Myanmar has many different faces and is certainly offering something special for any traveller to whom travelling is more then staying at a beach resort (although that's possible as well). It is a country with a very rich culture, unspoiled nature and, to some visitors surprise, it's also a country with a genuine friendly population who very much want to be in contact with foreign visitors. People are open-minded, easy going and interested to learn more about anything.
Myanmar is a bit bigger then France and stretches over more then 2000 km from the snow-capped mountains in the north to the pristine islands of the Andaman Sea in the south. In between the country offers almost any kind of habitat from a cool climate in the mountains of Shan State or Chin State, a dry and hot area in the middle of the country (also locally called the dry-zone) to a more humid area, especially during the raining season, on the west coast (Rakhine State). A long coastline means many pristine beaches although most of them are so pristine that you won't find any accommodation to stay (or even a road to go there). Due to limitations of infrastructure and because the authorities are sometimes a bit overly concerned about the safety of foreigners, some areas of the country can not be visited by foreign tourists. The areas which are not (always) open to travellers are roughly the land routes between cities in the south (south of Thanbyuzayat), parts of Chin State, many areas bordering Thailand and parts of the north of the country bordering India and China.
It's the people that make the country and that's certainly true for Myanmar. Hundreds of ethnic tribes have been living in the area for thousands of years and many have continued their centuries old, local way of life till now. This diversity is generally celebrated (Myanmar has official public holidays for almost every world religion) and sometimes joked about, with some healthy feeling of "competition and envy" for the better food / costumes / jewellery or other cultural differences from the different states. Myanmar people (the ethnic Burmese, called Bamar, as well as the Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and the Shan) LOVE to try the food from other states (Shan and Rakhine food is very popular in Yangon). Whenever people travel through the country, they will always bring food from the area they visited as a present for family and friends who stayed at home. If you want to make friends with the Burmese during your trip to Myanmar bring some typical food or candies from your hometown! Whichever place you visit in Myanmar; you can be ensured to find a truly friendly population that is eager to welcome you in their native town.
As the borders with most neighbouring countries (Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand) are closed for international travellers, the gateway for visitors to Myanmar is the former capital and economic centre of the country: Yangon. It's a widespread city which doesn't have the hectic traffic scenes of Bangkok or Saigon and indeed deserves the name "garden city" with its tree-lined lanes and parks. The compact downtown area offers a colourful mix of people from all over the country, including those from Indian and Chinese descent, working and living in a setting of colonial buildings mixed with modern architecture. We will take you for a stroll through Pansodan Street with the colonial high court, banks and other buildings from the British colonial empire days. Just around the corner the majestic Strand hotel is a place not to be missed. When entering the building you can feel the history of more than a 100 years. Many celebrities like George Orwell and Mick Jagger stayed at the Strand. During the Second World War the bar was used as a stable for horses from the Japanese army. One of the highlights of every visit to Yangon is of course the visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda with it's over 2000 years of history. This pagoda impresses even the most "temple-fatigued" tourist as the atmosphere is somehow mystical, sacred as well as easy-going and vivid at the same time. People from all over the country will visit the pagoda at least once in their life. Besides seeing thousands of devotees praying and meditating you will also see youngsters walking around with their fiancée and families chatting and having a good time. Any time of the day is good to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda and although most guide books suggest to visit at the end of the afternoon we think the best time to visit is the early morning before breakfast or in the evening (the pagoda closes at 10pm) when it's quiet. [Yangon Golf Courses]
Yangon has plenty of other things to offer. Just follow in the footsteps of Aung San, the father of the nation who is adored by every family in the country for his fight for independence. Other options are visiting one of the many meditation centres. Take a cooking class or go shopping for (fake) antiques, lacquer ware, hand woven fabrics or traditional handicrafts. From Yangon you can make great daytrips to the countryside like to Twante pottery village, to the pagoda in the river at Syriam or the temples and pagodas in Bago. Nature lovers will be impressed by the birds and natural beauty during a boat trip through the Moeyungyi Wetlands (about 2.5 hours drive from Yangon).
From Yangon several multiple day trips give us the chance to explore more of the countryside or simply enjoy the beach. A five hour drive to the west will bring you, oassing the umbrella making city of Pathein, to the beaches in Ngwe Saung or Chaungtha. Ngwe Saung has a beautiful wide and long beach with crystal clear waters and an absolutely "do nothing" feeling. There is a good choice of boutique hotels in different categories and plenty of local restaurants in the village. Chaungtha is a popular beach resort for local Burmese families from Yangon and can be crowded in the weekends. The village has several karaoke bars and beer stations hence "quiet time" is a bit more difficult to find. Hotels at both beaches are open during the rainy season although most tourists prefer to visit these beaches from October to the middle of May.
Going east from Yangon (by train, bus or private car) we can explore one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Myanmar Buddhist and maybe one of the strangest (or unbelievable) sites for foreign tourist: the Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo Pagoda). A big rock with a small pagoda built on top of it, is balancing on the edge of a mountain and looks as if it could tumble into the ravine below at any moment (luckily some hairs of Buddha precisely placed in the pagoda prevent the rock from falling). The site can be reached after a short walk (1.5 hours) or a long walk (about 7 hours) and apparently taking the long route for 3 times in a lifetime will bring good luck. Surrounding the Golden Rock are numerous local teashops, rest places and monasteries as well as local souvenir shops (many of them offering traditional Myanmar medicine). We continue south from the Golden Rock to arrive in Mawlamyine (Moulmein), the capital of Mon State, a typical sleepy town where time stood still. Hpa An in Kayin state can be reached by boat from Mawlamyine and is a bustling and friendly town with interesting caves to visit.
We leave Yangon and surroundings behind us and travel by train, bus or plane to Mandalay, the former royal capital of Myanmar and home to the palace of the last king of Myanmar (that time called Burma), king Thibaw. Moving the capital city from one location to another has been a common practice in Myanmar for centuries and still is today. The city Nay Pyi Taw (about 4 hours drive south of Mandalay) was declared the new capital of Myanmar in 2005. While Mandalay city feels a bit modern and lost most of its charm the former capital cities surrounding Mandalay (and currently just small villages) are very interesting to visit. Amarapura is our favourite and is reached after a leisurely bicycle ride of an hour or two. Walk over the wooden U-bein Bridge to the other site of the lake, chat with the locals and stroll around the big monastery complex. Sagaing hill is dotted with little small stupas and is famous for its silver workshops while a bit further in Ava it's worth taking a horse cart to show you around the ruins of the former Ava kingdom. The Paleik ruins are hardly visited by foreigners but certainly worth a visit. You feel like being the first western person discovering these ancient temple ruins and don't forget to have a look at the snakes in the snake temple at this same complex. [Mandalay Golf Courses]
If you have a bit of time during your holiday to Myanmar it's worth travelling beyond Mandalay and visit the most northern part of Myanmar: Bhamo, Myitkyina and Putao. The most famous of these towns is Putao, which is the gateway to the Myanmar Himalayas. Putao offers great trekking and rafting possibilities in an untouched area where foreign visitors are still an event! Although Putao valley is not very high, you will be able to see on a clear day a spectacular range of snow-capped mountains (from November – April). Accommodation is either very luxurious or very simple in a teahouse or in tents. Bhamo is a starting point for long and easygoing river cruises down the Ayeyarwaddy River passing traditional villages and towns like Katha where George Orwell and all characters from "Burmese Days" were stationed in the colonial period. Myitkyina is the capital of Kachin state and home of the yearly Kachin New Year festival.
Another interesting part of Myanmar that is easily visited from Mandalay is the Northern Shan state. We take you by car to Hsipaw, a quaint little town which is easy to explore on foot. Visit the market, some home industry factories (weaving, noodles and cigars), visit "little Bagan" or make day or overnight trekking through a beautiful surrounding landscape with tea plantations and hill tribe villages including some traditional hill tribe villages in Kyaukme area – a hidden treasure of the region.
Take the train down into the direction of the Gokteik viaduct which is over hundred years old and once was the second highest viaduct in the world. Enjoy spectacular views from the train and hop off in Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin), which used to be a British hill station for officers to escape the summer heat. We take an antique horse carriage to bring us to the hotel and walk around the Botanical gardens or visit the caves or the waterfall in the surroundings of this city that still has a very colonial atmosphere.
From Mandalay a luxury (or simple) cruise down the Ayeyarwaddy River brings us to Bagan. If you don't like going on the river, alternative routing is going by car (via Moniwa caves and the city of Pakkoku) or via Mount Popa – an extinct volcano which is a National Park and houses the 37 nats (spirits) of Myanmar. For the active people a 2 or 3 day bike ride through the country side from Mandalay to Bagan is certainly rewarding and the best way to see local villages in the dry zone.
By many described as more impressive then Angkor Wat, the temples of Bagan never fail to impress. Over 4000 temples (most of them around 800 years old) are spread out over an area roughly 8 sq kms. It's this landscape of temples that make the area so special and the best way to explore is to go around (by bike, horse cart or car) and simply stop at whatever temple you fancy to have a closer look at. The famous temples like Ananda, Thatbyinnyu, Sulamani and Dhammayangyi are most impressive in architecture while others are just impressive because you'll find yourself all alone with a centuries old temple and get that real "Indiana Jones" feeling while discovering the interior of these historical buildings. Bring a torch and we'll take you to the Minnanthu temple area which has some real treasures. Apart from the terrestrial temple sightseeing, Bagan also offers an aerial view over the temple area while floating in a hot air balloon. [Bagan Golf Courses]
Mount Popa is one of the places to be visited in the surroundings of Bagan as well as the centuries old village of Salay which houses several old wooden monasteries as well as some pretty colonial buildings from the British period. West of Bagan (on the other side of the Ayeyarwaddy River), the mountains of Chin State begin.
With a special travel permit you can make a fantastic jeep tour to Mount Victoria in Chin State. Traditional villages and spectacular views will balance out against the bumpy road and dust. Some of the older women in the villages still have their face tattooed (an old custom in Chin State). From the base camp we will hike in about two hours to the top of the mountain which is over 3000 meters high. A long road trip (or train ride) southwards will bring you to Pyay and the ruins of the ancient city of Thayekhittaya (Sri Ksetra). From here it's a four hour drive to Yangon or an eight hour drive through the Rakhine Mountains to Ngapali beach.
One of the highlights while travelling in Myanmar is a visit to Inle Lake in Shan State. Inle Lake is more than 100 meters above sea level and has a pleasant cool climate. A day trip by motorboat on the lake will show you around villages built on stilts, floating gardens and a colourful market frequented by different tribe people living on or around the lake. Many boutique hotels are found on the shores of the lake and in the village of Nyaung Shwe. In the south of the lake the ruins of Indein are worth a visit. Indein really looks like a "pagoda forest". Not to be missed is a vineyard that produces excellent wine. Other possible activities are a trekking in the area possibly up to Kakku – an ancient Pa-O hill tribe religious site which also can be reached by train from Taunggyi, a canoe trip on the lake or a visit to Nyaung Shwe with the market and the former palace of the Shan prince. [Inle Lake Golf Courses]
Inle Lake surroundings
There are several interesting places around Inle Lake that are worth visiting. The former British hill station Kalaw has a bit of a colonial atmosphere with the old villas, churches and schools. The town is inhabited by Burmese, Nepali and Indian as well as several hill tribes like the Padaung and the Pa O. Kalaw is the starting point for rewarding day treks or longer treks to Inle Lake (3 days) or a trip to Pindaya which is famous for the Pindaya caves that are filled with hundreds of Buddha statues.
Most interesting in Kalaw is certainly the elephant conservation camp recently set up with the aim to protect elephants and to educate the local population about reforestation – probably the highlight of your trip in Myanmar will be washing and feeding of the elephants here.
Daily flights from Heho to Tachileik give you the opportunity to visit Keng Tung (Kyaing Tong) which is a 2 hour drive from Tachileik airport. It is one of the most attractive towns in Shan state with a huge local market and plenty of possibilities to hike to hill tribe villages living around the town.
Ngapali Beach is the prime beach destination of Myanmar. It boasts a pristine beach with crystal clear water, friendly locals, excellent seafood restaurants and several boutique style hotels. What more can you ask for at the end or at the beginning of your trip to Myanmar. Forget about mass tourism, high rise buildings etc as in some other popular Asian beach destinations and just relax or go for a leisurely snorkelling trip and explore the surrounding villages like for example Maung Shwe Lay in Andrew's Bay. Khiri can even organise a home stay on the beach in this area.
Ngapali beach can be reached by airplane from Yangon or Sittwe while the more adventurous travellers can take an exciting jeep expedition from Pyay and discover a part of Myanmar that has hardly seen any foreigners since the colonial times. [Ngapali Golf Courses]
Myanmar has many faces and very wide range of places to visit to keep you easily busy for over a month. Now that the economical sanctions are slowly being lifted by western countries and opposition parties, it's time to come and visit Myanmar and help the people living in this country to further develop their livelihoods.
You'll be surprised how friendly, welcoming and curious the Burmese are when meeting foreigners; in Burmese language there is no word for "tourist" there is only a word for "guest".