With a democratically elected government slowly supplanting the old military status quo, the resulting thaw has drawn more travelers from the West, eager to see what the former Burma was hiding behind its now-defunct wall of silence.
Myanmar's exile may have been a blessing in disguise for travelers. Thanks to the country's long season in the cold, the present Myanmar travel experience feels less pre-packaged and more authentic than higher-profile Southeast Asia destinations like Thailand and Vietnam.
The situation isn't perfect; minorities in Myanmar are still under fire, and cronies with military connections still control many tourism-related businesses. But more small- and medium-scale tourism businesses and growing grassroots presence in the local travel business means that a trip through the country is no longer an ethical no-no.
The following itinerary represents a two-week trip that starts at Yangon in Myanmar's far south, proceeds by bus to the temple town of Bagan, then hops by air to the hill town of Pindaya before going by car and boat to Inle Lake, before another long bus ride to the former royal capital of Mandalay, your last stop before flying out. This itinerary was personally created and undertaken by this writer, who is happy to answer any questions about it on our official Facebook page.
We'll go over a few tips for first-time travelers in the next slide, before starting our journey.
Myanmar Travel Tips to Know Before you Go
If you're a first-time traveler to Myanmar, take note of these travel tips to smooth out your trip.
Getting Around. Transportation to Myanmar's top tourist destinations is easier than you'd think. Most travelers fly in via one of Myanmar's international airports; this writer took advantage of the geographic locations of Yangon and Mandalay airports to create the south-to-north itinerary you're reading now.
In between, you can fly through Myanmar's regional airports; take overnight bus rides from city to city; ride on a creaky train from Yangon to Mandalay; or take a cruise up the mighty Irrawaddy River.
When to Visit. The dry but cool weather between October and February makes Myanmar a positive pleasure to visit. From March to May, temperatures start climbing (don't get caught outdoors in high noon, if you don't want to risk sunburn and sunstroke). The monsoon season between June to September brings down torrential rains and typhoons, particularly in the south; life-threatening floods are not uncommon.
Dos and Don't's. Myanmar is a developing country, with close cultural connections to neighboring countries Thailand and China. Like Thailand, Myanmar has an abundance of temples; they also follow similar rules of etiquette, and the Buddha in Myanmar displaces the King in Thailand as the one figure of authority one must never disrespect.
Safety. Myanmar is no Wild Wild West; the locals are friendly (almost to a fault) as long as you respect their culture and religion. Follow these safety tips to make sure you stay on the locals' good side.
Phone roaming. Don't risk bill shock when you fly home; avoid phone roaming using your old network when traveling through Myanmar. You can use Myanmar's creaky but serviceable telecommunications network by buying a SIM card from one of several services.
Money. Speaking of bills, the Myanmar currency is the kyat (pronounced chat), which can be easily exchanged in many tourist towns. “Easily”, though, is still relative: many money-changers will only accept crisp, brand-new bills for exchange. You'll find many ATMs in some surprising places, such as this ATM in the shadow of Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon.
Ready to go? We'll start with the former capital of Myanmar, Yangon, site of the country's biggest international airport.
Two Days in Yangon: Myanmar's Colonial-Era Capital
Yangon was the capital of British colonial rule in what was then Burma; after several decades as the independent nation's capital (then called “Rangoon”), the military rulers of Myanmar moved to the inland city of Naypyidaw, transferring most embassies and government offices in the process.
The city's demotion has apparently done it little harm – Yangon remains one of Myanmar's most important cities, thanks to its historic architecture, cultural cachet and its transportation links to the rest of the country and to the world.
When you're done making the rounds of Kandawgyi Lake and its floating restaurant; the historic British-Empire-style buildings around Mahabandula Park; and tourist attractions outside city limits, like the Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock pagoda and the Taukkyan War Cemetery; finish your trip with an afternoon going shopping at the Bogyoke Aung San Market – you can pick up a longyi, the traditional daily wear of Myanmar locals, among other interesting souvenirs.
Getting there, getting around: this writer flew in from Kuala Lumpur, landing at Yangon International Airport via AirAsia. Departing Yangon, I waded through two-hour traffic to Aung Mingalar Bus Station (Google Maps) on the city's outskirts, where I boarded an overnight bus heading to Bagan, our next stop.
Where to stay in Yangon: This writer was lucky enough to call the classic Strand Hotel in Yangon home for the short time he was in the former capital.
Four Days in Bagan: City of Two Thousand Temples
For the purposes of this itinerary, we've only allotted four days for the temple city of Bagan, but it's certainly worth a week or more if you want to explore the area's local temples in granular detail!
The surviving Buddhist stupas in Bagan number at about 2,200, left over from a high figure of about 10,000 in Bagan's heyday. They were built as acts of merit by devout Buddhists of the Pagan Kingdom, which conquered most of present-day Myanmar between the 9th and the 13th centuries AD.
It's possible that the temple-building frenzy led to the decline of the Pagan Kingdom; as temple grounds were no longer subject to taxes, the proliferation of such temples may have shrunk the tax base to unsustainable levels.
To maximize coverage in my time in Bagan, this writer opted for a hired car-tour guide package, allowing us to see over a dozen temples in the space of only two days. Your other temple-hopping transportation options include electric scooters, a traditional horse-and-cart, and bicycles, none of which offer the speed and comfort of a hired car, but come at a much lower cost.
If you're pressed for time, you can choose to see only the must-see temples in Bagan, among them Htilominlo Temple and Shwezigon Temple. However long you stay, try to end each day at one of these Bagan temples with a view of the sunset – for this writer, nothing beats watching the sun set over the Irrawaddy from a perch on Shwesandaw Temple.
Getting there, getting around: From Bagan's Shwe Pyi Highway Bus Terminal (Google Maps) you can hire a taxi to take you to your hotel (or arrange pickup beforehand). Before entering Old Bagan, your hired transport will stop by a roadside booth so you can purchase a temple ticket for use when temple hopping (always carry this around).
Departing Bagan, I went straight to Nyaung-U Airport for a short flight to Pindaya.
Where to stay in Bagan: I checked into the Aureum Palace Hotel in Bagan for the duration of my stay. Apart from the well-stocked restaurant and the swimming pool with a view of the temple plain, the Aureum Palace Hotel is mostly well known for its observation tower that looks out over the arid plain that used to be the Pagan Kingdom.
Two Days in Pindaya: Cave Full of Buddhas
This writer took a short detour to the hill town of Pindaya on the invitation of the Thahara Pindaya (one of the first bed-and-breakfasts in Myanmar). The hills around Pindaya now grow tea leaves, vegetables and sunflowers, the waving crops stretching almost as far as the eye can see and interrupted by the occasional farmhouse and road.
At an elevation of over 3,800 feet above sea level, Pindaya offers a cool contrast from the dry heat of Bagan. You can hire a bicycle to explore the countryside, or get into town to check out the local sights. I visited a workshop in Pindaya where Shan ladies made mulberry paper from scratch, then turned them into umbrellas, fans and stationery; the Plan Bee apiculture center that hawks honey, beeswax candles and balms made from local beehives; the Pone Taloke lake in the center of town; and Myoma Market for cheap souvenirs and food.
Our hosts at the Thahara also took us on a two-hour drive to the nearby town of Poila, where two very old houses stand in defiance of the ravages of time: one British-inspired manor that used to belong to a former governor of the Shan; and one traditional wooden house that must be over 200 years old.
There's one must-see sight in Pindaya: the Shwe Oo Min Cave, set in a mountain overlooking Pindaya town. Inside, you'll find over 7,000 Buddha statues, dating from as early as the 18th century to as recently as the last few years. There's very little room to maneuver inside, with slim paths snaking into the caves and the rest of the space packed to the brim with Buddha statues.
Getting there, getting around: I flew in from Bagan Airport, arriving at Heho Airport where my host was waiting with a hired car. There's no public transportation to be had in Pindaya – I either had to use the Thahara's bicycle or hire a car in advance. The same car took me from Pindaya to my next stop, Nyaung Shwe, the jump-off point to Inle Lake.
Where to stay in Pindaya: The Thahara is one of the newer accommodations in Pindaya, and one of its most expensive; you'll find cheaper stays closer to Pindaya town.
Four Days in Inle Lake: Laid-Back Villages and Splendid Stupas
Real hardcore backpackers take upwards of a week hiking from Kalaw to Inle Lake (one of our top 10 hiking expeditions in Southeast Asia). Pressed for time, a stopover at Pindaya and a short drive to Nyaung Shwe (jumpoff point to Inle Lake) will have to do.
Nyaung Shwe is a laid-back backpacker town with one ancient temple and narrow, dusty streets lined with restaurants and budget hotels. It's not even big enough for its own bus station; buses heading to Yangon and Mandalay take in passengers while parked on the street.
The canalside quay in Nyaung Shwe is the traveler's first experience of Inle Lake's waterborne life: thirty to forty minutes' cruising down to one of Inle Lake's villages takes you past floating gardens and the famous leg-rowing Inya fishermen.
Whether you stay in Nyaung Shwe or at a lakeside village, you'll need to hire a speedboat for the few days you'll be exploring the area – there's plenty to do around Inle Lake, from shopping (their silverworks, silks, knives and woodcarvings are certainly worth a discerning look) to visiting local pagodas like Hpaung Daw U, home of a set of miraculous Buddha figures.
This writer's particular favorite in Inle Lake: the Burmese cat sanctuary, where cat fanciers are trying to reintroduce the Burmese cat to its land of origin.
Getting there, getting around: Nyaung Shwe is a major bus stop for travelers heading from (and to) Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay. From Nyaung Shwe, you'll need to hire a boat to take you to and around Inle Lake.
Where to stay in Inle Lake: I visited Inle Lake at the invitation of the Thahara Inle Lake, a socially conscious luxury resort that also hosts the aforementioned Burmese cat sanctuary and a vocational school for Myanmar youths who want to get in on the ground floor of Myanmar's burgeoning tourist industry.
Three Days in Mandalay: Lost Kingdom, Still-Vibrant Faith
Your last destination in Myanmar brings you to the home of the country's terminal royal dynasty. Built around a massive square palace compound that now mostly hosts the Myanmar Armed Forces, the city of Mandalay retains its position as one of the country's most dynamic cities, home to the Shan State's busiest train station and airport. Many travelers from Bagan opt to take a slow boat from the temple town that terminates at the Mandalay quay.
Within the city, you can visit sites linked to the local vibrant Buddhist practice, including the Kuthodaw Pagoda (where the world's largest book can be found, a massive copy of the Buddhist Pali Canon); the Mahamuni Temple, where a gold-covered Buddha image is said to have been brought to life by the Buddha himself; the Shwenandaw Monastery, a former royal apartment converted into a monastery; and the gold-leaf-beating workshops around the intersection of 36th and 78th Streets.
The former royal capital of Amarapura has since been subsumed by Mandalay's urban sprawl, but relics of its former glory remain – among them the U Bein Bridge, the longest teak-wood bridge in the world, said to have been constructed from remnants of the former teak palace abandoned in the move to Mandalay.
Don't leave Mandalay without stopping by the Mandalay Royal Palace. Now located at the very center of a military base, the Palace is a reconstruction of the original teak-wood palace that was burned down in the middle of World War II. Very little of the original palace is left, and the original glory of the place can only be summoned with some effort of the imagination.
Getting there, getting around: Mandalay is served by one of Myanmar's few international airports, as well as rail and bus links. The sprawl of the city makes it difficult to explore by foot; you'll be better off flagging a taxi or motorbike-taxi to go further faster.
From Mandalay, I took an AirAsia flight from the airport that connected me to Bangkok, Thailand, ending the journey at the 15-day mark.
Where to stay in Mandalay: I stayed at the Sedona Mandalay Hotel, located right across the road from the Mandalay Palace moat and wall. For other accommodation options, check out our list of five hot hotels in Mandalay.