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The Inside Route
Travel to Myanmar is especially unique, as it remains one of the last unexplored regions on earth. Nestled between China and India to the north, Thailand and Laos to the east and Bangladesh to the west, Myanmar is home to a vast collection of different ethnic groups and clans who for centuries have followed ancient migration routes from India, southwest China, Tibet and Assam.

Today the traveler encounters Myanmar (previously known as Burma) and similarly finds a captivating land, where villagers live simply and peacefully among thousands of stunning temples and pagodas. What was once southeast Asia's most secretive and mysterious country is now fast opening up to the outside world to reveal the unparalleled richness of a cultural heritage that has been preserved with remarkable tenacity. Inhabited by warm and gentle people whose endearing charm seems to transcend time and to recall an older, more leisurely Asia, Myanmar has an astonishing natural beauty overflowing with magnificent archaeological sites and an amazingly eventful history.

Yangon (Rangoon), the capital city of Myanmar, still retains much of the colonial charm of its historic architecture and wide boulevards. Because nearly 85 percent of the population is Buddhist there are a great number of shrines and temples, the most venerated of these is the gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda that sits on a hilltop overlooking the city. Other sacred sights in the area include the 2200 year-old Sule Pagoda that offers believers an oasis of tranquility amid the bustling city; the Botatuang Pagoda; and the Kyauk Htat Gyi Pagoda that houses the gigantic reclining Buddha. Also of interest are Yangon's numerous and varied markets. The most notable of these are the Indian, Chinese and Scott markets where color and fragrance assault the senses as travelers sample an abundant array of Burmese foods, spices, handicrafts and precious gems.

Mandalay was Burma's capital for only 28 years before British colonization during which time the capital was moved to present-day Yangon. Today, it is the country's second largest city and a sprawling cultural center where craftsmen and artisans, especially known for their work with bamboo, converge from all over the country to exchange goods. The most sacred shrine here is the ancient Rakkhine Buddha image at Mahamuni Paya. Other sights include the remains of the former grand palace at Shwenandaw Kyaung; Mandalay Hill, which overlooks the city; and the colorful Zegyo Market where seasonal specialties and ingredients abound. The Sagaing Monastery, considered to be the living center of the Buddhist faith, is home to 5,000 pongyi monks and their students, who can be seen streaming out of the kyaung with their alms bowls for breakfast.

Bagan (Pagan), located on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) River, is the largest and most important archeological site in Asia with over 9-square miles of pagodas dating from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries at the height of Bagan's grandeur. The largest book in the world is located here, filled with Buddhist scriptures, inside one of 729 small shrines surrounding the Kuthodaw Pagoda. Bagan's most outstanding shrines are the Shwesandaw Pagoda, also known as the Temple of Ganesh after the Hindu god of wisdom, and the Ananda Pagoda, an architectural masterpiece that dominates the plain. Near by on the top of Myanmar's Mount Olympus is Mt. Popa, an extinct volcano and today an enchanting garden, where alchemists and occultists lived in former times. Twice a year festivals are held here to honor the nat gods who watch over Burma's Buddhists.

Inle Lake, located in the center of the country, is dotted with floating islands and is famous for its fishermen's unique "one-legged rowing" techniques. No more than 16 feet deep, water hyacinths abound turning the lake into a magical floating water garden where a variety of flowers, vegetables and fruit are grown and held in place by 30 foot bamboo poles that tether the islands to the murky lake bottom below. Here Intha fishermen methodically push their cone-shaped nets into the water to trap fish lurking on the lakes bottom. The floating market at Ywama is the most colorful throughout Southeast Asia where minority tribes come by boat to trade fish and produce. Near the Shan state of Taunggyi, this area is home to a variety of ethnic hill tribes.

The cuisine of Myanmar is heavily influenced by its neighbors India, China, Thailand and Vietnam. The country offers a cornucopia of fresh marine fish, squid, prawns, crabs, oysters, lobsters and shellfish, as well as dried seafood like shrimp, fish and jellyfish that are used as seasoning for soups, sauces, salads and many other dishes. Tuna, sardines, grouper, shark, stingray, mussels, sea cucumbers and sea urchins are also harvested along the Ngapali coastline. Rice is the staple crop in Myanmar and is consumed not only as a main meal but also for snacks.

Noodles made from wheat, rice and mung peas are influences from China and are found in popular soups like mohinga, a spicy, fish-based dish, considered the national food of the area. Also popular is ohn-no kyaukswe, a delicious chicken noodle soup made with coconut milk. Pork packets are made from finely chopped, seasoned pork that is steamed in a banana leaf and served with a sauce of fried garlic, chili powder, vinegar, salt and sugar.

India's influence on Burmese cuisine is particularly seen in griddle-baked breads like naan and poori, sometimes called balloon bread, which is deep-fried. Meat and fish dishes are usually prepared in the form of curries and vegetable and fruit salads are popular on the side. Fruits like mango, banana and durian are often served as desserts, as are palm candy and peanut or sesame brittle. Because of its tropical and temperate climate pineapple, grapefruit, apple, oranges, plums, quinces, pomegranates, persimmons, strawberries, soursop, sweetsop, loquat and lychee are all indigenous to the area.

The best place to sample these delightful foods is through street food vendors, but travellers should be careful to choose hygienic places, or better yet, ask your tour guide for the best places to eat. There are a number of excellent Chinese, Indian, Thai and traditional Burmese restaurants in the offering.

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