Myanmar isn't at the top of most travelers' bucket lists but that makes it an even more exciting place to visit. An itinerary through Southeast Asia’s final frontier reveals one of the region’s most authentic experiences: Bagan’s temple plain, Mergui’s unspoiled diving sites, and Shwedagon’s golden stupendousness, all (as yet) undisturbed by overtourism despite the excellent value for your dollar.
Before you blaze a trail through Myanmar, read our list of the country’s highlights: combine with this list of Myanmar travel tips, dos and don’ts in Myanmar, and a suggested itinerary to create a one-of-a-kind Myanmar voyage.
A major power in Southeast Asia from the 11th to the 13th centuries, the Pagan Empire lives on through the arid Bagan temple plain.
Bagan's 2,000-odd temples range in size and grandeur, spread across an area of 40 square miles. Hire a bicycle, “e-bike” or car-and-driver to take you to some of the best, including the grand Shwezigon Pagoda (inspiring Shwedagon further south) and the cathedral-like Ananda temple.
Getting there: Fly in via Nyaung-U Airport (IATA: NYU, ICAO: VYBG), or take the bus. A US$20 entrance ticket is charged before entry. The authorities used to allow visitors to climb the temples, but that has since been limited to a few temples with a view.
This massive lake measures 13 miles (22 kilometers) from north to south, and 6 miles (10 kilometers) from east to west. All along the fringes of this watery expanse, you’ll find towns populated by the Intha ethnic community. Long adapted to living by the waters’ edge, the Intha ride boats to get from place to place, cultivate floating farms, and row boats with one leg while fishing on the lake.
Stay near the Intha villages to enjoy the unique lakeside landscape and see more of the local color — from visiting the markets that rotate from village to village; to checking out the shops selling locally-made silver, knives and cigars; to seeking spiritual solace at the Hpaung Daw Oo and Shwe Indein Pagodas.
Getting there: Buses reach the town of Nyaungshwe from Mandalay and Yangon. from Nyaungshwe, you can take a speedboat to any of the towns around Inle Lake. A US$10 entrance fee to Inle Lake will be charged at Nyaungshwe.
Hit the Hiking Trails from Kalaw
The former British hill station of Kalaw has become Myanmar’s de facto hiking capital. With an elevation of 4,000 feet above sea level, Kalaw offers a temperate climate and access to gentle downhill trails snaking through Shan State — the most popular being the two- to four-day hike to Inle Lake.
The trail takes you through farmlands dotted with villages and temples. The Pa-O, Palaung, Danu and Taung Yo ethnic groups are used to trekkers, and will happily wave as you walk by. At night, you’ll stay at a Buddhist temple, with meals provided by local families.
Trekking from Kalaw happens year-round, but the cool, dry season from October to April is the best time to go. Guides can be hired at Kalaw.
Getting there: Buses regularly reach Kalaw from major cities like Bagan and Yangon. By air, fly to Heho Airport (IATA: HEH, ICAO: VYHH), which is also the main air gateway to Pindaya and Inle Lake. Taxis take one hour to reach Kalaw from Heho Airport.
Eat Myanmar’s Famous Mohinga Noodles
Even as Myanmar’s top tourist destinations have slowly become more Western-friendly, Myanmar’s food has managed to stick to the basics. Take mohinga, the noodle dish that is the nation’s absolute favorite breakfast.
It’s cheap, filling, but surprisingly complex. A catfish-based broth is spiced with lemongrass, coriander, turmeric, and a collection of other spices specific to the location where you're eating. The hot broth is then poured over rice noodles, and garnished with hard-boiled egg slices and crispy fritters.
You can find mohinga almost everywhere, eat it at any time of the day, and serve it to humble worker and highborn alike. (State Counsellor and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi took solace in eating mohinga during her years of house arrest.)
See a Shadow of Empire at the Pyu Ancient Cities
Newly inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the ancient city-states of the Pyu are all that remains of a mighty civilization that ruled the floodbasins of the Irrawaddy River from 200 BC to AD 900.
The three Pyu cities listed by UNESCO – Halin, Beikthano and Sri Ksetra – still retain the remnants of palace citadels, massive walls, and Buddhist stupas. Each of these Pyu Ancient Cities have museums that allow visitors to see the context behind the structures, with curated artifacts like silver coins, pottery and stone slabs covered in Pyu writing.
Getting there: The Pyu cities are widely spaced, and must be reached from different cities. Sri Ksetra is the easiest to reach: take an eight-hour bus from Yangon to Pyay, a town some 5 miles west of the ruins. You can book a tour from Pyay to explore.
Relax on White Sand at Ngapali Beach
Ngapali Beach is the anti-Phuket: a quiet stretch of white-sand beach on the western coast of Myanmar facing the Bay of Bengal. No crowded beachfronts, high-traffic hotels or sleazy red-light districts blight the area. This beach is just a laid-back beach destination where fishermen still go about their business, sharing space with a steady tide of tourists.
Prices for accommodation and food here also compare favorably against the rest of the region. Enjoy steamed crab, lobster, and Rakhine curries, and wash them down with local beers, without breaking the bank.
Getting there: During peak months of October to February, fly to nearby Thandwe Airport from Yangon or Heho Airports. A direct bus service connects Ngapali with Yangon, but it’s a butt-busting 16-hour ride either way.
Wonder How the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda Keeps its Balance
Locals believe that a strand of the Buddha's hair helps Kyaiktiyo Pagoda balance on a cliff’s edge. It’s been hanging on like that for over 2,000 years, they say – and will probably stay for another 2,000 more.
The granite rock gets its brilliant sheen from generations of Burmese Buddhists sticking gold leaf onto its surface as a sign of devotion. Kyaiktiyo pilgrims make a four-hour trek from Kinpun Village at ground level, placidly walking the 10-mile uphill climb to the rock.
The pagoda is an all-year pilgrimage favorite for locals, but things get turned up to eleven during its festival season in March. 90,000 candles illuminate the rock at night, giving it an otherworldly glow.
Getting there: Buses and trains from Yangon regularly make the 5-6-hour voyage to Kinpun. If walking four hours up a mountain isn’t your thing, pick-up trucks at Kinpun can take you there in a few minutes.
Pray for Victory at Shwedagon Temple
No sacred space in Myanmar contains as much history, culture and literal riches as the Shwedagon Pagoda. This massive gold stupa stands on a 46-hectare complex on a hill west of Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon.
As you climb one of four stairways up to the stupa, you can stop to have your fortune told, then buy offerings to the right shrines for good luck. Locals walk around the stupa in a clockwise direction, making merit at any of the different shrines or praying for success at the Victory Ground where Kings used to pray for triumph over their enemies.
Getting there: Take a taxi to Shwedagon; avoid coming at high noon, as your bare feet will not appreciate walking on the hot pavement.
Visit the Last Royal Capital at Mandalay
Home to the last ruling kings of Burma, Mandalay still retains echoes of its royal status. Its side streets still ring with the sound of traditional crafts being performed, from marble carvers to silversmiths to gold leaf making.
Sacred temples like the Mahamuni Pagoda (home to Myanmar’s oldest Buddha image) and Kuthodaw Pagoda (home to the “world’s largest book”, an edition of the Buddhist Pali Canon).
Sadly, World War II destroyed the Royal Palace at the heart of Mandalay. A watch tower, the Royal Mint, and the Shwenandaw Monastery are all that’s left of the original, but the rest of the palace – reconstructed in the '90s using modern materials – can still (imperfectly) give you a glimpse of what life must have been like for Burma’s kings.
Getting there: Mandalay is a major air gateway into Myanmar, thanks to Mandalay International Airport (IATA: MDL, ICAO: VYMD).
Have a Close Encounter with Nature at Pyin Oo Lwin
In the days before air conditioning, the British Civil Service in Burma would spend the sweltering summers in the town they called Maymyo, now called Pyin Oo Lwin. Its elevation (3,500 feet above sea level) meant that visitors could enjoy nippy weather and flowering gardens.
Pyin Oo Lwin's tree-shaded avenues pale in comparison to the best botanical garden in Myanmar: the Kandawgyi National Gardens, a 177-hectare park in the heart of the city, combining parkland and unspoiled forest.
Over 700 species of trees, 300 species of orchids, 70 species of bamboo and 20 species of roses bloom year-round in the Gardens. (The Rose Garden is a major highlight; you can buy seeds in the Gardens to plant at home.)
Getting there: A train connects Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin, taking four hours to get there.
Explore Mergui Archipelago Before Everyone Else Does
While Andaman Sea island destinations like Ko Phi Phi are struggling from too many tourists, the Mergui Archipelago off Myanmar's west coast is only now being discovered by scuba divers and beach nuts.
You’ll kayak among secluded islands only visited occasionally by the people of the Moken tribe. You’ll strap on scuba gear and explore the untouched underwater landscape, with a massive complement of nudibranch, schools of tuna and trevallies, and large sharks that dart out of the depths.
Given the 13,900-square-mile coverage of the Mergui islands, you’ll need about a week or two to explore the archipelago in depth (pun intended).
Getting there: Book a liveaboard boat from Phuket, Khao Lak and Ranong in Thailand. Alternatively, you can fly from Yangon to Kawthaung (the Myanmar jump-off point to the Mergui Archipelago) and set sail from there. Even liveaboards from Thailand must stop at Kawthaung to fix their immigration papers and pay a visa fee.
Watch Animal Balloons Fly at the Tazaungdaing Light Festival
The end of Kahtein falls on the full moon of the eighth month of the Burmese lunar calendar (in 2019, this takes place on November 5-11). Taunggyi locals take this time to kick the kick off a major festival: the Tazaungdaing Light Festival, when locals launch fireworks and balloons made of papier-mache after dark.
There’s a method to the madness. The Tazaungdaing festival traditionally marks the Buddha’s return to Earth from visiting his mother in another spiritual plane; the fireworks and balloons are intended to guide the Enlightened One home. The Taunggyi locals add a certain whimsy to the homecoming balloons, shaping them into giant paper animals, turning the sky into a menagerie.
Getting there: Buses regularly reach Taunggyi from major cities like Bagan and Yangon. By air, fly to Heho Airport (IATA: HEH, ICAO: VYHH), which is also the main air gateway to Pindaya and Inle Lake. Taxis take 40 minutes to reach Taunggyi from Heho Airport.
Meet and Greet 13 Tribes at Kyaingtong
The English writer Somerset Maugham visited Kyaingtong (spelled Keng Tung in his day), inspired by an acquaintance who “spoke of Keng Tung as a lover might speak of his bride.” Today’s Kyaingtong is much as Maugham found it: a laid-back retreat that also happens to be a cultural meeting-place for 13 Shan-state tribes, each with distinct cultures and costumes.
The distinct cultures that make up Kyaingtong gather at certain landmarks that were already old when Maugham found his way there in the 20th century: the Central Market, where hill tribe traders exchange goods and news; the Maha Myat Muni Pagoda, the city’s spiritual center; and the picturesque Lake Naung Tone.
At the latter, you can sit at a lakeside food stall and enjoy local cuisine after nightfall.
Getting there: fly in from Yangon or Mandalay via Kengtung Airport (IATA: KET, ICAO: VYKG).
Visit a Holy Cave (and Thousands of Buddhas) at Pindaya
Most of Pindaya in Shan State is farmland, as far as the eyes can see: rolling hills growing vegetables, sunflowers and tea. Its main attraction lies high up on a cliff overlooking town. Shwe Oo Min Cave hides over 7,000 Buddha statues, some dating back to the 11th century AD, left in the cave by Buddhist pilgrims.
Other local attractions cater to travelers thirsty for local culture – visit the Shan cultural center that converts locally-made mulberry paper into fans and umbrellas; the Myoma Market, a one-stop-shop for local goods and cheap food; and the Plan Bee apiculture center that sells honey, beeswax candles and balms.
Its elevation of 3,800 feet above sea level makes Pindaya a cool, comfortable stop relative to Myanmar’s lowlands. No wonder Pindaya remains a popular stop for hikers from Kalaw, heading to Inle Lake.
Getting there: Fly to Heho Airport (IATA: HEH, ICAO: VYHH) and take a taxi to Pindaya.
Take a Cruise Down the Irrawaddy River
There would be no Burma without an Irrawaddy River. This mighty waterway has nourished empires since the Pyu cities in 200 BC. Today, it continues to support trade and travel, from shipping teak logs to transporting tourists.
Myanmar river cruise lines now offer Irrawaddy itineraries lasting from a few days to several weeks. Shorter cruises shuttle between Mandalay and Bagan in four days. Longer cruises connect Bagan and Yangon, stopping by Pyay (home to Sri Ksetra, see “Pyu Cities” above at #5). Even longer voyages head to border towns like Bhamo (some 30 miles south of the border with China) and Homalin (12 miles east of the Indian border).
Where to go: Cruises depart from major riverside cities like Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon, all accessible by their respective airports. Cruise seasons often coincide with the monsoon season, to ensure high river levels — most Irrawaddy cruises run from September to April, while detours on the Chindwin River (to Homalin) occur between July and September.