‘Top Gear’ in Myanmar – myth or reality?

The BBC’s hugely popular tv show Top Gear regularly does ‘country specials’ – adventures where the cantankerous middle-aged (yet frequently juvenile) hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May go on an epic road trip through a far-off and exotic land. The last few weeks have seen Myanmar get the Top Gear treatment, and in many ways the country was ripe for it, making for an entertaining ride.

But given the show’s customary use of dramatic license, how much of the ‘Burma Special’ felt real to people who know the country?

Click in link to see the tour on Myanmar: http://www.asiatouradvisor.com/myanmar-tours/

The Naming Myth

In the opening studio segment, Clarkson says that the BBC call the country Myanmar but ‘everybody else calls it Burma’. The naming is a complex issue, but in fact the BBC has been pretty slow in getting round to calling it Myanmar; the country’s name was changed in 1989, and the BBC have only just started to call it that. The New York Times and The Economist, for example, changed to using Myanmar years ago. And, more importantly, virtually everyone in the country itself uses the name Myanmar.

The Journey Begins

The team pick up their trucks and begin their journey in People’s Park in Yangon, with the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda in the background and, after some messing around downtown, they make their way to the Allied War Memorial. Located at 9 Mile on Pyay Road about an hour north of central Yangon, it is worthwhile visiting this huge and beautifully maintained graveyard, with many hundreds of tombstones soberingly marked ‘A Soldier of the War’.

As they bumble along, Clarkson soon raises the issue of most cars having the steering wheel on the right, but also weirdly driving on the right, and this is absolutely correct. Probably 95% of the vehicles in Myanmar have the steering wheel on the wrong side, and the reasoning he gives (being due to the absurd vagaries of the old military regime) is also true.

But although Clarkson professes to have no idea why it continues to be the case that people buy these cars, the answer is in fact simple: virtually all of them are second hand imports from Japan, which has right-hand drive and has had long-term trade deals with Myanmar, and locals believe they are better cared for and better built than the alternative (that is to say, China).

Whilst perhaps exaggerating the chaos of Yangon traffic (it is if anything a bit better than most large cities in developing countries), Top Gear hits the nail on the head about night time driving in Myanmar. It is scary, extremely tiring and often fatal (for local pedestrians and two-wheel traffic, rather than foreigners).

In general, the quality of roads in Myanmar have improved over the last few years, and those between major towns are usually ok – although the Yangon-Naypyidaw-Mandalay expressway, which the team drive on, has serious safety concerns and smaller roads can indeed be very rough and sometimes impassable in the rainy season.

Accommodation, Top Gear-style

As portrayed, the small-town accommodation situation is utterly squalid; this is (unsurprisingly) an exaggeration, and you can find decent (if overpriced) hotels and guest houses in most places that tourists find themselves. However, facilities can be very simple in remote areas such as Chin and Kachin states.

The team are perhaps justified, however, in moaning about the noise they were subjected to during the night; after their first overnight stop, Clarkson, Hammond and May genuinely look as if they have had little sleep. In the very early morning, in particular, you are liable to be assaulted by any number of noises, whether it be machinery, howling dogs, or religious chanting (rarely as beautiful or melodic as you might hope).

Naypyidaw and eastwards – or is it northwards?

Carved out of the middle of Myanmar’s huge and empty ‘dry zone’ in 2005, the new capital Naypyidaw is a genuinely odd place. It is vast – all the government ministries are many kilometres apart from one another, with little but scrub in between. And, yes, all those massive multi-lane roads lie totally empty most of the time, just as you see in the show. But you cannot actually stay at a ‘hovel’ in Naypyidaw, as Top Gear purport to do; as a foreigner you are in fact only allowed to stay in the designated ‘hotel zones’, which are large and generally boring, but up to standard.

Heading north and east from Naypyidaw, the route they take becomes somewhat confused, having been edited purely for entertainment rather than in the interests of clarity for potential visitors to Myanmar. They visit a ‘strangely odd but comfortable Bournemouth hotel’, which is likely in the relaxing colonial-era hill station of Kalaw, which has many buildings of that style. And the beautiful lakeside spot at which they camp for the night is at Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist destinations. There are certainly no shortage of lovely hotels here, which is a good job as camping is in fact illegal in Myanmar.

The foreboding Shan State

A very big deal is made about the rebels in Shan State (or ‘The Shan’ as Clarkson calls it), and being the first tv crew to film there. But there are in fact many rebel ethnic armies in the border areas all around Myanmar, and Shan State is just one of them. As things currently stand, the only active fighting is in a small part of Kachin State, but there are also ethnic rebel factions in Karen and Mon states, amongst others. But Shan State is the largest (with many different rebel ethnic groups within it).

Many parts of Shan State are totally safe and accessible without a permit, including the aforementioned Inle Lake, as well as the picturesque trekking meccas of Kalaw, Pindaya and (in northern Shan State) Hsipaw. Clarkson announces that they are ‘entering The Shan’ when they arrive at Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, but this place is in fact already many kilometres inside Shan State and can be accessed freely (and is worth a visit, particularly during its spectacular hot air balloon festival in November).

The route Top Gear took from here, heading east to Kengtung and the Thai border point at Tachileik is, however, largely out of bounds, just as they claim – and its scenic beauty has rarely been filmed (you need a permit to travel here, which we can arrange together with guiding and accommodation). And when they assert that there is ‘no electricity, no mobile phone signal, no tv, no hotels’ in this part of Myanmar, it is not far from the truth – and that can be applied to many remote parts of the country.

They are also accurate in their portrayal of the a big army presence in these border areas and that most people building roads appear to be women and young children; child labour, including in the military, is a big issue that Myanmar faces as it opens up.

Coming to the end of the journey

After many years of only being able to travel to Myanmar by air, it is now possible for foreigners with a valid visa to travel to Myanmar over land at certain points, and one of those is the Tachileik-Mae Sai border point at which the Top Gear team leave to build their bridge in Thailand.

So, Top Gear came to Myanmar and in many ways produced a show that, in its sometimes crass and inaccurate but often amusing way, in some ways reflects the kind of experience that you can have as a traveller in Myanmar right now. It is a country of great scenic beauty where you can witness extraordinary cultural richness and a fair few absurdities. Despite the show’s faults (many of which were to be expected), it can be lauded for that.

A note on driving in Myanmar

If you like the idea of a Burmese road trip, bear in mind that self-drive car hire is not currently possible and you need a permit to drive cars into or through the country (from Thailand, India or China). On a smaller budget, self-drive motorbike hire is possible – check individual destinations for more details.

Marcus Allender – founder, Go-Myanmar.com. 20th March, 2014

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Source: www.go-myanmar.com

The Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago

OverviewAccommodation

The gorgeous and remote Myeik (or Mergui) Archipelago lies in the Andaman Sea off the coast of southern Myanmar. To visit these extraordinary islands who will need to join a guided tour and they remain largely undiscovered by tourists – which is a big part of their appeal (indeed many of them are inhabitated only by colourful wildlife).

Made up of more than 800 islands which vary in size from smaller ones with just a few palm trees to larger islands of several hundred square kilometres, the archipelago offers great opportunities for exploration and diving amongst spectacular marine life and untouched coral reefs, with yachts and cruise boats designed for that purpose.

It is not just the scenery (under water or over water) that makes the Myeik Archipelago such a fascinating place to visit: the Moken people, also known as the Salone or sea gypsies, are one of the most distinct of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups, living a nomadic, sea-based life here. Having adapted themselves to the water over many hundreds of years, they are the masters of free diving, being able to focus their vision under water and hold their breath far longer than most humans can.

Island highlights

The islands of the Myeik Archipelago offer a wide variety of sights and adventurous activities, from hiking through tropical valleys to kayaking through mangroves and up rivers; the opportunities for exploration are almost limitless. And if you are after a more laid back time, you can simply jump in the water from your boat or wander along any of the hundreds of deserted white sand beaches.

Click in link to see the tour on Myanmar:

http://www.asiatouradvisor.com/myanmar-tours/

A hugely diverse range of wildlife can be found on the islands, including monitor lizards, pythons, civets, chevrotains, gibbons and crab-eating macaques. Up in the air, the colourful diversity is perhaps even greater: you can see hornbills, white-bellied sea eagles, while kites, kingfishers, eastern reef herons, emerald doves, to name but a few of the species that circle the islands.

There are far too many islands in the archipelago to describe here (and many have never been set foot on by foreigners), but here are some of the highlights:

  • Lampi Island. Established in 1995 as Myanmar’s first marine national park, Lampi (also known as Kyun Tan Shey or Sullivan Island), is one of the most popular islands for visitors to the archipelago, rich as it is in biodiversity, mangroves and coral reefs. Lampi River offers a great chance for kayaking – and to witness some of the area’s exotic flora and fauna.

  • 115 Island.Also known as Frost Island, this has a white sandy beach with crystal clear waters that are rich in hard coral and have thousands of sea urchins and small colourful tropical fish darting around. 115 Island offers opportunities for snorkelling, kayaking – and jungle trekking on the island itself.
  • Nyaung Wee Island. Host to a number of Moken villages, visiting this beautiful area gives you the opportunity to talk to the locals and find out about their unique culture – and about their changing way of life. Sadly, they are increasingly living in villages rather than on the water (sometimes having even having been forcibly moved to the mainland), as the government prohibited the traditional fashioning of their wooden boats from trees.
  • Phi Lar island. Otherwise known as Great Swinton, this island has a number of totally uninhabited, white sand, palm-fringed beaches – and some particularly colourful coral reefs that are perfect for snorkeling.
  • Myauk Ni Island provides another opportunity to chat with the islanders about their daily lives. They see very few tourists, mainly just the fishermen who come to buy what they need, and maybe have a drink. No trinkets or hard sell in this part of the world!

For a wider range of photos from the Myeik Archipelago, visit our Flickr photo set.

Diving and fishing

The Myeik Archipelago’s diversity above the waves is more than matched by life below the sea surface, showcasing an incredible variety of marine life – including Nurse, Grey Reef, and Bull sharks, as well as Eagle and Manta rays, Frogfish, Ribbon Eels and False Pipefish, to name just a few.

As with the islands, we have only listed a select few of the diving highlights here – there are dozens of fascinating and exciting sites throughout this vast area.

  • The Burma Banks. One of the most renowned dive sites in Southeast Asia, the huge Burma Banks (including Silvertip, Rainbow, Roe, Coral and Heckford banks) are located on the west side of the archipelago, where the continental shelf drops off into the deep sea beyond. For experienced divers, the open ocean diving here makes for a thrilling and diverse opportunity – and sightings of sharks are virtually guaranteed.
  • Black Rock. This islet, located 100 miles northwest of Kawthaung, is a firm favourite of many divers who visit the archipelago: its steep rock cliffs act as a magnet for an abundance of marine life – most notably Silvertip, Whitetip and Blacktip sharks, as well as Manta rays and Sting rays.

  • Shark Cave. Featuring three rocks that rise from 40 meters under the surface until they rise above waves, this area offers some of the best marine life in the archipelago, with huge shoals of colourful fish swimming around you – and it is so big it cannot all be seen in one dive. For experienced divers, there is a huge canyon to explore on the middle island, which leads to a cave which is guarded by Grey Reef sharks which sometimes lose their inhibition and swim up close to divers.
  • Little Torres Islands. A mix of spectacular red whip, mosaic and table corals can be found in the waters surrounding these islands, as well as Batfish and beautifully-colured Moon Wrasse.

Fishing in the archipelago

Whether it is barracuda, Spanish mackerel, tuna, snapper, or even marlin and sailfish, the archipelago offers the opportunity to enjoy catching your own dinner! Many of the boats that sail here have their own rods, but you are also free to bring your own. Local fishermen also catch cuttlefish and squid, which will often be bought by cruise boat crews and served fresh.

When to visit and sailing conditions

As with much of the rest of Myanmar, November to April is the high season for visiting the Myeik Archipelago. December to February offers the most beautiful and comfortable weather conditions – with warm, sunny weather, steady winds, and calm seas. There is less wind and higher temperatures in March and April, which also makes for clearer waters and the best time for diving and snorkeling.

From May to July there are strong onshore winds and a larger swell (with occasional hurricanes) and the rainy season is from June to October; cruises of the Archipelago do not operate from the beginning of May until the beginning of October. If storms do arrive during the monsoon, the region has numerous large islands which provide protected anchorages at any time of year – and in general the area provides safe sailing, with few dangerous reefs or obstacles.

To see cruise options for the Myeik Archipelago, including diving tours and tours of wider Myanmar that include the Archipelago, click here.

Permits, access and places to stay

A special permit is required to visit the Myeik Archipelago on a multi-day live aboard tour – it is obtained as part of a cruise package; processing is straightforward, but usually takes around one month to complete. It is not currently permitted for foreigners to travel to the islands independently, and there are naval patrols through the islands that check visitor documentation.

Taking a multi-day cruise, you will typically be met at Kawthaung airport by a representative, who will talk you through the deskful of required paperwork and then take you on to your boat. Most cruises have a set itinerary, although this can change if the weather is poor. The crew will provide alternative places of interest, and you will have a guide to explain everything to you and to translate for conversations with the islanders.

MacLeod Island

There are three main places to stay on the islands of the archipelago, all at the southern end to the west of Kawthaung: the Myanmar Andaman Resort on MacLeod Island; the nearby Nyaung Oo Phee Resort, with luxury tent-style lodging; and the further out Boulder Bay Eco Resort on Boulder Island. They are open from October to the end of April and offer their own, limited, boat transport to the mainland – if you wish to arrange your own transport, it is very expensive. The Grand Andaman Hotel, a Thai-owned, casino-focused hotel caters mostly to Thais and is located on an island across the water from Kawthaung.

It is now also possible to go on day trips to the archipelago from Kawthaung and from the town ofMyeik, further north – as well as multi-day trips with overnight camping on the islands. These are fun (and cheaper than live-aboard multi-day cruises) but it can take a long time to get to the outlying islands. To find out more, get in touch with us via our contact form or email info@go-myanmar.com.

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Source: www.go-myanmar.com

Myeik Archipelago diary

August 10, 2014

We found the idea of a four-day cruise in the warm, sunny and isolated Myeik Archipelago – visited by so few tourists – immediately appealing, and put it at the top of our list of things to do on our four-week stay in Myanmar.

Only a limited number of authorised cruises have access to the archipelago, and to get there you need to go via Kawthaung, right at the southern tip of Myanmar on the border with Thailand; make sure that you’re in Yangon in plenty of time to catch the plane to Kawthaung: the flight takes three hours, including two 20-minute stops in Dawei and Myeik. Going by road takes a tortuous five days by bus and may sometimes not even be possible at all.

In Kawthaung, we were met by a friendly and efficient link-man to our boat: he talked us through a deskful of police bureaucracy before taking us to our boat at Myoma Jetty – The Wanderlust, an elderly and leaky catamaran. We found to our surprise that we were the only passengers, but soon realised that there certainly was no room for more: we found it difficult to squeeze in tandem into our oddly-shaped cabin. But we were taken excellent care of for four days by the skipper, Mo; the guide, So-So; the engineer, Aung Min; and the trained cook, Mew-Ah.

The Wanderlust’s aging quirks, one of which was to occasionally drip on us as we slept, were compensated for by Mew-Ah’s excellent meals and our being generally pampered by the crew. We had a lot of interesting chats with So-So, who told us, among other things about his life, that he was going to send his five-year-old son to a monastery for a year when he became six, and that he himself had done so at the ages of eleven and seventeen.

We travelled in November, at the tail end of the rainy season – and it poured steadily for two days, which caused us to miss some planned snorkelling, fishing and jungle trekking; our first morning was spent on the scheduled stop at Nyaung Wee Island. We were interested to find that the large number of open-fronted shops/family dwellings were geared to only selling daily necessities to the crews of local fishing boats; we never saw as much as a shell necklace or any concession to the occasional tourist during the whole of our cruise.

It was interesting to talk (in translation) to these islanders about their way of life, particularly when we went by dinghy to a Moken (or ‘sea gypsy’) village, which was steadily getting larger. It was sad to hear that the government is now prohibiting practices central to Moken culture, including their tradition of fashioning boats from island trees. They told us that the government is keen for their children to have primary and secondary education, the latter being given on the mainland up to the age of 14, after which many of the children return to a life of fishing or shop-keeping.

On the way back to The Wanderlust, water got into the dinghy’s engine, which stopped; the skipper came in a kayak to explain that they couldn’t come to tow us, as the engine had seized up. Eventually we wheezed our way back…the crew’s mantra ‘It will be okay – no problem!’ did prove effective against all odds!

The next day, which was sunny, we kayaked up the exotic Lampi river, and later anchored at the idyllic Nga Mann Island, where we swam in picture-perfect turquoise seas and wandered on white sand on the edge of a jungle sporting wonderfully colourful fruits and flowers. Next we visited a village on Myauk Ni Island, again to have a most interesting conversation about the islanders’ daily lives – they see very few foreigners, only usually conversing with the fishermen who come for provisions.

The next day we awoke to cloudless sunshine, and again ambled along beautiful island beaches, always entirely to ourselves. For our last meal Mew-Ah excelled himself by producing a sumptuous lunch of soup-filled pumpkin and prawns in a delicious sauce. Then back in the sunshine to Kawthaung. This is an interesting town in itself, and people who come here to go on a cruise should allow time to wander through it: there are strong influences of India and Islam, which we hadn’t expected.

Despite the rain and the Wanderlust’s tricks, we found our cruise all we’d hoped for – fascinating, informative and above all, fun.

For more photos from the Myeik Archipelago, check out our Flickr photo album.

Sally Allender, 10th August 2014

We offer a number of cruise tours of the Myeik Archipelago – for more info, go here.

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Source: www.go-myanmar.com

Mandalay

OverviewAccommodationGetting ThereGetting Away

The city – an introduction

The name ‘Mandalay’ is perhaps the most evocative of any destination in Myanmar (mainly due to the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling, who in fact only ever spent two days in the country and never came here!) – and yet it is a city whose significant charms need to be uncovered. But if you take the time to explore, there is much to be enjoyed, including many temples, monasteries and markets, as well as great street food and panoramic views from Mandalay Hill.

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Compared to the many ancient capitals scattered around the country, Mandalay is in fact a relatively new city, having been built in 1857 when King Mindon was trying to re-establish Burmese prestige after the country’s defeat in the Second Anglo-Burmese War. It was therefore constructed on a grand scale, and the size of Mandalay Palace (see below) is testament to this.

Orientation and other practical info

When you first arrive in Mandalay, you will find a large, dusty and flat city, with its streets based on a grid system (numbered north to south 1st to 49th and east to west 50th to 90th). Getting around downtown (roughly located at the south-west corner of Mandalay Palace moat, near Mandalay railway station) and its assorted markets, restaurants and temples can be done on foot, but if you want to go any further – for example, to Mandalay Hill, the Shwenandaw or Shwe In Bin monasteries, or the Mahamuni Temple, you will need to get a taxi or pick up.

Alternatively, you can hire a self-drive motorbike to see the sights for around K12,000 per day at a number of places in the downtown area, including Mandalay Motorbike Rental. At the other end of the scale, a spectacular way to see Mandalay is by hot air balloon; price per person is US$275 and the season runs from mid-December to the end of January. To make a booking or enquiry, click here.

A US$10 ticket (valid for a week) is required to enter many tourist sites in Mandalay and the surrounding area, and can be bought at most places that require it for entry. In some locations (such as Inwa, Amarapura and Sagaing), the ticket is technically required – but in reality you are rarely asked to show it.

There are a number of KBZ and CB Bank Visa- and Mastercard-ready ATMs dotted around downtown Mandalay.

Mandalay sights and activities

Mandalay Palace

The scale of King Mindon’s ambition is obvious on first sight of the vast Mandalay Palace and its grounds. This walled citadel, surrounded by a large moat, is situated in the middle of the city, to the north of downtown; it certainly looks imposing from the outside, but unfortunately, along with much of Mandalay, it was devastated by bombing in the Second World War.

Within its walls you can now find a huge army camp (with obligatory golf course, a must for the generals) and a reconstruction of the original palace, which, as is all too common in Myanmar, has been done with a somewhat heavy hand. However, it is still interesting to visit in order to get an impression of what used to be, and some original artefacts are held at the museum. Entrance is through the east gate; $10 Mandalay zone ticket required.

Shwenandaw Kyaung

In contrast to the reconstructed Mandalay Palace is this perfectly preserved monastery, which was originally the royal apartment in which King Mindon died, and was sited within the palace walls. It was moved to its current location (on the corner of 14th and 62nd streets) by Mindon’s son, Thibaw – the last king of Burma – and converted into a monastery. Made entirely out of teak, it is adorned with beautifully intricate carvings. $10 Mandalay zone ticket required for entry.

The Shwenandaw Kyaung is currently undergoing extensive restoration work which is being overseen by the World Monuments Fund, with support from the US embassy. Work is expected to be completed in 2016.

For a wider selection of photos of the Shwenandaw Kyaung, go to our Flickr photo album.

Mandalay Hill

The place from which the city gets its name, Mandalay Hill is a welcome respite from the heat and dust of the streets, and offers stunning 360 degree views of the whole city, the Irrawaddy River, and the the distant hills. It is particularly beautiful at sunset, with the fading rays glinting off the gold and green of the Sutaungpyei Pagoda, which is located at the summit. Mandalay Hill is a holy site, and is said to have been climbed by the Buddha, who prophesied that a great city would be built here, where his teachings would flourish.

In religious terms, walking to the top is the most meritorious way to ascend the hill, and on the main route (from the south) you will see numerous interesting payas on your barefoot 45-minute journey, starting with two giant white chintes (giant lion-like creatures) that guard the entrance. It is a gentle climb, all covered, but can get extremely hot, particularly during the middle of the day. The alternative is to take a pick-up to the top – certainly you may wish to take one down again if you have made the effort to do the climb.

The road up the hill is separate from the main roads in Mandalay, and motorbikes are charged a K200 entry toll, plus a K200 parking toll at the top. Mandalay Hill is located to the north of Mandalay Palace and is visible from most of the city. There is a K1000 camera fee. In the peak season from November to February it can get crowded at the summit, sometimes making it difficult to find a good view.

Western Mandalay, Eindawya Pagoda And Zegyo Market

Located in the western part of downtown Mandalay (near the end of 27th street), the Eindawya (Ein Daw Yar) Pagoda and Zegyo (Zay Cho) Market are in many ways the heart of this city. Like so many religious sites in Myanmar, the pagoda is a living and breathing community in itself, with shops lining its entrances, monks to be found playing football, and people to be found worshipping.

Built in 1847, it is a classic example of a Myanmar shrine, with the 28 metre-tall stupa standing proud in the middle, surrounded by characterful buildings of varying design and purpose, including a monastery – all facing the stupa. A Black Buddha, brought from India in 1839 and carved from quartz, can be found here.

Zegyo Market is the biggest market in Mandalay and is as old as the city itself. Although an interesting and lively place to wander around, the main building unfortunately now an undistinguished modern structure – the main draws here are the neighbouring dusty, bustling markets of 86th street, which are rich in atmosphere and have a huge selection of locally produced goods, from fresh food to handicrafts.

Western Mandalay is the most satisfying part of town to explore by foot or bicycle: heading west from the Eindawya Pagoda, you will find a number of colonial era and traditional wooden monasteries; some charming, quiet pagodas; a lovely teak bridge spanning the Thinga Yazar canal; and eventually the bustling Irrawaddy riverfront.

Shwe In Bin Monastery

Another building to have stood the test of time, this beautiful and ornate teak monastery was constructed in 1895 by Chinese merchants, and features many impressive woodcarvings and contains a number of traditional art works. The setting, outside central Mandalay, is a peaceful and relaxing place to witness Buddhist monks go about their daily lives. It is located south west of downtown, by a small river on 89th and 38th streets.

Mahamuni Buddha Temple

One of Myanmar’s most important religious sites, the Mahamuni temple often throngs with pilgrims, and is set in a large religious complex that is most famous for its seated Buddha, which stands at 3.8 metres tall and has been adorned with so much gold that its body is now a mass of golden blobs. The one part that is still clear is its beaming face, which is washed by monks, and has its teeth cleaned, in a ceremony every morning (at 4am or 4.30am). The temple is located south of downtown, between 82nd and 84th streets.

The Mahamuni Temple hosts several festivals through the year (more information below).

For a wider selection of photos from around Mandalay, go to our Flickr photo album.

Comedy, marionettes and theatre

Mandalay is famous for its culture, and amongst the most well known of its residents are the Moustache Brothers, a subversive a-nyeint pwe comedy troupe who have been sticking their fingers up to the ruling generals for years. They have been sporadically jailed and put under house arrest, and it is in this house that they perform their show (on 39th street, between 80th and 81st); it lasts around one hour and is on most evenings from 8.30pm. Entry K8000.

For some colourful doses of traditional Myanmar entertainment, go to Mandalay Marionettes or the Mintha theatre (close by to each other on the corner of 27th and 66th streets). To find out more about Myanmar theatre, go to entertainment, music and festivals.

To book Mandalay city tours and other activities, make your selection from the wishlist on the right sidebar further up this page. We also offer a variety of tours of Myanmar that include the sights of Mandalay – find out more here.

Festivals

  • The Kyauktawgyi Pagoda Festival is one of the largest of the year and takes place in October. It celebrates the huge marble Buddha that rests at the pagoda, and includes contests to weave monks’ robes, which are offered to the Buddha images at full moon.
  • The Taungbyone Nat Festival takes place in the village of Taungbyone, 20 kilometres north of Mandalay. Held at the end of July or the beginning of August, the festival lasts five days, leading up to the full lunar moon, and is a celebration of ‘nats’ – guardian spirits. Many nat performers are homosexual or transgender, and the festival has a large gay following. Little accommodation is available in Taungbyone, so most people take a taxi to the festival for the day and return to Mandalay in the evening. To find out more about the festival check out our Taungbyone blog.
  • The Chinlone Festival takes place at the Mahamuni Temple at the end of June or beginning of July. The best Chinlone (one of Myanmar’s traditional sports) players come from around Myanmar to compete.
  • Also hosted at the Mahamuni Temple is the Payagyi Festival (January), which features rice cooking contests held in the evening followed by incense burning the following morning, as homage to the Buddha.

To find out more about festivals across Myanmar, go here.

Eating and drinking

If you wander around downtown Mandalay, particularly between the south west corner of the Mandalay Palace moat and Zegyo Market (between 22nd and 28th streets), you will find many inexpensive roadside restaurants serving a variety of tasty local dishes, as well as Chinese, Indian and Tibetan food.

Here is a selection of some of the best places to eat in Mandalay:

  • Lashio Lay is a downtown restaurant popular with locals and foreigners alike, serving good value authentic Shan food, and is open later than most other places. Price K2000-K4000. Location: 23rd street, between 83rd and 84th.
  • 27th street food stalls. Near Zegyo Market you will find a number of street stalls selling cheap and tasty chapatis. Beers usually need to be brought or ordered from another store.
  • Karaweik tea house serves delicious dumplings and a variety of other local dishes. Price K1000-K3000. Location: 22nd street, between 83rd and 84th.
  • Green Elephant has a lovely, atmospheric garden setting and offers traditional Myanmar food, as well as Thai, Chinese Indian and Western dishes. Price K10000-K15000. Location: 27th street, between 64th and 65th.

There are street side beer stations scattered all around Mandalay, although relatively little western-style bar or coffee culture. The options are growing however, and most bar options are located around the south east corner of Mandalay Palace. Here are the highlights:

  • Central Park is one of the few western-style bar/restaurant hangouts in Mandalay. Serving a range of tasty dishes including pizza, bbq, Mexican and burgers, it is located in a relaxing and stylish semi-outdoor setting. Price K3000-K7000. Location: 27th street, between 68th and 69th.
  • Café City is an American-style diner. Price K5000-K10000. Location: 66th street (East Moat Road), between 20th and 22nd Street.
  • Koffee Korner serves a wide variety of European dishes as well as coffees. Price K3000-K8000. Location: corner of 27th and 70th streets.
  • Best of the Best (BoB) KTV is a different nightlife option – a huge and shiny Chinese karaoke place in eastern Mandalay, where you can belt out your favourites into the early hours. Location: corner of 26th and 57th streets.
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Source: www.go-myanmar.com

A barrage to the senses – the Taungbyone Nat festival

September 14, 2014

Taungbyone Festival is Myanmar’s answer to Gay Pride, a rickety country fair, a Pentecostal church and Glastonbury Festival all combined and turned up to 11. Make no mistake, Taungbyone Nat Pwe, held a few miles out of Mandalay, is not for everyone. By anyone’s standard it is an utter barrage to the senses. A ‘Nat’ is the immortal spirit of a real or folkloric figure who died in an immoral or unnatural incident who is exalted through animist worship in parallel to Buddhism. ‘Pwe’ is Myanmar for festival.

Arriving early we unfolded ourselves from the sardine tin pickup truck shared taxi from Mandalay. Shuffling our way through avenues of pop up shop stalls in the the sticky mud, shoulder to shoulder with tens of thousands of worshippers, drunks, posing youths, chic transvestites and deformed beggars, tentatively we joined a path-side circle of people transfixed by an enigmatic front man who was delivering a spiel whilst flicking a small black pellet in and out of his mouth with deft and effeminate theatrical hand gestures along with copious shots of a white spirit. At his feet were arranged a collection of objects, including a dolls head, cans, bottles and medical instruments. These were tools to some kind of ceremony much in the vein of Vodun (AKA Voo-Doo). Although fascinating, much to our regret the searing midday sun was threatening to toast our feeble English constitutions and we were forced into the relative shelter of the central temple where an unrelenting throng hurled votive foliage at the feet of Nat statues.

Before long we were drawn to what our ears discerned as the unmistakably unhinged sound of live traditional Myanmar music. We found ourselves ushered into a small pavilion where the image that was to confront us will stay burned into out retinas for eternity: a pair of exceptionally glamorous old drag queens dressed up to the nines with K5000 notes safety pinned all over their costumes and a stream if cigarettes, often a handful at a time, being piled into their twisting orange lips and red grinding pan stained teeth working a dense crowd into a froth. They were, in the terminology of the nat pwe, ‘spirit wives’, wed to the Nat that Taungbyone festival celebrates. Alongside the duo at all times were their crew of fag-hags, fanning them and feeding them booze, starting with beer and ending with entire bottles of rum. As the crazed music ignited the formidable sound system the crowd became increasingly ecstatic. The women were dancing with equal drunken fervour to the men, punching fistfuls of holy leaves in the air, one by one falling into a fit of violent shaking as they were possessed by a nat spirit, to be respectfully carried aside to avoid their flailing limbs damaging the grinning children nearby.

The jubilant jigging, leaping and air punching of the crowd was infectious and we waved our holy branches on high. While regrettably not possessed by a Nat, due to the wild enthusiasm we received for our taking part, we felt in danger of incurring the wrath of a sprit wife for stealing the limelight. In Taungbyone more than anywhere else in Myanmar we were constantly filmed and treated like celebrities – it seemed that few people had ever seen a white face – so we pressed on in search of the next adventure.

Passing makeshift photo studios where you could have your picture taken dressed up as a Myanmar princess with a choice of lurid oil painting backdrops, and a huge cinema tent with an incredible rattling old projector, we found ourselves in a field of terrifyingly ramshackle fairground rides and sideshows. We made a hasty exit from a miserable animal show, complete with tiny cages, mangy monkeys playing cymbals accompanied by hellish feedback from numerous conflicting sound systems, and a truly odious ticket seller with an enormous bare sweaty paunch. Next we tentatively boarded a ferris wheel hoping for a cool breeze and a good view, only to find it was made of decaying wood, seemingly held together with Sellotape and powered not by an motor but by human beings. A troupe of ten or so lithe young boys climbed, monkey like, to the top in order for their weight to start it all turning in the manner of a pet mouse wheel, and proceeded to hang on to the rickety spokes, often upside down as the wheel whizzed round, completing their performance with a nonchalant backflip to dismount.

Feeling elated but overwhelmed by the blistering heat and crowds we avoided the miles of near stationary traffic jamming the access roads by jumping on motorbike taxi back to Mandalay. The day was too dense with one bizarre encounter after another to fully recount here. Nevertheless, if you like the sound of this festival and ever have the opportunity to go, do not miss it. Every year it lasts the whole week preceding the August full moon, and as the biggest of all the Nat Pwe it attracts the gay and transvestite community and fervent animists in equal measure from every part of the country. Although it didn’t stop us, knowing some Myanmar language will do you well as virtually no one we met spoke any English whatsoever. We went on a weekday four days before the full moon itself. Any busier and I think we might have suffocated, so probably best to get there before the weekend if you can. It’s under an hour from Mandalay (which incidentally is a wonderful and almost disarmingly welcoming city – ignore the guide books telling you it’s not) and your guesthouse can tell you where to get a pick up or motorbike taxi.

Jussi Brightmore 14.9.14

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Source: www.go-myanmar.com

Taunggyi

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Set spectacularly on a mountain ridge, Taunggyi is the capital of Shan State and home to a large number of traditional ethnic tribes, including the Intha and the Pa-O – who in fact outnumber Shan here.

The city hosts a bustling market, where you will find large numbers of Pa-O, instantly recognisable by the colourful towels that the women wear on their heads. There are also a variety of tasty local Shan dishes to be tried out, as well as a range of wines at the nearby Aythaya vineyard.

The dazzling fire balloon festival that takes place in November and the thousands of pagodas that can be found nearby at Kakku are other reasons to visit (more info below).

The city

Taunggyi’s culturally diverse population means that it has places of worship for a host of religions, including a number of mosques, a Chinese Buddhist monastery (Kwan Yin Si Hpaya Kyaung), and a Catholic cathedral (St Joseph’s).

Panoramic views of the entire city, and further across the plains to the north of Inle Lake, can be found at the Shwe Phone Pwint Pagoda, which sits at the top of a ridge to the east of Taunggyi. Walking there from the centre of town takes around 40 minutes, or you can get a taxi for K5000. The city’s most prominent religious monument is the Sulamuni Pagoda, a huge white stupa modelled on the Ananda Pagoda in Bagan; it was built in 1994 to commemorate Taunggyi’s centenary.

The Shan State cultural museum is a pretty dusty and basic affair, but offers some insight into the history and style of the various tribes in the area, as well as some local political history. Entry is K2000. Being located at an altitude of 1,436 metres, Taunggyi (which means ‘Big Mountain’ in Burmese) has a cool and pleasant year-round climate.

Check out our YouTube video of Taunggyi from Shwe Phone Pwint pagoda and, for a wider selection of photos, go to our Taunggyi photo album.

Visa- and Mastercard-ready CB and KBZ bank ATMs can be found near the centre of Taunggyi on the main thoroughfare, Bogyoke Aung San Road.

The German-run Aythaya Vineyardis immediately to the west of Taunggyi; one of only two vineyards in Myanmar, it also hosts attractive teak-built accommodation (the ‘Monte Di Vino Lodge’) with views of the picturesque Aythaya Valley. See our YouTube video of Aythaya vineyard.

Festivals

The Fire Balloon Festival

One of Myanmar’s most famous yearly gatherings, the Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival is held for several days around the Full Moon of Tazaungmon, which is a national holiday and marks the end of the rainy season (early November in the Gregorian calendar).

The festival features fireworks and a startling array of different balloon designs, with competitions for style and elevation achieved.

The daytime hours are focussed around family entertainment, with large animal-shaped balloons – but the revelries go on through the night until the early hours of the following morning, when huge balloons laden with hundreds of fireworks are sent up into the sky.

Visitors should note that safety standards are not what they should be, and there have been a number of accidents over the years; you should make certain to maintain a safe distance from the balloons. During the festival, accommodation prices are sharply increased and transport to Taunggyi should be booked well in advance.

Take a look at our YouTube videos of the Fire Balloon Festival during the day and at night. For a wider selection of photos, go to our Fire Balloon Festival photo album. And to read more about the festival, see our blog.

Other Taunggyi festivals

In late November or early December, ethnic Shan gather from far and wide in Taunggyi to celebrate Shan New Year with traditional dancing, colourful costumes and Shan long drum music; at midnight, new year is marked with fireworks and balloons.

To find out more about festivals in Myanmar, go here.

Kakku

The pagoda complex at Kakku is a centre of worship for the Pa-O people and features thousands of closely-packed stupas in a small area, all with tinkling bells on top – making for an enchanting atmosphere. Unfortunately, many of the structures have been insensitively restored, using concrete instead of traditional brickwork – but the setting remains an impressive one.

Behind the pagodas to the east, you will find a lovely rural scene, with the Shan hills stretching out into the distance and a small river in which you can take a swim. Kakku is one and half hours south of Taunggyi on the road to Loikaw.

The Kakku pagoda festival is held on the Full Moon of Tabaung (usually early March). During the festival, the Pa-O pay homage by wearing their finest ethnic clothing and by decorating their prize bullocks.

For a wider selection of photos, go to our Kakku photo album.

Hten San Cave

Situated 42 kilometres east of Taunggyi, near the town of Hopong, Hten San is a dramatic and extensive limestone cave system which hosts large stalactites and stalagmites. It offers more natural beauty than the other famous cave in Shan State at Pindaya, although it does have some gaudy Buddhist tributes.

Entry costs an eye-watering $20 – although determined visitors may be able to negotiate this down to $10.

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Source: www.go-myanmar.com

Fire in the sky – the Taunggyi balloon festival

November 12, 2014

If your idea of fun involves a blurry riot of colour and explosions, look no further than the Taunngyi Fire Balloon Festival, which takes place in the culturally diverse capital of Shan State over several days every November. This celebration is held around the Full Moon of Tazaungmon, a Myanmar national holiday that marks the end of rainy season and is also known as the Tazaungdaing Festival of Lights.

Although the releasing of balloons is nominally an offering to the heavens to ward away evil spirits, and the national holiday is rooted in Buddhist and Hindu cosomology (it is also celebrated in Thailand, where it is known as Loi Krathong), the tradition of hot air balloon competition in Taunggyi was actually begun by the British in the late 19th century.

Today you will find a spectacle that would no doubt have had its colonial originators reeling in shock. An exceptionally loud and vibrant event, it does in fact bear some similarities to today’s western music festivals: firstly, there is plenty of loud music – but there are also ferris wheels (albeit powered by young men, rather than fuel or electricity); energy drink sponsors (though just local brands – no Red Bull, yet); and plenteous beer and food served in temporary stalls, dance stages and bars until the early hours of the morning (till as late as 6am).

However, the balloons themselves mark the Taunggyi festival out as something distinct. Home made by a number of teams who are entered into the competition, they are of course the focal point for the entire event. The fun begins every day in the early afternoon; during the daylight hours the huge balloons are created in the shapes of animals, including anything from birds to elephants. If you are here with a young family or prefer a more sedate pace, this is the time to come to the festival, for it is in the evening that things get altogether more edgy – and spectacular.

After darkness falls, the balloons are released roughly between every half and hour, and come in two categories – ones that are beautifully lit up and ascend serenely into the sky, and ones laden with thousands of fireworks. The latter balloons reach an altitude of several hundred metres, after which the fireworks burst into an extraordinary, multicoloured shower – which lasts up to 15 minutes.

At least, that is the theory. All too often, there is a malfunction and either the fireworks set off too early, firing into the crowd, or the balloon itself explodes, falling to the ground in a ball of fire. Sadly, over the years this has sometimes led to injuries and even occasional deaths; to be safe, it is essential to maintain a good distance from the balloons.

If you take sufficient care, however, you will enjoy a unique and visceral experience which stands alongside the best of Myanmar’s many wonderful festivals – and where you will have the chance to immerse yourself in local culture and see few other foreigners.

For a wider selection of photos from the Fire Balloon Festival, check out our Flick photo album.

Note that accommodation prices in Taunggyi are sharply increased during the festival, but more options can be found 45 minutes drive away in Nyaung Shwe.

Marcus Allender – founder, Go-Myanmar.com. November 2014

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Source: www.go-myanmar.com

Falam

OverviewAccommodationGetting ThereGetting Away
The beautiful and remote mountainside town of Falam was founded by the British in 1892, and served as an important administrative centre until 1974, when Hakha became capital of the newly formed Chin State. Falam is well worth a visit both to experience Chin culture and take in the distinctive surrounding scenery, both of which are very different to the rest of Myanmar.

Bringing to mind a smaller version of Darjeeling, Falam is dramatically set amongst the imposing and lush northern Chin mountains. Only recently made accessible to foreigners again after decades of isolation, it remains largely unaffected by modern development, with simple wooden buildings centred around a large Baptish church, which is visible for miles around.

A pagoda sits on the mountain ridge above Falam, offering stunning views of the town and neigbouring valleys. Despite this nod to Buddhism (and, some might say, central Burmese power), 99% of the population here is Christian; along with the rest of Chin State, the locals are deeply religious and proud of their heritage (for more information on religion in Myanmar, go here).

Simple meals can be found at a number of teahouses and restaurants around the central church. Guesthouses in Falam are basic and electricity and hot water supplies are limited. Being at relatively high altitude, temperatures are in general lower than the rest of Myanmar, particularly during December and January (although the sun remains intensely strong).

Take a look at our YouTube video of a mountain pass between Kalaymyo and Falam and, for a wider selection of photos from Falam, go to our Flickr photo set.

To find out about local music, go to our blog post ‘Musical traditions in remote Chin State’.

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Source: www.go-myanmar.com

Musical traditions in remote Chin State

December 22, 2014

Remote and mountainous Chin state has a complex history that tells a great tale. According to locals in Falam, the history of the twelve clans that surrounded the old capital has always been retained orally, through songs. In a feat of human memory, each clan had singers that would retain up to five hundred years of village history in just one song! I don’t know how long that song is, but the average person can’t remember the lyrics to their favorite three minute pop song. Such skills show an impressive song writing or listening ability.

Like valuable books, singers pass important cultural information about love, wars and life events down to the younger generations. Where I went, sadly, there isn’t much traditional music left. Maybe I needed to go deeper into Chin State to get more answers, but for now no information was forthcoming; the locals didn’t know anyone left.

When missionaries arrived they rid the local population of their animist traditions. They introduced new songs about Christianity, the English language and made the locals cover up with ‘modest’ clothing. Today the locals still write in a Roman script, and unlike most of Myanmar you can get by on English easily. The British colonial government can be applauded for putting an end to the plundering, slavery and rape consistent with inter-clan warfare, but sadly, how they did it was probably through violence. To a certain extent I speculate, but it’s safe to assume that there were no NGOs and aid organizations involved!

Today what’s left of local songs is the memories of just a few people, who have a couple learned by memory and some basic instruments for accompaniment. The instruments sound beautiful but they are the most simple you could make. Their modern music is like any other pop music, the local studio runs advanced software and makes pop that sells up and down Chin State.

But, like song birds, the locals sing everywhere they go. The songs draw you into friendships; I’ve never felt so welcomed anywhere.

The influx of foreign music shows that the locals’ instruments really don’t stand up to a lot of other musical technology. Their flute lacks the clarity of the Indian or western flute and their gongs and drums don’t have the range of a drum kit. Their sound and history is unique though, and that makes it well worth practicing and preserving, foremost for their identity’s sake. Their traditional instruments have been duly replaced in recordings by western sounds, but that’s ok, in music progress can be seen as simply being able to express emotion or thought better. The better you do this, the greater the music.

Some of their traditional songs will live on, albeit to the backing of a pop guitar riff and hip hop beat. But I also hope that someone from Chin will be inspired by our recordings and carry on playing just how they have in Chin throughout their history, or someone elsewhere will take what they hear and find new ways to mix it with other music. That way, Chin culture will deservedly live on.

Adam Nicholas, December 2014

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Source: www.go-myanmar.com

Myanmar cuisine – A Tasty Journey (Part One)

February 15, 2015

In a foreign country, food becomes an adventure. In excitement, I will often google until my fingers are raw just to find a restaurent to get a taste of the “Nepalese-Thai-Italian” restaurant just around the corner. The Myanmar case is different. We don’t have a Burmese restaurant nearby, so we’ll just have to be taken by surprise. The Burmese food culture is being heavily influenced by its neighbours India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand. However most dishes are in fact Chinese.

Besides restaurants there are numerous food stalls which fill the streets. In addition, countless merchants come along on train or boat trips. I have to smile, because I remember the sentence “They indeed can fry – eh?!”. The first time I heard this, was while biting into an enjoyable fried banana. The best which I have ever tasted.

Another fried speciality is Samosa, which I completely fell for. These are pastry bags filled with vegetables and you can get 10 pieces for 500 kyat. Other delicious fried foods are pancakes (which are similar to lard type pastries), shrimp cookies or flat bread served with chickpea and coriander.

On top of that, fondue stalls (we shall call them that) can be found every so often along the street. Meat on wooden skewers are placed into hot oil and eaten after that. Sounds tasty and it probably is, but our western eyes are shocked when seeing the “exit-form” of the little meat skewers. Presented are pig snouts, tongues and much more. The eye is simply stuck, just like when watching a bad accident.

On the beaches in Myanmar you can see numerous merchants who walk along the shores, offering meat or fish skewers such as fresh coconuts. Somehow all of this is a little bit like the land of milk and honey.

Mohinga – soup can never be the wrong choice

The national dish in Myanmar is Mohinga. It is a strongly flavoured fish soup (which doesn’t taste anything like fish whatsoever) with rice noodles and all sorts of different, delicious seasoning. The Burmese people consume the soup for breakfast early in the morning at close by markets or at cook shops along the roadside, however it is available all day long and all in all a popular snack, also as a take away. Feisty, the chef manhandles the noodles which fly into plastic bag. Seasoning on top of that, covered with broth and a knot: ready! Soup to go. Mohinga is mostly available for 500 Kyat.

You would like to try this at home? No problem. The fish needs to be prepared first. Here you will need the following ingredients:

300g catfish (optional trout)

1 stick of lemongrass

½ tsp turmeric

500ml water

Continue with the onion paste. You will need the following:

1 big onion (small dices)

3 garlic cloves

1cm fresh ginger

2 sticks of lemongrass

3 dried chillies (whole), soften in hot water

1 tsp shrimp paste (you can get this at the Asia shop)

½ tsp paprika

½ tsp turmeric

6 tbsp peanut oil

Next stop is the soup:

1,5 L water

12 shallots

75g roasted rice flour

3 tbsp fish sauce

1 tsp black paper

Further ingredients for the soup:

500g rice or asian noodles (cooked)

3 limes (halved)

5 hardboiled eggs (pealed and quartered)

2 handful of fresh coriander

2 handfuls of roasted onions (as a replacement for the big fritters, which are used in Myanmar)

Extra fish sauce and chilli flakes

The preparation:

Place the fish along with water, lemongrass and turmeric into a pot and bring to the boil. Simmer for a further 6-10 minutes, until the fish is cooked through. Take the fish out of the pot. As soon as the fish has cooled down, peel off the skin, remove the fish bones and take the meat apart into flakes. Pour the fish broth through a sieve and place to the site.

Chop the onions, ginger, dried chillies and lemongrass which can be best mixed up using a mortar.

Heat the oil in a pot and add the onion paste. Simmer on medium heat for about 15-20 minutes, until the paste is soft and caramelised. Now, add the shrimp paste and stir well using a wooden spoon. Add the turmeric and paprika. Cook altogether for another few minutes (until you smell the aroma of the seasoning) and add the fish. Cover the pot and let the mixture cook for further 10-15 minutes.

The soup paste is now ready. If you don’t want to use it all, you can let it cool and keep it in the freezer for up to 4 weeks.

Now it’s time for the soup itself: Place the soup paste, rice flour, water and the fish broth (should you use defrosted paste, simply use 500ml water) which was put aside into a pot, bring to the boil stirring continuously. The rice flour should not get lumpy. Add the shallots and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Lastly, add the paper and fish sauce to taste.

Serve the soup in small bowls and add a handful of noodles or rice. Place the other ingredients onto small side plates so everyone can season their own soup to taste.

Evelyn Narciso, February 2015

To find out more, go to food and eating out. Look out for the second part of this blog, including curries and vegetarian food, in the coming months!

Did you know you can book Shan cooking classes on our Inle Lake page? See booking options on right sidebar of that page.

This article first featured on Landmeedchen – the food and travel blog

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Source: www.go-myanmar.com