MINGALAR PAR...., Auspicious greetings from the land of pagodas (this is the standard form of greeting when people meet each other in Myanmar)

First and foremost, my fondest memories of Myanmar are of travels around the country, the beautiful scenery in the rural areas, the unspoilt beaches and the genuine warmth of the people. Last but not least, the great Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon which should be listed as the 8th wonder of the world. I am still mesmerized by this centuries old pagoda every time I see it!

I was born and raised in Rangoon, Burma, now known as Yangon, Myanmar. It is located in Southeast Asia between the two giant neighbors of India and China. Myanmar is still a relatively unknown country although the population is around 60 million which ranks it among the top 20 most populous nations in the world.

Myanmar is unique in the sense that it has kept its culture and traditions intact. In the past, it was the least visited among all the countries in the region. Which can be an advantage for the tourist who wants to experience a place where people are genuinely friendly and hospitable to foreigners.

However, the past year has seen a dramatic increase in tourist arrivals because of the political and economic reforms inside the country, and the high level visits of world leaders from around the globe. In fact, it was listed in several travel magazines and websites as the top 3 destinations to visit in 2012 and again, for 2013. Nevertheless, Myanmar has retained its culture and natural charm with pristine beaches, thousands of pagodas and most of all, its gentle people and their simple way of life.

Due to the present popularity of the country, many international airlines are now flying into Yangon which is still the commercial center of Myanmar although it used to be the capital city before 2005 when the government decided to move the capital to Naypidaw in central Myanmar.

Before we begin our virtual tour, let's see how one can get to Myanmar. The most common mode of transportation is of course by air. You can also obtain day passes if you want to travel overland from Thailand, but it is restricted to only 24 hours, so you are just confined to the border towns.

The most number of flights into Yangon, around 5 a day, originate from Bangkok in Thailand. If you are looking for budget fares your best bet would be with Air Asia where you can buy a ticket for as low as US$130 for a return (round trip) flight. Other international airlines flying from Bangkok to Yangon are Myanmar Airways, Thai International and Bangkok Airways.

There are direct flights also from Doha, UAE with Qatar Airways, from Singapore with Singapore Airlines, from Taipei, Taiwan with China Airlines, from Seoul, South Korean with Korean Airlines, and from Tokyo Japan with All Nippon Airways. Several European airlines are also scheduled to inaugurate non-stop flights into Yangon from some main cities in Europe in the near future.

So now, shall we start our sightseeing?

I would first take you to the great Shwedagon pagoda which is the landmark of Yangon. Then the reclining Buddha in both Yangon and Bago which is the largest in the world. (more about this later in a separate article). Then to the ancient city of Bagan where one can get lost in time among all the 2,000 plus pagodas spread out in the plains. I heard that 'Balloons over Bagan' a one hour tour of Bagan on a hot air balloon is getting so popular there that it takes 3 to 6 months to make reservations. Next, to Inle Lake where you can feel the peace and tranquility of the lake with its one legged rowers. In a travel blog, one person described Inle Lake as "the closest place to Paradise on Earth."

While we are in Yangon, we might as well take in Scott Market, especially if you are a shopping addict. The name was changed to Bogyoke Market many years ago, but a lot of people among the older generation still refer to it by its former name. It is right in the center of the city, a few minutes walk away from Sule Pagoda Road which is considered to be "Main Street, Myanmar.'' At this market you can pick up your souvenirs and gifts for your friends and relatives back home. The most popular items (the ones I like anyway) are lacquerware, hand woven bags and decorative parasols. One time my American friend bought a hand carved chess set for $100 which was a steal at that time. It's probably worth at least $500 now. Oh, if you feel like going native, you should buy yourself a pasoe for men, or htamane for women, to wear while you are in country. It is a long material, usually cotton, tied in a knot around the waist. Most of the people in Myanmar wear this traditional attire everyday.

Before leaving for up-country, let's not forget to go and visit Ye-le-paya or "pagoda in the middle of the river." More about this place later in another travel review.

I should also mention a city called Maymyo which is now known as Pyin Oo Lwin where I lived for one year during my younger days. It has a cool climate the whole year round as the city is situated 1070 meters or 3510 feet above sea level. The town is about two hours drive from Mandalay, and as you travel up through the zig zag roads you can gradually feel the coolness in the air. This hill station was a favorite summer retreat for the British during their colonial days, and one can still see many Tudor style mansions around the town. One form of transportation that is still being used today is the horse drawn carriage taxi.

About Mandalay itself, it used to be the royal city and capital of Burma. King Thibaw the last monarch resided in his palace until he was banished to India by the British colonists who invaded and ruled the country for over 60 years. The palace still stands today surrounded by a moat. A climb up Mandalay Hill is well worth it. From the top of the hill one can have a good view of the city and its surroundings.

Not far from Bagan is Mount Popa an extinct volcano situated nearly 5,000 feet above sea level. At the summit of this volcano is a Buddhist monastery. Climbing the 777 steps leading to the monastery can be an arduous effort but once you reach the top, one can enjoy a panoramic spectacle which includes Kyaukpadaung the village at the foot of the volcano, and even some views of Bagan.

Further to the west is a village called Mingun on the banks of the Irrawaddy River near Mandalay. In that village you can see the Mingun Bell which is the largest ringing bell in the world. I will try and write a separate blog about this bell in another section and add some photos.

In 1966 I was on a Naval gunboat on the Irrawaddy River. We started in Rangoon and one week later reached Mandalay which was our final destination. During that voyage we stopped at several ports/towns, and to this day I have never forgotten the sights of the towns, villages and life of the people along the river. The most spectacular view was the scenic array of pagodas dotting the hillside in Sagaing. I would like to make that voyage again in the form of a cruise and would be happy to have some folks accompany me, so I can have the opportunity of showing the beauty of my homeland and its wonderful people.

UPDATE: From AOL Travel News dated March 10, 2014

Myanmar is to be presented with the award for World's Best Tourist Destination for 2014 by the European Union Council on Tourism & Trade. This award, introduced in 2007, is one of the highest accolades in the travel and tourism industry in the world.