I'd initially planned on travelling overland independently, but with such poor road connections, unreliable railways and antiquated airline procedures it's an almost impossible undertaking. A voyage on SeaDream II from Singapore to Phuket, including two nights in Yangon and the chance to see Bagan on an overnight trip, provided the perfect way to see the country's highlights and enjoy a luxurious break.
After time in Malaysia and Thailand the idyllic Mergui Archipelago was our introduction to Myanmar, a chain of over 800 beautiful islands. The area is rarely visited and the isolation has helped preserve the way of life for the local sea gypsy community who spend most of their lives aboard low slung kabangs. Watching these traditional boats fish beside the empty white sand beaches highlighted just how untouched by tourism this area is.
On arrival in Yangon I was struck by how developed the city was with high-rise buildings and small shopping malls behind the faded colonial buildings that line the industrial river front. Some of the old world charm does remain and there are a number of impressive sights, the highlight of which is the Shwedagon Pagoda.
On a small hill complex it is easily reached by taxi and after a short negotiation we had our $5 fare confirmed, providing we paid with crisp, clean, new dollar bills. The images don't really do Shwedagon justice: in the morning sunshine the scale of the central gold pagoda, topped with a 76 carat diamond is dazzling. We then visited the less popular Kyauktawyi, a little further from the centre, where a huge seated Buddha supposedly carved from a single piece of marble is enclosed in glass. After some souvenir hunting at Scott Market a busy day was capped with a cooling drink at the Strand Hotel, once one of the most luxurious hotels in the British Empire.
The following day we took the short flight to Bagan, for me the pinnacle of the trip. Our tour leader's enthusiasm was matched by few others at 4.30am but her handling of the rather old fashioned airport procedures was welcome. I'm still not sure why we were given the yellow sticker to wear but there seemed to be a system in place so who was I to argue with it. After a short scenic flight over the Irrawaddy River we arrived in Bagan to explore the Archaeological Preservation Zone. Here hundreds of temples and pagodas rise above the tree tops, creating a magical view and one we enjoyed with so few others it felt as if we had just discovered it. The aggressive hawkers that can taint experiences at other major sites were here replaced by polite (but persistent) children selling copies of Burmese Days by George Orwell and hand drawn postcards.
Visiting a selection of monuments gave an overview of the styles constructed over various times and some provided amazing viewing platforms, especially Pyathada Paya from which we watched the sunset. It was one of the most beautiful sights I've ever witnessed and an incredible highlight from an unforgettable trip. It was this vista that had inspired me to go to Myanmar and it didn't disappoint.
- Visit Shwedagon Pagoda in the morning before it gets too hot as ladies need to cover their shoulders and gentlemen must wear long shorts (below the knee) or trousers
- US Dollars are widely accepted but they must be clean, new notes, and it's best to have small denominations
- Lacquerwear is produced in Bagan and Yangon and many markets offer superb souvenir hunting opportunities