Well over a century ago, Rudyard Kipling found himself on a boat afloat the Irrawaddy River exclaiming intrigue for a country that was “quite unlike any land” he’d seen before. At the time, he was a renowned travel writer and visiting the country for a short period of time when the British were gaining control of the entire region including Mandalay.
Bound by land by Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, Myanmar was an extension of the power the Europeans sought in order to control the trade routes of South, South East and Far East Asia. During the occupation, port towns such as Yangon (Rangoon) appeared with British colonial administrative buildings appear nearby Hindu and Buddhist temples.
Despite the rush of modernisation, cities such as Yangon hold onto an ancient past. With Shwedagon Pagoda, a golden bell shaped stupa dating back 2,500 years is covered in almost 60 metric tonnes of gold-leaf, and bells studded with rubies, sapphires and topaz. Opulent details continue with a diamond orb encrusted with 4,350 diamonds and crowned with a 76 carat diamond.
Myanmar is a country rich in minerals, including gemstones and jade, and seemingly no expense was spared in creating the temples of palaces of previous kingdoms. Myanmar tours highlight the impressive ‘Golden City’ of Mandalay, the 4000 stupas scattered across Bagan, to the enormous gold coloured boulder and stupa at Mount Kyaiktiyo. The third most important Buddhist pilgrimage seems gravity defying and is said to be enough of an inspiration for any person to turn to Buddhism.
With Thailand and Laos to the east, Myanmar sits between many distinct cultural groups and over time has resulted in over 100 different ethnic groups within its borders. Small villages each have their own customs and in regions such as Inle Lake, where people have been migrating since the 14th century, there are so many villages on the shorelines that some groups have even resorted to building their villages on the water.
The tensions of differing ethnic groups were the core reason of a longstanding civil war within the country. Recently, Myanmar has held democratic elections, opened up its press with the relaxing of censorship and international investment as well as allowing more foreign travel. The rush to modernize has not yet affected the respect for customs and traditions with the ancient wonders found within its borders.
With the exception of a few large cities, Myanmar tours showcase a country with a rural feel. Horse and cart still operate as a form of transportation, teahouses are found across the land, and traditional dress is still widely worn.
From the high reaching peaks of the many mountain ranges within Myanmar, some that tower at over 5800 m to the low-lying waterways that act as a transportation network inland from the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, the country occupies an area unique in southeast Asia. Myanmar tours offer a glimpse into wealthy kingdoms and inspiring sacred places to rival sites such as Angkor Wat while allowing one to experience a traditional lifestyle that seems to only exist in small pockets of the world.
One thing is certain, Myanmar is not to be missed.