If you aren’t entirely spellbound by the vastness of Myanmar’s historical heritage, the grandness of its temples and pagodas, or the rawness of its natural beauty, you will be by its people. They combine a delicate disposition and soft-spoken nature with a genuine sense of curiosity towards travellers.
Unlike elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Western fashion sensibilities have yet to become mainstream in Myanmar, too. Glistening smiles adorned with a casually applied face paint known as thanaka greet travellers with a sense of benevolence that has become illusive in more well-travelled countries these days.
Once referred to as a “hermit kingdom,” Myanmar has, to the delight of travellers in search of authenticity and old-world charm, finally begun to open up to the outside world. The time to go there is now, before it changes.
Top Destinations in Myanmar
What it is:
Located in the dry central plains of the country on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan was the heart of Myanmar during ancient times. The former capital houses more than 2,000 pagodas and temples, which dot the orange-hued landscape like cresting waves on the ocean. Most of these 2,000 pagodas were built by ancient kings between the 11th and 13th centuries and are ripe for exploration. Witnessing the spectacular way in which they shape the landscape can be done in a day. Exploring them all up-close-and personal would take an entire lifetime.
Despite not really having a proper modern city, Bagan remains one of Myanmar’s top attractions not only because of its abundance of temples. The famously mild climate of Bagan makes it a perfect place to visit year-round. Also, the sunrises in Bagan are nothing short of legendary due to its combination of an arid landscape and the innumerable spires rising from it.
The problem with travelling in Bagan is not in finding things to see, but in deciding what not to see. There are, almost literally, endless options for curious eyes to satiate themselves upon. Even for travellers with the luxury of having a great deal of time there, the chances of being able to see everything are basically zero. Don’t despair, though. There is a well-trodden “greatest hits” line-up of places to see that will more than justify a visit to Bagan.
The most revered and best preserved of Bagan temples is Ananda Temple, one of the last remaining examples of Mon Architecture. Titled the “Westminister Abbey of Burma,” it’s an extremely impressive feat of architecture built in the 11th century.
Thatbyinnyu Temple is a transitional temple, built partially in the manner that Ananda was built, and partially in the style of Gawdawpalin, which typified later structures. This 61-metre tall temple is the tallest in Bagan. Its towering spire can be seen from virtually anywhere in Old Bagan. The name means “omniscient” in Burmese language, and one look at its Sauron-esque spire will have you understanding where the name came from.
The Gawdawpalin Temple is the second tallest shrine in Bagan. It is unique not only for its design, but also for its abundance of Buddha images on the first floor.
Shwezigon Pagoda is considered as Bagan’s most significant shrine, and is said to was built to enshrine one of the four replicas of the Buddha’s tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Its importance to local people is denoted by the fact that it is almost entirely gilded in shimmering gold.
The Dhammayangyi Temple is one of the four major Bagan temples, ranking alongside Shwezigon Pagoda, Ananda Temple and Thatbyinnyu Temple in terms of importance. Its grandiose architectural plan is similar to Ananda Temple, but without some of the polish.
Built of distinctive red brick, Htilominlo Temple is a 46-meter tall temple built during the 12th century. It’s unique for having three stories, and is well-known for its elaborate plaster mouldings.
A trip to Bagan wouldn’t be complete without visiting Mount Popa, an extinct volcano where the Popa Taungkalat Monastery is found. Although it’s about 50 kilometres away, it’s well worth a visit. Mount Popa is considered to be one of the most popular pilgrimage spots in Myanmar, and is a perfect place not only to witness amazing scenery, but also local culture. Popa used to be called the ‘Mountain of Spirits,’ and is still recognized as a dwelling of ‘nats,’ or spirits of ancient ancestors.
For a more complete perspective of Bagan’s historical significance to Myanmar, a visit to the Bagan Archaeological Museum is the perfect place to get it. Built in 1998, it houses some of the region’s most important historical artefacts.
How to get there:
By Plane: Located about 10 kilometres from Bagan, Nyuang U Airport is the port of arrival by air from major destinations within Myanmar. From there it’s a relatively short taxi ride into the city.
By Bus: Arrivals by bus from most major destinations in Myanmar stop at New Bagan Train Station, not far from the Bagan Railway Station. Shuttle vans are usually waiting to transfer tourists onward to Old or New Bagan.
By Train: Overnight trains from Yangon take about 18 hours or, from Mandalay, about 10 hours. Both arrive in Bagan Railway Station. From there it’s a short taxi ride from the centre of town.
What it is:
Nestled between two picturesque mountain ranges in Nyuangshwe Valley is Inle Lake. This wonderfully photogenic body of water is the second largest natural lake in Myanmar. It accommodates 17 stilted villages inhabited by people who refer to themselves as Intha.
The lake lacks a defined shoreline due to the proliferation of hyacinths, reeds, and other aquatic plants that thrive in the shallow water. Due to the difficulty these plants impart on those trying to get around on the lake, Intha people have adopted a rather unique method of rowing. Inle Lake is said to be the only place on earth where people row with one leg while standing. This unique way of getting around creates an almost surreal environment.
Because the Intha people are devoutly Buddhist, Inle Lake is also home to over a hundred pagodas and thousands of stupas which can be seen dotting the landscape. Combined with the fact that the mountains and hills surrounding Inle Lake are also home to friendly and colourful hill tribe communities, Inle Lake is widely considered to be one of the most photogenic places in Myanmar.
Aside from the lake itself, the one-legged rowers who paddle on it are, without a doubt, the single largest contributors to Inle Lake’s iconic status among travellers. To display images of Inle Lake for representative purposes and not include at least a few photos of this strangely beautiful mode of transportation would be an egregious omission that would fail to grasp the essence of the place. Likewise, a trip to Inle Lake without seeing these one-legged rowers rowing about would seem like a waste.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t actually interesting places to see while you’re there. One of the most popular, if a bit quirky, places to visit is Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery/ Jumping Cats Monastery. It’s the biggest and oldest monastery in Inle Lake. The beautiful wooden structure was built on stilts over the lake. The monastery there is home to a collection of ancient Bagan, Shan, Tibet and Ava-style Buddha images. However, it’s most famous for the jumping cats. An abbot at the monastery has trained the cats to jump through a hoop like in a circus, and is quite a spectacle to watch.
Phaungdawoo Pagoda is one of the most recognized shrines in Myanmar. Phaungdawoo is home to five Buddha images, which were said to be donated by King Alaung Sithu. The pagoda was built for the purpose of keeping these Buddha images, and is a must-see while you’re in the area.
The village of Indein is well-known among travellers for its abundance of ancient pagodas. Nyauk Oak Pagodas are a group of pagodas directly behind the village. While much of the complex is in ruins, elaborate stucco carvings of celestial beings and mythical animals are still visible, making it an interesting stop for anyone in the area.
The old hill station of Kalaw is, in itself, not much to look at. However, the hike there from Inle Lake is. Along the way you’ll see untouched countryside, numerous hill tribe communities and gorgeous rolling hills and natural scenery. It’s considered to be one of Myanmar’s best trekking routes.
How to get there:
By Plane: The easiest way to get to Inle Lake is by domestic flight. The closest airport is Heho Airport, which is about a one-hour ride from the lake itself. Although the fixed taxi-fare is quite expensive, travellers often split the cost by sharing taxis to Nyuangshwe.
By Bus: A far cheaper but more time consuming option is to get to Inle Lake by bus. From Yangon the journey takes about 12 hours and from Mandalay it takes about 8 hours. There is a wide range of overnight buses leaving from both destinations, although travellers are rarely warned of just how over-air conditioned these buses tend to be –the official target temperature for these buses is a chilly 18 degrees…so be sure to bring something warm!
By Train: The cheapest option for getting to Inle Lake is by train –although the closest you can get to the lake itself is Shwe Nyaung, about 13 kilometres away. From there, take a somewhat expensive taxi for convenience or take a pickup truck, as locals do, for a fraction of the price and twice the time.
What it is:
Founded was originally founded as a hill station for British civil servants to escape to during the sweltering heat of summer in the plains below. Because of the relatively high elevation, the air is cool, the atmosphere is calm, and the streets are leafy and green. This lends to the feeling that Kalaw is somewhat of a mountain resort town –which it is to some extent. Outdoorsy people are also drawn to Kalaw for the trekking opportunities that are afforded by the fact that it’s one of the only places in Myanmar where foreigners are allowed to trek in the wilderness overnight without permission.
An interesting quirk of Kalaw is that, in addition to the abundance of foreign trekkers to the area, it’s also home to a significant population of Nepali Gurkhas and Indian Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. These people were brought to build the roads and railway line in Kalaw during the British period and have remained ever since –which certainly adds to the ambiance!
Must See (50-75 words):
The main attraction to Kala is the mountainous atmosphere and excellent hiking opportunities. The alpine forest surrounding the town is a refreshing departure from the parched surroundings of the valley below.
Situated just north of the city is Tein Taung. Also known as Cloud Hill, the name is befitting of the views that it affords visitors. After taking the “Stairway to Heaven,” a long but peaceful series of steps leading up to the viewpoint, you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic vista of the surrounding valley. Tein Taung is considered the place to be at sunset in Kalaw.
As with most places in Myanmar, there’s a myriad of religious sites to fill your time with in the area.Shweoomin Pagoda is a short walking distance from the centre of town and is well worth visiting. Uniquely, the pagoda is not next to or in front of a cave, but inside it! Rows upon rows of golden Buddha statues adorn every available space within the cavern, making it a fascinating sight to behold.
Located within Pinmagon Monastery is the Bamboo Strip Pagoda where a gilded 5 meter Buddha statue draws worshippers from around the city. The Colourful Five Day Market, also known as the Aung Ban Market is the perfect place to catch locals and the hill tribe minorities that live in surrounding areas buzzing about. Be sure to bring your camera, because the display of traditional attire here is quite a feast for the eyes!
How to get there:
By Bus: Most people coming to Kalaw arrive from Bagan by bus, a journey of about eight hours, or from Inle Lake, which is about two hours away.
By Train: There is also a direct train from Yangon. Taking about 26 hours, the train rides through gorgeous countryside en route –although it’s a famously bumpy ride!
What it is:
Myanmar’s second largest city, Mandalay was established in the upper part of the country on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River in 1857. As the base of the last monarchy and independent kingdom of Burma, the Konbaung Dynasty, its former name was Ratanapunja. After being conquered by British colonial forces, its name was switched over to “Mandalay” based on the 236 meter Hill, Mandalay Hill, which is a prominent feature of the city.
At its height, during the Konbaung Dynasty, the city served as a shining example of the splendour of the “Golden Age” of Burma. Despite having been heavily damaged during the Second World War, the city remains one of Myanmar’s most prominent cultural centres. It’s home to some of the country’s most exquisite and important temples, as well as one of the country’s most photogenic spots.
One of Mandalay’s biggest and most worthy attractions is also its most humble. Ubien Bridge inAmarapura, an adjoining city that was once the capital of Myanmar, is, in the simplest terms, just a long wooden bridge stretching across Taungthaman Lake. No description in words can adequately convey the almost spiritual experience of witnessing it in person, though.
Built of aged teak columns and planks, the combination of intangibles that the bridge possesses such as the texture of the wood, the wispy fog that adorns the lake in the mornings, the invariably golden light that bathes the area during sunrise and sunset and the abundance of traditionally-dressed locals makes Ubien Bridge not only one of the most photogenic places in Asia, but also the world.
As with most places in Myanmar, Amarapura is also home to a range of beautiful temples which can all be easily accessed from the lake. Just south of Amarapura is the small town of Inwa, which was once the base of Kingdom of Inwa during the Second Myanmar Empire.
Kuthodaw Pagoda, near the centre of Mandalay, is home to what is considered to be the world’s largest book. Within the complex there are 729 slaps. Each slab has its own pagoda, and all 15 books of the Tripitaka –a sacred Buddhist text that laid the foundation for Buddhism- are inscribed on these slabs.
Maha Myat Muni Pagoda, also known as the Mahamuni Pagoda, is the holiest pilgrimage site in Mandalay. It houses the Maha Myat Muni Pagoda Buddha image, the most ancient and most revered of all Buddha images, making it one of the world’s most important sites for Buddhists. The pagoda was built by King Bodawpaya, who took the Buddha image during his invasion of Rakhaing. Due to a ritual in which male worshippers apply golden leaf to the statue, the Buddha’s body is now covered in a layer of more than 15 cm of solid 24-carot gold.
According to local legend, the Lord Buddha visited Mandalay Hill and made a prophecy that a great city would be established at its foot. Almost everyone who visits Mandalay these days will, at some point, pay a visit. It’s one of the most prominent places in the city and serves as a natural watchtower overlooking the city. Stunning panoramic views draw visitors during sunrise and sunset for the fantastic photo opportunities that it provides.
The Myan Nan San Kyaw, or Royal Palace, was the first palace to be built in Mandalay. The location was chosen due to the favourable omens that had been predicted based on astronomical calculations. It was then constructed by King Mingdon, who moved the capital from Amarapura to Mandalay accordingly. After being destroyed by fire during World War II it was reconstructed to its current state and is one of the city’s biggest attractions.
Another ancient capital in the shadow of Mandalay is the city of Sagaing. Just 21 kilometers southwest of the Ayeyarwad River, Sagaing is often referred to as “Little Bagan.” The entire area is dotted with pagodas and over 500 monasteries. The most famous of these are Soon U Pnya Shin Pagoda, Kaung Hmudaw Pagoda, and Ywahtaung Village.
How to get there:
By Plane: Mandalay International Airport is a surprisingly modern and efficient airport serving destinations throughout Myanmar and from a few destinations abroad. It is, however, rather far from the city proper, and requires a jaunt of 45 kilometres to get there. Prices for transportation to the city centre are reasonable, though.
By Bus: There are three major bus stations in Mandalay serving destinations throughout Myanmar. The furthest of these stations, Kywe Se Kan Highway Station is also the biggest, and is the probable point of arrival for most visitors by bus. At 8 kilometres away from the city centre, it’s not too difficult to travel onwards, though. From Yangon, buses take between eight and nine hours.
By Boat: Boat services from Bagan run cruises of varying levels of comfort and sophistication to Mandalay. The journey typically takes about 10 hours and is frequently cancelled during dry season between April and June.
By Train: Trains to Mandalay are widely available through Yangon. Although the 15 hour journey promises to pass through picturesque scenery, it also promises to be a bumpy and mostly sleepless one despite the offerings of sleeper cabins.
What it is:
Mrauk U is a little-known archaeological wonder in the Rakhine State of north-western Myanmar. The sleepy atmosphere of present-day Mrauk U belies its historical significance as the capital of the Myanmar’s powerful Arakan Kingdom, which reigned between the 15th and 18th centuries. At its height, the Arakan Kingdom controlled half of Bangladesh, the modern-day Rakhine State and lower Myanmar. During that time the kingdom was frequently visited by traders from Europe and was well-known as a one of Asia’s most important hubs. The grandeur and scope of the city’s remnants, although a bit dilapidated, are a testament to the city’s once thriving status.
After the first Anglo-Burmese War the city went into decline and was mostly abandoned. These days, part of its allure as a travel destination is its almost complete isolation from the rest of the country and distinctively rural feeling. Literally hundreds of temple ruins litter the area and remain day-to-day places of worship for Rakhine villagers, and you’re far more likely to encounter a goat in the street than another tourist.
There are hundreds of temples in Mrauk U. The monuments are roughly divided into northern, eastern, southern and western groups. Unlike in Bagan, where some of the temples are closed off to visitors, the interiors of virtually all the temples in Mrauk U are open and ready to be explored –making it the perfect place to explore by foot.
The biggest concentration of interesting structures in Mrauk U is in the northern group. It’s also where the best viewpoint for sunset is. As such, the northern group is by far the most popular among travellers. The most famous of these structures is the Shuttaung Pagoda, built in 1535 to celebrate the victory of King Min Bin over Bengal, it’s an imposing and beautiful site. The labyrinth of stone Buddhas found in the outer ring of its hallways is a sight to behold, as are the representations of Arakan characters, which have retained their vivid colour in the inner ring.
Northeast of Shuttaung Pagoda is Andaw Temple and Ratanabon Zedi. Constructed in 1598, Andaw Temple is said to house a relic of the Buddha’s tooth. Ratanabon Zedi, constructed in 1612 is a prime example of the strange, dark, brick-built bell-shaped shrines that typify Arakan architecture. There is also the Anawma Image. Situated in the base of the valley, it’s one of the oldest Arakan structures and was built in 1501.
One of the highlights of the northern group, though is Htukkan Thein Temple. Set on high ground with fortified walls, small windows and only one entrance, the complex is highly atypical in that it has a militaristic design. The interior is just as interesting. A dramatic interior chamber winds around the complex passing hundreds of Buddha images along the way until reaching a giant Buddha in the centre.
The eastern and southern groups have fewer and smaller attractions but are, nonetheless, interesting places to visit. Most people combine the groups in a single viewing by starting from the east group and making their way to the south. Along the way there are a handful of rustic villages as well as a few highlights such as Mong Khong Shwe Pagoda and the hilltop pagoda of Pizi Phara.
The definitive highlight of the eastern and southern groups, though, is Kothaung Temple. It’s not only the largest in the area, but one of the most impressive in Mrauk U. The name comes from the fact that it is said to contain some 90,000 images of Buddha. Built in 1553, it will assuredly be one of the more memorable visits during any trip to Mrauk U.
Further afield, there is another ancient capital about 10 kilometres north of Mrauk U that is good for a daytrip, Wethali. There you’ll find a well preserved Old Palace and the Great Image of Hsu Taung Pre.
Another alternative daytrip from Mrauk U would be to check out the Chin Ethnic Minority Village, which requires a scenic journey up river. The distinctive tattooed faces of Chin village women are fascinating to see.
How to get there:
Part of what makes Mrauk U such an enchanting place is the relative difficulty in getting there –not many people have the fortitude or time to make a trip there. There is no way to get there directly from any major destination within Myanmar. Instead, a combination of bus, boat and/or air is needed.
Air: The easiest and most expensive way to get there is to fly to the town of Sittwe in the Rakhine State. From there you’ll need to take a boat or bus onwards.
Boat: From Sittwe, a surprisingly pleasant and scenic journey of seven hours by ferry boat is required to go the rest of the way to Mrauk U.
By Bus: It is also possible, but arduous, to get to Mrauk U by bus. First making your way to Magwe from Bagan, it’s then a 19 hour bus ride from Magwe to Mrauk U –not for the faint of heart!
What it is: Ngwe Saung is a charming beach town situated in the west of Myanmar on the Bay of Bengal. Literally translated, the name means “Silver Beach,” a description that alludes to the gleaming colour of its water and the powdering composition of its sand. Most travellers to Ngwe Saung are drawn by its reputation as an untouched paradise. Although this has changed somewhat in recent years, the relative isolation of Ngwe Saung still limits the amount of people going there.
The area is divided roughly into an upscale side and a low-key side. In the middle is a 15 kilometre stretch of unbroken sand, beach and palms. While it isn’t likely to rate as one of the region’s most dramatic beaches, most end up agreeing that it’s more than worth the journey to experience the cool, calm laid back atmosphere that is has.
A visit to Ngwe Saung is more about experiencing its laidback vibe than anything. It isn’t really the place to go if you want days on end packed with sightseeing adventures. That said, it’s certainly not bad on the eyes. Silver Beach, for which the town is named, is the main attraction. A good way to make use of your time there is to rent a motorbike and drive on the beach –not beside it, on it. The sand is well-compressed and, because of the not-inconsiderable length of the beach, cruising along at your leisure with the wind in your hair is a great way to soak it all up.
Lover’s Island is a small island just offshore from Silver Beach. It can be accessed during low-tide via a shifting sandbar. While there isn’t much to do on the island, it’s a great place to relax while taking in the views or for simply wandering around.
For those who have had enough relaxation and want to get out and really explore, Ngwe Saung is also a good place to be based for hiking. Many people choose to take hiking trips into the Rakhine Mountain Range nearby. The jungles of this area are mostly untouched and make for excellent trekking opportunities.
How to get there:
By Bus: Most visitors to Ngwe Saung arrive by bus from either Yangon (five hours) or Pathein (two hours).
By Plane: There is an airport in the works so, for now, the only way to get there is by bus. That will soon change, though.
Pyin O Lwin
What it is:
Pyin O Lwin is one of the more unique places in Myanmar. Founded by the British in 1896, Pyin O Lwin is often referred to as “Hill Station.” It was used as a summer capital and military centre for the Indian Arm during British times due to its mild climate and, consequently, has a substantial Indian and Anglo-Indian population that lingers to this day.
Its proximity to Mandalay makes it a convenient sidetrip from Myanmar’s second largest city. An influx of investment in the area in recent times has led Pyin O Lwin to be one of the more pleasantly developed places in Myanmar. The abundance of flowers and fruits that grow easily in the mild climate add to the feeling of the area being a sort of oasis during summer months.
Founded in 1915, the National Kandawgyi Gardens rightfully draw most visitors to Pyin O Lwin for a visit. This well-maintained 175 hectare botanical garden features more than 480 species of flowers, trees and shrubs. Overlooking the lovely Kandawgy Lake and an assortment of handsome wooden bridges and pagodas, the park is a perfect backdrop for photos –making it a popular spot for locals to go for wedding photos.
Adding to the strangely European feel of Pyin O Lwin is Purcell Tower. The clock on the tower has been designed to mimic the chimes of Big Ben in London. For a bit of pleasant dissidence, there’s an interestingShiva Temple, dedicate to the Hindu god of Shiva, just behind the tower. Although it’s now in a state of disrepair, The Candacraic is an interesting colonial mansion, built as a guesthouse in 1904.
Outside the city centre, Pyin O Lwin is surrounded by gorgeous mountain scenery and verdant forests. Most people looking to get out and explore the natural scenery head to Anisakan Falls. Nestled in a rugged gorge surrounded by trees, a Buddhist temple was constructed at the base of the falls, making it an extraordinarily photogenic spot. A bit further afield are the deep Buddha-filled caves of Pyeik Chin Miangand the nearby Pwe Kauk Falls, which are popular daytrips for Burmese families visiting the area.
How to get there (basic info):
By Train: Only a four-hour journey from Mandalay, most visitors to Pyin O Lwin arrive by train. The scenic ride is an experience unto itself.
By Bus: Direct buses from Yangon to Pyin O Lwin take about 9 hours and drop visitors near the city centre.
The Myeik archipelago
What it is:
Gorgeous and remote, the Myeik (also known as Mergui) Archipelago is Myanmar’s most alluring island destination. Consisting of over 800 mostly untouched islands on the Andaman Sea, the archipelago abounds with clear water, pristine natural habitat and rich marine biodiversity. These extraordinary islands are not only gorgeous, but they’re also difficult to get to. The islands are so remote, in fact, that many of them are only inhabited by wildlife and are completely unexplored. The wild beauty of this area isn’t undiscovered for on reason, though. Until 1996, foreigners were completely forbidden from visiting the area, and the local population is sparse. Even today permits are required, and you can only reach these islands under guided tours (note that permits often take a month to secure!).
What the islands lack in convenience they more than pay back in rewards, though. To visit these islands is to be amongst a lucky few, among the percentage of visitors to Myanmar, who are able to reach them.
Established in 1995 as Myanmar’s first Marine National Park, Lampi Island is one of the most popular islands within the archipelago. It’s rich with coral reefs mangroves and biodiversity, while the Lampi Riveris a popular spot for kayaking to discover local wildlife.
115 Island, also known as Frost Island, is one of the most popular places to go for snorkelling and diving. The area is said to be rich in hard stony coral and is famous for its abundance of tropical fish. It’s also possible to go jungle trekking within the island itself. Cocks Comb Island is destined to be the star attraction of the archipelago once it opens up to mass tourism. By swimming through holes in the rock wall of the island, visitors have access to a spectacular heart-shaped lagoon that is almost out of this world.
The archipelago isn’t only famous for its natural riches. It’s also home to one of Southeast Asia’s most unique ethnic communities. The Moken Sea Gypsies have called this area home for generations. Living their entire lives at sea, they’re one of few remaining populations in the world to live this way. Nyaung Wee Island is a beautiful area where it is possible to meet with these fascinating people face to face and learn about their changing way of life. Myauk Ni Island sees fewer visitors, but it is also possible to encounter Moken people here.
How to get there:
By Plane: It’s now possible to fly to the gateway of the Myeik Archipelago, Myeik, directly from Yangon. The flights are irregular and not cheap, but it’s by far the easiest way to get there. From there it’s possible to hire cruises around the surrounding islands.
By Bus: Taking a bus from Yangon to Myeik Town is possible, but not for the faint of heart or undetermined. The ride is a gruelling 24 hours over rough terrain. From there it’s possible to find live-aboard cruises around the surrounding islands.
What it is:
Yangon is the country’s largest and most “metropolitan” city. Consequently, many are surprised to learn that it’s not actually the capital. That title, rather strangely, belongs to what is often described as a “ghost town”, Naypyidaw, about 300 kilometres north. For the purpose of travel, though, Yangon is the uncontested heart of Myanmar. More than half of its Myanmar’s visitors arrive in the city by air. As such, Yangon is typically the first impression that most visitors have of the country –and that’s a good thing!
Aside from the abundant lakes, shady parks and verdant tropical trees, there are countless reasons to consider Yangon as a destination unto itself.
The bewildering diversity of the city’s inhabitants make it a cultural melting pot. Ethnic minorities from around the country converge on Yangon for its importance as a thriving economic centre. Each adorned in their own typical manner, these inhabitants can be easily seen going about their daily lives anywhere in the city.
Yangon also houses some of the country’s biggest, most well-known and most holy temples and pagodas. Droves of monks from around the country and beyond can be seen throughout the city collecting alms and praying at the various stupas. Combined, the delicate balance of Yangon’s people, culture and architecture make it one of the region’s finest travel destinations.
If there’s one reason to visit Yangon, Schwedegon Pagoda is surely it. Indeed, no visit to Myanmar would be complete without witnessing the gilded majesty of this jaw-dropping temple. It’s considered to not only be the most important religious monuments in Myanmar, but also one of the most important in the world. Just a short distance from there is Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, which houses a massive 65 metre reclining Buddha that is more than worth a visit.
Deep within the heart of the city is Sule Pagoda. Thought to have been constructed around the time of the Buddha, its foundation was first laid some 2,500 years ago. Due to its central location, Sule Pagoda serves as an excellent starting point for attractions throughout the city. Nearby you’ll also find Yangon China Town, Maha Wizaya Pagoda and Saint Mary’s Cathedral. For last-minute souvenir shopping, check outBogyoke Aung San Market.
A bit further afield, many visitors choose to visit Aung San Suu Kyi’s House at Inya Lake where the famous freedom fighter and Nobel Prize winner had been held in house arrest for 15 years. Much of the house is now shrouded by a wall, though. So while many feel inspired just to be within a close proximity to the famous dwelling, others argue that there’s not much to see. In either case, it only takes about 10 minutes to get there from the centre of the city.
At the next lake over, Kandawgyi Lake, you’ll find a photographer’s paradise. Shrouded by mist in the mornings, it’s considered one of the finest places in Yangon to catch sunrise. From certain vantage points, the reflection of Schwedegon Pagoda can clearly be seen. The highlight of the lake, though, Karaweik Hall.This bird-shaped three-tiered restaurant houses private dining and entertainment rooms for traditional dance performances. It provides the perfect vantage point for views of the surrounding area.
For something a bit different, head to Htwe Oo Myanmar Puppet Theater for a taste of Myanmar’s mature performance art scene.
How to get there:
By Plane: Because most of Myanmar’s borders are still restricted areas, all international arrivals to Yangon arrive by air at Yangon International Airport (Mingladon). Located about 30 minutes outside of the city centre, the easiest way to and from the airport is by taxi. There is also a public bus about 15 minutes walking distance from the airport.
By Bus: Most buses coming to Yangon from major destinations in Myanmar such as Inle Lake, Bagan and Mandalay arrive at Aung Mingalar Bus Terminal (also known as Highway Bus Station). It’s a bit outside of the city, just beyond the airport, so onward transportation will be necessary in order to head directly into the city.
By Train: Yangon is connected by rail to Mandalay, Bagan and the Inle Lake area at Thazi via the Yangon Central Railway Station.
By Boat: The slowest, but perhaps most scenic way to get to Yangon is by passenger ferry. Mandalay to Yangon takes five days.
Things to do in Myanmar
Experience the rhythm of life on the Irrawaddy River
Touring the vast Irawaddy River is one of the best ways to discover a Myanmar that few people get to see. Similar to the Mekong River in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the Irawaddy River serves as part of the country’s lifeblood. One of the things that makes the Irrawaddy unique, though, is that most of its 2,000+ kilometre length is navigable by boat due to its absence of dams – which will eventually change.
Whilst traveling the course of the river you’ll see networks of villages, pagodas and temples that, quite possibly, have never been visited by foreign travellers. These remote areas just ooze with a sense of undiscovered charm that would be difficult to match anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
While it’s possible to travel by riverboat from Yangon all the way up to Mandalay, typically most boat run between Bagan and Mandalay. Most of them make a point of stopping in a few of the more remote towns and villages along the way such as Pakokku. Yandabo, and Ava where, aside from the few boats that stop there, see little to no tourists.
Other, more ambitious cruises have begun emerging in recent years as the Burmese government has begun loosening its grip on the country. While not cheap, these cruises promise to take travellers to virtually uncharted territory in areas of the upper Irrawaddy that were previously off limits to outsiders. There are two primary routes along the upper Irawaddy, both beginning in Mandalay. One diverts along one a main tributary to the Irrawaddy, the Chidwan River, bound for the town of Homalin, stopping at the villages ofMonywa, Mingkin, Mawlaik and Toungdot along the way. Another route continues up the Irrawaddy itself, ending in the colonial town of Katha, which was the inspiration for George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” novel.
Due to the nature of river travel, cruises and boat tours are at the mercy of the Irrawaddy’s water levels. The monsoon season starts in late May and continues into October. Bagan to Mandalay tours typically run from September through April. This is the same for longer sailings between Yangon and either Bagan or Mandalay. Voyages on the Chindwin River are typically done in July, August and September.
Part of what makes tours along the Irrawaddy so special is that they pass through areas that are otherwise totally inaccessible. Unfortunately, some of these areas still require permits from the government. In particular, permits are generally required in areas of the upper Irrawaddy. These permits typically require three weeks or more in order to procure so, if you’re planning to do one of these trips, it helps to have everything in order well before the travel date.
Aside from that, there are a few tips that will make cruising along the Irrawaddy a bit more comfortable. Book an east-facing cabin (port downstream, starboard upstream) if you want to avoid strong afternoon sun. If that’s what you’re looking for, particularly if you’d like to have a great view of sunset, book a west-facing cabin. Also, if time is of the essence, choose downstream cruises rather than upstream ones. This allows for more time at sites –and more exploration!
Explore Myanmar’s Temples
As an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, Myanmar is one of the region’s best places to go to witness the full majesty of Southeast Asian spirituality at its finest. There are endless options for temple exploration in the country, from massive gilded pagodas of almost unimaginable splendour to the crumbling stupas of Myanmar’s past civilizations.
What makes the temples of Myanmar so spectacular from a traveller’s perspective is not only the abundance of options and their splendour, but also the people that frequent them. Burmese people are deeply religious, and temples are perhaps the best places to see how this vital aspect of their culture manifests itself in daily life.
A better question, perhaps, would be where can you not find and explore temples within Myanmar? Even in the most remote reaches of the country, you will likely never be very far from a temple, pagoda or stupa. Where there are people there is also likely to be a noteworthy religious monument. Certain areas are especially known for them, though.
Starting with Yangon, the country’s biggest and most important religious site is Shwedegon Pagoda. If there’s any one place in Myanmar that you have to see before you leave, it’s here. From the very finest details to the complex in its entirety, every component of the Shwedegon Pagoda is a work of art. Other important places in the city are Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda and Sule Pagoda.
In terms of sheer number, Bagan is the place to go if you want to be completely overwhelmed by the choices. With more than 2,000 temples and pagodas to choose from, it’s not likely you’ll ever be able to visit all of them unless you have a lifetime to do it. The must-see sites in Bagan are Ananda Temple, Bagan’s most important, Thatbyinnyu Temple, Gawdawpalin Temple, Shwezigon Pagoda, Htilominlo Temple,Dhammayangyi Temple and Popa Taungkalat Monastery at the top of Mount Popa.
For those who are looking to channel their inner Indiana Jones, Mrauk U is the county’s most alluring destination. Firstly, very few tourists make it to Mrauk U, and as such, it retains an element of authenticity that can sometimes seem faded in other more easily accessed areas of the country. Once there, though, travellers will find no shortage of options. Highlights include Shuttaung Pagoda, Andaw Temple,Ratanabob Zedi, Htukkan Thein Temple and Kothaung Temple.
Myanmar’s religious sites make for fulfilling adventures any time of the year. In terms of when to go, timing is more about what time of the day you go than it is what time of the year. Temples and pagodas are usually most active early in the morning and late in the afternoon when local revellers typically come to make merit and pray.
It should go without saying, but it’s important to respect local customs in Myanmar. Some of these are fairly obvious, such as removing shoes before entering, and covering up areas that could be considered risqué to a famously conservative culture such as shoulders and areas of the leg above the knee. Less known customs include women being forbidden from entering or getting near many of the holiest shrines in Myanmar. Though well outside of Western ideals regarding equality, it’s how things have been done in Myanmar for centuries, in a country where tradition is held in the highest esteem.
One of the great things about Myanmar is that it’s still so untouched. More than most places in the region, Myanmar rewards those who are willing to go the extra distance to go off the proverbial “beaten trail”. Paradoxically, the easiest way to do this is to hit the literal beaten trails, since some 60 percent of Myanmar’s population either live off of the land or are bound to agriculture in some way. To really get an in-depth look at the culture that makes Myanmar so unique, you need to hit the hills and get away from urban areas.
The good news is, the country is abound with areas like this. With a bit of knowledge, a healthy appetite for adventure and a knowledgeable guide, the beauty of Myanmar’s rural areas and wilderness unfurl before your eyes in a way that makes you feel as though you’re a true explorer.
Aside from the urban centres of Myanmar, such as Yangon and Mandalay, most areas in the country make it pretty easy to head off into the great unknown. Pyin Oo Lwin is a charming colonial town near Mandalay,where a refreshing mountain atmosphere and abundant waterfalls can be found. Many visitors to Inle Lake choose to do hiking there as well. There’s several fascinating hill-tribe villages living in the Red Mountainssurrounding the lake.
For those with a bit more time who are feeling adventurous, it’s possible to hike all the way from Inle Lake to another one of Myanmar’s hiking hotspots, Kalaw. Kalaw is well-known for its mountain-resort town feel, and the surrounding alpine forests make perfect places for exploring by foot. Hsipaw also makes for a fantastic trekking destination. Surrounded by areas that are restricted to travellers, the area offers fascinating insight into what is otherwise an almost completely unexplored region.
Climate in Myanmar is difficult to narrow down as the country is vast and the elevation varied. Generally speaking, the best time to go trekking in Myanmar is during the dry season between October and May when the temperatures are a bit cooler and there’s less rain bogging down your adventure. Early wet season from April and May, however, tends to be quite hot. So if you have an aversion towards high temperatures, you may not want to go hiking during this time.
When visiting some of the more remote communities in Myanmar, it’s advisable from an etiquette perspective to bring goods to offer locals such as bread or canned food as a token of gratitude. More often than not, many of these places lack proper accommodation, so if you’re doing multi-day treks through the countryside you’ll likely stay at a homestay or in a monastery. In either of these cases, the modest gift of goods that are otherwise hard to come by would be deeply appreciated.
Join local pilgrims and climb to the top of Mount Popa
Popa means “flower” in Sanskrit and, when you look at how the extinct volcano rises precipitously out of the otherwise flat terrain of the surrounding area, it’s not really hard to see how it got the name. Aside from its peculiar terrain, the area is considered to be one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in Myanmar. According to local tradition, a visit to the top not only entails encountering friendly locals, sweeping vistas, countless “Nat” or “spirit pagodas”, and important Buddhist relics – but it’s also thought to endow visitors with good fortune and negate past transgressions.
Even if you’re not a sentimental person who values those sorts of things, at the very least the trip up is great exercise! To reach the top you need to climb 770 steps, barefoot and in the presence of numerous clamouring monkeys that call the area home. A climb to the top of Mount Popa squarely qualifies as one of the must-do experiences in Myanmar.
At only 60 kilometres from the tourist centre of Bagan, Mount Popa is relatively easy to get to. Most people go there as a day trip from Bagan by bus or pickup truck. A more comfortable way to get there is by taxi or private car.
When: The best time to visit is between November and February, when temperatures average a relatively mild 30 degrees Celsius. The hike up to the top of Popa is substantially more arduous during the months of March and May, when temperatures often exceed 40 degrees. Rainfall is highest in June and October, so these may also be good times to avoid going there – although they can sometimes help reduce the amount of dust that may otherwise obscure your views from the top of the volcano.
Getting to Mount Popa by private car or taxi, although a bit more expensive, affords you the benefit of being able to stop at some of the less-visited villages along the way, including Zee O Village near Zee O Thit Hla Ingyinn Forest Reserve. The friendly inhabitants here believe that the forest is protected by Nats, or guardian spirits, and that these Nats will punish anyone who disturbs the forest. As such, the environment is pristine and more than worth a visit.
Relax at Ngapali Beach or Ngwe Saung
While Myanmar has palpable allure to most travellers, few think of it as a beach destination. As with most things in Myanmar, it isn’t necessarily the places that make the destination, but the people and the vibe they create – and Ngapali Beach and Ngwe Saung are no exception. What they lack in lustre they make up for with their untouched vibes and relaxing atmospheres. If you really just want to get away from it all and unwind, Myanmar’s beaches are the place to do it.
Ngapali Beach is Myanmar’s de facto beach destination located in the Rakhine State. Its long white-sand beach, endless palm trees and clear blue make it a pretty quintessential beach destination. The only difference is that, unlike similar beaches in the region, Ngapali Beach maintains its fishing-village vibe. Ox-drawn carts are frequently see mulling the beach, and locals are decidedly “different” from how they are in most other places in the region.
Ngwe Saung is in a similar vein as Ngapali, but even less touristy and a bit harder to get to. If you really want to unplug and get back to basics, Ngwe Saung is a great place. While there is a relatively developed area catering to domestic and international tourists, the vast majority of Ngwe Saung is mostly untouched.
The peak beach season of is from November to March. During rainy season (mid-May to mid-September), many hotels close down making finding accommodation a bit tricky. The best time for beach escapes in Myanmar is from November through April. The days can be a bit hot, but the nights are relatively cool during this time. The rainy season begins in May and is in full swing by June. Most hotels close in rainy season, so heading there in spite of this can be a risky venture.
Relax! The beauty of Myanmar’s beaches is that there’s really not much to do. Their isolation and relatively undiscovered status makes them the perfect places to just totally detach from everything and unwind. It can sometimes be difficult to do nothing at all, but Myanmar’s beaches are the perfect places to do it.
Ride in a hot air balloon over Bagan
Plenty of wanderlust has been ignited by an aerial photograph of Bagan at sunrise – which is arguably the most iconic image of Myanmar as a travel destination. The spires of some 2,000 pagodas dot a misty landscape with the silhouettes of hot-air balloons drifting magically across a golden landscape.
To the delight of many, the experience is one that you can have up-close and personal – not through a photograph but aboard one of the hot air balloons rising up over this magical landscape. Many who have experienced it for themselves rate it as one of the best experiences of their lives. For certain, it’s one of Myanmar’s very best.
Part of what makes the experience so magical is that each balloon tour is a little bit unique. Drifting at the mercy of the wind, the balloons gracefully careen around the landscape of Bagan on whatever path mother nature has in store for you on that day. But because of the abundance of temples in Bagan, there’s no risk of having an uneventful balloon ride.
There are now three companies operating balloon flights over Bagan. The first company to deliver the service was Balloons Over Bagan. Due to overwhelming demand, two other companies have since emerged: Oriental Ballooning and Golden Eagle Ballooning.
The ballooning season in Bagan is short. Typically only running from mid-October to mid-March when the air is cooler and there’s a bit less wind. Due to the nature of ballooning, it’s entirely possible that flights can be postponed or even cancelled due to even minor cases of inclement weather, so timing is of utmost importance.
Taking a hot-air balloon ride over Bagan is definitely a “splurge” experience. If you want to have the experience of a lifetime, it won’t come cheap. This is because the safety of the flight’s occupants is the number-one priority, and the pilots are mostly brought over from the UK. Plus, the balloons themselves and the safety equipment they use are top notch.
All of the companies offering balloon flights over Bagan offer a range of price points, depending on how many people you’re willing to ride with. The cheapest flights are those with the largest amount of people – typically 16. It’s worth the modestly higher price to ride on a smaller balloon with fewer people. The extra elbow room and reduced chatter is more than worth the investment.
Sip wine at Myanmar’s first wine vineyard
When you think of fertile valleys and rolling hills lined with gravid grapevines, Myanmar probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But that’s precisely why a visit to the burgeoning vineyards in central Myanmar is such a unique and enriching experience. The climate and soil in this area is said to closely resemble those of Old World icons such as Tuscany or Bordeaux, making it the perfect place to grow grapes and produce wine. Indulging in and learning about such a refined activity in Myanmar can be surreal but fascinating experience that makes you feel as though you’re taking part in the beginnings of something great.
A mere 20 kilometers away from the thriving tourist centre of Inle Lake in the Shan State of Myanmar, Red Mountain Estate is the country’s first and most distinguished wine producer. The wines there have been praised by critics as being on-par with the Old World wines of Europe despite their young age. Sitting at around 1200 meters in elevation, its cool climate is said to give the grapes a distinct and pleasant aroma.
There are two distinct seasons in the area. A wet season running from October to March and dry season from April to September. Temperatures are colder during the dry season and hotter in the wet season. Grapes are usually harvested between February and March, so if you want to see the process, head during that time. Otherwise, try to go earlier so you can see the grapes growing on the vines in their full glory.
The onsite restaurant is surprisingly good. It offers a range of mostly French-styled accompaniments to sample alongside the wine as you taste it. Be sure to take advantage of these delicacies, as they’re fairly hard to find in the region, much less the middle of Myanmar!
Visit Local Markets in the Morning
The biggest allure of Myanmar is its people and their culture. You can find comparable temples and beaches elsewhere in the region, but you won’t find another country in the region whose people are as charming or interesting.
As a mostly agrarian society, if you’re interested in interacting with local people in Myanmar, the real “action” tends to happens dark and early in the morning. Long before most of us naturally wake up, farmers, merchants and local people head to morning markets to sell their wares and buy whatever goods they need – and this is the perfect time to see Burmese culture in full form. Whether you’re interested in capturing images of local culture, want to get a bargain on souvenirs or just want to buy the freshest food possible, morning markets in Myanmar are the way to go – and the earlier the better!
In Yangon, the biggest and most famous morning market is on the outskirts of town. Thiri Mingalar Marketis well-known for its bustling atmosphere, ferocious haggling and diverse population of people that frequent it. It’s a bit far, but more than worth the hike to get there.
Smaller and lesser known, Thein Gyi Market, just across the street from Shri Kali Temple is also a hive of activity in the early morning.
Bagan also has some charming morning markets to visit. The biggest of these is Nyaung U Market. Just north of Bagan in a village by the same name, Nyaung U Market is where many of the ethnic minorities in remote surrounding areas congregate to sell their goods. There’s also Mani-Sithu Market near the roundabout on the main road in Old Bagan. Near the entrance to Shwezigon Paya, one of the most important temples in Bagan, there’s also a charming souvenir and knick-knack market. A long corridor leading up to the complex is lined with columns that create absolutely incredible light for photography early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
The word’s best jade is said to come from Myanmar, and within the country, the best place to find it is in theJade Market in Mandalay. If you’re buying some of the pricier goods on offer here, be sure to bargain hard!
The biggest morning market in the city is Zegyo Market. More of a wholesale market than a local market, this is where many of the city’s businesses go to get fresh goods in the morning. The sheer chaos of the atmosphere early in the mornings is quite a spectacle to behold.
At Inle Lake, there are an assortment of morning markets to choose from. There are floating markets on the lake itself, although it can sometimes be a bit tricky to find them as they rotate from one village to the next. Be sure to ask your hired boatman about these floating markets while you’re there.
In Nguangshwe, the main morning market is Mingala Market, also known as Nyuangshwe Market. It’s hard to miss, as the walls of the market are painted bright green and its right in the centre of town. Ethnic minorities throughout the region congregate here early in the morning to sell their goods.
Most of the transactions that take place in Myanmar’s morning markets happen just as the sun is coming up over the horizon and, by 8 in the morning or so, have mostly died down. That said, it’s important to get there early – often before the sun has actually risen.
If you have any intention at all to buy something at one of the morning markets, be sure to bargain. The prices that they offer are usually meant as a starting point for negotiation.
Visit the floating villages of Inle Lake
While the scenery of Inle Lake is nothing to balk at, it’s not what makes the area truly special. Instead, that distinction goes to the Intha people who inhabit it. Taking a boat out onto the lake allows you to visit the charming floating villages where they live. Their stilted wooden houses hover over verdant floating gardens of reeds and lilies, making the perfect backdrop for photos. This is also where you’re most likely to see local people rowing around the lake with one leg while standing – a practice for which Inle Lake is famous.
There are numerous Intha floating villages along the lake and the tributaries that flow into it. Most of the boatmen for hire around the main tourist area of Inle Lake, Nyuangshwe, and have specific itineraries already in mind for travellers looking to explore the lake. Typically, the thing to do is to go from the north of the lake to the south of it and back. Along the way, there’s a variety of places to visit, from more tourist-frequented areas such as Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery or the Jumping Cats Monastery to more remote villages where local ways of life will be on full display.
Typically, village tours starting from Nyuangshwe first head to one of the larger floating villages, Nampam. From there they’ll head to In Phaw Khone. A working village devoted to silk, cotton and lotus root weaving, this is also a great place to pick up souvenir handicrafts. At some point, your boatman will take you to tour one of the many floating gardens on the lake. With no land to grow crops on, the Intha people have resorted to creating man-made plots made out of floating rafts of bamboo. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even walk on them!
One of the highlights of a tour around the villages of Inle Lake is Maing Tauk. Being half on land and half on water, the village has a bit of a split personality. However, it’s one of the better villages to visit if you want an up-close and personal look at the Intha people’s way of life. There’s also a rather picturesque teakwood bridge here that’s reminiscent of Ubien Bridge.
The climate of Inle Lake is monsoonal, receiving the greatest amount of rainfall between May and September – but it’s not at all uncommon to experience rain even during dry season. Because of the altitude, you can also expect relatively cool temperatures compared to the rest of Myanmar – particularly in the mornings.
Between the January and February, Inle Lake can get downright cold. So if cold weather isn’t your thing, try to time your visit during warmer months. The month of October is a particularly auspicious time to visit the area, since the Phaung Daw Oo Festival that takes place during this time is an amazing opportunity not only to see leg-rowers in action, but to see them racing!
Insider Tip: Although it may get hot during the day, especially on land, the air on the lake can get surprisingly chilly. Be sure to bring layered clothing along for the trip, as it’s likely you’ll need to strip down and dress up according to fluctuations in temperature throughout the day. Also, it’s best to wear easily-removable sandals, as you’ll need to take them off to enter any pagodas, monasteries or houses.
Watch sunrise or sunset at Ubien Bridge
Little more than a long wooden foot-bridge stretching across a modestly large lake near Mandalay, Ubien Bridge hardly sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime destination. In reality, legitimate “look at this” accolades are short: it’s the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world.
Despite its history, it’s the intangibles which really must be seen in person to fully appreciate. It’s the texture of the wooden planks, the misty atmosphere early in the morning, the groups of traditionally dressed monks and locals , the serene setting of the lake and the famously golden light that bathes the area at dusk and dawn every day. Ubien Bridge isn’t a destination so much as it is an experience.
At only 10 kilometres from central Mandalay in the former capital of Amarapura, Ubien Bridge is easily accessed by those staying within the city proper, and usually takes about 15 to 20 minutes. The bridge crosses Taungthaman Lake, which is something of a destination in its own right.
Ubien Bridge is most magical during dusk and dawn when the sun is closest to the horizon. As the sun rises or sets, take special note of how the features of the bridge and the people on it change.
Ubien Bridge is particularly busy during the months of July and August when the lake is at its highest point. If seeing and experiencing local people is a priority, this is the best time to go – however, winter months between December and January are some of the best times for photos. This is when mist blankets the lake the thickest, creating an atmospheric glow.
Insider Tip: Be sure to hire a boat to get the best viewing angle of the bridge. Due to demand, the prices can be significantly higher than normal during sunrise, so be sure to bargain hard or share a boat with other people.