By Oliver Lynch
Over the past few years, Myanmar (still sometimes known as Burma) has opened up to visitors with some of the best opportunities for private tours. This vast country is still relatively undeveloped in tourist infrastructure but is safe for visitors and makes a great value destination for budget travellers.
If you’re looking for some of the best places in Myanmar, get an experienced tour guide who will be able to construct a solid travel itinerary. This will help you make the most of your time, book the right accommodation, and save you any hassles with getting around.
Up for a unique travel experience? These are the 10 best things to do in Myanmar.
1. Sunrise in Bagan
This spectacular landscape, littered with countless temples spires, is the essential destination in Myanmar. Bagan was previously the seat of the Pagan empire, and the temples are the legacy of this once mighty kingdom. You will need at least 2 - 3 days to get the most out of a visit here. Local guides can tell you more about the history of Bagan, introduce you to the fascinating culture, and guide you through the customs while visiting various attractions.
Most world travellers head here for a sunrise moment; watching the day break across the stunning vistas is a one-of-its-kind sight. If you’re not a morning type, the sunset is just as incredible. The best place to watch the sunset and the sunrise in Bagan is either from Shwesandaw Pagoda or Ta Wet Hpaya - aka the Secret Temple. If you’ve got the funds, splurge on a hot air balloon ride for the epic experience.
2. Get Cultural at Inle Lake
Still a serene backwater (excuse the pun), Inle Lake is a great place to experience rural Myanmar and catch a glimpse of the traditional Burmese life. Watch fishermen in longboats, explore sleepy villages, stay in a house on stilts, and visit monasteries and temples.
If you’ve had enough of temples, head to the Jumping Cat monastery, which (as the name suggests) is home to a troupe of cats trained to jump through hoops! Boat tours or cultural tours are popular too. Be sure to visit the region’s traditional silk weavers and lotus fabric weavers.
3. Explore Yangon
Chaotic, overcrowded, ramshackle and charming – are all words that accurately describe the former capital Yangon (aka Rangoon). Here you’ll experience a melting pot of cultures representing the many faces of Myanmar.
Explore endless temples, fascinating markets, blissful parks and lakes, and marvel at the colonial era architecture. Thanks to the slightly chaotic nature of Yangon, hiring a tour guide is highly recommended. You’ll skip the haggling with taxi drivers and potential scams while covering all of the essentials of this city.
4. Shwedagon Pagoda
While you’re in Yangon, you cannot miss this iconic landmark. The Shwedagon Pagoda is a source of national pride and can be seen from across town. A visit is not just recommended, it’s essential. For the best experience, visit at dusk when the gem-crusted golden pagoda glitters with the light of lamps all around. Despite the hustle bustle of devotees, the atmosphere is relaxing – the perfect climax to a busy day of sightseeing.
Private tour guides can help you have the most authentic experience, with instructions on the customs to follow and respect. You would be requested to cover your knees – both men and women. The traditional “longyi” is available for purchase, and the locals would be happy to help you wrap it around. Entry is US$6 which is a bargain for the spectacle you are about to witness.
5. Climb Mount Popa
About 50 km out of Mandalay, you’ll find this eye-catching extinct volcano with a monastery perched on top. Climb 777 steps up for stunning views of the surrounding jungle and explore the temple on site. The monastery is reputed to be the home to famous Burmese spirits. Although you might not spot any of them, you will definitely meet a lot of monkeys.
6. Unwind in Shan State
If you’re looking to get away from the tourist hotspots like Bagan, Shan State offers an excellent opportunity to connect with the ‘Real Myanmar’. Kalaw and Pindaya are the two main stop off points in Shan for any tour itinerary. Visit Green Hill elephant camp to feed and help wash these magnificent beasts! Pindaya caves, a popular pilgrimage site with around 8000 images and statues of the Buddha, is another impressive site. You can also stay with local tribes, watch the Buddhist way of life in temples, or go hill walking in this region of Myanmar.
7. Meet the Himalayas in Chin
Chin State is where the Himalayas meet Myanmar, and this area is still relatively untouched by tourism. However, if you have the time and the inclination, a tour of Chin State is a rewarding experience. Putao is the central city in the region and makes the ideal base for any local tour guides to visit the mountain tribes, or if you’re feeling adventurous, go white water rafting.
8. The Road to Mandalay
As the last Imperial capital of Burma, Mandalay makes a fascinating visit for any history buffs or those who love a good old city tour. Laid out in a grid system, the city is relatively easy to navigate, unlike Yangon. Its charms lie in the architecture, the cuisine, and the old palaces that dot the landscape. Shwenandaw Kyaung is the pick of the bunch - an intricate monastery made from teak. For a panoramic view of the city, head to Mandalay Hill.
9. Beach Time in The Bay of Bengal
With almost 2000 km of coastline, Myanmar has some great beaches for you to dip your toes in the sea. Ngapali is one of the best known among them and is a prime spot for sunbathing and swimming. You can also go snorkelling and scuba diving, or just hang out and enjoy the vibe. If you’re looking for some action, there are options for boat tours and even kayak tours. Other great beaches to consider are Ngwe Saung and Thandwe.
10. Island Hop in Myeik/Mergui
In the far south of Myanmar, you’ll find these stunning islands, yet to find a spot of the tourist radar. Stay in a rural beach hut, sharing the seafront view only with the local fishermen and a dazzling array of wildlife. Go snorkelling and discover the vibrant sea life.
Oliver Lynch is a London based writer who travels as often as possible, usually for some kind of crazy adventure like exploring a jungle or going snowboarding.
Image details and licenses: https://flic.kr/p/pnQTw2 (Axel Drainville, CC BY-NC 2.0)