Emerging out of the ashes of a long held military dictatorship, Myanmar (known also by its colonial name, Burma) is only just opening to the tourism world. As with any emergent travel destination, it is not completely without strife. When we traveled there over the 2017-2018 New Year, the country was still reeling from the Rohingya refugee crisis. Despite this, the country is trying its hardest to attract tourism and dig itself out of its sorted dictatorship past. If you are all about Southeast Asia (as I am) and want to get to somewhere that is largely ‘undiscovered’ – though I am sure this will change – then Myanmar is the place for you.
We spent just over a week hopping between Yangon, Inle Lake, Bagan and Mandalay. As I say with nearly every trip – it was not nearly enough. Myanmar is the type of country you want to take your time in. Other areas worth checking out are Mount Popa, Kalaw, Mount Kyaiktiyo, Ngapali and off the beaten track – Pindaya.
Picture: Open air markets in Yangon. Note the face ‘make-up’ (sunscreen) on the local women’s face. This mixture of ground Thanaka tree (also the name of the cream) is meant to cleanse and protect. The word ‘Thanaka’ not only represents the tree but also doubles as a word for beauty.
We took an international flight directly into the capital, Yangon. The city still has remnants of its British past scattered in between what you would expect out of a developing country. Roads were a mix of dirt and pavement with impressive colonial era mansions sitting next to tin roofed side shops.
Where we stayed: Merchant Art Boutique Hotel
Top pagodas to see: Chaukhtetkyi Pagoda, Sule Pagoda, Shwedagon Pagoda & Kandawgyi Park
To get an intro into the city we took a walking tour with our favorite grassroots organization Urban Adventures. After getting our fill of the night market food options (and all their yumminess) we headed to a different scene at the historic Strand Hotel. Rivaling the Ruffles hotel in Singapore, the Strand was built in 1901 by the same brothers, Sarkies, who made a name for theirselves at the turn of the century. The British ruled Burma from 1827-1948 and much of that intertwined colonial history is still felt in the cities of Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay.
From the city, we hopped to the enchanting and world famous, Inle Lake.
Picture: Traditional fishing done on Inle Lake. Fisherman are all to happy to demonstrate their prowess fishing with only their legs. A technique that is as much for tourists as it is for practical use today.
Inle Lake is a miraculous community who has built their entire livelihood off of the largest fresh water lake in the country. They farm, fish, weave and metal work all on stilts of the lake as they have done for thousands of years.
Where to stay: Shwe Inn Tha Floating resort Inle Lake
We booked a ‘short break’ through intrepid to get a closer look at the Inle. Taking our own private boat around the floating city, we were introduced to the way of life of the people. We met a local fisherman in his home, seeing the seemingly floating stilt houses and truly industrious methods of cleaning, cooking and living.
Picture: One of the many examples of how industries have stayed alive and thrived all the while floating in the middle of the lake.
By far this water town way our favorite stop. The food, people and experiences were only to be matched by the next beautiful city, Bagan.
Many travelers exploring Southeast Asia would have undoubtedly stumbled upon Angkor Wat as a UNESCO world heritage site. A maze of wonderious ruined temples located in northern Cambodia, this beautiful site is only rivaled by its little known regional competitor in Bagan, Myanmar. With over 10,000 pagodas and stupas in an area of 8miles by 5, Bagan has the largest concentration of Buddhist temples in the world. This is where we decided to spend NYE 2018.
Where we stayed: Ostello Bello Bagan
We opted to stay in a hostel while there and celebrated New Years on their rooftop patio with fellow expats. We also just so happened to stumble on this historic and holy site on the week of the Ananda Pagoda Festival. One of the most important and best preserved temples in the maze of Bagan is the Ananda Pagoda. It was crowded more than usual with camping families, goats and celebratory locals. On the final day of the ceremony (coinciding close with NYE and the full moon), trucks of overspilling villagers could be seen honking horns, drinking and blaring loud music.
With so many different temples, you need a lifetime to try see them all. We opted to self tour, though there are guided options, through daily moped rentals and a self-made map. To help riddle it down, we followed top 10 pagoda recommendations. While climbing on top of the pagodas had recently been banned – there were a few that we were able to sneak onto. The view (and experience) never disappointed.
If you go to Bagan, a must and possibly the best way to see the temples, is through a hot air ballon. We had booked this as a present on New Years Day, but unfortunately were unable to partake due to poor weather (rain). It is costly (about $800 per person) but 100% worth it for the famous views.
Photo Credit: Ballon’s over Bagan
NOTE: If you are planning on traveling to Myanmar do get prepared for Pagodas – there are literally ancient pagodas to see everywhere. Its hard to pick your favorite but after a while they do end up blurring together. I personally cannot get enough of the temple scene, but my husband hit his limit at about tour #10 of ‘famous’ temples.
Picture: Monk shaving his head as a part of his daily ritual. Choosing life as a monk provides opportunities many villagers never get and is also not necessarily a permanent station in life. Monasteries usually have consistent meals (donated by the community) and above all – provide opportunities to grow spiritually as well as mentally through educational programs often not accessible to the less fortunate.
Our final stop on this whirlwind tour was Mandalay. More modern than Yangon, Mandalay was the last capital city before the country fell to colonial rule. As such it has a well preserved palace where you can explore the grounds. You can also get a glimpse into how the government operates in present time; the current military headquarters that houses all of the officers families is located in the center of town.
Where we stayed: The Link 83
We chose to hire a private vehicle to drive from Bagan to Mandalay with stops at Mount Popa and U Bien Bridge for sunset. We only stayed for one night in this city on our way onward to Thailand, but you can get a great overview of top 10 things to do here.
We took a combination of private cars and flights. Flights are super cheap (under $100pp) and since we were on such a time crunch it saved us some much needed days. Private cars are also cheap and easy – though the roads are as expected. On our journey from Bagan to Mandalay took us through a number of construction spots – including getting stuck in the mud (which we inevitably got out of)
Highlights here was absolutely the time spent in Inle Lake and Bagan. Skip the cities if you can – a day or two was fine for us. We mostly flew local planes to hop from city to city; flights are just under $100 per person and were by the far the quickest way to get around on our short schedule.
Myanmar is exactly why Southeast Asia is by far my favorite place in the world for travel. It offers a totally different culture that is (mostly) peaceful, beautiful, inexpensive to explore and full of wonderful food, sights and people. Happy exploring!