The former Burma, Myanmar, sits at the crossroads of many cultures despite its relative political isolation. Located on the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea with Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east, Myanmar presents visitors with a dizzying array of Buddhist temples and ethnic diversity, haunted by a British colonial past.
In the 9th century Bagan became the capital of an expanding empire that often found itself at odds with Thailand’s Siamese kingdoms. Further enriching the country’s lore are the tales of the Burma Road which in World War II supplied the Chinese in their battles with Japan. In the early 1960s, a military coup established the dictatorship that still rules the country today. Myanmar, which was ruled as a division of India by the British, is heavily influenced by Indian culture in the style of its stupas and temples. Buddhism is both the dominant religion and the all-pervasive cultural force in the country.
There’s plenty to see and do in Myanmar: cruising the Ayeyarwady River; touring Mandalay and its royal palace; exploring colonial Yangon with its British architecture and many pagodas; visiting Bagan with its seemingly endless multitude of pagodas; and discovering the floating villages of Inle Lake and the northeastern part of the country which is part of the mysterious Golden Triangle with its hill tribes. In the southeast, the Myanmar coast is sprinkled with off-shore islands. The beach at Kawthaung is a popular seaside area.
Unless you’re sailing on the luxurious river cruiser, The Road to Mandalay, travel in Myanmar is for the rugged and the intrepid. Many such travelers ride the old British rail system or take the buses. The train from Mandalay to Pyin U Lwin, crossing mountains is considered by rail aficionados to be among the most thrilling in the world. You can hire a private car and driver and a guide, but the narrow and twisting two lane roads are not up to American safety standards.
Rice is the staple of Burmese cuisine, which is heavily influenced by China and India. While dishes change from region to region, much of it is spicy throughout. Along the sea, fish dishes predominate and inland poultry and meat. Many of the sauces and spices are reminiscent of Thai cuisine.
Myanmar has three distinct seasons: a hot season from March to April and a rainy season from May to October; the best time to travel is the coolest period from November to February. Most visitors fly into Yangon from either Bangkok or Singapore. Because of poor roads and government regulations, getting around in Myanmar is difficult if you try to go off the beaten path. The government restricts people from visiting certain areas.