(BEGODI) – Myanmar is a country that has endured never-ending waves of oppression from many different internal and external groups. These empires, invaders, settlers and rebels have evidently taken a toll on the people and overall wellbeing of the nation. After a 50 year tourism ban, Myanmar began accepting visitors again in 2011. It is thus an incredibly new destination for modern travellers, and presents much to be learned about this incredible country. To better understand its geography, we have put together a guide to Myanmar’s open regions. You can thus pinpoint where to go and what to see for your exciting trip to this mysterious land.
Yangon and surrounds
The commercial hub of Myanmar, Yangon is the bustling former capital where modernity and tradition intertwine. It is undergoing rapid development in order to accommodate its fervent stream of incoming tourists. Dynamic and open, Yangon’s streets are filled with wafting smells of vibrant flavours from local vendors and world-class restaurants. With flourishing art galleries, historical Buddhist sites and contemporary architecture, exploring the city is always a treat. It interestingly houses more preserved colonial buildings than any other place in Southeast Asia.
Not to be missed is the iconic attraction lying just outside of the city, the Schwedagon Paya. Possibly one of the oldest pagodas in the world, it is the most important Buddhist site in Myanmar. 27 metric tonnes of gold leaf coat the paya’s exterior, and 7 000 diamonds and gems give it a truly majestic sparkle. At 99 meters high it sits on a hilltop reigning over the city and landscapes of Yangon. The relics of past Buddhas have been reverently housed in the temple.
Also worth a visit is the Kandawgyi Lake, boasting stunning views of the Schwedagon Pagoda to the west. You can stroll along the tranquil boardwalk and head to the larger Inya Lake. South of this you can see the site of Aung San Suu Kyi’s home which was previously off-limits while she was under house arrest.
Southwest of Inya Lake is the Hledan produce market. It is a wonderful place to observe authentic life off the tourist trail. Dala Township is another off the beaten track destination to visit, just a ferry ride from Yangon.
Bagan and central plains
Myanmar’s central plains are the suspended landscapes of ancient history that draw travellers to this breathtaking country from all corners of the earth. Temples lie here as they have for hundreds of years between the Ayeyarwady River and the Shan Hills. It is the place where kingdoms have risen and fallen time and again. 2 230 temples and stupas make up the enchanted surroundings of Bagan. Although they were believed to be almost double in number centuries ago, it remains an exceptional and unparalleled sight. A hot air balloon ride at dusk or dawn is the paramount Myanmar experience which is truly not to be missed.
A great and efficient way to explore the temples on land is by means of an E-bike. This way you can discover one of 8 designated temples where it is permitted to climb up on them. From here you can enjoy the sunset or sunrise for more breathtaking views.
Bagan is also famous for being the heart of the country’s lacquerware industry. You can watch these remarkable artisans as they work through this lengthily process of creation. It takes 6 months to complete one piece of lacquerware, so you can appreciate the skill and dedication involved here.
Mount Popa is a few hours’ drive from Bagan, but is also worth a visit. This forested extinct volcano is a wonder to trek, with 777 steps to the top. Once you have conquered the peak, you will be greeted by a scared monastery. Locals believe that many spirits (called ‘nats’) reside here.
Myanmar’s new capital of Naypyitaw has little to offer visitors, but is nevertheless reachable from Bagan. The towns of Pyay and Taungoo are also in the central area, and make for quaint stops.
Mandalay and surrounds
Known as Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay may not be as charming as you would expect the country’s last royal city to be. However, this bustling economic centre has preserved some elements of its romantic bygone history. Visit the Royal Palace before enjoying a walk up Mandalay Hill beside the locals to catch the sunset. You’ll meet the Sutaungpyi Pagoda and a spectacular view upon reaching the top.
Another worthwhile pagoda to see in Mandalay is the Kuthodaw Paya. Here you can discover the Buddhist scriptures carved on 729 marble tablets. Some call it the biggest ‘book’ in the world.
South of Mandalay you can find other former capitals of the country’s royal past. Amarapura was capital for two separate periods, and is a lovely place to visit. Its highlight is U-Bein Bridge, which is the longest teak bridge in the world. The atmosphere is the best at dawn, with the river running calmly and less people crowding the area. Amarapura is also known for producing high quality textiles.
Next you should head to Sagaing, the fourteenth century capital and an important location for Buddhists in training. It boasts beautiful landscapes of emerald hills and golden stupas, best seen from the top of Sagaing Hill.
Inwa is a sleepy rural town further south, on the other side of the Irrawaddy River. Its wide rustic lanes can be explored by horse and cart. This countryside is also dotted with temples and photogenic fields, and was the country’s capital for 300 years.
Inle Lake and eastern region
Undoubtedly one of the highlights of Myanmar, Inle Lake is a vast expanse of calm waters and stilt villages. Inhabited by the Intha population, their houses and gardens float picturesquely above the lake. Floating markets, traditional workshops and pagoda visits make up the activities of this serene area. You can observe the fishermen with their conical fishing nets and distinctive leg-rowing practices as they glide along the waters.
West of Inle Lake dwells the cool hill station town of Kalaw. It is a great base for trekking to the minority villages in the surrounding area. There is also a market and various pagodas to visit.
Much of the eastern region of Myanmar is closed off to tourists, but you can reach towns such as Kengtung and Kayah to some capacity. They present stunning off the beaten track landscapes, but can prove difficult to reach or navigate.
Delta (beaches) and western region
People do not typically think of Myanmar as a beach destination country, but its delta region has an incredible shoreline. Ngapali Beach is the upscale coastal retreat site, with white sand and luxury hotel strips. More easily accessible is the Chuang Tha Beach, an energetic seaside spot with locals and tourists enjoying the stretch together. Ngwe Saung is a beautiful beach with an atmosphere that is agreeable for both high end and budget travellers. Other beach options are Myeik-North and Myeik-South, both with stunning turquoise waters and wonderful diving locations.
The western region along the coast as well as the south delta suffered much devastation due to the Cyclone in 2008. Towns in this part of Myanmar are thus not able to offer much to travellers, with the exception of Mrauk U. It is a town that seems to be forgotten by time, with concealed landscapes filled with hundreds of ancient temples and century-old city gates. Locals claim that it is as magnificent as Bagan; it is just more difficult to reach.
Mawlamyine and southeast
Travellers usually head north after Yangon, but there are notable gems in the south-eastern tail of the country to explore. Mawlamyine is the third largest city in Myanmar, and remains the busy port that it was in colonial days. You can walk along the waterfront to take in colourful local life and explore the city’s hills and shrines. It is a great jumping-off spot to visit the colossal reclining Buddha statue, large enough to walk inside it.
Kyaiktiyo Paya is further north of Mawlamyine, and is one of the holiest Buddhists sites in the country. You can walk alongside local pilgrims to reach the pagoda balancing impressively on Golden Rock. This rock sits on the edge of a cliff, and legend says that it balances on the hair of a Buddha.
Just north of Yangon is Bago, another holy site of historical importance. The Shwemawdaw Paya is Bago’s highlight, being the tallest pagoda in Myanmar.
Although most of the north of Myanmar is closed off to foreigners, there are a few places that are safe to visit. For travellers looking for off the beaten track experiences, the region offers wonderful opportunities to interact with locals. Katha is a small riverside town on the edge of the Irrawaddy River with a tranquil air. Further east and also along the river you can find the bustling town of Bhamo. Provincial places such as these and others are scarcely visited by tourists.
Not as far north but still above Mandalay is the quaint town of Hsipaw. This former hidden gem has since transformed into a rather active place of trade with China. It sees more tourists than further north, and is a spectacular spot for trekking.
With so much undiscovered in this beautiful country, it is imperative to see it for yourself. In the hopes that tourism does not spoil these bygone landscapes and untouched hills, Myanmar’s open borders are a true treat for the rest of the world.
For more insights and assistance with your travels to Myanmar and Southeast Asia, get in touch with Begodi.