I have traveled to Myanmar twice in the past five years and this country lies so close to my heart. Spending over three months in Myanmar I could not get enough of it.
Where is Myanmar?
Myanmar is a Southeast Asian nation situated between the countries of China to the north, Thailand to the East, Bangladesh and India to the west. Myanmar is home to many languages, but Burmese is the most widely spoken and understood language of the nation. Myanmar’s capital city ‘Yangon’, located near the southern coast is a complex blend of Myanmar’s people, being a mix of Bamar, Indian, and many other tribal/minority groups. The population of Myanmar is around 53 million and makes it one of Southeast Asia’s greatest diversities of ethnic groups. Travel to Myanmar and you will be rewarded with one of Southeast Asia’s best kept secrets. Myanmar has been closed to foreigners for many years, but has recently opened its land borders and remote locations.
Myanmar or Burma?
This is a question often asked by many who are interested in travel to Myanmar. Ask any local and they will tell you Myanmar not Burma, because the name Burma was given to this country by the British for its largest ethnic group the Bamar. Myanmar’s people who make up of over 135 ethnic groups prefer their new country name.
Let’s explore some of my favourite destinations in Myanmar.
Bagan is home to one of Southeast Asia’s greatest wonders! There are over 4000 Buddhist temples spread across an impressive 26 mile radius. Bagan is located in Myanmar’s centre, more of a dry desert rather than dense jungle like elsewhere In Myanmar.
What’s the best way to see Bagan?
Well there are two great options. The first being by electric motor scooter. Easy to ride and surprisingly tough, you can zip in between Bagan’s temples and find hidden sights nobody has seen before. The second way to explore is to take one of Bagan’s hot air balloons. This option digs deep into your pockets at about 320 US Dollars, but gives you a great overview and allows you to grasp how large this area really is. My favourite experience visiting Bagan is riding my electric scooter down a back dirt road during sunset. I passed beautiful fields of green vegetables being picked by tribal people balancing baskets on their heads all while the glimpses of soft light peeked through the ancient trees above me. This experience was so incredibly peaceful. There was nothing else like it.
Favourite Accommodation – May Kha Lar guest house at $13 – $30. This place is hilarious! The owner often coerces you into drink whiskey with him and the rooms look like bamboo huts from Rambo. Price is great, beds are comfy, has air-con and WIFI.
Imagine a hidden remote lake nestled in between forest covered mountains. This lake also has floating temples and villages with some of Myanmar’s most interesting people. This is Inle Lake.
Inle Lake is located east of Bagan and is a surprisingly easy journey to make from the capital Yangon or Bagan. Inle Lake is famous for its floating villages. The main ones have their own floating gardens and floating temples. These sometimes feature cats that have been trained to jump through hoops by their masters, who also happen to be the resident monks. Traveling to Inle Lake twice now has given me two very different experiences. The first time here I took local boats to different villages and temples visiting the monks with their jumping cats and being spellbound by the fisherman who paddle their boats snake-like with a paddle strapped to their legs. The second time I explored more of Inle Lake’s shoreline which is home to some very interesting minority groups only found in this region of Myanmar. Both visits however were special in their own way and left me excited to return to this amazing place!
Favourite Accommodation – May guest house is $15 – $30. Great location, garden, informative staff, and super atmospheric. I have stayed here twice now and probably won’t stay anywhere else. Book ahead, it made it into Lonely Planet so you know that the means.
Myanmar’s capital city is not like other Southeast Asian capitals. Its streets and buildings are all made up of decaying colonial British architecture inhabited by countless people, shops, and other interesting sights worth seeing. But this is where Myanmar’s new age culture is beginning. Myanmar’s people who have a fascination with heavy metal and classic rock often host rock shows and concerts here. There are also a great bar and live music scenes beginning to pop up everywhere. Yangon is also home to one of Myanmar’s greatest sights, the Shwedagon Paya. Shwedagon Paya, a 325 foot zedi, is made up of around 27 metric tons of gold leaves and thousands of other gems/diamonds. It can be seen from almost any part of Yangon and will impress even the most jaded travelers. I have visited Shwedagon Paya many times. Walking clockwise around its courtyard in the evening is an experience unmatched by any other. Monks chanting, giant gongs vibrating the air, the glimpses of light bouncing of the gold stupa, the thousands of pilgrims praying, this place will change you. After being zenified by this place, head on down to 19th street for some brews and death metal to relive one of my favourite Myanmar experiences.
Favourite Accommodation – Cherry guest house at $20 – $35. Located in the back streets on the fourth floor of an old building, the Cherry gives you a great view of Yangon’s congested streets. Its comfortable rooms are well equipped with all a traveler needs, and the staff here are incredibly helpful. Very central and easy to walk to most major sights from.
On my last trip to Myanmar, the Shan state had just opened. Being closed for so many years has kept this region unspoiled from outsiders. Shan state is an adventurer’s dream. Its emerald green rolling hills, conceal countless minority villages, some of which have not seen outsiders ever before. This is Myanmar at its rawest form. Shan is rough, visiting here is not for those faint of heart. Expect awful road conditions, looks of horror from others and the chance of violence from political tension to happen while traveling here. Those who brave it will get the travel experience that only the most extreme travellers strive to earn. For me, coming here and spending time with Tribal people who are so primitive and traditional was an experience like no other. Learning about how these people survive here and the different ethnicities brings a whole new outlook to Southeast Asia’s hidden wonders. One time in particular, always comes back to my mind. I was visiting a remote “off limits” Wa minority village and the tribe their was extremely interested in why an outsider was visiting them. They showed me their local Shaman and his drum – which if you touch was a penalty of death. They then proceeded to show me where they grow opium to make money for their village, what a place!
Warning: Visiting the Wa is not recommended, I am a very experienced traveler who has spent much time in conflict zones. If you do decide to visit this hard to reach region please do as I did and hire a local guide who knows the area and people. Going without a guide can result in very dangerous situations as the Wa are not always hospitable to outsiders.
Favourite Accommodation – There isn’t much here I’d recommend as in the cities the hotels are overpriced and low quality. In Kyaingtong I stayed at the Princess hotel. After bargaining the rooms came to $30 USD for a twin. My opinion, get out of town and stay with the tribes!
Often overlooked by travellers (which is absurd in my opinion!) and located a few hours east of Yangon, Mt Kyaiktiyo should be on every traveller’s list to see. At first glance you see something gravity-defying. There is a large golden globe balanced by one of Buddha’s hairs. I guess in a sense, this is gravity-defying. A journey here is a journey thousands of Buddhist pilgrims make a lifetime commitment to come here for. Kyaiktiyo (hard to pronounce, I know) is essentially a giant gold boulder atop a steep mountain surrounded by temples. This is as unique as Myanmar gets, as this place ranks in some of the strangest, but most amazing places I have seen. My favourite experience here is actually the journey to the mountain top. Starting in Kinpun, you are piled shoulder to shoulder into the back of a monster of a pickup truck. After about 50-60 people are squeezed in, the truck begins its hair raising journey up the dangerous mountain roads. If you in any way fear what I have just said, then opt for taking private transport as this ride is actually pretty horrifying. I personally loved the adrenaline high from this crazy ride of pilgrims and bad asses! Once the ride is finished and you have reached the summit, you begin to calm down as you gaze upon the Golden Rock. I spent hours exploring the summit and meeting pilgrims with the most interesting stories across Myanmar, only to ride back down the crazy roller coaster mountain path.
Favourite Accommodation – Sea Star Hotel at $15 – $30. Located in Kinpun, this hotel is in close proximity to the buses for the mountain tour and is basic and cheap. It has a wide variety of bungalows, some of which I have stayed in on my first visit, but I opted for the cheaper ones the second time here. Decent hotel and friendly staff, and you can’t beat the location.
If you are interested in Myanmar, and are not quite ready to take the plunge alone, I highly recommend going for a trip with G adventures. They are a travel adventure tour company that offers small group tours, and they will take care of pretty much everything!