I don’t know if the Beatles ever visited Burma during the 60s or 70s, but who would have thought that in 2016, one of their most famous songs would best describe the feelings you will experience during your days in the country.
I think Myanmar has to be one of my favourite countries in South East Asia, and perhaps one of the most interesting countries anywhere in the world. There is just so much to do here that it is very difficult to even plan an itinerary (although I have given you some good examples of places to visit below)! For those who enjoy a challenge, Myanmar will be magically rewarding. For those of you who prefer an easier time of it, then Thailand is next door. Mass tourism has still not plagued Myanmar (although it won’t be long now), so there has never been a better time to start preparing for that trip of a lifetime!
Getting to Myanmar has not always been an easy affair, and until very recently, even citizens of the United Kingdom found it difficult to obtain a tourist visa. Visa on Arrival in NOT available for people of most nationalities, and UK nationals should apply for your E-VISA before your arrival at the official website. Nowadays, the process is pretty simple: just fill out the online form, submit and pay ($50), then receive a letter from the Myanmar Embassy (supposedly within 3 working days). When you arrive in Myanmar, your letter and passport will be stamped accordingly and you will be allowed 28 days in the country – but don’t forget the letter! Please note that citizens of other countries may have slightly different processes to obtain the E-VISA.
Although the cost of travelling in the country is slightly above average compared to regional neighbours like Thailand and India, every traveller to Myanmar should note that hotels, restaurants, and even tourist attractions prefer you to pay them in American Dollars (and lots of them!). The Burmese people know that their Kyat currency is worthless outside of Myanmar, and therefore has little monetary value in the country. However, when businesses and individuals have foreign currency in their hands, it becomes a priceless commodity. It may be good to have some Myanmar Kyat as a souvenir when you go back home, but when travelling in the country, you could only possibly use it on the streets to buy some food or a cheap umbrella. No reputable business will accept Kyat from foreigners, so make sure you have a strong currency in your wallet. US Dollars are the de facto currency in Myanmar (and many people will only accept crisp and pristine notes, not the manky stuff that’s falling apart), but if you have UK Sterling, Japanese Yen, Chinese Yuan, Australian Dollars, Euros, or Singapore Dollars, then at the very least you could exchange it for USD when you arrive at the airport.
But when you leave the airport(s), what kind of wonder will you find in Myanmar?
Yangon is the principal gateway to Myanmar, with flights from all over Asia and the Middle-East. It was once the capital of the country, until the Government moved it elsewhere. Pace of life in Yangon is hectic, with every journey you make becoming a somewhat haphazard affair! The people are very friendly, though, and there are some world class attractions, especially the Shwedagon Pagoda. Most people get the overnight train or bus from Yangon to Bagan to continue their Burmese adventure.
The Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo is a well-known Buddhist pilgrimage site in Mon State. According to legend, the Golden Rock is precariously perched on a strand of Buddha’s hair. The balancing rock seems to defy gravity, and it is the third most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in Myanmar. In fact, A glimpse of the “gravity defying” Golden Rock is believed to be enough of an inspiration for any person to turn to Buddhism
Mandalay is a well-known city in Myanmar, but perhaps not the city everybody wants to visit first. Put simply, it lacks the wow factor of Bagan (and Yangon), although there is still a lot of fun to be had here visiting old relics like the Kuthadaw Pagoda and Mandalay Palace. The food in Mandalay is also very tempting! There is an international airport in Mandalay, which has flights to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok, among other places.
The U-Bein Bridge is a crossing that spans Taungthaman Lake near Amarapura (a day trip from Mandalay). The 1.2km bridge was built around 1850 and is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. It is used as an important passageway for the local people, but has also become a tourist attraction and therefore a significant source of income for souvenir sellers. It is particularly busy during July and August when the lake is at its highest.
Bagan is, for most people, the absolute highlight of Myanmar. The reason for this is because of the Bagan Archaeological Zone, which was once a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is full of temples and pagodas which stretch as far as the eye can see. Unfortunately, due to neglect on the site from the previous Government, the UNESCO listing was removed, but the wonderment remains. This is what the Temples of Angkor must have looked like – and felt like – 50 years ago before every backpacker and his dog had to get the Angkor Wat sunrise selfie. In addition, small villages scattered around Bagan, such as Nyaung-U, provide a real cultural experience to dusty part of central Myanmar.
Mount Popa is a volcano located about 50km south east of Bagan. It is perhaps best known as a pilgrimage site, with numerous Nat temples and relic sites atop the mountain, which many tourists climb and explore (avoiding monkeys on the way up and down!). Burmese superstition says that on Mount Popa, one should not wear red or black or green or bring meat, especially pork, as it could offend the resident Nats. Even when viewed from afar, Mount Popa is a wonder to behold.
Inle Lake is a huge freshwater lake located in the centre of the country. The best time of the year to visit is during September and October, when the ceremonial Hpaung Daw U Festival, which lasts for almost three weeks, is closely followed by the Thadingyut festival of lights. Inle Lake is a major tourist attraction, and this has led to some development of tourist infrastructure. Many small and large privately owned hotels and tour operations have arisen during the past few years. A boat ride with a local fisherman will be a peaceful highlight of your stay in the region.
Putao is probably the northern-most city on any kind of tourist trail in Myanmar, even though getting there is often a problem due to weather and regional safety. In the foot of the mountains, you will find a different kind of climate in Putao than almost anywhere else in Myanmar, and it is a great place to experience rural life like never before!
In Yangon, I tried Shwe Yin Aye, Falooda, and Mohinga for the first time. It was in my second visit to Myanmar, however, in Mandalay, where I experienced Lapthet Thoke and Ohn Htamin. I didn’t eat anything new in Bagan, as I think I was too busy looking at all the pagodas (although I did have some great “Mama Dosa” for breakfast in Bagan)! If I ever return to Myanmar, who knows what I will end up eating next time?!
After having a reputation for so long as an inferior tourist destination (compared to its more illustrious neighbour Thailand), it is great to see Myanmar now becoming more and more of a destination in its own right. For centuries, tourism did not touch Myanmar, and this gives it a virgin state; almost otherworldly.
Due to increasing visitors, Myanmar may not be mysterious any longer, but any visitor the country will be awestruck by the sheer level of magic in the air!