Myanmar, formerly known as Burma is one of my favorite travel destinations in the world. Traveling for a month through this special country coupled with reading many books about it, changed the way I look at politics, multicultural religion, history and even books themselves! Myanmar offers a deep and complex history, friendly and generous people, a diverse culture influenced by its many ethnic groups, a unique geographic location, and breathtaking natural wonders throughout the country. Setting aside Myanmar’s political current events which I summarize in detail here and my stance against a Myanmar travel boycott, here is my brief guide on where to go in Myanmar and the best places to visit for a beautiful journey through this extraordinary country.
Myanmar is one of the less-visited destinations in South East Asia. As such, travel here can feel more different than its neighbors in terms of transportation, food, local connection, fewer tourist crowds, and many other distinct factors.
I started in Yangon because it’s one of the easiest and more affordable airports to fly into. As I boarded the plane there, I quickly realized the type of traveler attracted to Myanmar. It wasn’t frat boys looking for a beach party or sybarites looking for luxury or digital nomads looking for a temporary base to get work done. Most whom I interacted with seemed like curious visitors open to a more immersive travel experience.
Yangon, like most of the country, is caught in a crossfire of transitions. There are hundreds of new foreign businesses and expats moving in. My first night here, I was invited to Myanmar’s Uber launch party. After that event, we all went to The Penthouse, a hip rooftop resto-bar overlooking the Shwedagon Pagoda. A beautiful introduction to the swirl of changes and contrasts of old and new happening in Yangon.
Things to Do in Yangon
- Shwedagon Pagoda – One of the most breathtakingly beautiful things you may ever experience. If there is only one thing you can o in Yangon, this has to be it. The stunning sights of golden statues, golden pagodas and temples are unlike anything else in the world. The energy here is calming and spiritual as you’ll see locals praying and singing. Words are not enough to explain the significance of this place.
- A cocktail at the majestic Strand Hotel
- Shopping at Bogyoke Aung San Market
- Visiting the local tea houses such as Rangoon Teahouse ($$), Acacia Tea Salon ($$$), Lucky Seven ($)
- Walking – One of the best ways to soak in Yangon’s details and stumble across gems
- Book shopping on the streets – A great way to better contextualize your experience in Myanmar.
- Connecting with local people in Yangon: this is one of the best parts of traveling to Myanmar. And in Yangon, it’ll be easier to find English speaking locals than in the rest of the country.
Day Trips from Yangon
- Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo Pagoda) by train
- The Yangon Circle Train which slowly loops around the outskirts of the city for half a day
- Bago (3 temple complexes) is about an hour drive from Yangon
Where to stay in Yangon
Vibrant yet arid, desolate yet rich in history, Bagan is also full of contrast. Fiery hot afternoons make it almost impossible to enter temples barefoot so be sure to save that time for an afternoon siesta, a massage, or exploring the local cuisine in one of the many delicious restaurants. When it’s not so hot these are the…
Top things to do in Bagan
- Temple tour – You can sign up at one of the hostels and do one for free! (donation-based of course)
- E-bike rental – Explore Bagan and it’s nearby small towns on your own! But please be cautious of the bikes, some are rented out with defects.
- Get a massage – When it’s just too hot to move. Consider hiding out in a massage parlor and treating yourself!
- Fly a hot air balloon – Only possible between October and April. Prices start at around $200 and up.
- Sunrise temple tour
Where to stay in Bagan
Lovers of nature and hiking can join a Kalaw trekking tour with other travelers, slowly making your way from Bagan towards Inle Lake together. If you’re solo traveling, you can easily join one of these tours with other travelers from Ostello Bello Hostel in Bagan. This is a highlight experience, however, if you have sensitivities or physical disabilities, I’d either opt the shorter hike or avoid this experience. The hike is often done under the hot sun (unless you go during a colder time) so plan ahead of time for basic precautions.
As noted above, you can arrange this tour through Hostel Ostello Bello from Bagan or Inle.
INLE LAKE (NYAUNGSHWE)
Idyllic Inle captured my heart. It was the perfect respite from the hot and arid environment of Bagan. The cooler weather coupled with its bucolic landscape of hills and calm lake felt like a vacation from my vacation. Allocate at least a few nights here to take in a little bit of everything it has to offer.
Don’t Miss Out On These Things to Do in Inle Lake:
- Wine Tasting at the BEAUTIFUL Red Mountain Estate Vineyard perched on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful wine valley. Be sure to go before/during the sunset.
- Rent a Bike to tour the town (just don’t take it to the vineyard like I did, unless you want to die riding up a steep hill)
- Go on a boat tour across the lake – a MUST experience where you can visit the silk farms, floating gardens and markets, cigar makers, leg rowers, and boat makers.
- Cooking Class + Market Tour with Mercury Cooking Class – A HIGHLIGHT experience and a great way to culturally immerse yourself.
Where to stay in Inle Lake
Ostello Bello – That’s right they have a location here too! It’s an amazing place and I made so many good friends thanks to Ostello Bello’s space and good vibes.
Many travelers skip Mandalay, but it’s one of the most important places to visit in Myanmar! Just the beautiful name alone beckons a visit. If you’re short on time, you can hire this driver to take you all around Mandalay to see the best sights.
Best Sightseeing in Mandalay
- Jade Market – You can see people actually crafting the jade and you’ll come across some of the biggest jade sculptured pieces.
- Mahamuni Pagoda – Gorgeous golden temple.
- U Bein Bridge – Best during the wet season, but still worth a visit any time.
- Mandalay Hill – A MUST do. If you can only visit one thing in Mandalay, let it be this incredibly breathtaking place.
- If you can spare an extra day, join this full-day tour and cooking class with A Glimpse of Mandalay
Skip the palace for ethical reasons.
Where to Stay in Mandalay
Ostello Bello! At this point, you will probably have made some friends from bumping into each other so much at the same hostel from Bagan to Inle to now Mandalay.
PYIN OO LWIN
Pyin Oo Lwin is located on the train line between Mandalay and Hsipaw in north-eastern Myanmar, making it an ideal place to break up the overland journey. The small Shan Highlands city was formerly used as a British hill station and known as ‘Maymyo’ during colonial times.
Pyin Oo Lwin has a mild climate and verdant landscape, hence its nickname ‘The City of Flowers’. Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens on the outskirts of town cultivates 300 species of orchids amongst beautifully manicured parks. In town, the Wet Market (best visited in the early hours when vendors light their stalls with candles) and the Shan Market both sell local produce, including betel leaf and Shan tea. Pyin Oo Lwin’s British colonial buildings, including the Candacraig Hotel, made famous by George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days, speak to the area’s past and are well worth seeing. The town is compact, so the best way to get around is by hiring a bicycle.
Things to See/Do in Pyin Oo Lwin:
- The Goteik Viaduct – Myanmar’s highest and most iconic bridge, lies 75km east of Pyin Oo Lwin. Mail trains bound for Hsipaw and Lashio cross over the bridge and depart Pyin Oo Lwin daily at 8.20am. Riding the train over the trestle – once the largest of its kind in the world – is a nail-biting yet unforgettable experience. If you want to finish the ride early, you can alight after the bridge and organise for a car to take you back into town.
- National Kandawgyi Gardens
- Taj Eatery
- Lake Front Feel
Where to Stay in Pyin Oo Lwin
Nestled in the remote reaches of northern Shan State, Hsipaw remains a relatively off-the-beaten-track destination in Myanmar.
Most people who do make it here come to trek. Guided walks to village homestays around Hsipaw are amongst the most beautiful walks in Southeast Asia. Pankam Village is a popular final destination for trekkers and can be reached via a full-day uphill hike out of Hsipaw via tea and cornfields. Although the area is considered safe for tourists, some parts remain off-limits to foreigners. If you plan on trekking, a guide is essential.
Hsipaw town itself is small with only a few attractions. Principal among them is East Haw, the former residence of the Shan Prince who disappeared during the political unrest of the 1960s.
Things to See/Do in Hsipaw:
- Nam Hu Nwe Waterfall
- Check out the hot springs
- Go shopping at the local central market
- Trek/Go for a hike
- Take the iconic train
- ‘Little Bagan’ – a collection of ancient Buddhist stupas close to town
- Eat – Try a bowl of famous Shan noodles at one of Hsipaw’s local restaurants
Where to Stay in Hsipaw
Other destinations you should try to see while in Myanmar if you have more time: Hpa-an (from Yangon) and Mrauk-U.