Myanmar is a spectacular country and, full to the brim of iconic sights, it stole a piece of our hearts the moment we stepped off the plane and landed into the crazy, wonderful and inspirational country. Myanmar boasts an incredible array of things to do: from stepping back in time at Inle Lake to the chaotic royal capital of Yangon to the breathtaking Bagan temple plain, Myanmar remains as one of South East Asia’s hidden gems. Myanmar is one of the world’s greatest archeological sites. The big draw is Bagan, a vast temple site to rival Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat. Myanmar consistently ranks as one of the friendliest countries in the world. The people never seem to stop smiling and, although English is not commonly spoken, the Myanmar people will go out of their way to help foreigners. It is not unusual for locals to share food with foreigners on the train or to invite travelers into their house for a cup of tea or a snack. The people genuinely love their country and want to share it with visitors, so don’t be timid if someone invites you in! By that being said, here is a list of must-do things for you to go through when traveling in Myanmar:
Shwedagon Pagoda sunset
No visit to Yangon is complete without a visit to one of the most famous pagodas in the world. It is like the Eiffel Tower of Yangon—Yangon being the main commercial city of Myanmar. This massive golden icon can be seen from most rooftops in the city. In fact, many clubs and bars seek out prime rental spaces and shell out extra money for a view of this place. It is a symbol of pride for the people of Myanmar.
Stilted houses at Inle Lake
Typical stilt house on Inle Lake, Myanmar, with floating gardens surrounding the home. Entire villages are built over the lake in this fashion, complete with monasteries, general stores, schools, restaurants, and even craft workshops. The stilts must be high, as the lake level fluctuates severely between the dry and rainy seasons. The gardens are planted in boxes or nets secured to long bamboo poles that are anchored into mud at the bottom of the lake. Tending and harvesting the “fields” is also done entirely by boat. Absolutely everything is done on the water; even visiting a neighbor requires climbing into a traditional flat-bottom wooden boat, though the family laundry can be done from the front steps.
One of Burma’s most stunning man-made marvels built by the colonial British, Gokteik Viaduct is a spectacular railway bridge over 100 metres above the ground and nearly 700 metres long. The train moves walking speed across the bridge, which may have been the epitome of engineering when it was built but now is a crumbling antique, which only adds to the white-knuckle experience. Gokteik bridge can be reached by taking a train from Mandalay or Pyin U Lwin north towards Nawnghkio where the bridge is located about 3 miles (5 kms) further east.
Diving in the Myeik Archipelago
Scattered like pearls on a blue velvet bed sheet are a bunch of 800 islands scattered over the Andaman sea just off the eastern coast of Myanmar. This is Burma’s tropical paradise of Mergui Archipelago. The British colonial name of “Mergui” still remains as opposed to the Burmese “Myeik”. It is a vast cluster of islands covering a colossal area of the azure, clear waters of the Andaman Sea. It consists of over 800 rocky limestone karsts, small limestone pinnacles and ancient granite rock islands. Mergui’s islands are carpeted by dense tropical jungle, fringed with white sandy beaches and abundant coral reefs. The islands, both above and below the sea, host an unimaginable abundance of flora and fauna of which some is totally unique to the area. The Mergui Archipelago appeals to nature lovers, snorkelers, scuba divers, scientists and adventurers. The Mergui Archipelago or Myeik Archipelago lies off the coast of the Tanintharyi Division (region) of southern Myanmar. After decades of both self imposed and internationally sanctioned political isolation, this pristine archipelago is one of the world’s most mystical destinations.
Barefoot walks in temples and caves
A bit off the usual path of Yangon-Bagan-Inle Lake, Hpa An located in Mon State holds many splendors like Saddan Cave. This enormous cave is dotted with Buddha statues, pagodas, and drawings. There are also bats, mostly harmless, but sudden movements will cause a few to screech and fly around. All caves and temples in Myanmar require you to take off your shoes, so your toes will feel the cave’s muddy ground that sometimes floods during the rainy season. The only way to return to where you started is either through the cave again or on a small hired boat that takes cave-goers back to the entrance. The opening hours for the cave are 6am – 6pm (seven days a week).
Hot air balloon ride
Ballooning season in Bagan runs from the beginning of October to the middle of April. Sunrise is when most rides are offered, as the cooler morning temperatures allow balloons to float closer to the ancient stupas for a more detailed glimpse. Daybreak also tends to bring with it more dramatic layers of haze, dreamily blanketing the landscape for a perfect photo opp. It’s nearly impossible to picture Bagan without hot air balloons beautifully clouding the historic horizon. Bagan’s balloons have become an iconic symbol of the region, and have carried many travelers on soaring adventures of a lifetime.
Trek in Kalaw
The surroundings of Kalaw are perfect for trekking and the landscapes differ from rice paddy fields, pine forests, tea plantations to enchanting bamboo groves with rolling hills as the main feature of the area. There is also a beautiful reservoir lake surrounded by green forests, the perfect spot for a refreshing swim. Kalaw, a former colonial summer retreat, is a charming hill town that serves as a starting point for many treks in the Shan hills. Kalaw stands high at an elevation of 1320m, on the western edge of the Shan Plateau, 70 km west of Taunggyi and about halfway along the Thazi-Taunggyi road. Due to the town’s elevation, the climate around Kalaw stays fairly temperate all around the year. In the town itself, visitors can still admire many of the original colonial era buildings and soak in the beautiful surroundings.
U Bein Bridge
The oldest teak bridge in the world is made from the remains of a royal palace. Construction on the wooden bridge was completed in 1851 after three years. The bridge was built at a slight curve, and is supported by over a thousand wooden pillars that were hammered into the bottom of the shallow lake. When the water level is high during the rainy season the walkway isn’t that far out of the water. But during the winter dry season, when the water level drops markedly, the bridge stands high above the ground and the remaining water of the lake.
Climb the 777 steps of Mount Popa
Mount Popa is a Myanmar postcard sight: a sacred monastery, with stupas glistening gold, perched atop an extinct volcano. 777 steps lead the way to the top of Mount Popa, the headquarters of Myanmar’s most powerful Nats, and the route is lined with monkeys keen to get up to mischief with the tourists in their search for food! Mount Popa is a popular half day trip from Bagan.
Take a sunset boat ride on Inle Lake
Inle Lake is one of the most stunning lakes in the world and the stilt houses and Buddhist temples rising from the marshy reeds only add to its appeal. The best way to experience Inle Lake is to take a ride on one of the slender long tail wooden boats and experiencing the silence and emptiness of the lake is an absolute privilege as is watching local village life while floating by. Inle Lake can certainly hold its own on the sunset front: the beautiful colours of the Myanmar sunset reflect from the glass like lake making for a picture perfect setting.