With a lush jungle landscape dotted with glistening golden pagodas, a visit to Myanmar has a distinctly dream-like vibe. Carts led by oxen rattle along the pot-holed roads and visitors truly feel as though they have been transported to another era. Although tourism has boomed since 2012 when travel restrictions were lifted for foreigners, Myanmar is still relatively unjaded. Indeed, the Burmese are genuinely friendly and welcoming to visitors.
Unfortunately Myanmar has been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons within the last few years. Whilst Northern Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states are to be avoided, much of the country is open to tourists. (At the time of writing the whole of Myanmar is closed to tourism due to COVID-19. Hopefully it won’t be too long before this changes!) A few years back we flew to Mandalay from Bangkok and loved every minute of our time in Myanmar. Here are ten memorable experiences to have when it is possible to visit this unique and bewitching destination again:
1) Temple Hopping by Bicycle in Bagan
Cycling along the dusty lanes of the ancient city of Bagan is a highlight of any trip to Myanmar. The twenty-six square mile area is home to over two thousand temples, most of which are superbly preserved. Each temple has a character of its own, with a Buddha statue, along with carvings and frescoes. Indeed, pedalling through the rugged terrain with the evocative sound of monks chants emanating from the temples is a magical experience.
2) Take a Boat Trip on Lake Inle
An early morning canoe ride on Lake Inle is a fascinating insight into life on the water. In fact, photo opportunities abound as the lake comes to life. Intha fishermen have a unique style of steering, skilfully rowing boats with one leg and using their hands to catch fish. Picturesque stilted teak and bamboo homes surround the lake. Locals collect seaweed for use as fertilizer and many boats are loaded with fruit and vegetables from the floating market. Wooden canoes with long-tailed outboard motors set out from Nyaungshwe each morning for tours around the lake.
3) Climb Mandalay Hill
Head to the summit of this 954-foot high hill, a sacred Buddhist site, to witness the sun setting over Mandalay and the plains. A total of 1729 steps lead the way to the top and have to be traversed barefoot according to Buddhist beliefs. As you climb, you pass a plethora of glistening pagodas and temples, as well as vendors selling snacks and souvenirs. It is quite likely that you will find yourself befriended by a Buddhist monk who wants to practise English. Climbing the temple was the highlight of our stay in Mandalay.
4) Enter the Depths of Saddan Cave
This cave is situated in the south-east of Hpa An in Kayin state. When visiting, it is necessary to take a flashlight in order to make your way through the darkness of the cave. Alternatively you can make a donation and the lights will be switched on for you. There are Buddhas sitting in the entrance chamber and you then wander through gigantic caverns filled with amazing rock formations. You finally emerge at a beautiful lake on the other side of the cave.
5) Chill Out on Ngapali Beach
Ngapali Beach, located on the Bay of Bengal is probably the most beautiful beach in Myanmar. As a matter of fact, with its miles of white sand fringed with palm trees, Ngapali is pure paradise. Apart from chilling out, the main pursuits to indulge in include kayaking together with scuba diving and snorkelling. Along the coast there are several small fishing villages offering a taste of local life. Of course, it goes without saying that the seafood restaurants are superb.
6) Hike to the Summit of Mount Popa
This incredible Buddhist monastery is located approximately thirty-one miles from Bagan at the summit of a volcanic plug. There are 777 steps to climb, not to mention troupes of cheeky monkeys to entertain you on route. Furthermore, the monastery is believed to be the home of thirty-seven nats (spirit entities). Indeed, statues of them can be seen at the base of the hill. Golden pagodas glisten in the sunlight and there are several shrines to be seen on the way up. We took a taxi from Bagan which cost about $25.00 return and it was well worth the journey.
7) Visit Shwedagon Pagoda
The main tourist attraction in Yangon, the impressive Shwedagon Pagoda, sits on a hill and can be seen from most places in city. The dazzling pagoda is 2,600 years old. It is a very important temple to Buddhists, who make pilgrimages from far and wide. Indeed, Buddhist pilgrims are drawn to it in the same manner that Muslims are to Mecca. The stupa topping the principal dome is decorated with 7,000 diamonds together with rubies, topaz and sapphires. A huge emerald reflects the last rays of the sinking sun. It is particularly stunning when it is illuminated at night.
8) Go Shopping at Bogyoke Aung San Market
The massive bazaar in the heart of Yangon is a great place to pick up some gifts or souvenirs. Alternatively, it’s also a fun to simply browse and enjoy the exotic and bustling atmosphere. Burmese handicrafts, antiques, art, jewellery and clothing are among the items you can purchase at the sprawling covered market. Indeed, it’s a colourful treasure trove of temptations and a unmissable experience if you are in Yangon.
9) Watch the Sun go Down over U-Bein Bridge
This remarkable bridge was built in 1850 and at three quarters of a mile long, it is the longest teak foot crossing in the world. Located approximately eight miles south of Mandalay, it has become one of Myanmar’s most photographed sights. The bridge crosses Taungthaman Lake and is particularly scenic at sunset when both locals and tourists gather to enjoy the scene.
10) Cruise the Irrawaddy River
A relaxing cruise along the tranquil Irrawaddy River is one of Myanmar’s most iconic experiences. Passing dense jungle and rice paddies together with traditional villages, it’s an opportunity to take in a way of life that has been unchanged for centuries. Known as ‘The Road to Mandalay’ after the Rudyard Kipling poem, the river runs all the way from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean.
(Please note that Myanmar is currently closed due to COVID-19. Check out Myanmar Board of Hotels and Tourism for the latest information).