Burmese women sleeping on the train tracks - waiting for their ride

Sleeping on the Tracks – life in Myanmar/Burma

This is my favorite photo!  I was in Rangoon Burma waiting for the fast train to Mandalay.  I had time to kill so I left the magnificent late nineteenth century British railroad station and walked out to the yard. I was surprised to see cows walking through the tracks. There were also many people camped in the yard. I saw a small walk over bridge which took you from one side of the yard to the opposite side. As I was walking over the bridge and looked down to see these two ladies waiting for some train. It was an amazing sight.

Another wonderful dispatch on life in Myanmar/Burma from the intrepid Bill Stanhope – [Kevin เควิน Khaosan]

An Introduction to Burma

Introduction to Burma
Introduction to Burma
Introduction to Burma

Often still referred to by its former name of Burma, Myanmar is a beautiful diamond-shaped country spanning roughly 575 miles (925 kilometres) from east to west and 1300 miles (2100 kilometres from north to south.

Myanmar is part of Southeast Asia and is bordered by Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east. This is a country rich with natural beauty, culture, wildlife, forests, coastal resorts and temples and in many ways is the perfect tourist destination.

However, Myanmar is ruled by a brutal military regime, and many people avoid visiting Myanmar in order to avoid supporting this regime. However, the sad truth is that most tourist services such as guesthouses, restaurants and tours are run by the people themselves and not the government. The recent reduction in tourism has simply meant that the people of Myanmar are forced to suffer from lost earnings in addition to the numerous hardships and constraints imposed by the government. As long as you are careful to avoid government run hotels, buses and other services, it is possible to experience the most of this captivating country and possibly make a bit of a difference at the same time.

Although various parts of Myanmar are currently closed to tourists, the tourist numbers have been rising over the last couple of years, allowing many resorts to reopen. The Irrawaddy River runs through the centre of the country and this is a great way to travel and see the countryside.

Travelling through Myanmar feels like stepping into the past. Even though the capital city is fairly modern compared with the rest of the country it is still perhaps half a century behind many modern Southeast Asian capitals such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, while the country’s remote villages have changed little of the last few centuries.

This is a large part of Myanmar’s charm and as you explore you will discover ancient marvels such as the 4000 sacred stupas which are scattered across the plains of Bagan and the mysterious golden rock that somehow manages to balance on the edge of a chasm. As you ride in a Wild West stagecoach you will pass grand British mansions and men wearing traditional long skirt-like cloths around their waists.

Despite their years of suffering, the people of Myanmar are friendly, gentle and have a unique sense of humour. As you wander through villages and small towns you will probably be invited to get to know these people and share a part of their lives, an incomparable experience.

One of the best things about Myanmar is that it hasn’t been inflicted by the blight of Starbucks, McDonalds and other chain outlets that cover most Asian countries. Myanmar’s charms are subtle but they are authentically Asian and this is one of the few places in the world where you can experience true Asian culture without the integration of Western consumerism.

Mandalay, Burma

Mandalay, Burma
Mandalay, Burma
Mandalay, Burma

Mandalay was the former capital of Burma and home to a number of Burmese kings. This is the country’s second largest city and is very modern compared to much of Myanmar. The city is rich with culture and history and here you will find large palaces, stupas, temples and pretty pagodas interlaced with vibrant market places, dusty streets and stunning views.

Mandalay was founded in 1857 by King Mindon and there are still plenty of examples of architecture from this period such as the golden Eindawya Pagoda, collections of old wooden buildings originally from Amarapura and the the Shwekyimyint Pagoda, which houses the original Buddha image sanctified by Prince Minshinzaw.

Near Mandalay Hill you will find the enormous Shweyattaw Buddha and the Royal Palace, which is situated in the middle of a large moat at the foot of Mandalay Hill. Climb to the top of Mandalay Hill for magnificent views across the city. As you climb you will come across a number of monasteries and temples, while there are a collection of pretty pagodas and temples at the very top.

Venture just outside Mandalay and you will discover a number of former capital cities, each with their own unique character. A short trip to Sagaing is rewarded with views of the pretty Tupayon, Aungmyelawka and Kaunghmudaw pagodas, while a trip along the river to Mingun gives visitors the chance to see the Mingun Bell, which is believed to be the world’s largest uncracked hung bell. The bell was cast in 1790 to be hung in the giant pagoda of King Bodawpaya and is an impressive sight.

Mandalay is certainly a record-breaking city and in addition to the world’s largest uncracked bell you will find the world’s largest book in the Kuthodaw Paya at the foot of Mandalay Hill. The Kuthodaw Paya comprises more than 700 white stupas and the complete text of the Tripitaka, which is the most sacred text of Theravada Buddhism.

Mandalay is a good place to pick up a souvenir or two as the large markets are full of local produce and handicrafts. Alternatively, a short trip south of Mandalay will take you to the city of Amarapura, which is famous for cotton and silk weaving and you can watch the traditional skills being practiced here.

The vibrant city of Mandalay is a good place to get a bite to eat and there are a number of food stalls and restaurants offering Shan, Myanmar and Muslin food. While you’re here, try htou moun, which is a traditional dessert only found in Mandalay. Very sweet and oily, people travel from all over the country to sample the gelatinous dessert.

Bago, Burma

Bago, Burma
Bago, Burma
Bago, Burma

Situated some 50 miles to the north of Yangon, the pretty town of Bago is one of Myanmar’s leading attractions and a great place to spend a little time. Also known as Pegu, the town is home to a large collection of sacred Buddha images, making it one of the country’s holiest sites.

Many people simply pass by Bago on their way to Mandalay, but those who take the time to stop and look around will come across many unique features. Here you will find literally thousands of Buddha images in carved niches in a rocky cavern and an interesting array of pagodas, temples and other buildings.

The site of Bago was founded in 573 AD by two Mon princes and paid an important role in the history of both Mon land and Myanmar before being destroyed by the Burmese King Alaungpaya in 1757. Although only a few buildings remain as testimony to this interesting period of history, those that do are worth taking the time to investigate.

Bago has a number of large pagodas, of which the Shwemawdaw or Golden Shrine is the most sacred as it is believed to contain a couple of hairs belonging to the Gautama Buddha. As you explore the town you will discover the Shwethalyaung reclining Buddha statue and the impressive Kalyani Sima or Hall of Ordination.

There are a number of interesting places to explore on the outskirts of Bago. Just 40 miles to the east is one of Myanmar’s most prominent landmarks. Also know as Golden Rock, the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is a 5.5 meter high pagoda atop a large bolder covered with gold leaf. What makes this site so unusual is that the bolder is balanced on the very edge of a precipice and looks as though it will topple over the edge at any moment.

Bago is situated between the forested Pegu Mountains to the west and the Sittang River to the east. Surrounded by picturesque paddy fields, this is a good area to explore to get a real feel for Myanmar. There are number of places to get a bite to eat around Bagan and a couple of cosy places to stay.

Types of Transport in Burma

Types of Transport in Burma
Types of Transport in Burma
Types of Transport in Burma

Although a lot of Myanmar is off limits to foreigners, there are still plenty of areas to visit and you are free to explore the towns and villages within these areas.

Plane
There are more than sixty airstrips located within Myanmar and this is by far the easiest way to travel. There are four domestic airlines, although many people prefer to avoid Myanma Airlines as it is run by the government. The three private airlines are Air Bagan, Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways. One-way tickets need to be bought at least a day in advance and are cheaper at travel agencies than airline offices. Unfortunately, flights tend to be irregular and the safety record is not the best, so it might be better to consider other options.

Boat
There is an extensive river network running through Myanmar and travelling by boat is by far the best way to see the country. The service between Mandalay and Bagan is particularly popular with travellers and you can choose between the ferry or speedboat service. Boats can sail along the Irrawaddy River even in the dry season and places such as Bhamo and Myitkyina are easy to get to, while Yangon can be reached via the Twante Canal. However, boat trips can only be arranged as part of an organized tour group, which limits your options and the journey takes a lot longer than by road or air. 

Bus
Bus travel is cheap and the buses run regularly, making this a convenient form of transport. While it is better to avoid the old, crowded buses, the newer long distance buses are quite comfortable. The older buses break down frequently and are often delayed by several hours. Try to buy you ticket in advance to snag a good seat. Bus fares are priced in Kyat and can sometimes be bought from guesthouses as well as the chaotic bus station. The front of the bus is always the best as the back is usually crowded and uncomfortable.

Train
Myanmar Railways is owned by the government and it is best to avoid travelling by train. In addition, foreigners are forced to pay at least six times the standard fare, and train travel is slow and quite dangerous as the trains regularly derail.

Car and Motorcycle
Although it is possible to hire a car or motorbike in places such as Mandalay, International Driving Licences and British licences are not accepted and you must apply for a Myanmar licence at the Department for Road Transport and Administration in Yangon first. 

Around Town
Local transport options include bicycle rickshaws or trishaws known as sai-kaa, horse carts -myint hlei – ancient taxis and modern Japanese pick-up trucks. Fares are negotiable and it is essential to agree on the fee before getting in. 

When to Visit Burma

When to visit Burma
When to visit Burma
When to visit Burma

Like much of Southeast Asia, Myanmar has a tropical monsoon climate with three distinct seasons. The hottest season is from February to May, and this is also the driest time of the year. The monsoon or rainy season lasts from May to October, while there is a cool season between October and February. The weather also tends to be quite dry in the cool season.

Most people prefer to visit Myanmar in the cool season, probably arriving around November and heading out by the time the weather starts to turn at the end of January. Temperatures start to climb dramatically in the middle of February and April is scorching hot, peaking at around 45?C. The rains arrive in the middle of May and cool things down considerably, although this time of year can also be rather humid.

You can expect rain showers pretty much every day during the monsoon season, although in many places such as Yangon the rain tends to fall in two short showers, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. In other parts of Myanmar such as Bagan and Mandalay the rainfall is rather low.

If you are visiting Myanmar in the summer head to the hills as temperatures tend to be much lower here than in the rest of the country, meaning that you will need warm clothes if you are visiting during the cool or wet seasons.