The garden city of Yangon maintains its charm with wide, tree-lined avenues, tranquil lakes and majestic colonial architecture. It is home to one of the ancient wonders of the world, Shwedagon Pagoda, a 98-metre-high stupa whose golden glow can be seen from throughout the city. The greenery of Yangon provides an enchanting backdrop to the beautiful shrine. According to legend, the pagoda was built 2500 years ago and was enshrined with hair relics of the Buddha. Over the centuries, kings and commoners alike sought merit by donating gold and jewels to the stupa and the umbrella at its apex, which is now decorated with more than 80,000 pieces of jewellery and topped with a diamond-studded orb. The platform at the base of the towering pagoda is packed with about 100 pavilions and shrines, where pilgrims from all over the country show their reverence for the Buddha. Here, visitors can see into the heart of Myanmar's Buddhists as they pray and offer flowers, incense and candles.
Yangon originated as a small town called Dagon on the outskirts of the ancient kingdom of Okkalapa. In 1755 the founder of the Third Myanmar Empire, King Alaungpaya - who reigned from upper Myanmar - conquered the southern parts of the country and renamed the town Yangon, meaning End of Strife. After the British colonised the south they turned the town it into a busy port. The British have long since departed but they left a legacy of beautiful colonial architecture, often charmingly incorporated with Myanmar motifs.
Yangon offers a whole range of sights and experiences. There are of course hundreds of pagodas - Botahtaung, Sule and Chaukhtatgyi among the more famous - as well as Hindu temples, Islamic mosques and Christian churches. The National Museum displays relics from the days of the ancient kingdoms, while the Gems Museum holds collections of uncut rubies as big as bricks as well as the world's largest piece of jade. The park around Kandawgyi Lake can be explored on foot, as can the city's numerous markets.
The most popular among visitors is Bogyoke Aung San Market in the downtown area, with its hundreds of stalls selling everything rom rubies to lacquerware to silk. For those in need of refreshment, Yangon hosts a wide choice of restaurants. Options include elegant continental cuisine; Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai and other Asian dishes; and of course local Myanmar fare. A short drive out of Yangon takes you to a different world of sleepy villages. Thanlyin and Kyauktan are typical small towns with old monasteries and pagodas hidden among the trees. The annual festival at Kyaik Khauk Pagoda in Thanlyin is one of region's major country fairs. Nearby Twante is famed for its pottery works where ancient techniques are still used.
To the north of Yangon, along the road to Mandalay, lies Htaukkyant War Cemetery, a tranquil, beautifully landscaped plot of land maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and holding more than 6000 graves of Allied soldiers who died during World War II. The centrepiece is a huge marble monument engraved with the names of nearly 27,000 soldiers with no known grave. Beyond that is Bago, once called Hanthawaddy when it was the capital city of a Mon kingdom.
The main pagoda in town is Shwemawdaw and its annual festival in April is one of the biggest in lower Myanmar. The huge Shwethalyaung reclining Buddha image, once lost to the jungle, was only rediscovered in the 19th century by engineers repairing a railway. Its huge size has been exceeded by the recently completed Myathalyaung Buddha on the southern end of town, which is now the third-biggest reclining image in Myanmar.
With its royal palace and impressive moat sitting at the foot of a high, pagoda-topped hill, Mandalay still evokes images of a romantic, bygone era. It remains the principal cultural and economic city of upper Myanmar. Located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, Mandalay also lies within easy striking distance of former colonial hill stations, ancient cities and other cultural attractions.
As the last seat of the Myanmar kings, Mandalay left a bittersweet legacy to the people. King Mindon of the Konbaung Dynasty, who reigned from 1853 to 1878, created this capital out of the wild woodlands at the foot of Mandalay Hill. King Mindon was a deeply religious monarch who made Mandalay and the neighbouring town of Sagaing important centres of Buddhism, with many great pagodas and hundreds of beautiful monasteries and nunneries.
The city's notable attractions include Kuthodaw Pagoda, where Buddhist scriptures are carved on 729 marble tablets, billed as the "biggest book" in the world. One particularly beautiful legacy of Mindon is the all-teak pavilion he lived in just before his death, Golden Palace. Once completely gilded inside and out, only the interior gold remains undamaged. The rest of his palace was destroyed in World War II and a replica was built on the site. Nearby Mandalay Hill is crowned by a pagoda from which visitors can enjoy a 360-degree view of the city and surrounding countryside. Mahamuni Pagoda to the southwest of the palace holds one of Myanmar's most revered Buddha images, a 4-metre-high statue covered with a thick layer of gold leaf applied by generations of pilgrims seeking merit.
Nearby Amarapura was once the seat of kings but now the best craftsmen of Myanmar work there embroidering tapestries, casting bronze, carving teak or weaving silk. Just outside of town is the 1.2-kilometre U Bein Bridge made of teak and spanning Taungthaman Lake. Inwa, just across the Myintge River from Amarapura, was another capital city, of which little remains but a handful of wellpreserved monasteries and a few segments of the old city walls peeking out from the tree roots and cultivated fields that have taken over the area.
A one-hour boat trip upriver from Mandalay - through the habitat of endangered Ayeyarwady dolphins - will take visitors to Mingun, the site of a huge, unfinished temple dating back to the 18th century. Had it been completed, it would have been the world's biggest temple. The Mingun Bell is displayed in a nearby pavilion, believed to be the largest hanging, uncracked bell in the world.
Those seeking to escape the heat of the central plains need only travel 70 kilometres east of Mandalay, up a winding road to the old hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin. Although the main road through town serves as a busy trade route for trucks carrying goods to and from China, exploring the area's back roads will reveal quaint Edwardian cottages dating back to the colonial era, as well as gardens where flowers, strawberries and even coffee beans are grown. Colourful horse carriages can be hired to visit beautiful National Kandawgyi Gardens, while those seeking exercise can hike forest paths to some of the natural waterfalls just outside of town.
This deserted ancient city alongside the Irrawaddy River is home to over 2.000 temples and pagodas, covering an area of around 40 square km. Myanmar's greatest wonder, and by far its largest attraction, is one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in Asia and represents the spiritual heritage of ancient Burma.One of the most remarkable sights in Southeast Asia, Bagan has inspired visitors to Myanmar for nearly 1000 years. The kingdom of Bagan took root in the 8th century but only rose to glory as capital of the First Kingdom of Myanmar in the early 11th century. Ancient chronicles say that there were once 4446 temples over its wide plains but today only 2230 remain, as recorded by UNESCO in 1988.
King Anawrahta, who ruled from 1044 to 1077, initiated the building of temples on this vast plain. The decline of the kingdom in the late 13th century is popularly believed to have resulted from an invasion of Mongols led by Kublai Khan. The capital was shifted from Bagan to Pinya and then to Inwa near modern-day Mandalay, where it remained for centuries. Many of the temples were architectural wonders of their time and still inspire awe among visitors. There is hardly a trace of cement in the fine masonry work. The massive roofs were held up by clever use of arches and barrel vaults. The windows were arranged to throw rays of sunlight directly onto the faces of massive Buddha images within the vaulted chambers.
East of Bagan lies Mount Popa to the south is Salay. Mount Popa is the centre of nat (spirit) worship in Myanmar. A shrine at the base of the mountain holds images of the major spirits and attracts devotees from all over the country. The mountain itself is protected by a national park where visitors can hike and ride horses through the forest while on the lookout for rare birds and butterflies. Salay is an attractive, leafy village that is home to a number of Bagan-era pagodas and old wooden monasteries, the most spectacular of which is Youqson Kyaung, dating back to the 19th century and featuring detailed carvings of scenes from the Buddha's past lives.
Myanmar's premier coastal resort is Ngapali Beach. It is a picture of paradise: miles of empty white sand beaches lined with tall coconut palms. Resort hotels offer visitors the chance to swim, sail, kayak and feast on lobster and prawn by candlelight as the sun sinks into the Bay of Bengal.
The most recent discovery on the west coast is Ngwe Saung Beach. This 14.5-kilometre stretch of coastline offers pure white sand, an unspoiled backdrop of lush forests, groves of palm trees and a new crop of oceanfront luxury hotels.