Once hidden from the world behind a repressive military regime, Myanmar is now one of the hottest travel destinations in Southeast Asia.
While once Myanmar (formerly Burma) was inaccessible to even the most trailblazing adventurer, in the last couple of years it has topped lists of the world’s up-and-coming destinations; in 2014 the contribution of tourism to its economy was up 14% year-on-year, and in 2015 the country is set to welcome five million visitors*. So, what’s the attraction? Becki Enright picks nine places to go and things to do to experience Myanmar at its very best.
1. Grab a bike and cycle around Mandalay
Rudyard Kipling wasn’t kidding when he described Mandalay as a ‘cleaner, greener land’ of sunshine and ‘tinkly temple-bells’. The city, which centres around Mandalay Hill, is easy to navigate due to it’s grid structure, but you’ve got to head out of town into the surrounding countryside to see a quieter, more peaceful side to the last royal capital of Burma. Hire a bike, grab a map and go, or get yourself on a tour. Operators, such as Grasshopper Adventures, will provide you with a local guide to introduce you to the mountainous plains, paddyfields, tiny villages and residential hideouts, including the bean curd production houses and bamboo weavers who live around the city.
2. Ride the Yangon Circle Line
Train geek or not, the $1 journey on Yangon’s ‘commuter’ line certainly offers the best value for money experience in town. Speeding through the rural suburbs of Myanmar’s formar capital (before it was relocated to Nypyidaw in 2006) you’ll see exactly what life means to the residents of Yangon, stopping at tiny villages, sharing your plastic bench with old ladies and livestock. The complete loop takes about three hours, passing through 39 stations. If you get peckish you can always hop off at a station and grab a quick street food snack, like a pouch of sweet and creamy falooda, made with tapioca, milk and rose syrup. Just make sure you don’t dawdle too long or the train will steam off without you.
3. Cross Myanmar’s highest bridge
Another rail journey, this time swapping scenic suburbs for terrifying heights. For $3 you can take the pretty (scary) ride across the highest railway bridge in Myanmar, the world’s highest back in 1899 when it was built. The Goteik Viaduct stands at 102 metres tall and is one of the most popular railways journeys in the country, taking you from the hilly trekking lands of Hsipaw, to the northern former colonial hideout of Pyin Oo Lwin. Brace yourself; the entire train carriage stirs and sways; be brave: lean out of the window and look down to snap that daredevil shot.
4. Temple hop
If you don’t see any other temples in Myanmar, make sure you visit the plains of Bagan, littered with more than 2,000 spirtiual tiers and towers. Hire a bike and cycle through the desert landscape, but depending on when you visit, it may be too hot to do this. From February to April the heat and humidity gets so high that most people seek refuge and strong air conditioning from midday until about 3pm. Other options include electric bikes or a more leisurely horse and cart tour. However you get around, you’ll be amazed at these examples of 9th and 13th century architectural grandeur and innovation. Ask your guesthouse owners or the horse and cart drivers for the best sunrise and sunset spots. The most popular temple is Mingalazedi Paya, but you’ll get a gorgeous view from most of the temples’ terraces, so go off-track and find your own sweet sunset or sunrise spot to avoid the crowds.
5. Head to the southern peninsula
On your way to Myanmar’s southern states, stop off at the Golden Rock, a dazzling golden pagoda-on-a-boulder that hangs on the edge of a cliff. Further south, visit Mawlamyine and Dawai which, although they’re short on any kind of tourist attractions, are filter-free windows into Burmese life. The south has only really flung open its doors to mass tourism over the past couple of years, but it has already attracted scuba divers and snorkellers to the Andaman Sea and the coast off of the Myeik Archipelago. The islands themselves are off-limits except with a government permit.
6. Trek the tea hills
Whether it’s Lashio to Hsipaw, or on to Kalaw (a great base for exploring nearby Inle Lake) multi-day treks through the tea hills, forests and plains brings you to not only to the lush green of the north, but to the fringes of unspoilt Shan State. Treks are usually guided and combined with homestays and an overnight stop at a monastery. Be sure to shop around for tour operators wherever you choose to start your trek. If you’re travelling solo, it pays to buddy up with other travellers you might meet on the road, as some tours will not depart without a minimum number onboard, plus you get to split the costs.
7. Sail across Inle Lake
One of the most photographed sights in Myanmar, Inle Lake’s famous fishermen, rowing their boats with their feet, wielding huge conical nets, is a must-see. The lake is best experienced at sunrise, as the morning mist rolls out off the water and across the surrounding mountains. It’s easy (and cheap) to hire a private driver to take you out on the water in a motor-powered canoe. He’ll take you into the canals and backwaters of floating villages and water gardens, stopping at local handicraft stores selling souvenirs that include silver jewellery and traditional wood carvings.
8. See the Moustache Brothers Show
There was once a politically outspoken comedic trio of brothers (well, two brothers and a cousin) known for their live performances denouncing the military regime, two of which were arrested following a performance at the home of democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The conditions of the release? They would remain under house arrest and could only perform for foreigners at the family home in the centre of Mandalay. Now a two-man show, these local heroes certainly don’t hold back. Slapstick, satirical and silly, attending a show here is paying homage to a history of fighting for the freedom of speech.
9. Get in some beach time
Western Myanmar’s beaches are as beautiful as any in Thailand. Ngapali Beach is one of the best; beach huts nestled between palm trees along swathes of golden sand. Although popular with locals, you’re likely to be one of only a handful of international tourists throwing down your beach towel here. It’s also a great spot to stop for a few days r&r in between all that temple traipsing, city hopping and highland hiking, and those lengthy cross-country bus journeys, that characterise a trip to Myanmar.
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*Source: World Travel and Tourism Council