Pay a Visit to the World’s Biggest Up and Coming Gap Year Hotspot
When a country changes capital city 12 times within 300 years, you can consider my interest piqued. Throw in the fact that it’s been largely closed off to tourists up until the last couple of years, and there’s no talking me out of it.
I booked a group tour that would show me the most popular Burma sights, including Bagan, Inle Lake, and Mandalay. But the journey began in Yangon, the capital city from the mid 1800s until it was stripped of the honour in November 2005.
A Guided Tour of Burma
Guided tours are anathema to some travellers, but the tourist infrastructure in Burma is still rough and ready, so it seemed like my safest option.
After meeting my tour group (15 people strong) and our guide Pai, our first stop was Swhedagon Pagoda, the most popular attraction in Yangon. It’s a massive complex covering 46 hectares, with the main pagoda housing eight of Buddha’s hairs. Pai talked us through the various stupas (hemispherical domes that usually contain Buddhist artefacts), artworks, and the numerous posts that represented days of the week when visitors would wash a Buddha with cups of water for good luck.
Next we took a 4 hour drive east of Yangon to see Golden Rock. It’s a true feat of balance, a giant rock poised precariously on the edge of a cliff, supported by nothing more than one of Buddha’s hairs (or so they say). The route up to the rock from the town of Kyaikto involves a journey on a truck, an hour of bouncing vigorously up and down while perched on a narrow ledge with no cushioning and leg room, crammed up against your fellow passengers. If you’ve been to Asia, you probably know what I’m talking about.
The next stop was Mandalay, another former capital (though it only held the title for 26 years) and a flight away. Many say there’s nothing to do here, but we spent three days exploring the city and I didn’t get bored. The only difficulty is that there are no local buses, so I had to rely on cycling or private car/bus.
My first stop was the top of Mandalay Hill, which boasts a statue of San Dha Mukhi, an ogress who amputated her own breast and presented it to Buddha. He was so impressed that he reincarnated her as a king! I think that’s a fair trade.
My favourite sight in the city was at the base of the hill, Kuthodaw Paya, the world’s largest book. It’s not the paper behemoth you might expect, but 729 stone plinths in rows, each covered in script from the Tripitaka (the Buddhist holy text) and encased inside a stupa. If you read for eight hours a day, it would take you over a year to finish the whole thing.
Next door is Shwenandaw Kyaung, an intricately beautiful teak monastery. The building’s exterior is covered in detailed carvings, meaning you can stare at it for hours and keep finding new things. The monastery used to be inside the Royal Palace, but when King Thibaw took the throne he had it moved, as he feared it was filled with the ghosts of his predecessors.
Most trips to Burma should include a journey on the Ayeyarwady River, and we took it upstream to the village of Mingun. The most popular attraction here is the unfinished pagoda. King Bodawpaya was having it constructed when an astronomer told him that if it reached any higher his kingdom would fall.
Despite his caution, two earthquakes, the first in 1838 followed by another in 2012, have left the pagoda riddled with giant cracks, making it unsafe to climb to the top.
The Cow Racing Festival
Another trip out from Mandalay took us to the town of Amarapura, where I witnessed one of the bizarre festivals I’ve ever come across in all my travels. The main attraction was cow racing, involving a pair of cows, a cart, and a particularly foolish man. Sadly the official races had stopped when we arrived, but an impromptu event was quickly organised for our bemused benefit!
Lake Taungthaman, also in Amarapura, has the longest teak bridge in the world, a surprisingly alluring tourist attraction as it stretches away into the distant sunset, the water still and reflective underneath it. We walked from end-to-end just soaking up the hushed atmosphere.
It was time for another trip on the Ayeyarwady River, this time a little lengthier: 11 hours south to Bagan. The temples in Bagan are probably the most famous sight in Burma. An area of approximately 26 square miles houses 2,217 temples, and that’s far fewer than when Bagan was capital city. Many were destroyed through years of neglect or earthquakes.
The best way to appreciate the scale of the area is from above. A number of temples can be climbed for a picture perfect panorama, particularly beautiful at sunrise or sunset, but the best view comes from going up in a hot air balloon.
Floating some 900ft above the ground, an eerie silence descended, punctuated only by the sounds of the burner. We were all in awe of the landscape unfolding below us, temples that seemed to stretch forever. At other times we drifted so low we felt we could reach out and touch the temples. Our pilot even took us down so low we were able to wave at our friends watching the sun rise from the peak of the nearest temple.
Once back on terra firma, we hired bikes and cycled between temples on dirt tracks and sandy lanes. It was easy to spot the difference between temples left to crumble and those which have had an injection of cash to be restored. These were adorned with fairy lights in the evenings, lighting up their surroundings in an ethereal glow.
Home of the One-Legged Rowers
It was time to leave the plains and head up to a former British hill station, Kalaw. The British influence was evident in the style of the houses and the number of churches that appeared out of nowhere.
Kalaw is also a popular place to go trekking. We hiked out to the surrounding hills to visit local villages and see crops being grown. Fields of garlic, rivers of cabbages, and meadows of onions coloured the landscape. In the villages themselves sacks of tea leaves sat out to dry.
It was all going so quickly. Our final stop on the trip was Inle Lake, home to the famous one-legged rowers. These are local Intha people who use just one of their legs to row when they go out on the lake to fish.
The water stretches for about 45 square miles, and is dotted with villages, temples, and pagodas. You can hire a boat for the day to take you around and experience village life, from making silver to visiting the cat sanctuary. The fishermen carry on their daily routine around you. In Nyuanshwe, a village on the lake’s edge, you can book a course to learn how to row one-legged style (spoiler: it’s as hard as it looks).
Having seen what Burma has to offer, it seems impossible that it was closed to tourists for so long. Even now the country is so unprepared for public interest that it frequently runs out of hotel beds at popular times.
Our two weeks had come to an end. We returned to Yangon for a final tour of the city and a farewell dinner with the group and Pai, having visited 6 former capital cities and seen sights unlike anywhere else in the world. It doesn’t take an expert to predict that the country should get cracking on building more hotels.
Burma is the next big gap year destination, and from this brilliant account of a two week backpacking adventure through the country, you’ll probably soon understand why.