No other country in Southeast Asia has – potentially seen – more natural resources and a wealth of agriculture than Myanmar. From time immemorial known as the “Golden Land” or Suwannabhumi, formerly also including parts of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, today’s Republic of the Union of Myanmar has an area of 676,577 sq km and borders on Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. Strategically located between India and China, the latest Myanmar Tourism Statistics 2017 count 3,443,133 visitor arrivals with Yangon and Mandalay as international entry points next to other regional border gateways. Overland entry is permitted for international visitors with a valid visa along the Thailand-Myanmar border at Kawthaung/Ranong, Hteekhee/Kanchanaburi, Myawaddy/Mae Sot and Tachileik/Mae Sai. Other more regional entry points are Mawlamyaing, Myeik, Muse at the Chinese border, Tamu at the Indian border, and Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital.
The population in Myanmar is about 51 million and the major ethnic groups are Bamar, Rakhaing, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayah, Kayin, and Mon living in separate seven states as well as the Bamar heartland of seven regions in Tanintharyi, Bago, Yangon, Ayeyarwadi, Magway, Mandalay and Sagaing. Actually, Myanmar comprises 135 national ethnic groups with their own dialectics and traditions. The Bamar are the biggest ethnic group with 70 percent of the population and Buddhism as a religion is practiced by up to 80% of the population. Thus, let the journey through the “Golden Land” begin with its most important landmarks and religious buildings:
- The Yangon Region with its capital Yangon and 6 million inhabitants are the main commercial area and the main gateway to Myanmar. The city was founded by King Alaungpaya in 1775 on a site of a small Mon fishermen’ settlement called Dagon. The famous Golden Shwedagon Pagoda is the prominent landmark with a height of 109 m overlooking the city from a small hill, where eight hair relics of the Buddha are enshrined. The Shwedagon Pagoda is believed to have been built more than 2,600 years ago in the time of the Buddha. It is the real gem and masterpiece of Myanmar art and architecture. Other landmark pagodas are the Sule Pagoda in the town center and the Botataung Pagoda at the port of the Yangon River. An excursion can be easily done to Thanlyin or Syriam, which was an important trading port of the Portuguese in the early 17th century. Over the long bridge spanning the Bago River, the Kyaik Khauk Pagoda in Thanlyin and the scenic Yele Pagoda in Kyauktan can be reached. Other attractions in Yangon are the National Museum, the popular Bogyoke Aung San or Scott Market for shopping, Kandawgyi Garden and Inya Lake, while a boat trip along the Twante Canal from Dala to Twante is offering a close look into the noted pottery industry.
- The Bago Region with its capital Bago is the focus of the big Shwemawdaw Pagoda and the restored Kanbawzathadi Palace of King Bayintnaung from the 16th century. Other towns are Taungoo further north and Pyay on the east side of the Ayeyarwadi River, which is the lifeline of the country. The most sacred Shwe Sandaw Pagoda has four relics of the Buddha enshrined and was built in the time of the Buddha. Only 8 km southeast of Pyay is the old Pyu capital of Srikshetra, which flourished from the 4th century A.D. to the 9th century A.D. A site museum displays the varieties of valuable properties such as large stone burial urns with Pyu inscriptions, the design of massive stupas and temples, Buddha images, Brahmanical statues, terracotta votive tablets and figurines, silver coins and beads as well as other Pyu cultural objects. Importantly, the Pyu developed water reservoirs, brickwork and iron foundry.
- The Mandalay Region with its capital Mandalay is home of Nay Pyi Taw as the new capital since 2005, which is some 400 km north of Yangon and 300 km south of Mandalay. The new capital has been beautifully landscaped and is the seat of the Hluttaw or parliament complex made up of 31 buildings including the Presidential Palace. Other attractions are the majestic Uppatasanti Pagoda, the Zoological Garden as well as the Myanmar Gems Museum and Gems Mart. Bagan was the capital of the first Myanmar Royal City (1044-1287) and is situated on the east side of the Ayeyarwadi River. Highlights of Bagan are the Shwezigon Pagoda, Ananda Temple, Dhammayangyi and Sulamani, as well as the Thatbyinnyu Temple in the inner city, where is also the Archeological Museum. Along the river in the south are the Lawkananda Pagoda and the Bupaya Pagoda in the central part, which is a pagoda made in the ancient Pyu Period. Excursions from Bagan can be made to Mount Popa, the seat of the 37 nat spirits and to Sale with the wooden Yoke Sone Monastery. Mandalay was built by King Mindon in 1857 and was the last Myanmar Royal City until 1885, when the British occupied it. Highlights are the Shwenandaw Monastery, Atumashi Monastery, Kuthodaw Pagoda as the World’s Biggest Book, Sandamuni Pagoda, Kyauktawgyi Pagoda, Mandalay Hill, Mandalay Palace, and the central market called Zegyo. Arts and crafts are marble carving, wood carving, bronze casting and gold-leaf beating. Within the Arakan Pagoda the bronze image of the Mahamuni Buddha is all laid over with gold-leaf. The former royal city of Amarapura is about 10 m south of Mandalay and features silk weaving factories and the teak U Bein Bridge spanning the Taungthaman Lake. Another royal city is Innwa across the Myit-Nge Riverand has an archeological site museum. Mogok is the world-famous ruby town, while Tagaung in the far north of the Mandalay Region has also an interesting site museum. Maymyo or Pyin-Oo-Lwin was an old British hill station and has a huge Botanical Garden.
- The Magway Region with its capital Magway located east of the Ayeyarwadi River has the sacred Myathalon Pagoda going back to the time of the Buddha. In this pagoda is the emerald divan enshrined, in which Buddha was resting during his visit. Opposite is the Nagapwek Mountain in Minbu, which is a mud volcano. Some 55 km west of Minbu is the Shwesettaw Pagoda with a pair of Buddha’s footprints. Other attractions in the Magway Region are the Min Hla Fortress built in 1860-61 during British colonial times on the west side of the Ayeyarwadi some 30 km south of Magway and the Gwechaung Fortress, which was built until 1863 on the east side of the river and diagonal across the Min Hla Fortress. The Pyu Beikthano ancient city was constructed some 55 km east of Magway and displays the respective cultural heritage in the Beikthano Archeological Museum.
- The Sagaing Region with its capital Sagaing and former royal city of the Shan people has been now taken over by the Myanmar. A highlight is the view from the Soon Oo Ponnya Shin Pagoda down to the Ayeyarwadi River and towards the new and old Ava Bridge. Other attractions are the mountain sanctuaries of Pho Win Taung and Bodhi Taung located near theChindwin River in Monywa. Also the Moehnyin Sambuddye Pagoda is nearby. The most sacred pagoda about 10 km from Sagaing is the dome of the Kaungmudaw Pagoda built by King Thalun in 1636. There are murals, which depict the life of the Buddha. Mingun is another highlight to see on the western bank of the Ayeyarwadi River about 11 km upriver from Mandalay, where the biggest bell of the world has 90 tons. The brick pagoda nearby built by King Bodawpaya is the tallest brick pagoda that was never finished and destroyed by an earthquake in 1838. Near the town of Shwebo is the ancient Pyu city of Halin some 130km far from Mandalay. There are many standing stone slabs and a palace citadel, while a burial ground is datable to 2000 to 5000 years before the present time. Furthermore, only adventurous tourists can reach Homalin on the Chindwin River, from where to visit the self-administered villages of the Naga tribes near the Indian border. Via Katha on the west side of the Ayeyarwadi River, the second defile is reached and also Kachin State.
- Chin State with its capital of Hakha is renowned for its mountainous terrain and the growing of garden fruits. The former capital Falam features a grand Baptist Church and is located near the scenic Rieh Lake. Chin women can still be seen with tattoos in their face. In the south part of Chin State is Natmataung or Mount Victoria, which is the highest mountain with 3,053 m above sea level and an important bird sanctuary. Kanpetlet and Mindat are other important towns.
- Kachin State with its capital Myitkyina is the northern part of Myanmar and all to know of this state of the Kachin tribes is from the Kachin State Cultural Museum. Another town to visit along the Ayeyarwadi River is Bhamo, from where it is very easy to reach China. Putao is the most northern city of Kachin State near snow-capped mountains and Fort Hertz, which was built by the British. Mount Hkakaborazi is the highest peak with 5,882 m above sea level.
- Shan State with its capital Taunggyi is a mountainous region and often called the Switzerland of Asia. It features the scenic Inle Lake with the Phaung-Daw-Oo Pagoda, the trekking area of Pindaya and Kalaw, the Kakku ancient pilgrimage complex, the Kyaik Tong scenic town near the Golden Triangle area, and the Hsipaw/Lashio part of the Old Burma Road in the northern part of Shan State. A not yet opened area is the trans-Salween self-administered Wa Special Region No. 2 along the Chinese border with a myriad of different hill tribes.
- Kayah State with its capital Loikaw is Myanmar’s smallest state. Rich in teak and bamboos and well-known for its handicrafts, food and festivals, Kayah State is home to the Karenni or Red Karen and the Padaung with their typical giraffe women among other tribes. Loikaw was named by the Shan people to describe the dividing point between the two mountains of Shwe Taung and Thiri Mingalar Taung. The town’s most iconic site is the Taung Kwe Pagoda, also known as Broken Hill, which offers stunning views into the countryside. The reclining Buddha, the bustling market, a museum and some churches are worth visiting. Additionally, there are simple villages offering home stay, scenic lakes, waterfalls and caves to discover.
- Kayin State with its capital Pa-An is home to the different tribes of the Karen, which can be studied in the Kayin Cultural Museum near the Kantharyar Lake. Mount Zwekabin is located some 11 km south of Pa-An surrounded by caves such as the Bayint Nyi Cave, Kawgoon Cave and Sadan Cave among others. Hpa-An is located on the east side of the Salween River. Other towns are Papun in the north and Myawaddy at the border with Thailand.
- Mon State with its capital Mawlamyaing and its Mon Cultural Museum are home to the Mon people, who are related to the Khmer in Cambodia. The Kyaikthanlan Pagoda among others is overlooking the town from a mountain ridge and has a hair relic of Buddha enshrined. In the town is the first Baptist Church, which was founded by the American reverend Adoniram Judson. Attractions north of the capital are Kyaikhtiyo or the Golden Rock Pagoda and the old royal towns of Thaton and Mottama, while in the south of Mawlamyaing is the Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery at the western end of the infamous death railway, which was built during the Second World War by the Japanese from Thailand. On the seaside is the Kyaikkami Yele Pagoda near the old colonial town of Amherst and further south there is the scenic Setse Beach.
- The Tanintharyi Region with its capital Dawei is featuring the 800-island Myeik Archipelago, home of the elusive Moken people. Some 20 km from Dawei is one of the most beautiful beaches of Myanmar named Maung Ma Kan, while the sea port of Myeik is known for its Birds’ Nest products and pearl farming. In the south of the Tanintharyi Region is the town of Kawthaung with the impressive Bayint Naung Memorial, formerly known as Victoria Point. Things to do here are scuba diving, kayaking, and yachting.
- The Ayeyarwadi Region with its capital Pathein is the rice bowl of Myanmar and features two famous beach resorts, namely Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung. The delta of the AyeyarwadiRiver is home to a myriad of fishermen’ villages and reaches wide inland to the town of Hinthada.
- Rakhaing State with its capital Sittwe and its National Museum are in the western part of Myanmar and borders on Chin State in the north and the Ayeyarwadi Region in the south. There are the old royal towns of Dhanyawadi, Vesali, Lemro, and Mrauk-Oo. Today, Rakhaing State is famous for its beach resort of Ngapali, but became infamous last year, after there was an exodus of the Islamic Rohingya people to Bangladesh. It is because of the 700,000 refugees who fled the Myanmar military that Myanmar is now having a reduction of international tourists. Let’s see what the future brings.
Written by : Reinhard Hohler