Highlights of the Golden Land
Which tourism officials dub the “Golden Land” – is best-known for golden-spired temples symbolising the country. In Yangon’s city centre, ringed by colonial structures, there’s sacred Sule Pagoda. At the edge of the business district sits Yangon’s supreme attraction: Shwedagon Pagoda, a revered place of Buddhist pilgrimage. Tourists often cruise up or down the Ayeyarwady (still commonly called the Irrawaddy) because itineraries include time in Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay, with stops at villages. The name itself sounds exotic, bracketed with places such as Mali’s Timbuktu, Morocco’s Marrakesh or the island of Madagascar. Though Marrakesh is popular among Europeans, it’s much-visited Mandalay (because of closeness) that Australians are more likely to visit. I gaze from Sutaungpyei Pagoda atop Mandalay Hill to a traffic-choked town. As Myanmar opens up Mandalay embraces change, becoming a bustling city. But key attractions remain. Among these: an oddity called “the world’s biggest book” with 729 whitepainted stupas, each 2m tall, covering 5ha and encircling Kuthodaw Pagoda. Every stupa carries an inscription. Together, these constitute a Buddhist holy book. The book, stunning visitors for 155 years, is World Heritage-listed. Drifting in a balloon above Bagan’s 2200 stupas and pagodas it’s obvious why this place of extraordinary beauty is Myanmar’s top attraction. Bagan’s gems encompass stupas along with enormous art-filled pagodas such as Ananda Temple, hand-hewn in 1105. Tourists often rent motor-scooters to travel within a 42sq km expanse. Inle Lake, often labelled the Venice of Asia, has canals instead of streets. Boats are the usual transport. Memorable sights include “one-legged fishermen”. Aboard tiny craft, they stand on one leg, wrapping the other around oars to paddle.
Australians associate Myanmar more with unique cultural attractions than beach holidays. But there are magnificent beaches — far less crowded than those in, say, Phuket. Ngapali, 7km from Thanwe, is picture-postcard territory. Among stylish resorts, there’s even a Hilton. Accommodation ranges from ultra-opulent to bare-bones basic. I spread my towel near palms on a long white-sand beach before snorkelling in calm aquamarine sea.