How to Experience Myanmar Like A Local

How to Experience Myanmar Like A Local

» Featured Columnists | By Steve Winston | March 8, 2013 8:10 AM ET

Myanmar is opening its doors to the world. And visitors are going to find a very special slice of the Orient. 

Known as Burma until recently, the country went through a period of political change in the '90s and early 2000s - in addition to changing its name. During this time, Myanmar was pretty much closed to the outside world. In recent years, though, the country has stabilized and has again become part of the international community. And now this once-closed country is reintroducing itself to the world and anxious to show off its treasures.

One of the best ways to see these treasures is with local guides. And a company named Backyard Travel, which specializes in interesting Asian destinations, can set you up with some of the best guides in Myanmar, on a tour called "Myanmar Through Local Eyes."

You'll start your visit in the capital city of Yangon, formerly Rangoon, with a dinner of specialties from the various hill tribes. The next day, your guide will show you splendid British Colonial buildings, as well as ancient temples and pagodas.

On the way to the capital's Chinatown district, you'll pass through a kaleidoscope of religions and traditions, including Chinese temples, Christian churches, Islamic mosques, Buddhist pagodas, Hindu temples, and Myanmar's only synagogue, dating back to 1893.

Your guide will explain Burmese traditions such as ancestor-worship, the tea shop, and astrology, and you'll pass local markets offering everything from traditional medicine and fresh produce to temple offerings.

In the lakeside town of Pindaya, you'll visit the 'Shwe U Min' caves, lined with thousands of Buddha images dating from the 11th-Century. Later, you'll see artisans creating traditional Shan Paper, made from mulberry bark, and wooden "monk" parasols.

The next day you'll visit a village for a look at local life. In the dry season, you'll see the drying of cheroot (tobacco) leaves or the weaving of cotton. In the rainy season, you'll see the weaving of wood or bamboo mats. You'll then participate in a cooking demonstration at a local home. And you'll be able to sample your own creations!

The next morning guests awaken to the serenity of Inle Lake, where local hill tribes come to trade, in a bustling, colorful collage of sights, sounds and aromas. After the market you'll take a motorboat to the center of the lake, passing floating garden  houses on stilts, inhabited by the local Intha people, and the famous "leg-rowing" fishermen. 

Later on, you'll watch Intha locals doing traditional silk weaving. And you'll visit a cheroot  factory, where Burmese cigars are still made by hand.

Day Six will bring you to the magnificent temples of Bagan, among them Thagyar Pone Temple, with panoramic views of the surrounding plains and the revered Ananda Temple. Local artisans are renowned for their exquisite wood carvings and lacquer ware.

If you're visiting Bagan in winter, a ride in a hot-air balloon will enable you to watch the sun rise over the magnificent Bagan Plain and  the Irrawaddy River. Then take the scenic drive to the top of Mt. Popa, to a popular local pilgrimage site.

Later you'll stop at a village where the locals climb palm trees to collect the juice, and then produce products such as sweet molasses and wine. Oxen are used to help grind corn and rice here, and you'll be invited to guide the oxen. Then you'll eat lunch prepared by a local family.

At the end of the trip, you'll end up back in Yangon, where you can stop at Shwedagon Pagoda, the most revered in Myanmar. And the resident monks will bless you with a bracelet to bestow  a  healthy and prosperous life.

Now that the doors to this once-isolated country are open again, and the welcome-mat is out, it's become a must-see for the discerning traveler.You'll probably bring home some local treasures. But you'll definitely bring home images that will be etched in your memory forever!

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