Here on Slow Travel Myanmar, we tend to avoid listicles and bucket list-esque posts, preferring instead long form articles that attempt to get under the skin of Myanmar: the culture, the history, the people and places. We find this allows readers to, at least to a small extent, learn more about Myanmar, to provoke thought and a more circumspect and varied engagement with the country. We believe informed travellers make for more respectful tourists, and respectful tourists will in turn garner a more wholesome experience while travelling in Myanmar.
That being said, our interest was piqued this time last year when we heard about the Visit ASEAN @ 50 campaign, celebrating the group’s Golden Anniversary, and the 10 diverse countries that it is made up of - home to over 650 million people. The campaign celebrated ASEAN as a whole (‘One vision, One community, One ASEAN!’); the natural wonders, ancient cities, enchanting stories, and treasured legends; inviting the world to come celebrate the anniversary with them, to feel the warmth of Southeast Asia and witness history in the making.
We at Sampan put our heads together and collated from both our own experiences in this country and those of our guests, not only the best places to visit in Myanmar but also the top activities to do in Myanmar. From kayaking with the Kayin in Hpa-An to eating the fiery pepper sausage of Kayah, throughout the year we counted down our own Gold List of Myanmar highlights on our Facebook and Twitter Accounts.
Myanmar is changing fast, and so it follows that what travellers can do here is also evolving. Therefore, looking at this list in January 2018, we immediately felt that there was another 50 things we could easily add for the travellers yet to join us. Nonetheless, for posterity’s sake if nothing else, here is what we recommend you must see in Myanmar, our Favourite Fifty of 2017 …
TOP THINGS TO DO IN MYANMAR
Explore the Kandawgyi Gardens in Pyin Oo Lwin, based on Kew Gardens in England, and perhaps one of the smartest places in the entire country. No betel here, and barely a whiff of a cheroot!
Watch a traditional Burmese marionette show. Most luxury hotels offer a pale version of these for an hour or so as after-supper entertainment. These are rarely impressive. The best show we know of is at the Myanmar Marionettes Theatre in Mandalay where - last time we went - Myanmar’s oldest puppeteer performs.
Shop, eat, and drink in Yangon’s Chinatown. Put all doubts aside while you slurp upon watery mojitos, munch mystery meats, and rub shoulders with locals, expats, and other travellers alike!
There is nowhere quite like Myanmar’s dystopian capital Nay Pyi Daw, meaning it is worth at least 24 hours. Avoid the eerie gem museum but be sure to drive along the empty 8-lane highways and past the country’s saccharine parliament.
Into a tangle of monkeys and past a hodgepodge of nat shrines, clamber up Mount Pedestal, jutting out from the ‘mother mountain’ Mt Popa, Myanmar’s Mt Olympus.
Through a throng of market stalls and commuters, push your way onto the ferry to Dala. From here you can hire a motorbike or jump into a tuk-tuk to reach the nearby town of Twante. Visit the pottery village and enjoy a glass of Myanmar Beer on the banks of the canal.
Climb up Mandalay Hill for sunrise or sunset. Upon this hill the Lord Buddha pointed down at the plain below and prophesied that one day the great city of ‘Mandala’ would be built. It was the site of some of the most savage fighting of WW2 when in March 1945 the Prince of Wales Gurkha Rifles attempted to take the hill from the retreating Japanese.
The banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River in Mandalay are a hive of activity in the morning as fishing boats come in and out and ablutions are carried out in the shallows of the water. Take a walk along Myo Pat Street as the sun rises.
Myanmar is undergoing a coffee renaissance! Visit the plantations of the speciality coffee beans around the Shan town of Ywangan.
The Baw Gyo fete outside Hsipaw occurs in February or March each year. Listen to music, buy trinkets, drink and be merry at one of Myanmar’s most famous markets.
Not only is Salay one of Myanmar’s most beautiful towns, it is also the producer of the country's best plumb jam. A spoonful of si thi is worth taking the day trip from Bagan.
The Mahamuni Image is said to have been carved in the presence of Lord Gautama Buddha himself. For this reason it is believed to be the best likeness of the Buddha in existence, and is therefore the most sacred Image in the country.
Ngapali is Myanmar’s most resplendent stretch of sand. Even with an array of boutique hotels to be pampered at, Ngapali remains one of the quietest luxury getaways in Southeast Asia.
The toddy wine of Bagan is the best in the country. Find a secluded spot away from the crowds (we know of a particularly good dispenser in the village of Wetkyin) and sip upon the milky, sugary tipple of the Dry Zone. Do not be fooled by how easily this drinks slips down. When coupled with the glaring sun of Bagan it can be wicked-strong. E-bikes should be remounted with caution.
Skip over planks of wood and piles of chain and find a spot to dangle your legs over the river at Botataung Jetty. From this vantage point watch the sun sink behind the arms of cranes and under the horizon. Find a nearby beer station once darkness descends and clandestine couples swoop in.
The views are not as good as those from Inle’s vineyard, but the wine is better and crowds lighter. And the setting is beautiful, too. Just outside Taunggyi is Myanmar's first vineyard, Aythaya Winery. After wandering about the vines embark upon a quick tasting, not neglecting to try the oft-neglected grapino!
Unfortunately it is no longer permitted to climb atop the mammoth Mingun Pagoda. Nonetheless, this unfinished behemoth just across the river from Mandalay is a striking sight.
Just 67 kilometres from Inle Lake is Pindaya, in the self-administered zone of the Danu people. Take a one, two, or three-day trek up through the fields of green tea.
Not for everyone, but birdwatching at Inle is riveting and rewarding for keen twitchers. If you can take tear your gaze off the fishermen, grab a pair of binoculars and keep your eyes peeled for a sight of the elusive sarus crane or clamorous reed warbler of Inle Lake.
Delve into the depths of Sadin Cave in Hpa-An, capital of Kayin State.
View the sun set over the plain of Bagan from a boat on the Ayeyarwaddy River.
Marvel at the size of the gigantic twin Buddhas at Bodi Tah Taung, not far from Monywa. The Standing Image is 130 metres high (the second highest in the world). Down the hillside is a Reclining Buddha, lying to a length of 95 metres. What Lonely Planet describes as a ‘kitschy trifecta’ will be completed by a Sitting Buddha, currently under construction.
Believed to have been murdered, the last Prince of Hsipaw disappeared during the military coup of 1962. His story is recounted in the book Twilight over Burma, written by his wife Inge Sargent. His nephew ‘Mr Donald’ lives with his wife Fern in the old palace (the ‘East Haw’), and continues to welcome visitors each afternoon at 3pm.
Join Inthar men on Inle Lake for the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival in October. Aboard 100-men boats pimped-up with tinsel and ghetto-blasters the Inthar haul a karaweik barge carrying four Buddha Images to villages on and around the lake over the course of three weeks.
Amongst the boozers and bores of the British Empire George Orwell furied and festered while living in Burma in the 1920s. Visit Katha, where Orwell based his book Burmese Days. Snoop around his house (open and unoccupied when we last visited) and play tennis on the old colonial courts.
Pure bloody-mindedness built the railway line from Shwe Nyaung to Kalaw. Snaking over gorges run the lines making for a hair-raising (albeit slow) train ride.
Ignore the construction of the cable-car and sweat and pant your way up Mt Zwekabin in Hpa-An for either dawn or dusk.
The Gokteik Viaduct stands 100 meres high. Board the train at Pyin Oo Lwin and continue on after the Viaduct until you reach Hsipaw.
Currently not permitted for foreigners, hiking in the foothills of Hkakabo Razi (potentially Southeast Asia’s highest peak) not far from Putao makes for Myanmar’s most exciting (and challenging) treks.
One of Myanmar’s most manic festivals is the Hsipaw Pagoda Festival. Watch the near-bacchanalian procession transport towers of ‘special things’ along the town’s main drag from midday until dusk.
Mosey along the Strand Road in Myeik and enjoy the point-taste-buy system at the town’s nightly fish market.
Trek into the Shan Hill surrounding Hsipaw, fortifying any flagging spirits with the stiff local rice whiskey.
Starting long before day-break, alongside pious pilgrims climb up Mt Kyaitkhtiyo to see Mon State’s Golden Rock.
Avoid the crowds at Amarapura’s Mahagadanyon Monastery, and instead see the monks and novices collect morning alms at a monastery in Sagaing.
Once known as the Princess of the East, no city in Southeast Asia has as many heritage buildings as Yangon. From the majestic Secretariat to the serene Immanuel Baptist Church, delve into the history of the city of blood, dreams, and gold with a colonial walking tour of downtown Yangon.
In Kayah State, make your own fiery pepper sausage (a favourite Kayah snack) and then eat it on the banks of the Loikaw Lake, washed down with a bottle of local millet beer.
Escape the hullabaloo of the city on a bicycle and explore Mandalay’s verdant surroundings. (Stop and sample something at everything tea shop you pass.)
Jump on a motorbike and explore the secluded beaches and fishing villages of the Dawei Peninsula.
Be taken out kayaking with the Karen ...
TOP 10 THINGS TO DO IN MYANMAR
… and then jump in a canoe at Indawgyi, Myanmar’s largest lake. Indawgyi has been recently designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, as well as a ‘wetland of international importance’ by the Switzerland-based Ramsar Secretariat.
At Indawgyi visitors can be taken on light hikes up Shwe Taung (Golden Mountain), cycle or motorbike around the circumference of the lake, kayak to the villages on the banks (not just Kachin but also Shan Ni or ‘Red Shan’), and board a boat to Shwe Myitzu Pagoda. The villagers of Lohn Dohn (where Indawgyi's best guesthouse is situated) are delightful and there is a motley selections of comely eateries. For breakfast, we would recommend Khin Khin Tun’s freshly based pancakes served with local honey and Shan coffee.
Visit the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp outside Kalaw. Here retired elephants from the timber trade are offered comfort and copious amounts of pumpkin in their twilight years. The camp was set up by a family with a long history of working with elephants both in the timber trade and as vets. The Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp is their way of giving something back to the animals they love. Small groups are taken around the camp and allowed to feed and bathe the elephants.
The management at the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp insist that their first concern, always, is the well-being of the elephants, not the satisfaction of tourists. For that reason, if and when you visit the camp, riding an elephant may not be possible. However, feeding them certainly will be. As the staff like to joke, ‘An elephant only eats one meal a day. But the meal lasts 24 hours!’
In Myanmar, most often the best things happen in the early morning. At Inle Lake it is worth rising early to see the Inthar fishermen out on their boats.
It is the idiosyncratic way of fishing that has propelled the Inthar across postcards and tour brochures. Today, after the ephemeral stupas of Bagan, the image of an Inthar fisherman balancing deftly on his boat, one leg wrapped around the rudder, the other outstretched for balance, two arms grasping the net and a conical hat topping off the elegant silhouette, is an image used more than any to conjure the allure of the Golden Land.
Visiting the U Bein Bridge is one more thing worth waking up early for. Just 7 miles south of Mandalay, Amarapura shows no sign of ever having been a grand capital city. Set on the banks of Taung-tha-man Lake, at a length of 1.2 kilometres the U Bein Bridge it the largest wooden bridge in the world.
There is a small hut attached to the left side of the bridge where at dawn one can settle down to watch the sun rise in the company of the elderly folk of the town, mumbling with familiarity to each other while going through their morning stretches.
As the sun rises, out over the bridge see the silhouettes of the students from Yadanarbon University crossing with their umbrellas and bicycles. You may spy a fisherman wading into the shallow waters of the lake armed only with stick and net, and skulking around the beams under the bridge, you will spot raggedly-dressed urchins making their own morning ablutions.
Only recently open to foreigners, limited infrastructure and minimal marketing means that the number of visitors to Chin State is still few. The most popular destination is Mount Victoria, known as ‘Khaw-nu-thone’ in Chin and in Burmese ‘Nat Ma Taung’, which both mean ‘Mother of Spirits.’ Over 3, 000 metres high, Mount Victoria, Myanmar’s most famous northern peak, is the highest mountain on the fissured Chin landscape. From the summit, with good weather you can see all the way to India. The climb up to the top is undemanding and will only take a few hours from the end of the highest reaching road. An optimum time to go is December when the weather is cool, clear blue skies are forecast, and the rhododendrons are in bloom.
TOP 5 THINGS TO DO IN MYANMAR
In Danny Boyle’s film The Beach, Leonardo di Caprio’s character Richard swims across 2 kilometres of water to reach a secret and secluded oriental Arcadia. Set in Thailand and filmed near Koh Phi Phi, those islands that were once so idyllic are now overrun with all that Richard was attempting to escape: tour boats, restaurants serving Western cuisine, and shirtless backpackers playing Aussie Rules.
In Myanmar, paradisiacal islands still exist, described by one writer as ‘a string of green beads dropped carelessly on blue velvet ... the islands of the archipelago, lonely, untouched by civilisation …’
Attending the Taunggyi Hot Air Balloon festival it something that needs to be experienced soon, before the festivities are tamed. Tazaungdaing is celebrated throughout the country, but the festival activities in Taunggyi are famous for their flamboyancy and recklessness. Leading up to the festival much sweat and expertise is expended on the creation of the most beautiful hot air balloons. Throughout the festival, these balloons are set off day and night. While those in the day are usually designed in the form of a pagoda or animal, those in the evening are of the conventional shape, but attached to their sides are multicoloured paper lanterns as well as fireworks which fire off once the balloon has been released.
In and around the temples of Mrauk U potter chickens; goats gamble, and children shouting to each other return from school on bicycles; girls go to fetch water from the well with curvaceous silver pots from Bangladesh balancing on their heads; men, women and children fill up buckets in the pond to shower themselves on the banks, while taxi drivers recline in the scruffy tea shops, smoking and chuckling and paying no attention to the sunset that entrances outsiders.
As if for the benefit of those on Sunset Hill, at dusk the farmers set alight their bonfires; a thick smell of charcoal fills the air and the scape is draped in an ephemeral mist. Amongst all this, there is perhaps a cowherd, clad in conical hat and checkered shirt, distracted from his watch by a camera trained upon him, into which he stares steadily back, indifferent to the magnificent scene he stands in the centre of.
Alongside Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Borobudur in Indonesia, Bagan is one of the most spectacular wonders of the ancient world located in Southeast Asia. The 25 kilometre-squared area covers what was once the resplendent heart of the Bagan Empire, where between the 9th and 13th Century, in a wave of religious fervour, the rulers and the rich built over 10, 000 pagodas and temples.
At dawn, one can scramble up one of the temples and watch the sunrise from this vantage point, or alternatively book a place in one of the Bagan hot air balloons to fully appreciate the size and scope of the site, wishing for nothing more than that the moment never ends.
No 1 THING TO DO IN MYANMAR
Our Number One Favourite thing to do in Myanmar is to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
Shwedagon's splendour does not purely come from its mammoth size or the tonnes of gold-leaf that has been plastered over it, but also from the fact that it is not a relic, but a living icon of modern Burmese life. Through British imperialism and military junta, Shwedagon was always there, imbued with centuries of worship, a site of both daring protest and quiet comfort, its gleam lighting up a dark sky.
One of the greatest charms of the Myanmar people is their elegance and optimism. Like Shwedagon they retain the romance of the past while standing with confidence in the face of the future.