Myanmar travel guide - where to visit

Pip
November 05, 2015

For many years closed off to tourists, Myanmar has in recent years emerged as the new ‘must-see’ Southeast Asian destination, combining magnificent landscapes with an ancient cultural legacy that displays itself with an entrancing beauty. Its rural heartland is inhabited by a diverse ethnic mix of villagers who carry on their traditions with a quiet resilience, while religious devotion is exhibited in stunning architecture and sites of pilgrimage. While the country has some stand-out highlights at tranquil Inle Lake and the awe-inspiring temples of Bagan, explore a little further off-the-beaten-track and you will meet minority groups few witness and discover both the ancient and colonial history, together with the future aspirations, of this richly rewarding destination.

South

Yangon

Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon
Yangon’s most famous site is the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, dating back around 2,500 years.

Yangon is most visitors’ first impression of the country, home to crumbling colonial architecture and a vibrant Asian street-life. Soak up the sights, sounds and smells at its bustling Chinatown, lined with street-food sellers offering some of the most authentic cuisine the city has to offer, or head to the Bohyoke Aung San Market whose cobblestone streets are the ideal place to stock up on souvenirs.

The city’s most famous site is the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, dating back around 2,500 years. It’s golden pagoda towers over the city and is an important place of worship for the local Buddhist population who vividly display their devotion with colourful offerings of flowers. Nearby is the 60-metre reclining Buddha of Chauk That Gyi that dates to 1899 and is well worth visiting, depicting the Buddha half reclining with one handing propping up his torso.

South East Region - Bago, Golden Rock, Hap-An

Golden Rock Pagoda teetering precariously on the edge of Mount Kyaikhtiyo’s cliff
Golden Rock Pagoda, a famous Buddhist pilgrimage, stands atop an immense boulder, teetering precariously on the edge of Mount Kyaikhtiyo’s cliff.

From Yangon head fifty kilometres north to Bago, the former capital of southern Myanmar, whose beautiful ancient temples make for an excellent day trip. Then travel east over the Gulf of Martaban to the Golden Rock Pagoda which stands atop an immense boulder, teetering precariously on the edge of Mount Kyaikhtiyo’s cliff. This famous Buddhist pilgrimage site can be climbed from the base camp at Kinpun, 11 kilometres away, or by a short 1.2 kilometre walk from Yatetaung.

Continuing south you come to the capital of Karen State, Hpa-An, nestled at the base of the unusually shaped Zwekabin Hill. The region offers plenty of outdoors activities, including hiking through the magnificent Great Dawna Mountain Rangers, and cruising the placid waters of the Thanlwin River. Just to the south of Hpa-An is Mawlamyine, serving as the capital of British Burma between 1827 and 1852 and infused with an air of old-world colonial charm. Visit its Kyaiktalan pagoda for impressive views over the city and harbour, and Kawgaung Cave where stalactites, stalagmites and thousands of images of Buddha adorn an elaborate interior.

Beaches of the Ayeyarwaddy Delta

Ngwe Saung, a Myanmar beach backed by coconut palms
Myanmar beaches are backed by coconut palms and casuarina trees, these unspoilt resorts are the perfect place to relax, swim and take advantage of the water sports on offer.

If you’re looking for a tropical beachside escape from Yangon, the head through the Ayeyarwaddy Delta to the beautiful beaches of Chaungtha and Ngwe Saung. Backed by coconut palms and casuarina trees, these unspoilt resorts are the perfect place to relax, swim and take advantage of the water sports on offer.

Mergui Archipelago

Canoeing in the mangrove fores of Mergui Archipelago, Myanmar
With spectacular limestone cliffs and some of the country’s best diving, Mergui Archipelago house an amazing diversity of flora and fauna, as well as sea gypsy nomads living as they have done for centuries.

If you really want to get into unchartered territory then head to the far south of Myanmar to the Mergui Archipelago (Myeik Archipelago) - a group of more than 800 islands scattered across the Andaman Sea. With spectacular limestone cliffs and some of the country’s best diving, it is a must-see for underwater enthusiasts, while its lush interiors house an amazing diversity of flora and fauna, as well as sea gypsy nomads living as they have done for centuries.

Central

Bagan

Sunset in Bagan with more than 4000 temples and pagodas in the plains
More than 4,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries that mushroom spectacularly from the plains below once served as the Kingdom of Pagan.

In the centre of the country lies one of Myanmar’s must-visit destinations - Bagan. This ancient Buddhist site of more than 4,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries that mushroom spectacularly from the plains below once served as the Kingdom of Pagan between the 9th and 13th Centuries. Walk, cycle or take a horse-cart to witness its magnificent stupas and mural paintings, watch the sun slowly sinking over the horizon from atop one of its pagodas, bathing the landscape in rich, golden colours, and get a birds-eye view of the archaeological site as you float above on a sunrise hot-air balloon ride.

Travelling to the east of Bagan through small villages lined with palms is Mount Popa, an extinct volcano that towers more than 1,500 metres. To its southwest the volcanic plug of Taung Kalat is capped by a sacred Buddhist monastery, and both locals and tourists alike can often be seen ascending its 777 steps en masse to the summit where panoramic views all the way back to Bagan are on offer.

Mandalay

U Bein Bridge, Myanmar
The 1.2 km U Bein Bridge is an impressive construction using teak pillars from the deserted Ava palace.

A short drive to the north lies the kingdom’s former capital, Mandalay - a city with a vivid cultural and historical legacy. Witness the magnificent Golden Palace Monastery or Shwenandaw, a beautiful example of traditional wooden Burmese architecture, as well as the Kuthodaw Pagoda whose 729 marble slabs are intricately carved with Buddha’s teachings. For magnificent views across the city, climb the 33-metre high watchtower of the carefully reconstructed Mandalay Palace, or take in the panorama from Mandalay Hill that extends across the Ayeyarwaddy River and the Shan Plateau, particularly special at sunset.

Just to the south of Mandalay lies Amarapura, famed for its silk weaving looms and the 1.2 km U Bein Bridge, an impressive construction using teak pillars from the deserted Ava palace. After shopping for beautiful silk designs, visit the famous Mahagandayon Monastery where practicing monks can be witnessed studying and observing their strict religious discipline.

Around Mandalay - Sagaing, Inwa, Mingun

The unfinished Mingun Pagoda
The unfinished Mingun Pagoda, guarded by a pair of stone lions, exhibits large cracks inflicted during the 1838 earthquake.

For a deeper insight into Myanmar’s Buddhism then head west to Sagaing, once the country’s capital and now its religious centre where numerous Buddhist monasteries and nunneries congregate around sacred Sagaing Hill. Just to the south, the town of Inwa is also worth visiting for its impressive Maenu Okkyaung Monastery and Bargayar Monastery, built with 267 teak pillars and featuring elaborate wood carvings.

Travel by boat north from Mandalay along the Ayeyarwaddy River to Mingun where the unfinished Mingun Pagoda, guarded by a pair of stone lions, exhibits large cracks inflicted during the 1838 earthquake. The town is famed for the Mingun Bell, said to be the largest un-cracked bell in the world, as well as the Mya Thein Tan Pagoda, whose beautiful wave-like terraced architecture was built to enshrine a sacred emerald.

Pyin Oo Lwin and surrounds

Drive one hour east of Mandalay along a spectacular winding road over the Shan Plateau to the the cool-climate town of Pyin Oo Lwin, situated at more than 1,000 metres above sea level. Take the time to visit Kandawgyi National Park, a beautiful 435-acre botanical gardens set around Kandawgyi Lake with an extensive orchid collection, bird aviary and butterfly museum. Then travel on to the spectacular cascades of Pwekaku Waterfall and the limestone cave of Peik Chin Myaung, beautifully adorned in stalactites and Buddhist stupas.

From Pyin Oo Lwin take the rail journey along the famous Gohteik Viaduct to Naung Pein, built by the British in 1900 to connect the silver mines with the central plains below and now offering visitors on an exhilarating ride through the thick jungles and ravines above the Nam Hsam River.

Monywa and Alaungdaw Kathapa

Thanbode Temple, with more than 500,000 images of Buddha
The Thanbode Temple in Monywa houses more than 500,000 images of Buddha.

130 km to the west of Mandalay lies the Chindwin Valley and the trading centre of Monywa, whose stunning Thanbode Temple houses more than 500,000 images of Buddha. Don’t miss a visit to the Shwetharlyaung Recling Buddha Image, stretching 100 metres in length, or the Boditahtaoung Temple, surrounded by thousands of Bodi trees. The region is also home to Myanmar’s largest national park and a popular pilgrimage site, Alaungdaw Kathapa, where large populations of wild elephants live amongst elusive Clouded Leopards and Himalayan Brown Bears.

Bago Yoma and Ngapiyidaw

250 kilometres south of Mandalay the Bago Yoma mountain ranges boast a stunning natural beauty, criss-crossed with walking trails that pass through small villages offering some of Myanmar’s best teak products. Visit the elephant camps of Thagara and Seinye then travel on to the country’s modern capital at Napyidaw. Its wide boulevards, lined in newly built apartments, stand in stark contrast to the country’s other cities.

East

Inle Lake

A floating house in Inle Lake, Myanmar
No visit to Myanmar is complete without spending some time at magnificent Inle Lake, home to floating villages and gardens.

No visit to Myanmar is complete without spending some time at magnificent Inle Lake. Home to floating villages and gardens, island textile weaving looms, and the famous Phaungdaw Oo Pagoda, its inhabitants’ daily lives are closely interwoven with the lake’s waters. Shop for traditional handicrafts at its island artisans, witness the comings and goings at its 5-day rotating village markets, visit the ‘Jumping Cats Monastery, and experience traditional longboats being rowed by 30 pairs of feet during the annual Phaungdaw Oo Pagoda Festival.

Taunggyi, Kalaw and Pindaya Cave

If you are visiting in November, then experiencing the annual Fire Balloon Festival in Taunggyi, a short half hour drive from Inle Lake, is a must. The sight of hundreds of paper balloons, lit with candles and floating through the night sky, is magical. Carry on to the Kakku Pagoda, housing an impressive collection of centuries-old Buddhist stupas, or travel northwest to the Pindaya Cave, with more than 8,000 Buddha images dating back to the early 18th century and large, centuries-old banyan trees offering welcome shade outside.

A short distance to the west sits the high-altitude hill station of Kalaw, established by the British to escape the heat of the plains below. Today this tranquil town is the country’s trekking capital and the starting point for multi-day excursions across the Shan Plateau. Explore its beautiful rural landscapes and small ethnic minority villages, together with the Myinmahtigu natural caves, adorned in ancient Buddha images.

Three Shan Pa women selling in the market
Ethnic minority people selling local products in the five day market in Shan State.

Shan State border towns - Tachileik, Lashio, Muse, Kyaing Tong

Also known for their scenic beauty and hill tribe villages are the towns along Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand and China. Visit the gateway to the ‘Golden Triangle’ at Tachileik in eastern Shan State, then head north to Lashio, famed as the start of the Burma Road during World War II and offering spectacular views of the Shan Plateau en route. Don’t miss a visit to the bustling town of Muse along the banks of the Shweli River further north, or the colourful ethnic tribal communities of Kyaing Tong.

North

Nagaland

Another remote area for the adventurous to explore is Nagaland, along Myanmar’s north-western border with India. The Naga ethnic minority who inhabit the region have managed to preserve their traditional way of life in isolation from the outside world, nestled within beautiful mountainous surrounds. If you visit during January you may bear witness to the annual Naga festival where communities travel from far and wide to gather for two days of celebration, music and feasting.

Kachin State

Venture east from Nagaland to the capital of Kachin State, Myitkyina, then north through spectacular landscapes to the meeting of the Mekha and Melikha Rivers at Myit-son and the famed jade production region surrounding Hpakant. Travel on to Myanmar’s northernmost reaches where impressive views across to the snow-capped peak of Hkakabo Razi Mountain can be found, together with the town of Putao, known for its rare and endemic orchids.

West

Mrauk U

Sunrise view of the magnificent temples and pagodas of Mraul U
Wander the magnificent temples and pagodas of Mraul U featuring intricately carved traditional architecture.

In the far west of Myanmar in Rakhine State lies the archaeological site of Mrauk U, which served as the former capital of the Arakanese kingdom in the 15th century. Wander its magnificent temples and pagodas featuring intricately carved traditional architecture and visit the Archaeology Museum where inscribed Buddhas and Wethali era coins exhibit its fascinating history.

Ngapali Beach

Heading south, the palm-lined tropical beach of Ngapali in the Bay of Bengal is Myanmar’s premier beach destination, boasting white sands and crystal clear waters. Despite its popularity, the beach has retained its fishing village charm and is the perfect place to do little except swim, relax and feast on seafood that is plucked daily from the ocean by local fishermen.

Chin State

Forested slope of the Chin State with some houses scattered
The trekking in Chin State is magnificent, taking in small ethnic villages and rural landscapes, all with Nat Ma Taung’s peak as a spectacular backdrop.

If you want to experience Myanmar at its least developed, head north to the remote Chin State which shares its border with Bangladesh and India. It is home to the Chin, a Tibeto-Burman group, as well as a number of hill tribe communities that inhabit its forested slopes. The trekking here is magnificent, taking in small ethnic villages and rural landscapes, all with Nat Ma Taung’s peak as a spectacular backdrop.

Putting Myanmar on your ‘must-visit’ list

The secret of Myanmar is being rapidly spread by travellers in-the-know, and for those seeking to escape the tourist hot spots of South East Asia, it radiates a welcome serenity, far from the modern bustle and large-scale resort developments that have mushroomed throughout the region. From the cool-climate hill stations to the steamy plains and palm-lined beaches, Myanmar’s landscapes are draped in beauty and the country’s stunning architectural sights evoke a rich cultural heritage that combine to make this a destination that should be at the top of every traveller’s bucket list.

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