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.
Today we depart for Mandalay by boat. The boat is a simple express boat between Bagan and Mandalay and is used by local passangers along with their wares, enabling us to mingle and interact with them despite limited conversation just sitting, laughing with the Burmese passengers is one of the trip's pleasures, as well as taking in the village life either side of the 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, gateway to the impressive Inle Lake. Our drive (approx 2 hours) traverses undulating hills and dense farmlands. We should arrive at the village of Nayaung-shwe at the north end of Inle Lake early afternoon. The rest of the day is free to explore the town including Mingla Market (selling mainly local produce) and other stupas and monasteries dotted around the town.
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.
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).