Arrive Rangoon (Yangon).
Rangoon sits under the shadow of the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda. It is 2,500 years old and the most religious site in Burma that is said to contain eight hairs of the Buddha as well as 5500 diamonds and other precious stones. As the golden stupa glitters overlooking the city, life goes on in the busy streets below. To the south we will explore dilapidated colonial edifices and busy side streets on our city tour. Downtown Rangoon with its unpaved streets lined with old wooden shuttered houses, medicine shops, temples and the more colourful markets offers plenty of photographic opportunities. Close by, we visit Shwe Bontha, perhaps the most photogenic of all streets in the city, with its leafy sidewalks, pavement tea-shops and magnificent colonial buildings. We will have a break for lunch and in the late afternoon we will head to Lake Kandawgyi to view the Karaweik replica of the Royal Barge, before ascending to Shwedagon Pagoda for impressive sunset views over Rangoon.
This morning we leave early for our short flight to the ancient wonder of Bagan (Pagan), where we will do a short orientation walk on arrival. There are over 4000 temples and pagodas in many shapes and sizes to explore amongst the 25 square miles of brick that compare to the Angkor kingdom of Cambodia, Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu as one of the world's most spectacular archaeological sites. This is where Buddhism, Hinduism and Nat worship come together in an array of different shrines. There is free time to explore the area by bike or on foot (optional) before this evening's visit to Shwezigon Paya one of Bagan's most famous temples. This is the only temple which is a Buddhist Temple as well as a Nat Shrine in the same compound, and reflects the local beliefs here which combine both religions. This evening we have the chance to enjoy an optional group dinner at a local restaurant with a traditional string puppet show performance.
A full day spent exploring the temple complex spreading out as far as the horizon with its peaks of brick stupas that dot the skyline in many shapes and forms. After the former Kings of Bagan introduced Theravada Buddhism in the mid-11th century building commenced, a string of Kings followed building temples to worship their gods. Ananda Pahto with its bejeweled umbrella (hti), Dhammayangyi pahto and Shwesandaw Paya are the largest and most impressive sights we will visit along with the smaller hidden gems well away from the main tourist route which offer unique opportunities to climb and delve deeper into the history. We will finish the day with sunset at Shwe Sandaw Temple with its stunning 360 degree views, don't forget to look behind as the sun hits the many temples nearby, a truly magical experience and a photographer's paradise.
Returning to the huge site of Bagan this morning we will visit more temples including Manuha Paya and the bas relief figures at Nan Paya. Away from the other temples we'll also see the 13th century temple of Wetkyi-In-Gubyaukgyi with its impressive frescoes. Later we'll visit a traditional lacquerware artisan, as this area is famous for these beautiful products. This afternoon there will be time to visit The Archaeological Museum, explore the town of Nyang U, take a trip to Mount Popa the home of Nat worship (see Optional Excursions),relax with a drink by the Irrawaddy River for sunset or continue to explore the temples - all optional.
Following another short flight east to the former Kingdom of Myanmar we cross the plains and the great Chinese road before landing in Mandalay. Mandalay has one of the most evocative names in the world, epitomised by Kipling's poem and an adapted song 'On the road to Mandalay'. The former Kingdom of Myanmar was abolished in 1885 by the British in the 3rd and final Anglo-Burmese war, with the remnants being given away by the last King Thibaw Min. The remains now sit directly in the middle of a grid system similar to that of Manhattan. After checking into our hotel we will take a guided walk around the streets of downtown Mandalay where we will be able to see people going about their day to day lives in the local markets. After lunch we will visit a local cottage industry where gold leaf is made which is then used by people to place on Buddha statues.We'll then continue on to Mahamuni Pagoda, revered as the holiest site in the former Kingdom, where we will see local people applying the gold leaf onto the Mahamuni Buddha statue. We will continue onto Shwe In Bin Kyaung, the Teak Monastery, built in traditional Burmese fashion and one of the few buildings that has survived the test of time. Constructed in 1895 by Chinese merchants, the monastery consists of fantastically intricate woodcarvings and also contains a number of admirable works of art. After a short break at the hotel we will head to Mandalay Hill with its glittering stupas, mosaics and great lookout points, a must see for every visitor. Access to the top is via lots of steps (you should be prepared to remove shoes and socks for the climb). Once at the top you should be able to make a wish at Sutaungpyei (literally wish-fulfilling) Pagoda. With panoramic views of Mandalay we will watch the sunset over the old city walls and moat, and to the West the Minwun Hills and the Irrawaddy River. When heading back down the steps you will need your torch.
An early start as we head out to one of Burma's most iconic sights - U-Bein Bridge, built in 1849 by Mayor U-Bein. This teak bridge spans over a kilometre and is best seen at sunrise when villagers cross it to begin their journey to work and the fishermen prepare for a day on the water. This is one of the most photogenic sights of the country and not to be missed. We then drive back to the hotel for breakfast before heading down to the port area where we board our boat for a cruise on the Irrawaddy River. We'll explore the pretty riverside village of Mingun, home to one of the world's largest bells (weighing in at 90 tonnes) and the Hsinbyume Paya with its whitewashed terraces and staircases. From here we board our boat and cruise downriver to the township of Sagaing - known as a meditation centre for monks and nuns who wish to escape city life. Here we will find many stupas on its famous Sagaing Hill with leafy pathways leading to caves and shrines. Sagaing also boasts a monastic hospital and an international Buddhist University. We board our boat and take the scenic ride back to Mandalay.
Another short flight takes us to Heho, gateway to the impressive Inle Lake. A scenic drive (approx 1-2 hours) takes us through scenic countryside to the hill station of Kalaw. Situated in the Shan State, Kalaw is a popular, peaceful and quiet former British hill station. At an altitude of 1320m and nestled amongst impressive alpine scenery it is pleasantly cool (it can even be chilly in the evening or early mornings) and a great place to escape from the tropical heat. The town has retained its colonial atmosphere but has an eclectic mix of Shan, Bamar, some Indians and ethnic tribes such as Pa-O, Palaung and other tribal minorities from the surrounding plateau. After checking into our hotel the rest of the day is free. Options available include a walk up the many steps to Thein Taung Paya viewpoint for views over the surrounding plateau, a visit to the strange Nee Paya, a 500 year old gold covered bamboo statue or exploring some of the colonial architecture.
Amid gnarled pines, tea plantations and bamboo groves, and accompanied by local guides we explore the surrounding hills of Kalaw on foot. Our walk will take in the daily life of the local villages and provide the opportunity to drink tea with a village chief and in season we should see the inhabitants planting or harvesting the local crop. The tracks we walk on are centuries-old trading routes used by the Pa-O, Palaung and Danu ethnic minorities for moving their cattle and harvesting their crops. The views of the surrounding countryside are spectacular which few westerners get the opportunity to see. The trek is moderate on well trodden undulating paths. However it can be hot. We will be walking for approximateky 5 to 6 hours in total but if needed there is the option to leave the trek halfway through at the lunch time view point and take a vehicle back to Kalaw. Approx 3 hours walking half day and 5 to 6 hours full day.
We leave after breakfast and travel east to Inle Lake. Our drive traverses undulating hills and dense farmlands, stopping at Pindaya caves where we will explore the caverns and tunnels en route to the magnificent Inle Lake. There are more than 8000 Buddha images within the Pindaya limestone caverns and meditation chambers. Pilgrims flock to the caves and install new Buddha images within this labyrinth of tunnels and chambers and there are many from around the world. We should arrive at the village of Nayaung-shwe at the north end of Inle Lake late afternoon.
An optional dawn start will usually provide the opportunity to witness the daily parade of saffron-robed monks receiving alms before breakfast. After breakfast we have a day on the lake visiting cottage industries, floating markets (if possible), monasteries, temples and small villages. We will see the famous leg-rowing fishermen casting their nets in the lake - this technique of standing up holding a long paddle in one hand with their leg wrapped around the paddle lower down leaves the fishermen free to cast their conical fishing nets. This unique style evolved because the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants making it difficult to see above them while sitting. There is a five day cycle for the floating market which literally circles the lake; here the locals come to sell their traditional wares early in the morning and return to their village for the afternoon. Please note the current location of the market will dictate what we will be able to visit. However there will be plenty of shopping opportunities amongst the markets and craft industries. We will also visit Indein on the western banks of the lake, this intricate pagoda complex has hundreds of Shan style stupas clustered together on the hillside. Although this area is now being reclaimed and renovated following years of decline, walking amongst these hauntingly beautiful ruins intertwined with forest remains a highlight for many and has a very Indiana Jones feel- a fantastic photographic opportunity.
This morning we head out on bikes visiting the villages and farmland that surround the lake. The ride is on undulating fairly quiet roads and we will cycle at a leisurely pace. Please be aware it can be hot and the bikes will be very basic models. Helmets are not supplied. This is a great way to get about but only suitable for those who have cycled before. The roads are mostly surfaced but there are some potholes. Anyone not wanting to cycle can use the support vehicle for the day which will follow the same route and stop at the same villages. We cycle around the edge of the lake towards an Intha minority group village passing rice paddies, sugar cane and traditional wooden houses. We will stop en route at various villages and see what local products are being made or harvested depending upon the time of year. In Kaung Daing we will see the local specialty, Tofu, being made with split yellow peas instead of the normal Soya beans. After visiting the village we may have the opportunity to spend a little time with the local monks at the monastery. We will return to our hotel by bike in time for a late lunch approx.1.30pm. For those who have opted to use the vehicle we will drive back. Cycling distances approximately 20km (round trip). Late afternoon we will take a sanglor (local styled vehicle) and visit a nearby vineyard and admire the beautiful views back over Inle Lake as the sun sets behind the mountains in the distance. The vineyard produces a range of red and white wines and has a tasting menu (optional). This evening we will have dinner at one of the many restaurants in Nyaungshwe.
We fly back to Rangoon, where the rest of the day is free for last minute sightseeing or shopping. The huge Bogyoke Market is worth a visit with food, clothing and handicrafts all on sale (closed on Mondays and public holidays), or visit the Strand Hotel with its historic past which was often visited by the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham.
Morning at leisure; depart afternoon.