Myanmar has opened its doors to travelers in a big way over this past decade. And that has allowed so many of us to explore its traditional and ancient wonders: see how the people of Inle Lake live, wander the markets of Yangon, and see the many views and pagodas of Bagan. But Myanmar is more than these popular tourist destinations. There’s a hidden world beyond these places: a world of secrets to uncover.
Shan State is a colder mountainous area in the far north of Myanmar, a region that already attracts visitors heading southwest for the majestic Inle Lake. However, Hsipaw, an ancient royal city, is a wonderful choice for hikers and anyone looking to experience a traditional Shan town. There are many well-marked trails you can take with natural hot springs and waterfalls to enjoy on the route. Hsipaw is situated seven hours along a scenic daily rail journey from Mandalay or a short flight from Yangon airport to nearby Lashio airport.
Crossing the border from Thailand towards Yangon, you’ll hit the capital of Kayin State, Hpa An. The town is surrounded by karst mountains and caves to explore, with Sadan Cave being the main event. This extensive cave system opens up to a cavern containing carved Buddhas, pagodas, and carvings. For a spectacular sight, make sure to catch the "Bat Cave" before sunset to see thousands of bats leave for the night. There are plenty of activities for nature lovers to get stuck into, like taking a cruise down Thanlwin River or the two-hour hike up Mount Zwekabin. The best way to reach Hpa An is by taking a seven-hour bus directly from Yangon.
This small town in Kachin State at the foot of the Himalayan Hill is the starting point for most serious trekkers in Myanmar. It offers the nearest base camp for climbing Mt. Khakhaborazi, the highest mountain in the country, and all of Southeast Asia. Only accessible by air most of the year, Putao is only reachable by road during the summer. The ethnically diverse town is also home to several minorities, including the Rawang and Lisu people. You can get to Putao by air direct from Yangon, Mandalay, and Myitkyina.
A largely forgotten ancient Rakhine city by tourism standards (for now) lies in the north of Rakhine state. Like the newly UNESCO-bestowed Bagan, the main thing to do here is explore the hundreds of temples within the archaeological zone. Unlike Bagan, the terrain is hilly, more dramatic, and with greener landscape making for luscious views. Most of the structures are within walking distance of each other, but a bike wouldn’t go amiss to see the full range of what’s on offer here. The best way to reach Mrauk-U is by flying to Sittwe and then taking a boat from the town up Kaladan River.
Bordering Thailand, this Kayah state boasts gorgeous hill scenery, pagodas set into limestone mountains, and a rustic village feel that charms anyone who visits. Many different tribal cultures live here, making for a culturally fascinating visit that’s best kicked off with a visit to the local culture museum. One of the most recognizable tribes here is the Kayan, which has been known in the past for "long-necked women" with brass rings around their neck, a custom that is much less practiced today. Make sure you try the local food as there are many unique dishes here that can be easily sampled at the daily night market. You can fly from Yangon to Loikaw, and then it’s a short drive to the town.
Set within Nat Ma Taung National Park in Chin State, Mount Victoria is the third-highest peak in Myanmar and home to rare flora and fauna, which has led to the park being awarded ASEAN Heritage Park status and of Outstanding Universal Value by UNESCO. Catching the sunrise atop of the mountain is highly recommended as well as a stay at the local villages of Kanpetlet or Mindat where visitors can meet the indigenous Dai, Upu, and Ya tribes. If you're planning a visit, beware that Mount Victoria is inaccessible during the rainy season from May through October. The nearest airport is Bagan and then it's an eight-hour drive or bus ride from there towards Nat Ma Taung National Park.
An area associated with gemstones, most of the world’s rubies come from Mogok, also known as "the valley of rubies." Visitors can explore local mines and see a community thoroughly involved with its trade or head out into the mountains and pagoda complexes (like Phaung Daw Oo, pictured here) surrounding the village. Mogok Lake can also be found just outside the city. Travel to Mogok has been restricted until very recently—you can only travel there has part of a tour—but tourism to the area has still started to take off. Most tour operators leave from Mandalay, the closest city.
A remote destination just waiting for divers and sailing enthusiasts, the Mergui Archipelago in southern Myanmar consists of more than 800 islands, reefs, and fishing villages to discover. There’s plenty to see on land, too—the area is brimming with wildlife and some of the oldest mangrove forests on Earth. Some of the most popular islands include Lampi island: Myanmar’s first national marine park and 115 islands, an area rich in coral and white sand beaches. One of the easiest ways to reach the archipelago is from Phuket, Thailand, as you can reach the islands by air or road; flights to Ranong leave daily. Otherwise, you can fly from Yangon to Kawthaung airport.
This is an isolated spot set around Kyaingtong Lake, in the heart of the famous Golden Triangle. Kyaing Tong is perfect for photographers with places like Naung Tong lake, the standing Buddha, rice terraces, and dramatic mountain scenery. Although situated in Shan State, the people here are of their own ethnic group, with most of the residents being from the Tai Khün tribe. Travelers can arrive at Kyaing Tong airport from Yangon, Heho, and Mandalay.