who currently faces two years in prison for unplugging a speaker playing Buddhist prayers in Mandalay — but there has probably never been a better time to visit Myanmar, which now balances the dual appeal of being both intriguing and strange.

Here are five different ways to appreciate the best of it.

Shwedagon Pagoda dominates Yangon’s skyline (Getty)

Cities: Yangon and Mandalay

Bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, Myanmar is an exciting meeting point between the quintessentially Indian and Southeast Asian countries. Yangon is a city as otherworldly as Mumbai or Hanoi. Cheap food crackles on street stoves, rubbish and debris pile up on betel juice-stained sidewalks, and local men wear longyis (checkered aprons). This is the kind of place where immersion is best enjoyed through aimless wandering. Of course, there’s one more sight you can’t miss – taking over the skyline with the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s holiest Buddhist monument. The golden stupa is inlaid with diamonds and jewels donated by pilgrims.

Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, is an equally scrappy city: scooters, pancake stands and teahouses scramble to get ahead. Don’t miss the tea with condensed milk (a mashup of chai and Vietnamese coffee) – it’s addictive. Many visitors here also take the opportunity to catch a performance by the Mustache Brothers, a comedy trio known for their loyalty to the junta. Although Myanmar is now free of military rule, the brothers have vowed to continue satirizing the country’s politics on a small stage in their garage.

the best: January and February are good times to visit Yangon and Mandalay, where it is dry but not too hot.

The biggest tourist attraction in Myanmar, the temples of Bagan


Temples: Bagan

Temple visits are required on most stops in Myanmar – it’s one of the most devout Buddhist countries in the world, and even from a rickety bus on a dilapidated country road you’ll see the bushes in the distance Glittering golden stupa. But by far the most impressive temple visit is in Bagan, where thousands of red-brick pagodas dot the grassy plains. It’s a remarkable sight to rival other great wonders like Machu Picchu or Petra, but be prepared for world-class hawker hassle too. Throngs of women slathered on thanaka — a yellow paste made from ground bark and used as a natural sunscreen — chase weary tourists with trinkets and precious “gems”. The local Weather Spoon’s Restaurant (sic) also erases a bit of the exoticism.

the best: Bagan is suffocating year-round, making winter (November-February) the most comfortable time to visit (with temperatures hovering in the mid-30s).

Inle Lake leg paddling art


Water: Inle Lake and Ayeyarwady River

The most talked about destination in Myanmar, second only to Bagan, Inle Lake is undoubtedly a special experience. The sprawling freshwater wonder is surrounded by almost neon green rice fields, while hills crouch shadowily in the distance. Leg-rowing fishermen – requiring a unique technique in which a leg is wrapped around an oar to propel a boat – are happily photographed (remember to tip). Exploring by boat will take you to exotic little clusters of ramshackle houses on stilts over water, and the fact that you’ll be dragged into more than your usual decent shops doesn’t matter if you’re enjoying the scenery.

In the west, the Ayeyarwady is Myanmar’s longest river, and lazy boat cruises along this waterway from Mandalay to Bagan are a popular to-do list. Discovering country life along the riverbanks is the main highlight and provides a welcome respite from the more chaotic aspects of the more touristy areas. Here, screeching scooters are replaced by wooden carts pulled by oxen.

the best: Inle Lake is generally wetter and cooler than the rest of Myanmar, and winters can be very cold. For this reason, prime time will be late September and early October, as the rainy season is over but temperatures are still warm.

Countryside around the mountain town of Kalaw

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Trek: Grau

Head to Kalaw, a former British mountain station, to get up close and personal with the Burmese countryside. The air is much cooler here, and it’s a popular spot for a day or two of hill tribe trekking, back in town, where you can stop by any of the makeshift cafes along the road (think outdoors, plastic stools). The colors here seem more vivid than ever — rust-red earth, mint-green fields — and the more laid-back vibe makes dining at Kalaw’s convivial neighborhood restaurants an all-night delight.

the best: Avoid the rainy season (June-September) as heavy rain and slippery roads can make hiking less fun. October to February are the coolest but busiest months.

Taungkalat monastery on a volcanic plug near Mount Popa

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Pilgrimage Tour: Popa Taungkalat and Golden Rock

Myanmar certainly has no shortage of places of pilgrimage, but aside from the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, these two are perhaps the most notable. Perched atop a volcanic plug near Mount Popa, about 50 kilometers southeast of Bagan, Popa Taungkalat Monastery is a popular spot for 360-degree views of the surrounding plains. However, it turns out that the most challenging part is not the 777 steps leading to the summit, but the challenge of aggressive macaques lining the stairs. Take it from us: Don’t let anything — hair, cameras, food — dangle from anywhere.

Legend has it that a gold stone is balanced on a lock of Buddha’s hair. This anti-gravity wonder certainly looks like a miracle: a gigantic monolith teetering from the summit of Kyaiktiyo, topped by a pagoda and covered in gold leaf all over the ground. Surreal, yes, but also a major pilgrimage site, filled with monks, candles and incense, adding some proper magic to the illusion.

the best: The pilgrimage season is from November to March. It is best to avoid the rainy season due to the fog. Photographers of course capture the rocks in their best light at sunrise and sunset.

travel essentials

reach there

There are no direct flights to Yangon from the UK, but airlines that fly to Yangon include Qatar Airways, Thai Airways, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.

live there

Self-guided travel is by no means impossible in Myanmar, but with poor infrastructure and bureaucracy when it comes to tourist accommodation, it’s more of a chore than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Therefore, many people will choose to go with the group. Itineraries range from adventure (Intrepid Travel; to luxury (Black Tomato;

spend there

It is usually better to use cash in Myanmar as ATMs can be tricky to find. Once in Myanmar, you’ll need to exchange your dollars for kyat (pronounced “chat”); the exchange counters will only accept original banknotes, rejecting any that are slightly creased or marked.

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