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Phuket Lifestyle: On the road to Mandalay

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PHUKET: Thailand’s western neighbor, Myanmar (Burma), is now one of the hottest destination for a holiday.

After decades of international boycotts and sanctions, the April elections in Myanmar brought not just hopes of democracy and investment, but also a surge in travellers once reluctant to journey to this amazing land.

If you want to see Myanmar at its best, don’t put off your trip. Yes, it is the rainy season but you really don’t want to wait until the international tourists start turning up in their droves.

Here are a few pointers and some background information to help.

Since June, a visa-on-arrival for business purposes became available for 27 nationalities including the 10 Asean members plus India, Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, France, Germany, UK and US.

The fee is US$50 for a 70-day stay. A tourist visa for ASEAN members only is possible for a US$40 fee.

The Myanmar Embassy on Bangkok’s North Sathorn Road now offers a smooth, same-day visa service.

Simply deliver your visa application with two photos and 1,260 baht fee to the counter between 9am and noon and you can collect your passport between 3:30 and 4:30pm later that day. A tourist visa is good for a 28-day stay.

The country still needs more time to build up its tourism infrastructure to cope with this fast-growing demand, so if you’ve already planned a trip book your accommodation now as space is limited.

Also, be prepared to pay at least double what it says in the latest guidebook for accommodation, even for a backpacker place.

Away from the politics of Nay Pyi Taw, the Burmese are joyous, light-hearted and fun-loving people. Like the rest of us, they love a good time and celebrate their festivals with families and friends.

Here’s what you can enjoy and when:

The next major festival is Phaung Daw, held near Inle Lake starting October 16.

Inle Lake, in the Shan State, is famous for leg-rowed boats, and the Shan row them in the highest of spirits during the festivities. The annual rite sees a colorful procession of boats tugging the golden barges of Buddha images.

Of course, no celebration is complete without the obligatory racing, which is held throughout the festival.

Marking the end of the Buddhist Lent, the Festival of Lights, known locally as the Thadingyut, is celebrated across Myanmar from October 29-31.

Pagodas, houses, public buildings, parks, and monuments are all illuminated with candles in jars, to stunning effect.

On November 28, the Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda ritual is observed. Perched over the cliff rock of Mt Kyaikhiyo is the boulder of the Golden Pagoda – a well-known Buddhist pilgrimage site.

The rock seems to defy gravity, as it perpetually appears to be on the verge of rolling down the hill. Legend has it that it held by strand of hair of the Lord Buddha.

Devotees offer 9,999 candles, ceremoniously lit at midnight to celebrate the Pagoda.

Folk dances, music and puppets add color and rhythm to the spectacle.

As the year draws to a close, December 28 will bring the Mt Popa Nat Spirit Festival to life.

Like a mother hen guarding her children, Popa Taungkalat monastery sits atop the 1518-meter volcanic peak overlooking the farmland around the Irrawaddy River, southeast of Bagan.

This is the home of Nats, and joined by thousands of folks, they appease the demanding ghosts with entertainment.

The celebrations are light-hearted in nature, though previously thousands of animals were sacrificed.

To usher in the new year, the Naga will draw intrepid travellers to the high ranges in Myanmar’s Northwest.

For three days, the Naga gather around Kham-Ti districts. Fierce warriors in their bright and exotic dress perform tribal sports and dances, as rice wine and roasted meat are accompanied by the beating of drums.

Whatever you choose, Myanmar promises experiences never to be forgotten.

— Phoowadon Duangmee

 

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