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Burma (Myanmar) - Environment 

The Ananda Temple in Old Bagan

Yangon (Rangun)  -  Mandalay  -  Pagan  -  Inle Lake


Burma covers a land area of 676,552 sq km and stretches for over 1,930 km from the inaccessible N Himalayan region to the S tip of the Tenasserim region, which extends down the Kra of Isthmus and faces the Andaman Sea. It is about the size of the United Kingdom and France combined and twice the size of Vietnam. Burma borders India and Bangladesh to the NW and W, China and Laos to the NE and Thailand to the E and SE. It is shaped like a rhomboid with the long, narrow Tenasserim region with jungle covered mountains. Its borders do not correspond to ethnic boundaries - they are mainly defined by mountain ranges, which surround Burma on 3 sides and form a great horseshoe enclosing the Irrawaddy, Chindwin and Sittang river systems. Burma's mountains pose great obstacles to commerce and transportation, impeding E-W communication. Even during British colonial times, when Burma was part of the Indian Empire, the links between Burma and India were exclusively by sea. The mountains also prevent the SW monsoon from blowing into central Burma: the annual rainfall on the W Arakan coast usually exceeds 5,000 mm, whereas in central Burma - the Dry Zone - the annual rainfall may be as low as 640 mm. 
The huge and rugged Shan Plateau borders Thailand and runs the length of the states of Karen and Tenasserim. The N borders are high in the remote Himalayan region, which is partly a continuation of China's Yunnan plateau. The Burmese, Chinese and Indian frontiers meet next to Burma's highest peak, the Hkakobo Razi (5,881 m), which overlooks E Tibet. The N border with China runs for 2,185 km and the Kachin Hills has long been a disputed area. The Bangladesh and Indian borders follow the natural barrier formed by the Chin, Patkai, Manipur and Naga hills. These are actually substantial mountains, rather than hills, and the frontier line runs from mountaintop to mountaintop. 

Boat on the Irawaddy river

Two river valleys dominate the central plain of Burma both running N-S: the Irrawaddy to the W, and the smaller Sittang to the E. The Irrawaddy is Burma's main communications artery and was known as “The'Road to Mandalay” by British colonialists - giving rise to Rudyard Kipling's famous lines. 

The Irrawaddy flows over 2,000 km from the Kachin Hills in the N to the Andaman Sea. The river effectively divides Burma in 2 and is only bridged at Ava Oust outside Mandalay) but is navigable for 1,450 km - even in the dry season. The Irrawaddy originates in E Tibet and flows S through the state of Kachin. It is joined by the river Chindwin SW of Mandalay. Before it reaches the sea it divides into the sprawling delta region, one of the richest farming areas in the world. The central plain is divided into Upper Burma - the area surrounding Mandalay, Prome and Toungoo - and Lower Burma, focusing on Rangoon. Central Burma is seismologically unstable; a severe earthquake in Jul 1975 caused serious damage to the ancient capital of Pagan. The Pegu Yoma, running between the 2 rivers, is heavily forested and until recently there were no roads running E-W linking the 2 river-valleys. The Sittang River, to the E of the Irrawaddy basin, has a tidal bore which is a notorious hazard to shipping. Further E, the Salween River is only navigable close to its mouth. 
Climate The Tropic of Cancer crosses the country 160 km N of Mandalay. Burma is usually classified as having a tropical monsoon climate, although roughly half the country lies outside the tropical zone. Its climate is similar to India's - cool from October to the end of February (21-28'C), hot from the beginning of March to the beginning of June (temperatures can reach 45'C in central Burma) and rainy from June to the and of September. The NE monsoon, from the dry uplands of the Yunnan Plateau, blows from November to March bringing a long, dry season. From May to October the prevailing wind shifts and the SW monsoon dominates, bringing rain from the Bay of Bengal. 

Burmese women with tanaka powdered face

Regions facing the prevailing winds - particularly Arakan and Tenasserim, which are both backed by steep mountain ranges - receive some of the heaviest rainfall in the world. Sittwe (Akyab) in Arakan receives an average of 5,180 mm of rain a year, of which 4,980 mm falls during the 6 months of the SW monsoon. The mountain areas - particularly the Shan Plateau - are cool and comparatively dry. One traveller during the British colonial era described them as a 'tropical Scotland'. Flora and fauna Burma's natural vegetation varies according to regional rainfall patterns. But on the whole Burma is densely forested with conifers, teak, and tropical forest. The Irrawaddy delta area used to be thickly forested but has been cleared over the past century for agriculture. The forests have also been destroyed by shifting cultivation and, increasingly, by logging - mainly by Thai timber companies. But Burma's forests still account for about 3/4 of the world's teak reserves. In the Dry Zone of central Burma (around Pagan), cacti and acacia trees are a common sight. Burma's flora has not been as thoroughly studied as other areas of Southeast Asia but is known for its diversity; there are thought to be over a thousand varieties of orchid, for example. 

Burma still has a large population of wildlife, including elephants, tigers, leopards, wild buffalos, the endangered Sumatran rhinoceros, wild boar, monkeys, flying squirrels, porcupines, civet cats, red and black deer, black bears and the Malayan sun bear. There are also 52 varieties of poisonous snake - Burma has the highest death rate from snakebites in the world. The most highly infested areas are the Dry Zone (snakes live in many of Pagans ruined temples) and the Irrawaddy delta. The deadliest snakes are Russel's viper and the Asiatic king cobra. The animal most Westerners associate with Burma is the Burmese cat. It is actually from Thailand and was the result of a lengthy period of experimental cross-breeding with Siamese cats.

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