Myanmar has become one of this year’s most acclaimed travel destinations with brilliant rural scenery, bustling urban areas, and historic ruins galore. But travel in Burma (Myanmar) requires advance planning, and it’s still not a destination most have explored.
Before departing, you’ll need to do major prep work including researching the current security situation (always look at the US State Department’s website to check for travel warnings), visiting a travel clinic for a round of immunizations, and securing a visa. There are often restrictions placed on travelers in Myanmar keeping them to certain parts of the country, or forbidding them from travel at night.
Taking this into account, make sure to create a refined, detailed trip itinerary based on the government’s rules on where tourists are permitted to visit. Since most internal flights must be booked with travel agencies (not available online) and lodging can be limited, it’s best to reserve flights and accommodation in advance.
Most visitors to Myanmar start off in Yangon, the country’s cultural and historical center. It’s a unique, bustling city that deserves at least one full day of exploration. Don’t miss Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Myanmar. The locals’ favorite market, Bogyoke Aung San Market, is a great place to practice newfound bargaining skills too.
Cycling enthusiasts should consider a stay at Bike World Bed, Breakfast and Bike. Owned by a very friendly Australian/Burmese couple with a penchant for all things bike related, budget accommodations are comfortable and clean. The owners can help in planning bike trips in the area as well.
Bagan’s 4,000 ancient Buddhist temples are reason enough to make the long journey to Myanmar. Quite simply, they’re spectacular. Spend the first day in Old Bagan, taking in the area’s most popular temples such as Ananda Pagoda (a well preserved, huge temple with a striking gold shimmering top) and Thatbyinnyu Temple (Bagan’s highest temple).
In the following days, rent a bike, borrow a map and set off to explore Bagan’s lesser known Central Plain temples. Don’t miss Sin-byu-shin complex (stunning views!) and the Wi-ni-do Group that houses brilliant ancient wall murals. Rental bikes are practically as ancient as the temples and flat tires are the norm! Do not leave the hotel without sunscreen and water.
To reach Bagan, take a short, relatively expensive flight or long, cheap bus ride (approximately 10 – 12 hours) from Yangon. Bagan can be easily reached from other main tourist destinations as well.
Nyaung Shwe, Inle Lake
Inle Lake is firmly on the tourist trail, and for good reason. The sparkling lake hosts a range of fascinating ethnic minority communities, living in stilted homes both within the lake and on the rim. Head out on a guided boat tour to see the traditional fishing communities up close, or rent a bike and map and cycle around the outskirts of the Lake.
Don’t miss Kaung Daing, a picturesque Intha village surrounded by colorful fields and towering mountains (approximately 8km from Nyaung Shwe). The villagers of Kaung Daing support themselves by creating tasty sweets to sell at local markets.Wander into the village, and they’ll be delighted to show off their craft. There is even a winery in the area, Red Mountain Vineyard – the crisp white wines are surprisingly good and the sunset views make for perfect pictures.
If you’re heading to Inle Lake and are short on time or tired of long bus-rides, fly into Heho Airport which is located 41 kilometers away. Otherwise, Inle Lake is well connected to other tourist destinations via bus.
For somewhere more off the beaten path, consider a trip to rural Hsipaw. Hikes in the surrounding mountains are epic – though, do make sure to head out with a guide as it’s very easy to get lost on unmarked, overgrown trails.
A fun way to reach Hsipaw is on a train from Mandalay. Ride at your own risk though, as the trains are very, very ancient! Expect long delays and motion sickness on the teetering old trains, but also a peek into the real lives of Myanmar’s diverse peoples.
Learn a few words in a local language to chat with a neighbor, and make sure to hop off at train stops to take in the colorful, clamorous action.
One final word of wisdom before you begin planning your trip – expect the unexpected when you travel in Burma.
The tourist industry is still nascent, and infrastructure is very limited in certain areas. Leave at least one open day on the end of your trip so an unexpected surprise (such as a train delay, cancelled flight, traveler’s diarrhea, etc.) doesn’t lead to a missed return flight back to the US!
Have you been to Myanmar? Where did you go?