Peter Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at UNC Chapel Hill. Over his 30-year career, he has traveled the world for research and as a university representative. Of the many places he’s visited, Burma – officially named Myanmar – is his favorite.
He’s been to Myanmar/Burma 15 or 16 times since his first visit in 1993. “Though it is changing rapidly,” he said, “its allure continues unabated. In my view, there is no place on Earth that can match its combination of natural beauty, magnificent temples and ruins, traditional trappings, and warm and gracious people.”
With recent reforms and a reopening to the world, the Texas-size nation in Southeast Asia is drawing more visitors.
Coclanis’ advice? Go now, before the tourist hordes arrive.
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Here’s his top-10 list of places to see. John Bordsen, travel editor
All these places now have a reasonable number of tourist facilities suitable for discerning travelers. Burma is a big country but one you get a good sense of it at these places over a three- to four-week visit to the country. I’d recommend starting off in Yangon – formerly called Rangoon – and using that city as your hub.
1. Yangon. “The former colonial capital of Rangoon is near one of the mouths of the Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwady) River delta. With somewhere between 4.5- and 5.5-million people, the city is surprisingly green, and retains a large stock of impressive Victorian buildings put up by the Brits. In addition to the spectacular Shwedagon Paya (“Gold Pagoda”), one of the most venerated sacred sites to Theravada Buddhists, you’ll find incredibly busy and lively street life downtown, with plenty of good tea stalls and cheap Indian restaurants. A ride on the Circle Train – an inexpensive, three-hour excursion around the city – offers visitors an excellent intro to one of Asia’s most fascinating cities. Plenty of cheap guest houses still exist, and, now, a good number of excellent, upscale hotels, too.”
2. Bagan Archaeological Zone. “It’s a large, haunted and haunting area in central Burma (roughly 430 miles north of Yangon) comprising 26 square miles, with roughly 4,000 Buddhist temples dating mainly from the 9th- to 13th centuries. Travel around the zone via horse cart or on bicycle. It rivals Cambodia’s Angkor Wat in beauty and historic importance.”
3. Mrauk U. “This is the site of the second-most important temple complex in Burma, and is in the remote north of the western state of Rakhine (which has been in the news lately because of violence between area Muslims and Buddhists). It is of smaller-scale than the complex at Bagan, but in some ways even more rewarding to visit.”
4. Inle Lake. “The stunningly beautiful lake in the hills of the Shan State, in eastern Burma, is home to many hill tribes – and to refreshing breezes and brisk nights. The leg-rowing Intha boatmen are a sight to behold.”
5. Pyin U Lwin. “The picturesque ‘hill station’ town 42 miles east of Mandalay, formerly known as Maymyo, features temperate weather and is well worth a day or two knocking around. One good way to get around is via horse carriages (‘gharries’) and pony carts.”
6. Mawlamyine. “Burma’s fourth-largest city, formerly called Moulmein, has a population of more than 325,000 and is 195 miles southeast of Yangon. It’s nestled between the Thanlwin (Salween) River and nearby hills; many know it from the first lines of the Rudyard Kipling poem, ‘Mandalay.’ It is quiet and pretty, with some good eateries. The Strand offers memorable river views.”
7. Pathein (formerly Bassein). Pathein, with a population topping 300,000, is the largest city in the Irrawaddy delta after Yangon. The city offers an excellent introduction to the delta and its vast rice fields; the slow-moving city also has some nice temples and decent restaurants. Pathein is about 120 miles by road from Yangon, but I’d recommend taking the overnight ferry at least one way. It provides stunning scenery and a sense of river life.”
8. Mandalay. “This city of well over 1 million people – Burma’s second-largest – was the last royal capital, and is located in the dry zone 400 miles north of Yangon. It is worth visiting for its temples, historic sites, restaurants, marionette shows, etc., but also to witness the powerful presence of the Chinese and Chinese money. Parts of Mandalay are are now dominated by nouveau-riche Chinese with business ties to the military elite. These parts look like subdivisions you’d see outside San Diego.”
9. Ngapali Beach. “Like quiet beaches? This 2-mile stretch of white sand, 230 miles west of Yangon, in southern Rakhine State, is one of the best in Southeast Asia. Note: During the rainy season the area pretty much shuts down.”
10. Nay Pyi Taw. “The vast new capital is about 235 miles north of Yangon. The spanking-new city is still home mainly to governmental bureaucrats and those who serve them.
“Enthusiasts of ‘Field of Dreams’-like cities such as Brasilia – Brazil’s capital, built from scratch starting in 1960 – will find this place especially interesting; some will see empty isolation, alienation and estrangement. Official claims that the population of Nay Pyi Taw approaches 1 million seem seriously overstated, unless you adopt a very broad definition of ‘city’ boundaries. But Nay Pyi Taw is slowly waking up.