Arrive Rangoon (Yangon).
Rangoon sits under the shadow of the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda, the most religious site within Burma that is said to contain eight hairs of the Buddha. As the stupa glitters in gold with 5500 diamonds and numerous other precious stones overlooking the city, life goes on in the busy streets to the south where we will explore dilapidated colonial edifices on our city tour. Chinatown 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. Finally our tour takes us to Lake Kandawgyi to view the glittering Karaweik replica of the Royal Barge before ascending to Shwedagon Pagoda for impressive views over Rangoon at sunset.
This morning we leave early for our short flight to the ancient wonder of Bagan (Pagan). 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 evenings visit to Shwesandaw Paya Bagan's most famous temple for sunset, with its 360 degree views.
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 and offering unique opportunities to climb and delve deeper into the history. A truly magical experience and a photographer's paradise.
Returning to Bagan this morning we will visit further temples including Manuha Paya and see the bas relief figures at Nan Paya, and away from the other temples the 13th century temple of Wetkyi-In-Gubyaukgyi with its impressive frescoes. This afternoon there is free time to visit the Archaeological Museum, explore the town of Nyang U or relax with a drink by the Irrawaddy River for sunset or continue to explore the temples.
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 Kiplings 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 and are a short walk from our hotel.
With a free afternoon there is time to walk down to Mahamuni Pagoda, revered as the holiest site in the former Kingdom where gold leaves are regularly applied to the face of the Mahamuni Buddha. Also nearby is Shwenandaw Kyaung, or the Golden Teak Monastery, famous for its intricate wood-carvings and the Royal Palace, controversially reconstructed in the 1990's and replicating the walled city that was home to Myanmar's last kings. Although not original, it gives an interesting insight into the architecture of the period and a wooden watchtower gives panoramic views over the complex.
Later in the afternoon we will visit Mandalay Hill with its glittering stupas, mosaics and great lookout points, a must see for every visitor. Once at the top of the hill you may 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
An early start as we head out to one of Burma's most iconic sights - U Bein's Bridge. This teak bridge spans over a kilometer and is best seen at sunrise when villagers use it to begin their journey to work and fishermen below get ready 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 up the Irrawaddy River to the archaeological site of Mingun, the home of the largest uncracked bell in the world until 2000 at 90 tons. We will have the opportunity to climb a huge unfinished pagoda which suffered earthquake damage but whose flat surface is now an ideal spot for amazing river views. From here we board our boat again and head back down river to the township of Sagaing - known as a meditation centre for those monks and nuns that wish to get away from the city madness. 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 the Asekhan Fort, built for the last and final Anglo/Burmese war. We board our boat and take the scenic ride back to Mandalay.
Another short flight takes us to Heho, the 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 a Pa-O, Palaung and other long-neck 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 for those looking for the Colonial past wander the streets looking at the architecture.
Amid gnarled pines, tea plantations and bamboo groves, and accompanied by local guides from the Rural Development Society (R.D.S*) we explore the area 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 may involve helping plant or harvest the local crop. The tracks we use are centuries old trading routes used by the Pa-O, Palaung and Danu ethnic minorities for moving their cattle and harvesting their crops, and afford spectacular views of the surrounding countryside that few westerners ever get the opportunity to see. * The R.D.S. was founded by several chiefs from ethnic tribes in the surroundings of Kalaw and helps fund wells, filtering systems and schools in many remote villages. As our walk is run in conjunction with the R.D.S we help to support those villages that are not reached by other companies and will have a warm welcome from the local villagers. 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 5 walking half day and 8 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; every day pilgrims flock to the caves and install new Buddha images within this labyrinth of tunnels and chambers. We should arrive at the lake in the late afternoon.
An optional early morning dawn start will 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 and their leg wrapped around the paddle lower down leaves the fishermen free to cast their conical fishing nets. This unique style evolved as 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 that 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. Depending on its current location we will be able to visit it. There will be plenty of shopping opportunities on this trip amongst the markets and craft industries. We will also visit Inthein on the western banks of the lake, this intricate pagoda complex has hundreds of Shan style stupas clustered together on the hillside. Following years of decline, and with the forest reclaiming the site, walking around and through it makes you feel like Indiana Jones.
This morning we head out on bikes to visit the villages that surround the lake and the dense farmland. Our leisurely ride is undulating and on quiet roads but anyone not wanting to cycle all day can use the support vehicle which is always available. We cycle around the edge of the lake towards an Intha minority group village passing rice paddies, sugar cane, traditional wooden houses and colourfully-dressed villagers. We will stop en route at various villages and see what is being made and 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 lunch we continue for approximately another 2 kilometers to Hu Pin Hot Springs where we can relax in the natural hot springs. We then return to our hotel either by bike or the support vehicle can be used. Cycle approximately 10km (one way). Late afternoon we can either cycle or use the support vehicle to visit a nearby vineyard. The vineyard produces a range of red and white wines and has a tasting menu. This evening we will have dinner at one of the many restaurants in Nyaungshwe.
We fly back to Rangoon, where the remainder 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).
Morning at leisure; depart afternoon.