Sites
 
8
Transport
 
3
Hospitality
 
10
Value
 
10
Personal
 
9
8.2

Content provided by Michael Foot, also known as Footside

Yangon
Most travellers' first experience of Burma, officially called Myanmar, is the dilapidated international airport in Yangon. Bold posters forbidding the importation of playing cards and other seemingly innocuous objects add a slightly comically feel to customs. But for such an allegedly reclusive and isolated state, the ease at which tourists sail through immigration and are welcomed by the traditional longyi wearing staff, is a timely introduction to the warm hospitality that is the hallmark of one's time in Myanmar.  Downtown Yangon provides fascinating insight into a capital city where regressive government policies have stunted its development to the point where it has been described as a snapshot of "Asia in the 1950's". Moneychangers covertly congregate around payphones; ancient buses with passengers clinging to the outside shuttle across town; idle locals chew bettle-nut leaves then casually spit the red stained juices onto the street.  Crumbling buildings sit alongside the littered relics of British colonial architecture. The distinctive columns and crests of the Law Courts, Customs House and the old Immigration Office stand as skeletons of their former glory.  The Shwedagon Paya towers with gold to the city's north and the equally bright Sule Paya act as both a downtown beacon and round about. Unlike the rest of Myanmar, which tends to retire gracefully at the first sign of darkness, downtown Yangon picks up into a fever as its inhabitants spill onto the streets. Food stalls and markets cram onto footpaths, being driven by the glow of portable gaslights. The rumbling sounds and smells of petrol fed generators reverberate through the city's cracked concrete, in response to the rolling power cuts enforced by the government's inability to pay for electricity.

Bagan
Without doubt the centrepiece of any trip to Burma is a few days in the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Upwards of 4000 temples and shrines adorn the 42 square kilometre zone, however the vast majority of attractions lie within a very manageable 4 kilometre radius of the Central Plain. While surfaced roads rim the Zone and link the more spectacular temples, a network of dirt trails allow a very intimate exploration of sites few others would see. The smaller temples are rarely visited and have the added authenticity of creeping foliage, crumbling reliefs and dust filled vaults. The larger, more visited temples are truly awe-inspiring. More reminiscent of the majestic castles of Europe, these enormous and formidable hulks dwarf even the modern constructions of downtown Yangon. Cavernous halls, well-preserved artworks, internal stairways and multi-tiered terraces make these sites magnets for travellers and local touts alike. Understandably, the serenity of Bagan tends to unravel during the late afternoon when the masses compete for unrivalled views of the impending sunset. Hot air balloons drift through the blazing skyline, as gilded spires eventually give way to a landscape of protruding silhouettes. Neighbouring Mount Popa is a fairly uninspiring monastery that sits atop a 1500m hill that overlooks the distant Bagan plain. There is a shrine and a few displays, however this mostly appeals to pilgrims and inquisitive tourists. The highlight was the 2-hour rooftop truck ride that probed into neighbouring townships and allowed surprising fluent conversation with robe-clad monks.

Mandalay
Mandalay is Myanmar's second largest city, and for a short time, the Burmese imperial capital in the late 19th Century. On ground level, the city is a sprawl of dusty grid streets that surge with cyclo riders. These unsteady contraptions have been banned in most other cities but retain a loyal following in Mandalay for their driver's exceptional local knowledge and dirt-cheap rates. To escape the street-level mania, ascend to the top of your hotel or guesthouse in the afternoon as the temperature dips and cool winds sweep up from the Ayeyarwady River. There is a sense of calm and serene nostalgia as hundreds of locals climb onto their rooftops to unleash multicoloured kites into the swirling sky. Mandalay's main orientation points are the enormous walls and moat of the Mandalay Palace. Stretching a perimeter of some 6 kilometres the moat is broken by four bridges, however only the eastern bridge provides access to the Palace. The Palace was destroyed by fire during World War II, and was regrettably rebuilt using forced labour and modern concrete, both of which certainly detract from its appeal. The walls however, are original and well worth a look, especially from the western side, which affords a backdrop of Mandalay Hill and surrounding temples.

Amarapura
Amarapura, a short pick-up ride south of Mandalay, is famed for its 200 year old, 1.2 kilometre long teak footbridge. A pleasant change from Mandalay, the shaded walk from the highway takes you through a small fisherman's village and peaceful monastery. The premier time for walking the bridge is around sunset when it becomes full of commuting villagers and monks, local fisherman rent small boats that drift nearby. A short boat trip across the Ayeyarwady leads travellers to the interesting site of Mingun. Stark white temples and stupas dot the hills and can be readily explored once ashore. Mingun Paya, is essentially a 50 meter block of bricks that was designed to be the base of an enormous super-stupa until being cracked in an earthquake. Travellers can still take a blistering bare-foot walk to the top for fantastic views of surrounding sites.

Kalaw
Perhaps the epitome of regional frontier towns, Kalaw is a gateway for guided or solo hikes into the surrounding hills. There are a number of small tribal villages in the vicinity, which will usually accept foreigners overnight if accompanied by a guide. Hikes traverse the hilly landscape and there are a few independent hut-style guesthouses scattered around, however the often unmarked trails make navigation difficult and best left to guides which can be easily picked up in Kalaw.