Myanmar, or Burma as it is traditionally known, has recently opened up to the world after decades of political isolation. While technically open for the whole time, until a few years ago a visa was valid for only one week and allowed access to only certain, limited areas. Now, while restrictions still apply to certain tribal areas, the country is open once more for exploration, and what a fantastic holiday destination it makes. The isolation of recent years has preserved the culture as few Asian countries have been able, keeping the creep of jeans and coca cola at bay. That is changing, so visit soon.
Burma contains some of the most evocative place names in the world. Mandalay. Pagan. Rangoon. Places that conjure a vision of Asia, of travel and the mystic East. Most visitors start their visit in Rangoon, or Yangon as it is known locally. It is a large bustling city, the commercial and financial heart of the city. Many of the old areas of Chinese and colonial buildings have been cleared and developed, but in some places they can still be seen. It is the main Buddhist monuments around which the city still revolves, primarily the dazzling Shwedagon pagoda.
Other places of interest include the vast reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi, the central market now housed in a multi-storey building and the Waterfront, a reflection of the old trading might and prosperity of the city still visible in the Stand Hotel, the pace to say in town both then and now.
The other big city that most people visit is Mandalay, sitting on the banks of the Irrawaddy River to the north of the country. The city is still dominated by the old Royal Palace, a vast complex of pavilions, temples and stores surrounded by a huge rectangular moat and system of walls. Still a base of the Burmese Military it is not possible to visit, but a walk around a part of its defences gives a good idea as to its vast scale.
Most visitors to Mandalay will head down to the banks of the river for a boat trip to Mingun. This complex of Buddhist shrines, temples and pagodas dates from , and centres on the vast unfinished pagoda of Pahtodawgyi.
The most famous of all Burma’s attractions lies downstream of Mandalay. Bagan is the ruined capital of a civilization that thrived from the 9th to the 13 centuries, rivalling the Khymer Civilization of modern day Cambodia. The houses, roads and huts of the everyday people have long disappeared, leaving the remains of hundreds of Buddhist temples and thousands of ruined pagoda, covering an area of over 100 square kilometres.
The man temples and shrines are still current places of worship, maintained and run by large communities of monks. Other smaller shrines are maintained because of the amazing carving and art that still covers their walls and ceilings. Many others little the countryside, some overgrown in bush jungle, others standing in the middle of rocky fields from which the local population try to eke a crop existence (helped, it must be said, by the money being brought in by visitors which is no longer kept with in government hotels and restaurants.)
Myanmar's monsoon starts at the end of May and continues through until mid October. During this time everywhere gets a certain amount of rain, some areas up to 5 metres worth! Even so its possible to travel during this time as the rain tends to come in the form of heavy downpours.
The peak time to visit is from November to February as this is the coolest time of year, coinciding with the driest. The heat builds as the next monsoon approaches, making March to May the hottest time, albeit without much rain.
With many mountainous areas, the weather does vary from province to province, so some areas are inaccessible while others are fine.
Myanmar is a fascinating destination and seeing it through your children's eyes can make it doubly so. The Burmese people are warm hosts and love children making this a very welcoming destination for families. The top family activities would be ballooning over Bagan, viting Mt Popa, an extinct volcano, having a go at leg rowing on Inle Lake, chilling out on the sandy beaches of Ngapali and riding bicycles around the small villages and local markets.