Between archaeological sites and dream beaches, you will not know where to turn. Burma is full of cultural, historical and natural riches. More accessible to tourists than in the past, this Southeast Asian country remains quite confidential for Europeans. Our columnist Jean-Bernard Carillet, author for Lonely Planet, gives you some tips for visiting this surprising country.
In a few years, Burma has opened up to tourists. While for a long time it had the image of a fairly closed country, whose regime guided tourist flows, it now offers a good choice of hotels, significantly improved roads and an efficient bus network. Compared to Thailand, its neighbor, it also has the advantage of having fewer visitors.
Illustrious historical sites
Burma has several famous historical sites. The best known is that of Bagan, in the center of the country. This archaeological and religious site is in a way the Burmese counterpart of Angkor, Cambodia. You have to imagine some 3,000 Buddhist temples scattered over an immense plain. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries, these pagodas, shrines and mausoleums are all made of brick. It's a bit like having 3,000 churches and abbeys spread over 50 km2.
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It should not be forgotten when going there that it is an "active" religious site, a high place of pilgrimage. The Burmese make offerings there and monks walk there in red or orange outfits. The best way to visit this site is by bike. You will take too much time on foot, and group tours by bus are quite impersonal. Instead, plan two days by bicycle: you can stop where and when you want and discover vestiges away from traditional circuits.
The other option is to observe the site from the air, in the basket of a hot air balloon. It is not the same budget but the experience is magical. We have a panoramic view of the 50 km2 of the site and of the Irrawady river. It is ideal at the time of sunrise because it will be cooler and the pilot can descend lower to get as close as possible to the temples.
About a hundred ethnic minorities
While traveling the country, you will have the opportunity to meet very varied encounters. About a hundred ethnic minorities cohabit in Burma, living according to very distinct customs. To the west, in the villages around Mindat, are the Chin. In front of their woven bamboo huts, the old women smile broadly at you. Most members of this ethnic group have their faces fully tattooed with geometric patterns.
Dream beaches and houses on stilts
The most touristic site in the country, Inle Lake, remains a nice surprise. At the entrance, it is full of backfiring canoes, but you just have to go a little further to discover lesser-known villages. We then come across floating markets where families come to do their shopping. Hundreds of pirogues sail among the houses on stilts.
As for beaches and landscapes, you have to take a tour of the Mergui archipelago, in the south of the country, on the border with Thailand. Awei Pila is a true paradise on earth with its dream beaches, mostly deserted. There are some very good diving, snorkeling and kayaking spots there. It feels like over there in Thailand 30 years ago.