Strong ethnic heritage, breathtaking natural beauty, never-ending landscape studded with gilded pagodas and lovely locals full of warmth, that all is Myanmar. A country that only recently loosened its travel restrictions is now welcoming people from all over the world, yet it still keeps its rustic charm and remains at heart a nation of age-old values.
When I was travelling through South East Asia, Myanmar got me by surprise. I had no expectations and it completely blew me away. There is only one good reason why you should visit this beautiful country: It is amazing! However, if you need more, keep reading.
1) MYANMAR IS THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
Even though Myanmar is becoming more and more popular among international travelers, it remains the off-the-beaten-path destination with its traditional lure.
Local men still wear the eye-catching longyi (a sheet of fabric tied around the waist) while chewing on the betel nut, women decorate their faces with a natural sunblock thanakha, kids run around with no shoes and horses with carriages are commonly used as a mean of transport.
Off the peak season, we were the only strangers in many places and people were literally standing in line to take photos with us and inviting us to their homes for some tea or fresh mangoes. I often felt like I stepped back in time.
2) MOUTH-WATERING CUISINE
Myanmar is home to hundreds of ethnic groups and each of them is bringing different flavors to the table. Besides the high quality international cuisine with a special Myanmar touch, you can find here some great local restaurants and street food stalls serving traditional Burmese dishes such as laphet thoke – a tea leaf salad, mont hin ga – a breakfast noodle dish, or nan gyi thoke – a chicken curry salad with thick rice noodles, just to name a few. The flavors are unusual, surprising and delightful, and nothing like you’ve eaten before.
3) FRIENDLY LOCALS
People of Myanmar are some of the friendliest and warmest locals I’ve met during my travels, not only around Asia. They are not (yet) spoiled by mass tourism, they are honest and helpful.
I was lucky to spend one morning in a local village near Bagan. While riding our e-bike between thousands of pagodas, we lost our way and met a friendly local who invited us to his house. It was our first week in Myanmar so I was a little bit suspicious at first but my curiosity was stronger.
We came to his home, where few generations of his family lived together under one roof. They served us delicious breakfast, tea, and some sweet fresh mangoes and all he wanted in return was to have a conversation in English with him and his two children who were university students and they needed to practice. The rest of his family spoke only Burmese.
I am still smiling when thinking about this beautiful morning spent with this lovely family and I am incredibly happy that I kept an open mind when we were invited to their home.
4) LEARN ABOUT MYANMARESE HISTORY, CULTURE AND AGED-OLD TRADITIONS
Being in the tourism isolation for over a decade for the political situation (from 1996 to 2010), Myanmar stayed away from the western influences and so their culture and traditions offer some of the most authentic experiences for a traveler in Asia. Thankfully, even though more and more tourists come to visit every year, the pace of change is not overwhelming.
People have lived in this area for thousands of years, but the biggest rise came during the Pagan Kingdom in 1044. Throughout this time, Buddhism was established as the official religion and it remains so until today.
Myanmar is the most religious Buddhist country in the world with Buddhism being practiced by approximately 90% of the Burmese population. You’ll notice many locals and monks visiting the temples and pagodas daily with offerings for Buddha.
The culture of Myanmar is heavily based on the ancient Pagan Kingdom and Buddhist beliefs. Combined with more than a hundred ethnic groups who live in the country, you will get a unique cocktail of traditions which makes Myanmar a very special travel destination.
5) WITNESS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SUNRISES AND SUNSETS
This point is for me without a discussion. I don’t know a person who would particularly love waking up for sunrises but in Bagan, I couldn’t wait for the next morning to come. There are only a few places in the world where the sun rising and setting sun left me speechless and Myanmar is definitely one of them.
6) EXPLORE ROYAL MANDALAY
Located in central Myanmar on the banks of Ayeyarwady River there is Mandalay, the second-largest city in Myanmar and the last royal capital founded by King Mindon in the 19th century.
Mandalay is more than just a commercial, educational and health center of the country. The vibe of this city will get under your skin, the 700 pagodas, which you can find here, will awe you and the unique blend of modern development and history will make you fall in love with it.
Mandalay got its name after the Mandalay Hill that rises above the city and is scattered with many pagodas. I would recommend getting here for sunset or sunrise to enjoy the calm atmosphere with beautiful views wide and far.
Other places worth to visit here are the Royal Palace, U Bein Bridge that is the longest bridge in the world made of teak wood, Mahamuni Paya Pagoda or Kuthodaw Temple. The famous Hsinbyume Pagoda, also known as the White Temple, is located about an hour’s drive outside the city and requires a private driver, but it’s surely worth the trip.
7) SEE AS MANY PAGODAS IN THE ANCIENT CITY OF BAGAN AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE
When I stepped my foot in Bagan for the very first time, I was immediately enchanted by its mystical appearance. The desert-like environment with orange sand is studded with thousands of temples and stupas that rise above the canopy of trees and together they present a picture-perfect scenery for visitors.
Bagan experienced its biggest expansion as the capital of the ancient Pagan Kingdom from the 9th to 13th centuries. During that time, over 10,000 Buddhist stupas, temples, and monasteries were built in its close surroundings and you can still find more than 2,000 of them today, which makes Bagan the biggest archeological site in the world.
TRANSPORT IN BAGAN
There are different means of transport to get you around the area, from a private driver to a horse with a carriage, but the easiest thing you can do is to hire an e-bike and explore by yourself. The prices range from 5,000 to 10,000 MMK (~$3-7) per day and many hotels or hostels have their own to rent to their guests, but if it’s not the case, a rental agency is never too far away.
BAGAN ENTRY FEE
Because Bagan has great historical and cultural significance and the majority of the temples are free of charge, you have to pay Bagan zone fee when entering the area to be able to explore freely. At the time of our visit in June 2019, it was 25,000 MMK per person for three days to enter the Bagan temple complex.
Good news for Bagan is also the fact that after years of applying, its status as UNESCO World Heritage Site has been finally approved!
I absolutely loved Bagan and it will always have a special place in my heart. Driving around and exploring new and new pagodas every day gave me a feeling like I am in an Indiana Jones movie. Moreover, Bagan has a unique cuisine that locals describe as “the true taste of Asia”, as it combines Indian, Thai and Chinese flavors. But if you are hungry and you are looking for some breakfast after watching the sunrise at 5 am, I recommend you to try their banana pancakes in one of the cute cafes.
8) EXPERIENCE THE LIFE ON INLE LAKE
In the heart of Myanmar surrounded by mountains, you will find Inle Lake, the second biggest lake in the country, which is famous for its floating villages, one-legged fishing, mesmerizing natural beauty and overall unique way of life of the local Intha people.
There are approximately 17 villages nearby or situated directly on the lake, with small houses made of stilt and vegetable gardens hanging above the water. Apart from experiencing the rural lifestyle of this region, the lake’s environment is flourishing with riches of nature, wildlife, and breath-taking views.
You can spend here a few days near Inle Lake, get to know the people, taste their unusual foods and hire a bike to see the rare, well-preserved culture in the nearby villages.
However, the best way to explore this region and the lake is by boat. The traditional wooden boats aren’t wider than 1 meter, but they are very long and entirely hand-made. Hiring a boat with a private driver for a day is around 18,000 MMK (~$12 USD) and it can take up to four passengers (you are paying per boat, not per person).
Intha people are proud of their original arts and crafts that are a substantial part of the local economy. While on the boat trip, you will visit many workshops and floating markets where you can admire the fine craftsmanship of silversmith, cotton weaving or cigar making and buy some original souvenirs that will remind you of your time spent here.
Similarly to Bagan, this area has a great national significance and to keep it well-preserved you have to pay the Inle zone fee, which is 15,000 MMK per person for a week. This gives you permission to roam freely and enjoy the simple yet beautiful life on Inle Lake.
9) ADMIRE BUDDHIST MONASTERIES AND COLONIAL ARCHITECTURE IN YANGON
Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, is the biggest city in Myanmar and until 2006 it served as the capital. Its history dates back to the 11th century when it was just a small fishing village centered around awe-inspiring Shwedagon Pagoda on the banks of Yangon River. Today’s Yangon is Myanmar’s cultural and artistic hub, bustling and exciting, full of street vendors, colonial architecture, lively markets, and beautiful monasteries.
Save at least one day to explore the downtown full of well-preserved colonial buildings, admire the majestic pagodas that you can find scattered the city, try some of the delicious street food in Chinatown, talk to Buddhist monks who are present everywhere or simply just relax in one of the many parks and gardens with lakes and exotic flora.
Besides the most famous golden Shwedagon Pagoda, other temples worth your visit are the modern Maha Wizaya Pagoda surrounded by a lake full of turtles, Chauk-htat-gyi Buddha Temple with 66 meters long statue of sleeping Buddha, Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda just across the road with a massive sitting Buddha or Kalaywa Monastery that takes care of orphaned children.
10) MYANMAR IS A DESTINATION FOR BOOK LOVERS
Myanmar is a country where you can relive the steps of some internationally acclaimed authors, follow their stories and view the country with their eyes. Marco Polo was charmed by Bagan in the 13th century and in the second book of his travel memoirs he described it as: “A gilded city, alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sound of monks’ robes”.
George Orwell wrote his first novel Burmese Days, when he lived in a small town Katha in Myanmar’s inland during British colonization and Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem Mandalay, which in that time had a significant impact on the western perception of Burma and the Far East and later inspired work of some other artists.
Former Burma touched hearts of many so they had to write about it, because as George Orwell said in his Burmese Days: “Beauty is meaningless until it is shared.”
11) MYANMAR IS BUDGET FRIENDLY
Southeast Asia is still considered a cheap destination to travel to, but in recent years the prices for certain services went up. Myanmar was the cheapest destination I’ve visited in a very long time. Yes, some accommodation prices can be a little bit higher, but when it comes to food, services or transportation you will find yourself paying less in comparison with other Asian destinations.
TRAVEL ADVICE FOR MYANMAR
VISA FOR MYANMAR
Any foreign nationalities need a valid visa to Myanmar upon arrival. Luckily, the process is quite easy and fast, you can simply apply online and you will get your visa within a week.
When entering the country, have them ready and printed as the officers from immigration will need to see them. You will find more detailed information about the visa process and requirements on the Myanmar official website here.
BEST TIME TO VISIT MYANMAR
Just like most countries of Southeast Asia, Myanmar has also two distinct seasons – wet and dry. The dry season runs from October to May with mild temperatures and very low amounts of rain, which also attracts the most travelers and tour companies.
I visited Myanmar in June when it was very hot so occasional showers came as a refreshing reward! Visiting off-season has its advantages, as in most places we were the only foreigners, but on the other hand, if you wish to see the hot-air balloons over Bagan, you have to come during the peak season.
Myanmar uses its local currency: Kyat. For 1 USD you will get approximately 1530 MMK.
Before visiting Myanmar, I have read that American dollars are widely used across the country, but I found out this wasn’t entirely true, as I wasn’t able to pay with dollars in many places. I would recommend exchanging Kyats and use them rather than rely on USD.
The best exchange rates were at the airports, or you can simply withdraw money in an ATM. My MasterCard worked just fine when withdrawing money. Remember, many establishments (including some hotels) don’t have EFTPOS terminals, so having cash is an absolute necessity.
Getting around Myanmar is quite easy, as they offer a wide range of alternatives to get you from one place to another on long distances. The country is well connected by air, buses, boats or trains, you just have to choose which means of transport best suits your travel style and budget.
The easiest way to get around bigger cities is by taxis. They are cheap and reliable and you can book one for the whole day with the final price set in advance. At the time of our visit in June 2019, Uber or Grab weren’t spread very well, but the taxi drivers always told us the same price as it was stated in the Grab app, without the intention to take advantage of us. In smaller cities, you can rent a motorbike or a bike, or ask in your hotel to call you a personal driver.
SAFETY AND LOCAL CUSTOMS
There wasn’t a single moment when I would feel unsafe while travelling across Myanmar. The country is still quite unspoiled and I haven’t experienced any attempts from locals to get scammed.
It is also important to remember that Myanmar is very religious and conservative, so it is thoughtful to dress accordingly. People wearing short shorts and singlets won’t be allowed to enter most of the temples and you may get some looks of disapproval in the streets. Flowy knee-length skirts and easy t-shirts are your safe option for everyday outfits. Also, don’t forget to always take your shoes off when entering a pagoda.
SOMETHING TO KEEP IN MIND
When planning a trip to Myanmar, you may encounter opinions that it’s not ethical to travel to this country. I, myself, came across multiple negative comments on social media when I was sharing my experiences from here online. Yes, sadly there is still considerable ethnic unrest in more remote areas of Myanmar and the most alarming situation is oppression against the Rohingya Muslims who live northwest of the country.
However, the Burmese live their normal everyday lives, having jobs, going to school, trying to survive day to day. They are gentle, humorous, engaging and curious, and surely they are not responsible for the situation in their country. None of the people I talked to agree with their government’s actions in this particular issue. Tourism helps to improve their situation, you just need to stay and eat local to make sure your money will go where they are really needed. Modern Myanmar is still a work in progress.
We hope that this article has helped inspire you to visit Myanmar. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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We Are Travel Girls Contributor Hana Melegova of HanasTravelJournal.com
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KC Lim says
Very informative. Thanks