Whilst China and Thailand has been forging the way for tourist driven development in South East Asia for some time, Myanmar has found itself lagging more and more behind. Recently however an increase in infrastructure and government reform has meant it is now a nation ready to embrace foreign tourists. With a myriad of glittering temples, stunning mountain scenery and relaxing beach locations it will not be long before Myanmar becomes the next big thing in the area.
For most visitors the trip is likely to start in hectic Yangon where you can go from pounding the streets of the main city and visiting the Sule Paya temple, which also happens to serve as a roundabout on the main street of town, to the tranquil Kandawgyi Nature Park where the busy streets become a distant memory and you can while away a day walking around the lake and taking in the stunning golden dragon catamaran! Teashops litter every street corner and back alley and provide a wonderful insight into the culture of the Burmese people. Be sure to take a seat and soak in the atmosphere and people watch whilst the busy owner plies you will endless tea, dumplings and fried goods!
The jewel in the Myanmar tourist crown has to be the glimmering Shwedagon Pagoda, rising a colossal 100m into the air and perched atop a hill just out of the city centre. It is a true sight to behold. Tourist, locals and Buddhists from all over the world come here every day to make the clockwise pilgrimage around the huge bell stupa. As night draws in and the sun sets the site is illuminated bathing everything in a stunning yellow hue.
A short flight north to Mandalay and you will find yourself in the midst of the country’s northern capital. Surrounded by mountains to the north, spreading out into the plans in the south and perched aside the Irrawaddy, Mandalay is the usual gateway to the North’s many attractions. The ancient cities are the main draw with the short boat ride over to Amarapura being a highlight. Don’t forget to be back at the worlds longest teak bridge for sunset as you mingle with locals, get quizzed by excitable monks from the local monastery and watch the sun dip down below the river for another day.
A day trip down the Irrawaddy, getting in touch with your inner George Orwell, will bring you to the truly stunning Bagan. 2200 temples of varying shapes and sizes littered across a huge area make you feel like a true life Indiana Jones. The larger temples can often be crowded at sunrise and sunset but with a little additional effort, you can find a temple of your very own and as the cherry red sun appears above or dips below the horizon you will have the awesome spectacle of 30 hot air balloons cruising silently overhead all to yourself.
A short flight or 6 hour road trip onto the edges of the Shahn state brings you to the old colonial hill town of Kalaw and the stunning Inle Lake. For the hikers amongst us Kalaw offers multiple day treks out into the gorgeous surrounding countryside with pine forests, mountains, villages and smiling locals to keep you amused along the way.
Lake Inle has been a victim of its own success with tourism accounting for a huge percentage of the income for the area. As such tourist longboats ply the water almost exclusively and the age old markets which the villages have become famous for now often sell more tourist orientated goods as opposed to the daily items which would have been seen here 10 years ago. That said there is a reason Lake Inle is so popular. The scenery is absolutely breath-taking. Getting up early to avoid the crowds is highly recommended and you will be out with the fishermen cruising across the glassy blue lake with the sun rising over the mountains that encircle the lake. Make sure you take the in the myriad of stupas at Inthein, slightly off the beaten track from the rest of the lake but well worth the trip. You may also recognize the gate into this area as the location in Top Gear where Richard Hammond’s truck gets stuck on the bridge. Look out for the continuity errors for fans of the show! A great way to explore the surrounding area for any fitness levels is to hire bikes for the day. On one side you have the toasty warm hot springs and the other the winery that perches half way up the steep slopes providing amazing views of the whole lake.
Once you have completed the ‘Big 4’ it’s time to visit Myanmar’s more hidden gems. Just outside of Yangon the Irrawaddy delta is a maze of waterways open to explore, with villages galore. Slightly to the north the pilgrimage site of the golden rock where every morning hordes of Burmese make the exhilarating trip up the hillside in open back trucks to pay homage to the precarious golden boulder perched on the side of a cliff, said to be held in place by one of Buddha’s hairs. To the west and for the beach lovers Ngapali is Myanmar’s beach paradise and will fulfill your castaway fantasies whilst your toes are dipping into the Indian Ocean. Slightly further north and if you are not all ‘templed out’ at Bagan the mythical hidden away complex of Marak U is less visited but if exploring almost deserted temple ruins in a jungle setting, a la Lara Croft, is for you then this is definitely the place for you. Finally, north of Mandalay the old colonial hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin and further afield Hsi Paw offer a more laid back insight into Burmese life with slightly higher elevation enables you to get out of the heat and provides stunning walks just out of the town.