Nestled between India and Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) was once a bit of a mystery for travellers, notoriously difficult to enter and largely closed off to the west. However, in recent years things have changed, and Myanmar has grown in reputation to become one of Asia’s most exciting and intriguing destinations. I’ve had the pleasure of travelling through the country twice, and each time I visit I am blown away by the kindness and warmth of the Burmese people. While the tourist infrastructure is still a lot more basic than surrounding countries like Thailand or Vietnam, the tourist industry is growing each year.

If you want an opportunity to really get off the beaten track in South East Asia, there couldn’t be a better time to visit this incredible golden land. Here is my itinerary for three to four weeks in Myanmar.

BAGAN

Things to know before you go

– You will need a tourist visa in advance. You might be able to get one in your home country, or the embassy in Bangkok offers next day visas.

– Take crisp, new US$100 bills. The rules around money are constantly changing, but your safest bet is to ensure you have plenty of US dollars without tears or pen marks. ATMS’s are becoming more common, but don’t rely on them as some don’t accept international cards.

WIFI connection can still be scarce outside the main cities, let people at home know you might be out of contact for a while.

– Wear clothes which are culturally appropriate. Locals will respect you if you dress more conservatively. Local women wear floor length skirts called Longyi’s, and you can pick these up around the country for great prices.

– ‘Delhi Belly’ becomes ‘Burma Belly’, be prepared for a few pangs of food poisoning and make sure you have appropriate medicine.

– Peak Season runs from October through to February. Here you’ll get great weather, but possibly some crowds at Bagan and Inle Lake. From March to May the weather is very hot and dry, and places like Mandalay and Bagan can be unbearable. Burmese New Year usually falls in April each year, it’s a wild experience but travel around the country comes to a standstill. Monsoon runs from June to August.

– Read up on the Human Rights situation before you decide to travel. There are still a lot of problems in Myanmar, although the locals will tell you that it is improving, and they are often delighted to see foreigners travelling in their country. It is useful and respectful to read up on the situation before travelling, and there are a number of books and biographies about Burma, including ‘The Glass Palace‘ by Amitav Ghosh and any book written by Aung San Suu Kyi which will help you get informed.

TRAIN TO HSIPAW

So let’s begin our adventure…

Start in the old capital: Yangon (4 days)

The most popular entry point for travellers in Myanmar is the old capital of Yangon. It is still Myanmar’s biggest city, and home to some of the countries most memorizing sites. It offers a great introduction to the country, which can often be more challenging than the rest of South East Asia.

There’s plenty to do in Yangon, and plenty of streets to get lost through. The city is vibrant and unforgettable, filled with markets, street food and golden pagodas. Spend a day on the $1 circle line train which travels a loop around the city and is filled with curious locals. Wander around the Shwegadon Pagoda, and make sure you stay for sunset when the Pagoda shines and locals come from a days work to worship and meditate. Downtown Yangon is full of street markets, and it’s the best place in the country to try a range of Burmese cuisine. Head to Little India for some delicious Thali, or snack on sweet Falooda.

YANGON PAGODA

Head North to see 2,200 Pagodas at dawn in Bagan (3 days)

Take the night bus North to the plains of Bagan. When you imagine Myanmar, this is probably what comes to mind. Balloons floating overhead, and dry flat plains with horse and carriages whizzing past. As well as exploring the temples, of which there are an estimated 2,200 still standing, Bagan has a thriving market, some great eateries and a few monasteries which accept visitors. One thing you must do is awake at sunrise, cycle to the Shwesandaw Pagoda and watch the balloons slowly rise over the plains. I promise it will be one of the most unforgettable days of your whole trip.

BAGAN 2

Travel East to Shan State: Kalaw (2 days)

From Bagan, take a bus to Kalaw, where you’ll instantly feel a temperature drop. In contrast to the dusty plains of Bagan, Kalaw is located in the Shan hills, and has the feel of a Himalayan village. Spend your days here exploring the town’s markets, eating in the great Nepali restaurant and taking day hiking trips to some of the nearby villages and monasteries. If you’re lucky, you might catch a local festival or be invited into a villagers house for tea.

Golden Lily Guest House offers great views of the town and a nice homely atmosphere. Sam’s Family Trekking offer incredible guiding service for various treks around the village and to Inle Lake at very good prices.

KALAW HOMESTAY

Get off-the-beaten track: Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake (3 days)

One of the highlights of travelling in Myanmar is the three-day trek through the Shan hills between Kalaw and Inle Lake. The trek, which must be guided, takes you through the stunning views of mountains and farm land and through tribal villages where you’ll spend the night on the floor of a locals teak house. It’s a very unique and authentic experience, and enables you to see some of the most remote villages in this part of Myanmar. If you don’t have time to do the three-day trek, there is also a two-day option.

TREKKING HILLS

Drift away at Inle Lake (4 days)

Deep in the Shan, Inle Lake has become somewhat of a travellers haven. The village of Nyaungshwe is perched on the edge of the living lake, which holds floating villages, markets and gardens. You should spend a full day on the lake, a boat man will take you to a floating market, and to see some of the handicraft factories in the floating villages. It really offers a unique glimpse of a wonderful way of living. In the village of Nyaungshwe, there are also many delicious eateries you won’t find anywhere else in Myanmar, including an excellent French Restaurant and a Pizzeria. You could also hire a bike and cycle up to the vineyard on the hillside where you can do wine tasting, something you probably didn’t expect in Myanmar!

A great hotel in Nyaungshwe is Joy Hotel, where you can eat a breakfast of tropical fruits on the balcony overlooking the canal. Make sure you try some of the delicious French cuisine at French Touch, where the owner, who is a talented photographer and film-maker, shows a movie filmed in the area each night.

INLE LAKE

Find a Cave of 8,000 Buddhas: Pindaya (1 day)

A great day trip from Inle Lake is to the caves in Pindaya. Holding 8,000 Buddha statues, the caves which are located in the hills, are a memorizing site, and one which can be explored for hours on end. The best way to reach the caves is by hiring a car and driver and splitting the cost – this can be booked at Joy Hotel in Nyaungshwe.

PINDAYA

Discover the city life and ancient surrounds of Mandalay (3 days)

Mandalay can often seem like a disappointment on arrival. It’s dusty, traffic clogged and home to some of Myanmar’s worst hotels. However, the city is surrounded by some beautiful sites, so it’s definitely worth basing yourself here for a few days. A day trip out to Amarapura is a must, especially if you can get there for sunrise (sunset is second best!). Here, you can walk across the U Bein bridge, explore local monasteries and if you’re lucky, discover some hidden craft shops.

In Mandalay city, the Mahamuni Buddha temple is a great half day out, and take the steep walk up to Mandalay Hill at sunset for views over the whole city and surrounding farmland.

MANDALAY- AMARAPURA

Get away in the cool hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin (2 days)

Just a two hour drive from Mandalay (4 hours by train), Pyin Oo Lwin is a cool, mountain hill station which was once a British summer retreat. It’s still a popular weekend getaway for Mandalay residents due to the beautiful gardens, waterfalls and incredible market.

Around 10km before you arrive in Pyin Oo Lwin, the Anisakan Falls are signposted along the main road. They are well worth the detour, and in dry season you can swim in the falls’ turquoise pools. A great way to cool off after the hike down.

PYIN OO LWIN MARKET

Take the slow train to intriguing Hsipaw (3 days)

The slow train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw is long, shaky, and a little prone to breakdowns. It usually takes around 6 hours, but don’t count on it being on time. The real reason why you have to take this train is the Goteik Viaduct, which snakes through the Shan Hills and offers rather sensational views of the valleys below. If this isn’t enough of a reason, Myanmar’s trains are a spectacle of local life, and make some of the easiest opportunities for conversations with locals, monks and nuns and other travellers.

Rivalling Kalaw as the prettiest Burmese town, Hsipaw is another trekking base surrounded by mountains. Trekking out into the local villages for a night or two is well worth it if you have the time, or there are day trips around the town which are very pleasant. Each morning before sunrise, a village market takes place along the riverside. It’s a wonderful site if you fancy waking up before the dawn. Check out Mrs. Popcorn’s garden for delicious juices and Shan snacks in the shade, and walk up to the Sunset Hill as the sun is setting for breathtaking views over the hills around.

Lily The Home Hotel is a wonderful place to stay in Hsipaw, with some incredible views from the balcony at the top.

YANGON CIRCLE TRAIN

The End?..

After Hsipaw, chances are your visa is already up and you’ll be heading back to Yangon or Mandalay for a flight back to Bangkok. If you do fancy adding on a few extra days, the beaches around Ngapali are apparently stunning and might make a great few days relaxing after so much travelling.

BAGAN TRUCK

Myanmar leaves a heavy mark on so many people who visit, there’s something unforgettable about the Burmese people, who live so graceful and are always ready to welcome you to their country. If you’re considering an Asian adventure for your next trip, I couldn’t recommend the magical lands of Myanmar any more.


 

This is a guest post by Annapurna Mellor.

ME Annapurna spent much of her childhood living in the Middle East and Australia before returning to her native England. Her wander-lusting genes have never quite resided, and after a short stink studying in London, she now calls the road her home. She’s ridden the Trans-Mongolian railway, spent Christmas day in the Egyptian desert, trekked through the Himalayan peaks she was named after, and worked as a journalist in a Tibetan corner of India. She can usually be found tramping through Asia with a camera in one hand and a pen in the other, always looking to find an intriguing face to capture, or a forgotten corner of a city to discover. You can follow her on her blog Life on the Run and her Instagram.