Myanmar Buddha

Candle Light reverence to Buddha in the mysterious nation of Myanmar or Burma

by Bennett Stevens

Myanmar Burmese Faces

Opening the Door to Myanmar

As President Obama’s high profile visit to Myanmar late last year helped to illustrate, the country has undergone major democratic reforms and emerged from a half century of isolation. With the hardline military junta dissolved; General turned President Thein Sein trading in his army uniform for Hugo Boss, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi freely elected to parliament, “The Golden Land” has at long last re-opened her arms to the world.

And what magnificent arms she has, stretching from the pristine tropical islands of the Andaman Sea in the south all the way to the majestic Himalaya in the north. Enfolded within are 2,500 years of some of most spectacular and least visited historical sites in the world, inhabited by one of the most ethnically diverse and genuinely welcoming populations on the planet.

With all this and so much more going for it, including glowing recommendations from the likes of Lonely Planet and Conde Nast, why does the country still remain off the maps of most travelers?

Myanmar Grace

Myanmar or Burma – a mystery to outsiders but now opening up

Myanmar or Burma; What’s in a Name?

The spectacular Southeast Asian nation of 70 million, still so early in her coming out party, suffers a confusion and perception problem. Without getting too political, much of it can be clarified by a quick look into its dual identity.

First point of clarity, the land has been called Myanmar for at least 1,000 years. Myanmar has always been the formal, written, and “nation” form of Bamar. The Bamar people are the predominate ethnic group in the nation of Myanmar.

Simple, right? Not so fast!

The British invasion of Myanmar in the 1820’s began 60-years of war, aggression and ethnic division. With victory declared in 1886, the Brits officially named its new colony Burma, an obvious derivation of Bamar. They also changed Yangon to Rangoon, and so on.

Burma’s independence came in 1948, but the colonial name was kept until early 1989, when the ruling junta changed Burma back to Myanmar. Since the change came on the heels of the brutal suppression of the 1987 protests, it was seen as politically motivated and widely spurned. Over time most of the world’s nations, including the United Nations, accepted the return to the original name of Myanmar. Britain and the United States remain the most notable holdouts.

It should be noted that many, mostly older citizens of Myanmar, still use Burma. For some it’s as simple as what they grew up with. For others the name was forever spoiled by the junta. Some of their children would agree. But this view is fading quickly and Myanmar is rising in popularity, both spoken and written, especially among the young.

Just the same, since Aung San Suu Kyi herself still prefers Burma, you can’t go wrong using it. Once you arrive, if you have doubts, let the person you are talking with make the decision. If they use Burma, use Burma. If you should speak first and use Myanmar, and they respond using Burma, then follow their lead. It’s a subtle way of tipping their preference. Don’t worry about offending. They are not only very understanding of the issue, but very likely very happy to be speaking with you!

Myanmar’s Magic Window

Myanmar Shwedagon Pagoda Night

The magic of 2,500 year old Shwedagon Pagoda capped with over 7,500 precious gems

From a traveler’s perspective, the upside of Myanmar’s long isolation is the unique window into the past that’s been opened, at least for a while. Stepping into Myanmar is like stepping into a time machine.

Your oldest time-marker begins in Yangon with the resplendent, 2,500 year-old Shwedagon Pagoda. The Buddha shrine and spiritual center of the nation rises some 320 feet and dominates the city skyline. An estimated 60 tons of gold cover the pagoda, which is capped with 5,488 diamonds and 2,317 rubies.

Another Yangon time marker, though far younger, is the wonderful crumbling glory of old colonial British architecture. Some has been restored to elegance, much is slated to be restored, but when you see the enormity of some of these buildings you can only imagine the enormity of the cost. And no, Shwedagon will never be plundered!

Myanmar Bagan Temples

Bagan – a landscape of over 4,000 temples

Another excursion into antiquity not to be missed; is the surreal temple-scape of Bagan. Truly one of the greatest historical vistas on earth, the ancient temples that stud the east bank of the Irrawaddy cover 16 square miles and number more than 4,000. Bagan at her height boasted more than 13,000 temples and pagodas and was the world center of Theravada Buddhism for a millennium. It all came to an abrupt end in 1287, when the city was sacked by Kublai Khan and abandoned. Many of the pagodas stand in partial ruin as his marauding hordes left them all those centuries ago. After a day of exploration by foot, bicycle or horse drawn carriage, a climb to the top of Shwesandaw Pagoda offers breathtaking sunset panoramas. Here you can almost see the dust rising from the hooves of Mongol horsescharging in the distance…

Only the tourist hordes who will come riding in on their luxury coaches over the next decade can threaten the Mongols place in history. Whether you travel by backpack or valise or something in between, Myanmar remains an authentic and amazingly welcoming travel experience that for me anyway, borders on the magical. I have only scratched the surface here. Just don’t dawdle, because like all windows into the past, the future is relentless in closing them.

Benn is a writer/photographer with 15 years experience in Southeast Asia. He first traveled to Burma in 2005 and fell head over heels. Several trips later he co-founded Luminous Journeys as a joint U.S. / Myanmar venture. “With the country opening up we saw a rare opportunity to combine skills and backgrounds to help foster a conscientious approach to Myanmar tourism, virtually from the ground up.” Feel free to contact Benn through http://www.luminousjourneys.net.

Photo Credits: Buddha, faces, night, temples

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24 Responses to Why Travel to Myanmar When I Can Just Go to Burma?

  • Philip Coggan says:

    Thank you Mr Stevens for this very evocative article – it’s clear you love Burma. Those photos are just so good, I could lick the screen :)

    Plenty more to see too: the tomb of the last Mogul emperor is in Yangon, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s childhood home (now a museum, only recently re-opened to the public), and the Yangon River waterfront, and the famous Strand Hotel which I first stayed at in 1980 (there were pigeons in the rooms – no longer!) All this without even leaving the city.

    • Thou art very kind, Mr. Coggan, as always. In the interest of full disclosure for our rapt reading audience, Mr. Coggan was our very first photography tour booking. He enjoyed himself so much we can’t sem to get rid of him!

      Thanks for adding the extra info on things to do in Yangon. There are many more of course, and I think the city is highly underrated.

      Cheers,
      Benn

    • Myo Myint Kyaw says:

      Hi Philip,

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Those photos are so good.

  • Alex Groswird says:

    My wife and I really enjoyed the article. Nice to see political history and current situation information as part of the package. Loved the photo’s as well. Very well written. Looking forward to visiting soon

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mr. Groswird. We very much look forward to seeing you in Myanmar. Please feel free to contact me through the website when with questions or requests for more information.

      Cheers,
      Benn

  • Madhu Nair says:

    Nice article. Loved the Bagan picture … almost unreal.
    Strange that last night I was reading about Myanmar in the National Geo Traveller magazine.

    Not sure when I will be able go to all these places :) Need to find a job that would let me travel to these places :)

  • I appreciate you taking the time to comment, Madhu. Yes, that BW photo of Bagan is by a young man named Eddy Archer. Believe it or not he is still in University. A true new talent to watch for. You can see more of his images by clicking on the “temples” link in the photo credits.

    As for the money to travel, start with one place in mind, and save for that. Otherwise it’s too overwhelming!
    Good luck!
    Benn

  • Great low down on Burma, I love the title of the article too, it confused me a little in that they’re the same place, literally dragged me in, nice work.

  • Doug Vance says:

    I enjoy the writing of Bennett Stevens. He offers a refreshing approach on traveling opportunities and am hoping to take advantage of some of the unique opportunities that Luminous Adventures offers the relatively inexperienced world traveler.

  • Suzy Lennol says:

    Great article and pictures Mr. Stevens, My husband and I are seriously thinking of taking a Luminous Journeys
    tour to Myanmar for our next vacation.

  • Mike Higgins says:

    Wow what a fascinating article. I have traveled quite extensivly but have never given this region a second thought. Mr. Stevens does a great job of bringing his words to life. I am now strongly considering a visit to this beautiful and mysterious region of the world. A big thank you to Mr. Stevens and also to the photographers for these beautiful pictures. I really appreciate the quick historical update as well which helps in making a travel decision as well. Well done.

  • Seymour Trunk says:

    Wow! Made me want to book my ticket. Thailand is over done, time to dig in and see the virgin SE Asia. Luminous Adventures? Sounds enlightening. Where can I get logistical info? –T

  • Myo Myint Kyaw says:

    Mr Stevens,

    I am from Myanmar and Thank you very much about this very nice article about our country. Myanmar or Burma . Yes both names are correct and you clearly understand about our history and country. I use both names .

    I usually use the name “Burma” especially if I speak with people from West (Westerners) but people in Asian countries are more familier with the name “Myanmar” and yes you’ve got the extra points,

    My Father and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi still using “Burma” . LOL

  • John Smith says:

    Very impressive! I am considering a change of plans for my next trip. Myanmar looks like the place
    to go!

  • Yadana Thant says:

    A well written piece! Your take on the explanation of the name Myanmar/Burma is spot on. As a Myanmar, I really enjoy reading this especially the way you put the quick historical update in-between. And that Bagan picture is simply stunning!

  • Alex says:

    Whether Myanmar or Burma, the history is breathtaking. Did you say it has a population of 70 million? How big is the country? I would to visit the place one day :)

    • Hi Alex,

      Burma has the second largest land mass in Southeast Asia, and is immensely rich in natural resources. Please do pop over, and the sooner “inside the window” the better.

      Cheers,
      Bennett

  • Soe Soe Lwin says:

    Very nice article and love to read all about culture, political and people. I would like to read more about Burma for other cities like Mandalay, Inle Lake and other area too.

  • I so wish Myanmar a good future, a modest one, education, reconciliation with the ethnic minorities all over the country, no religious fightings, a clever development of tourism and the country (including opening up more regions for visitors), sincere visitors who are really interested, free elections and democracy (as they do not have it yet), conservation of the historical sites including the heritage of yangon. at the moment I more see a lot of confusion in the country, influx of some greedy money or “see it before it vanishes” attitudes. it is a wonderful country with wonderful people: hope it remains like that, good luck!

    • Mark H says:

      Beautifully said.

    • Bennett Stevens says:

      Although I agree with most of what Christian said, I certainly would not equate “see it before it vanishes” with “greedy money”. We hope and work for the best, try to keep a sensible approach to tourism, keep tours small and conscientious and positive for the people of Myanmar, while at the same time understanding change is happening quickly. Perhaps Christian enjoys sightseeing with big crowds like at Angkor, so he is free to wait a few years.

      As far as the political issues and changes we’d all like to see today, we have to accept the reality of the complexity and be patient. Be happy for how far they have come in a very short time. I know my Myanmar friends are more optimistic than at any time in their lives. As far as “reconciliation with ethnic minorities all over the country”… With over 100 ethnic minorities, I know of only two in need of any major reconciliation, and those divisions were driven deep long ago as part of Great Britain’s war & colonization strategy. Perhaps Christian can illuminate me privately, as this is getting far afield from travel & tourism. Cheers!

  • Quality inn busch gardens says:

    What a beauty i haven’t seen such beautiful depiction of Myanmar before..wonderful

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Welcome to Travel Wonders
My name is Mark and I’m a keen traveller. In fact, over the last 25 years, I’ve travelled to every continent and over 80 countries. This blog is about the most memorable destinations – the places I regard as the travel wonders of the world. I’m also a keen photographer, and have taken nearly all the photos you’ll see. During my travels, I’ve met some incredible people, seen inspiring places, viewed extraordinary wildlife and scenery and had some amazing experiences, and I’m writing these stories not only to entertain but primarily to inspire others to discover their own travel wonders.
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