Over the last couple of years, Myanmar has made it easier for tourists to come and visit this little travelled region of South East Asia. In the past, the military government just wasn’t that keen on letting outsiders come in and seeing what they were up to.
For reasons that I won’t go into right now (let’s just use the code word: Aung San Suu Kyi), they have decided to open up their kimono, and are making it easier for the world to see their attractions.
Already, there is a well-worn path of worthy destinations. I’m not saying you should skip them, as they are beautiful experiences, but be prepared to share them with the other travellers in Myanmar.
1) Sunset at Ubein’s Bridge, near Mandalay.
Walk along the world’s longest teak footbridge at Sunset. Perhaps get a boat, or stay onshore. Either way, at sunset you’ll be rewarded with beautiful, photogenic scenery. Of course, you and dozens of others will be taking nearly exactly the same beautiful photos.
It’s not just Ubein’s Bridge around Mandalay, there are some fantastic monasteries, stupas, pagodas and images of Buddha. Just explore and see what you find.
2) Villages, near Hsipaw
Spend a day with a small group, trekking up through the highlands of Myanmar. Stop at local villages for freshly picked and dried green tea, and pick up a bag of your own for 30p. Be prepared, they brew it strong.
As a responsible tourist, try to avoid the temptation to pop into village schools during class time. Kids have a hard enough time concentrating as it is. I know I did, and that was without a regular interruption of strange-looking people taking my picture.
I admit, this time, I failed to resist. We were led to the door and I thought it would be a great chance for photos. So we disrupted the class for a few minutes, made a few jokes and simple conversation, took a few pictures and left. Seems harmless enough, but if three or four groups are doing it every day, it’s not good.
As if to highlight my irresponsibility, a great opportunity for photos came up when the school had finished and children were returning home. So, stay out of school, kids. You’ll get the photos somewhere else. I’m not going to use any of the photos I took inside the school.
3) Inle Lake, by boat
This huge, beautiful lake is set between mountains, villages and even a vineyard on the Eastern side of Myanmar. You’ll have seen the famous fisherman using their feet to row the boats. With a group, or alone, hire a boat and driver for about £15 for the day. Your driver will know all the usual spots, but try to encourage him to take you a little further afield too.
Apart from at the main market, the lake’s big enough to find floating villages, farms and local workshops without any other tourists in them. It did sometimes make me roll my eyes when my driver arrived at another workshop, with a handy shop attached. But there is no pressure to buy, and all the work is interesting to see. From silversmith to an ironmonger, to lotus weaver, to cigarette making. I don’t get to see this traditional handicraft being made that often, so if the price of admission is a walk through the shop, then it was worth it. It was a welcome green tea and toilet stop too!
4) Sunrise from a pagoda, in Bagan
Bagan is magical. It’s perhaps the one truly world-class site in Myanmar. You’ve probably seen the pictures before. Hundreds and hundreds of deserted pagodas dotted around the landscape. There are a couple of famous places to go for sunrise, and I’m sure they are beautiful, but what everyone really wants their own deserted pagoda for sunrise.
Finding your own is tough, but not impossible. It just takes patience. Find a good pagoda, and just keep going back every morning until no one is there with you. If you don’t have the luxury of time, then simply enjoy the sunrise where ever you are, whoever you are with. You might make a new friend.
I nearly didn’t go. I really wasn’t that bothered in seeing another pagoda. Once you’ve seen a hundred pagodas, what’s one more? But this one is special. Over 1000 years old, coated in 53 metric tons of gold, with a jewel-encrusted weathervane (5000 diamonds and 2000 rubies and emeralds), it’s an exceptional pagoda. And the fact that my visit coincided with getting off the night bus and arriving at Shwedagon for sunrise was simple serendipity. If you only see one sight in Yangon, this is certainly the one to see.
What do you think? Are there any other beautiful things that everybody does in Myanmar? Leave a note in the comments.
Coming next: 5 Things More People Should Do In Myanmar