Burma is a remarkable land quite unlike any other; glistening pagodas are found around every corner and lines of saffron-clad monks pace peacefully along tree-fringed lanes. Burma’s wildlife mirrors the richness and diversity of its superb cultural heritage. In particular, it boasts a splendid avifauna which includes several exciting endemics found in the country’s broad range of habitats. Thankfully, Burma is opening up and the opposition party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, now welcomes responsible tourists who are willing to integrate with the Burmese people, support local economies and enjoy the rich natural heritage.
We begin with a flight to Burma’s capital, Yangon (Rangoon), where a rich indigenous and colonial heritage is juxtaposed against the city’s more modern face. Our two nights in Yangon will be divided between cultural and birdwatching excursions within and outside the city. Standing at 100 metres in height the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda dominates the Yangon skyline and is one of Burma’s top religious sites. We will visit the pagoda at sunset, when it is at its most beautiful, gleaming gold; we will also hope to witness the emergence of a colony of Wrinkle-lipped Bats which live within the pagoda complex. The following morning we will enjoy our first taste of Burma’s rich birdlife in Hlawgar Wildlife Park. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Racket-tailed Treepie, Black-naped Oriole, the ‘white-eyed’ form of Stripe-throated Bulbul, White-crested Laughing-thrush, Olive-backed Sunbird and Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker should be among the special birds we find here. A nearby wetland may well also provide our first Oriental Darter or Asian Openbill.
Next we fly north-east to the small town of Heho in Shan State from where we will drive to nearby Inle Lake, which is situated in the Shan Hills at a refreshing 880 metres above sea level. Inle is Burma’s second largest lake and famous for its unique culture, including ‘leg-rowing’ fishermen. We should see some of the commoner Asian wetland species here such as Grey-headed Lapwing, Purple Heron, Chinese Pond-heron and Pheasant-tailed Jacana and we will be on the look-out for several local specialities including Jerdon’s Bushchat and Collared Myna.
During our time in the Shan Hills we will also visit the old British colonial hill station of Kalaw which lies on the edge of the Shan Plateau. We will spend one full day here, gently exploring the slopes and pine forests in search of hill specialists such as Black-headed Greenfinch and Burmese Yuhina. The indigenous hill tribes that inhabit this area have many intriguing belief systems and traditions, and we will stop at several small villages to learn more about these fascinating customs. Leaving Kalaw behind we will travel by road to Mandalay, Burma’s cultural capital.
Mandalay, made famous by Kipling in his eponymous 1892 poem, resonates with Westerners as a byword for the mystical and exotic. We will spend two days exploring Mandalay, the ancient capital of Burma, and its surrounding area which includes some of the country’s most venerated cultural sites, amongst them the world’s largest teak bridge, the U Bein, where monks and nuns wander slowly across the creaking hardwood slats. We will also journey up the Ayeyarwaddy (formerly the Irrawaddy) by boat to Mingun, the site of a colossal unfinished pagoda. During our river cruise we will be on the look-out for some of the region’s rich diversity of birds.
Our next destination is the town of Bagan which, between the 9th and 13th centuries A.D., was capital of the Kingdom of Pagan. During its heyday the town and surrounding plains had more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries; over 2,000 of these ancient structures still survive in this world-class cultural site. Boarding the ferry bound for Bagan, we will spend a leisurely day sailing along the Ayeyarwaddy, past rustic Burmese villages and rural scenes, looking for wetland birds such as lapwings, pratincoles, martins, egrets, herons, whistling-ducks and kingfishers. On arriving at the small riverside town of Bagan, our time will be divided between enjoying the temple-strewn plains and birdwatching. The area around Bagan is also a highly significant Burmese eco-region called the ‘dry zone’ and is home to many of the country’s endemic birds.
We finish our main tour with a flight to Yangon, where there’s time to enjoy a few of the remaining sights including the beautiful Kandawgyi Lake, the Botahtaung Pagoda, the colossal reclining Buddha of Chaukhtatgyi and the famous Scott’s Market, noted for its variety of handicrafts. An optional extension to the bird-rich slopes of Mount Victoria is highly recommended and provides an opportunity to see some much-prized rarities, such as Buff-breasted Parrotbill and the splendid Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler to name but a few.