South East Asia has captured my imagination many-a-times with its range of food, preservation of culture, and diversity of people. It is a brand new adventure every time I set foot within the region and I have grown fonder and fonder of it as I have increased my itineraries.
This is why I am now presenting to you Myanmar (formerly Burma). Its close proximity to its South East Asian neighbors makes it quite similar to them, and yet there are some very distinct differences between the cultures.
Without further ado, let us jump right in, and discover the best of Myanmar!
There is no better place to start your Myanmar journey than at Bagan, aka Myanmar-lite. These days, Bagan has become the center of all things tourist, with souvenir stalls (and souvenir-selling children) popping up all over the place. Nonetheless, Bagan has been long known for its ‘temple trail’, which is one of the biggest attractions of Myanmar.
Thousands of temples stand erect all across Bagan and are now officially named the “Bagan Archaeological Zone”. Bagan was once the center of culture as it was the first kingdom to unify in Myanmar. Today, while it is no longer the decorated kingdom it once was, it remains a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site.
If you are looking for a place to marvel at architectural genius, while finding your inner peace, Bagan is as good a place as any to begin (1).
Temples are not all there is to Bagan. The other popular tourist spot has to be hot-air ballooning across the region. Air travel has always been a magical experience for the traveler, but I promise you that hot-air ballooning is infinitely more magical than being stuck in an airplane cabin.
Before you fly, keep in mind that the pilot has a lot less control than a regular pilot would, and does not have control over how long you are able to stay up. Also keep in mind that flights begin quite early (around 6.a.m). However, with that out of the way, floating in the sky, on a literal balloon, is quite breath-taking.
There are many photographs out there by now on this experience, and yet it really does the flight no justice. The basket is really stable, the pilots and guides generally quite friendly and helpful, and this is one ride you will not forget (2).
P.S. Be sure to pick your dates carefully and avoid the monsoon season!
Yangon (Formerly Rangoon)
Next, let’s explore the Capital of Myanmar, Yangon! It is quite a recent capital, with the honor moving from Mandalay in 1885. In comparison to most other capitals worldwide, it has a distinct lack of development, with much of the city still being in a state of disrepair. This, however, should not discourage you from visiting!
The city is one of the safest in Asia which is a huge draw for tourists. Food, culture, and commerce come together in harmony here in Yangon, drawing influences from its next door neighbors, as well as the old British colonial masters. If you want to view some old colonial buildings, might I suggest Strand Road (3)!
Otherwise, the world-famous Shwedagon and Botataung Pagodas stand tall here, and some of the most stunning lakes lie close to the city center, too. While yes, the capital has a much higher concentration of people than the rest of the country, there is no feeling of claustrophobia or overcrowding, largely thanks to the wide, open spaces this country seems to love.
Capitals can be a hit and miss whenever visiting a new country. Yangon, however, is definitely a huge hit in my books and I encourage you to visit when you’re in Myanmar (4)!
Since most of Myanmar leans more toward relaxation and calm over the fast-paced metropolis, it is only right to talk about one of the most stunning lakes in the world – Inle Lake. I nearly missed visiting the lake (flight change, cut trip by a day), but I am so glad I made the effort to visit it anyway.
There are no motor boats when I went to this lake, giving it a unique silence. Only the sounds of splashing water (from their famous leg-rowing method) and the occasional chatter of locals going about their day. Come the middle of the lake, however, and the only sounds will be the infrequent click of cameras, and the peace and serenity are hard to find in a world as loud as ours (5).
The lake, however, is not only good for its serenity, but also for its unique experience! You may be keen on experiencing life as a local and this is definitely the way to do it. There are no five-star establishments by the lakeside and nobody seems to mind. Many of the rooms and restaurants are mounted above the shallow water, which is usually only found in places like Tahiti!
There are also no true walkways or roads through the villages on the lake, so most, if not all transport takes place on the river. Inle Lake is definitely one of the best ways to experience life through the eyes of another (6).
Ngapali/Thandwe (Formerly Sandoway)
What’s a tropical holiday without some time spent relaxing on a beach, right? Well, as the saying goes – the best things in life do not come easy, and Ngapali is exactly that. Myanmar’s rail network does not stretch that far, and everybody knows how expensive flying is!
However, if you start your planning from either Bagan or Yangon, you should not have too many problems! Bus lines run from both these areas directly to Ngapali, easily one of the top five beaches in South East Asia (7).
Due to how difficult it can be to get there, the beach is quite unpopulated – very strange for a pristine white sand beach! Really, all you will want to do here is sit back and relax under the sun. However, if you have a thirst for a little more adventure, you can kayak, snorkel, scuba dive, or even take a trip on one of the local fishing boats!
As with all beach holidays, be sure to go during the summer months and not the monsoon months !
This is where I bring you a little off the beaten path to, by far, my favorite place in Myanmar. I have been a fan of living like the locals do for a while now and Hpa-an is the perfect place to do so. Not many tourists frequent this area due to the distinct lack of concrete roads and modern amenities. However, if you want somewhere to just kick back and relax, this is it.
Other than the lake, the pagoda, and the morning market, there is not much else to do here. Life is slow-paced compared to the big cities and yet people are always busying themselves with the day-to-day. If you have time and want to allow yourself to disconnect for a little while, spend a few days here at Hpa-an.
There are also a bunch of mountains and caves that you can conquer and explore, and this is just an awesome place to be (8).
Myanmar is deeply steeped in culture, sharing much of it with its South East Asian neighbors. However, unlike its neighbors, it is a lot more willing to be quieter, calmer, and embrace a much simpler way of life.
While your travels will yield many things, from thrilling adventures to long walks on the beach, Myanmar offers a much simpler take on travel. Take your time to take in the sights, sounds, and tastes of this wonderful little country, and allow yourself to be steeped and double-dipped in wonderful culture.