Home to some of the most incredible temples in the world, largely hassle-free markets, exotic flavours and unique cultures not yet subdued by the Western World, Myanmar is in a world of its own.
It’s often considered an ‘off-the-beaten track country’ and until very recently was closed off to many nationalities. Despite visits increasing every year it remains generally untouched by tourists and is one of few countries yet to be invaded by McDonald's.
I spent 8 days here in November 2016 with my sister, Naomi, and brother-in-law, Craig; starting in Yangon, followed by Bagan, Lake Inle and finishing up in Mandalay. It was definitely a whistle-stop tour, and there’s so much more to see, but with just over a week of annual leave to use, I feel pretty content with what we managed to squeeze in.
Currency: Kyat (MMK)
Language(s): Burmese, various regional languages.
Plug Sockets: Type C, D F, occaisonally G
Ease of travel: 3/5
Ease of communication: 3/5
Ease of meeting others: 2.5/5
General costs: £
Yangon or Mandalay are most people’s point of entrance by air.
Things to do:
The typical heritage buildings are tightly squeezed together throughout Yangon Old Town - and they are really beautiful.
They are pretty iconic but many are sadly crumbling away with little signs of restorations.
We spent time wandering through the streets and gazing at them.
Heritage buildings, Yangon
2. Shwedagon Paya
Perhaps I should have listed this first as it is by far the most famous sight, but I do love those heritage buildings.
The Shwedagon is the dazzling golden structure rising 167 feet high, is considered the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar and is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas.
There are four main entrances - north, south, east and west. All except the Western entrance boast enticing market stalls selling tea sets, plates, bowls, artwork, incense, antiques, buddha images and books.
As with most temples, you’ll need to be adequately covered up - knees and elbows covered for both men and women! But don’t worry, there are clothes to hire if you aren’t covered up enough.
Places to eat - we actually really struggled to find somewhere to eat in the evening. (Maybe there is a case for a McDonalds opening here after all!) We found ourselves hurrying through the streets at about 9pm desperately looking for somewhere - everything was closed! This was so unlike the Asia I had previously known!
After what seemed like hours and we ended up stumbling upon a closing restaurant who agreed to stay open and serve us. They had very little English and gave us a plate full of mixed dishes that looked a bit like leftovers...we had no idea what we were eating, but we were starving, and everything turned out to be delicious.
The next day we went out much earlier for dinner, and to our delight, most places were open.
Shwedagon Paya panorama
Prayers at the Shwedagon Paya
Much like in India, everyone wanted to take photos with us!
After our quick-stop in Yangon, we headed to Bagan. I was ecstatic to be heading here after years of lustfully gazing at countless temple photos on instagram.
Bagan, or ‘Bagan Architectural Zone’ is a huge area split into Nyang U and New Bagan. Home to a temple wonderland once furnished with around 10,000 pagodas - there now stand around 2,200 in all different shapes and sizes.
The first practical thing to say about these temples is they are all spaced out really quite far away from each other. Transport between temples is vital. We used electric bikes that our guesthouse handily rented for free.
It's a good idea to wear trainers, or some other fitted shoe - the terrain get get pretty muddy, especially after rain, and it's pretty easy for the bikes to get stuck in thick mud. Stepping off, I stood straight into a pile of thick mud. When I pulled my leg out, my shoe remained behind - and it was impossible to pull back out.
RIP brown loafer.
Incidentally, its surprisingly easy to drive a moped bare-foot!
I LOVED driving the bike!
Naomi learning how to drive it
If you’ve been to Angkor Wat, leave all Cambodian-related preconceptions firmly behind as these are in no way similar. Rather than vast ornate temples, Bagan has thousands of smaller temples, and they are much less crammed with tourists!
It was so easy to spend a day exploring the temples - drifting in and out and sometimes not seeing another human for hours.
Some temples appear untouched, overgrown with greenery
Having been built sporadically over time, you’ll notice that some look much more worn and aged than others.
Some have totally different styles (or perhaps they just looked different when the sun was shining?
A short spell of sunshine!
One of the fun things about Bagan is that you can get some incredible views from the top of these temples as you can freely climb up them (although with loose stones and huge vertical drops, this is at your own risk!)
A beautiful view despite the dreary weather!
More pretty temples - taken by a photo-shy Craig
There are so many temples here, you could spend days and days exploring and still have only scratched the surface. It’s difficult to pick out specific temples to see, and I actually preferred the smaller, quieter and deserted structures that you could only explore on foot.
One recommendation for sunset however, is Shwesandaw Pagoda with incredible views over Bagan including Thatbyintuya temple. Beware however - it is a steep climb up some steep and dodgy stairs, and you must take your shoes off before climbing!
Sunset from Shwesandaw Pagoda
Lake Inle was a bit of a dark horse for me - probably due to my lack of research prior to visiting. Naomi, however had been really excited to visit, and without any real idea what there was to do, I had gone along with it - imagining in my head a picturesque lake with a few boat rides around and perhaps some markets. For anyone who’s visited or even googled ‘Lake Inle’ you will not be surprised to hear that this stop greatly surpassed and shamed my misconception.
We stayed in Nyaungshwe, right on the lakefront. With row upon row of morong boats along the moor and small local shops with tin roofs, restaurants, bars - it was a really pretty town with an inviting and friendly atmosphere. But you don’t come to Nyaungshwe for the town, you come for the lake. Which takes me to things to do.
Boats on Lake Inle
1. Boat trip
You have to do a boat trip along Lake Inle. For one thing, it’s fun! For another, this is the only way of getting to the villages and towns in the lake, unless you fancy a very long swim.
There are two ways of getting around the lake by boat. You can either pay for a day tour, or you can pay a longboat owner to take you to a particular sight. We chose to pay for a tour. It’s worth looking up and doing a bit of research beforehand to make sure you get the tour you want. Not everyone will want to visit the floating shops, some will choose to head further away to Indein village and Sankar village - so it’s good to know what to expect and to tailor your tour to your preferences. We chose a pretty standard tour including shops, markets, restaurants and monasteries.
Walk along the jetty and you will be greeted by many friendly boat owners, eager to take you their own unique version of an Inle boat tour. Upon asking around it became very apparent that the tours basically take you to the same things - i.e the main sights and a few Inle shops and restaurants. We asked around a few different sellers, and they were mostly selling the tour for around the same price, so we picked someone we liked and were on our way. (Price: 15,000kyat / £8.50 per boat)
We sped through the waters passing other longboats carrying tourists, locals, and even a few carrying boxes of food, drinks, wood, and general household supplies. Along the way we passed Intha fishermen who are widely known for their unusual methods of hauling fish: they balance on the edge of the boat on one leg - the other is wrapped around the ore. This allows them to row with one leg, whilst bending over and fishing with both hands. It’s remarkable how they can do this - especially considering it’s taken me about a month to master ‘tree pose’ in yoga…...
On and on we continued, stopping by shopping villages with floating lantern shops, weaving factories, tobacco plantations and silver shops. We had time to explore the shops in our own town whilst also seeing how these Burmese handicrafts are made.
Handmade traditional parasols - I was well-behaved and only bought one!
Floating markets, Lake Inle
After filling the boat up with unnecessary (but beautiful) gifts, we made it to one of the top sights - Phaung Daw Oo Paya. This beautiful pagoda is considered one of the holiest sites in Shan state. The pagoda is home to 5 golden-leaf covered ancient images of Buddha.
Every day male Buddhists flock to the monastery to apply more gold leaves to the images a sign of respect and devotion to Buddha. There is now so much gold covering these images that they’re pretty unrecognisable as Buddha. Around the pagoda are market stalls selling food and traditional Shan and Burmese products.
Every year, around October and November, the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival takes place here which includes a procession across the lake of the Karaweik boat carrying some of the Buddha images. Year-round you can walk around the boat shelter containing this beautiful golden boat.
Other sights on the lake include Nga Hpe Kyaung ( the jumping cat monastery). This monastery is famed for its jumping cats - trained by the monks to leap through hoops. The floating gardens are also worth a visit.
One of my favourite parts of the boat ride was seeing the locals boating from house to house to socialise, or to pick some shopping - so different from my own day-to-day life.
2. Bawrithat Pagoda
3. Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery
Indra Indian Food, Yone Gyi Street - Ok, so it’s not exactly an authentic Burmese restaurant, but the food was delicious and the owner was lovely!
For a more authentic Shan experience, try Sunflower restaurant - which has particularly excellent fish dishes!
Mandalay was our final stop in Myanmar. It was certainly a lot busier than the past two places
Things to see:
1. Mandalay Palace
With huge ramparts and a huge moat you could be tricked into believing this is one of the top sights of Myanmar, a beautiful dramatic palace. You should quickly lower your expectations however, because this is not the case. At least, it certainly isn’t the case anymore.
What was once a beautiful home for the Burmese monarchy is now a large area filled with empty buildings. After the Burmese monarchy were ousted in 1885, the British took it over and turned it into barracks. That in addition to considerable WW-2 bombing and a large fire meant much of the former palace was destroyed. Reconstruction work has been successful, and it remains an impressive structure - but still largely empty.
View over Mandalay Palace
2. Mandalay Hill and Su Taung Pyi Pagoda
Mandalay Hill offers the best view of the city by far, and at the top you will find the glitzy Su Taung Pyi Pagoda.
You can climb up the hill - or drive! To get to the pagoda there are elevators and stairs.
The pagoda is sparkling and mesmerising - and the views from the top are incredible, especially at sunset. Sadly this means that a visit here does not come without crowds of people, and so the queue for the elevator after sunset can be quite time-consuming!
View from Mandalay Hill
Su Taung Pyi Pagoda
There are lots of markets in Mandalay! The best two are probably the Jade Market and Zegyo Market.
4. U Bein bridge
The U Bein bridge is a beautiful bamboo-like 1.2km long footbridge over Taungthaman Lake.
My stay in Mandalay was short but sweet - it was time to head back to Bangkok briefly before getting on my way home, and back to work.
Our final sunset was a good one!
Getting around Myanmar
Before we arrived we had all been a little concerned about how we would get around Myanmar, but it turned out to be much easier than we expected.
The general options are bus, train or plane travel. We ended up taking a combination of buses and planes.
Surprisingly comfortable would be how I describe the night buses of Myanmar (although I'm not sure Craig agreed).
We took the night bus from Yangon to Bagan, and I have to say - they were MUCH more comfortable than the buses in Vietnam and Cambodia. Whilst there are a fair few bus companies out there, we chose JJ express VIP bus as they had the best reviews. Price-wise, it’ll set you back a mere 18,000 kyat (£10) and the journey was around 9 hours.
The trains in Myanmar are slow, and I have no idea how you go about booking them as we didn’t bother. For the Yangon-Bagan journey, you’re looking at a train time of 16-18 hours!
Definitely not the cheapest method of travelling, but an option we ended up choosing as we were quite limited with time and wanted to cover significant distances - it's definitely the most comfortable method of travelling.
A one-way flight was roughly £60-100.
A word of warning - there are tonnes of different airlines, many with a concerning safety record.
We chose to fly with air KBZ as their safety record seemed much better than the others (although still not great) but I did feel safe throughout.
One to avoid: Myanmar Airways - terrible safety record, we were warned by many of the locals not to use them!
Others = Yadanarpon Airlines, Yangon Airways, Air Bagan, Air Mandalay, FMI Air, Golden Myanmar Airlines, Myanmar National Airlines - and there are probably some others too.
The best way to buy airline tickets is to go to a tourist office in Myanmar - it seemed pretty impossible to buy them online! But worth noting that most tourist offices require you to pay in cash!
Getting through the airport was definitely an experience - and a bit like stepping back in time.
With no electronic display boards, you have to queue up at the check in desk for your airline.
Show your paper ticket and compare the times against the handwritten whiteboard of flights.
Once you have ‘checked in’, they will give you a coloured sticker which identifies your flight. You need to wait until your flight is called - if you get up at the wrong time someone will tell you (as they can see your sticker!). Probably the most lax security I have ever gone through - as I was allowed to take litre bottles of water, pen knife - you name it through.
Flights are often delayed due to ‘bad’ weather (ie the slightest breeze).
I'm not sure how accurate the airport world clocks were..
You need to be MUCH more covered up than in neighbouring countries. Although no-one will specifically say anything, if you walk around in shorts you will feel uncomfortable.
Wifi and mobile data can be sketchy - best option is to buy a sim card when you get to the airport, but beware - you need to have an unlocked phone.. (as it turns out, I do not). If (like me) you aren’t able to get a sim, some restaurants and most guesthouses will have wifi - but be warned - it’s not very fast and not a very reliable connection.
English is not widely spoken, but you should find some people with basic english in the more touristy areas of Bagan and Inle.
You’ll see lots of girls and women wearing a light yellow paint on their faces. This is called thanaka, and it is a paste made from ground park. This peculiar make-up trend is very unique to Burmese culture and is seen as a beautifying product.
You’ll see lots of men wearing the traditional Burmese dress -longi. They look a little like male maxi skirts tied in a knot around the waist. They are cheap to buy and make a great gift to bring back for friends.
Flights are often delayed if there is ‘bad’ weather - ie the slightest wind, so don’t book tight connections through the country!
Boat trips on lake Inle are a must do - but worth doing a little research first so that you can make sure you get to see what you want. Also it can get chilly and wet on the lake, so bring a warm jumper and some waterproofs!
There can be many hotels with the same name! Pick up a business card with the hotel’s address on to avoid confusion when getting in taxis!
ATMs were a little problematic while we were away. We would often have to try a few different machines until one worked, and even then, the ATM gods sporadically decided whose card was going to work when and where. If you find an ATM that works, take as much as you think you’ll need out as it might be a while before you find one again!