Imagine a country of stunning landscapes. Snow-capped mountains, lush tropical forests, magical lakes, mighty rivers, and untouched beaches. Add in glittering pagodas, elegant buildings, and archaeological sites, and the image you have is of Myanmar. For decades, Myanmar isolated itself from the world. Formally Burma, the country endured a torrid history. Empires rose and fell. Military dictatorships came and went. Foreign tourists were forbidden from entering Myanmar. All that changed in 1992 when Myanmar opened its door to visitors. Finally, “The Golden Land” is waiting for intrepid travelers to explore its beauty and tranquility.
Towering above Yangon is the oldest Buddhist pagoda in the world. No trip to Myanmar is complete without visiting the magical Shwedagon Pagoda. The huge central stupa is covered in real gold and topped off with rubies and diamonds. It’s a truly dazzling sight to behold. Legend has it that entombed within Shwedagon Pagoda are eight strands of hair from the head of Buddha himself. This 2,500-year-old building has survived wars and political turmoil to remain a symbol of pride for the people of Myanmar.
Possibly the most awe-inspiring place to visit in Myanmar is Bagan, where 2,000 temples dot the landscape. These ornate temples of varying shapes and sizes appear to grow out of the jungle. Spend a few days wandering around Bagan, and you will encounter beautiful, mysterious, and deserted clusters of temples. Watching the sunset or rise over Bagan will cast a spell over you that will be impossible to escape from.
Close to the Thai border, the small, laid-back town of Hap An is surrounded by lush green fields and craggy mountains. On the outskirts of town is the impressive Sadan Cave. With bare feet, you descend into the cave complex to be greeted by Buddha statues, gold monks, and wall carvings. Moving on, you follow a path into the darkness. Entering Sadan Cave, you are presented with a cavern the size of a football field. Pagodas and stupas are side-by-side with huge stalactites built up over the ages. On the other side of the massive Sadan Cave, the wonders continue as a burst of sunlight reveals an idyllic lake. It's easy to see why the natural beauty of Sadan Cave has become such a sacred place.
Spanning the Taungthaman Lake, you will find the U-Bein Bridge. You would think it to be another rickety old bridge used by people to get across the lake. And you would be right. But its historical significance makes it more than that. The U-Bein Bridge was constructed in 1850 out of teak wood taken from the old royal palace of Inwa. This makes it the oldest wooden bridge in the world. At three-quarters of a mile in length, it cuts a striking scene across the lake. U-Bein may not look regal, but other bridges do not compare when viewed at sunset.
Precariously perched on the edge of a cliff is Kyaiktiyo Pagoda. This golden rock appears to defy gravity. Legend says that a strand of Buddha’s hair supports the pagoda. This is why thousands of people travel from all over Myanmar to make the pilgrimage every year. During Full Moon day of Tabaung in March, the pilgrimage reaches its peak. Kyaiktiyo Pagoda shines like a beacon in the night as 90,000 candles are lit around it.
At the foot of Mandalay Hill lies the Kuthodaw Pagoda. This golden temple is beautiful and should be on your list to visit when in Myanmar. However, it’s not the pagoda itself that is the true attraction. Seven hundred thirty small white outhouses each hold a page of the world’s largest book. Inscribed on both sides of five-foot-tall marble tablets is a dense script. Together, these 730 stones comprise the entire Tripitaka, the Buddhist scripture. This book may not be an easy read, but you should definitely take the time to flick through its pages.
After days of trekking around temples and pagodas, head to Inle Lake for more relaxed sightseeing. Villages of stilt houses and Buddhist temples rise out of this large freshwater lake. Travel around in long skinny boats, maneuvering between floating gardens. You can choose to stay in the nearby town of Nyaungshwe. Or for the more adventurous, spend the night in a hotel on stilts.
Lake Inle is also your opportunity to witness the strange sight of the infamous one-legged fishermen. This ancient and unique method of fishing is actually highly effective. These fishermen steer their small boats using just one leg and an oar. Both hands are free to cast and pull in their net while keeping control of the boat. You may think they are putting on a show for you. But in reality, these skilled fishermen are just going about their daily business.
The traditions of the Kayan people are a fascinating part of Myanmar’s diverse culture. The women of the tribe begin to wear golden rings around their necks from the age of five. By gradually increasing the number of rings, they begin to elongate their necks. Spending time with the Kayan women is a privilege. They are happy to speak about their traditions with those who are respectful of their way of life.
Off the coast of Eastern Myanmar is the hidden gem of Mergui Archipelago. This group of 800 islands is mostly unexplored by tourists. Crystal clear waters, white-sand beaches, and mangrove forests are home to a rich variety of wildlife. Kayaking and hiking offer great opportunities for seeing monitor lizards, gibbons, pythons, civets, and crab-eating macaques. Bird spotters will not be disappointed with the colorful species that nest in the Archipelago. Snorkelers and divers will find untouched coral reefs where they can explore an abundance of marine life. Whether you want adventure above or below the surface, Mergui Archipelago has what you are looking for.
Mount Popa is a volcano with an isolated fortress perched on the peak. It sounds like the hideaway of a Bond villain, but this volcanic building is a Buddhist monastery. Reached by walking up the 777 steps, the view at the summit is worth the effort. The temples are also home to Myanmar's local spirits called 'nat' which predate Buddism but are still honored.
Should you find yourself suffering from temple fatigue, head to Ngapali beach to relax. Mostly unspoiled by tourism, the beach has miles of white sand. The pace of life slows down here. Many locals still make their living by fishing, so fresh seafood is plentiful. As the area becomes increasingly popular, hotels are springing up like mushrooms - but right now, it's still a peaceful haven for weary travelers.
Winding its way slowly through the country, the Ayeyarwady River offers a chance to kick back and watch the world flow by. On a river trip, you'll see traditional villages almost untouched by outside influences. Plenty of tourist groups offer cruises for a range of budgets. Whether you travel in luxury or rough it, the best part of this river journey is meeting the local people who are warm, friendly, and welcoming.