Bagan is to Myanmar, what Angkor Wat is to Cambodia, in terms of both culture and tourism. This ancient, sacred zone stretches across over 100 square kilometres of bush and grassy plains, with over 2200 towering temples, pagodas and monasteries sprinkled across this vast expanse. Crafted mainly from reddish-pink bricks, the complex is what remains of the powerful ‘Pagan’ culture, which was at its peak during the 11th to 13th centuries. It is an architectural and archaeological wonder and an awe-inspiring spectacle to behold, particularly on misty mornings bathed in sunrise light.
Resting on the eastern banks of the grand Irrawaddy River lies the relaxed town of New Bagan. Travellers to this pleasant town can meander along the network of dusty roads, interact with the friendly locals and visit the bustling morning market. Located in an area rich in history and culture, travellers can explore the many charming temples, including the intricate carvings on show at the Nanpaya Temple; the Burmese style architecture of Shwesandaw Pagoda; the majestic Buddhist temple of Lawkananda Pagoda; and the towering Dhammayangyi Temple, famed for being the largest temple in Bagan. Nature lovers can spend their days amidst the lush trees of the Lawka Nandar Park, a nature park resting on the banks of the river, housing the protected wildlife at the Lawkananda Wildlife Sanctuary.
One of Myanmar’s most alluring destinations, beautiful Inle Lake is a world unto itself. The local people have integrated their lives fully with their watery surrounds, building entire villages on stilts, buoying up their crop fields with floating devices and even learning an ingenious method of fishing from their long-tail boats – balancing on one leg and using the other to clasp the paddle and row, which leaves their hands free to cast a net. Here visitors can stay in one of the lake-top hotels, enjoy delicious Myanmar cuisine and exquisite sunsets from al fresco decks, or take a boat trip to the floating markets and the handicrafts centres, where you can see silver makers, silk-weavers and lacquer artists at work, and purchase exquisitely made gifts and souvenirs.
Located about ten kilometres northwest of Mandalay, Mingun rests on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. The town is known for its numerous temples, pagodas, shrines and meditation centres. Most famous is the enormous unfinished Mingun Pahtodawgyi, an impressive 18th-century pagoda projected as being 150 metres. Commissioned by the eccentric King Bodawpaya in 1790, the building was left unfinished intentionally, as there were various superstitions surrounding – for example, ‘as soon as the building of the pagoda was over, the country would also be gone’. Get an idea of what it would have looked like complete by visiting the Pondaw Pagoda, a stunning whitewashed monument with a golden spiral. Other highlights include the wave-like Hsinbyume Pagoda (or Myatheindan Pagoda), and the Mingun Paya bell (the second largest in the world).
Located about 20 kilometres south-west of Mandalay, on the opposite bank of the river, Sagaing is a significant religious centre and the capital of the region. The town is characterised by its lush green outcrop of hills decorated with numerous white and gold pagodas, creating a breathtaking scene from the river and offering multiple spectacular photographic opportunities from its many lookout points. The most significant of the sacred structures is the Soon U Pon Nya Shin Paya Buddhist Temple, conceived in 1312, with a 30-metre-high gilded stupa and collection box decorated with bronze frogs. The hill was thought to resemble a frog, which was believed to be a good omen and played a role in the city’s development. Sagaing is also known for its excellent silversmith works at Ywa Htaung quarters and its fine pottery at the village of Nwe Nyein.
Situated in the mountainous Shan State of Myanmar, the town of Nyaung Shwe is located just north of Inle Lake, a popular scenic area and tourist site. The town falls within the Inle Lake Wetland Sanctuary and serves as the main access point for Inle Lake. It provides a great base for visitors who want to explore the lake and the surrounding region. This little tourist hub offers visitors a variety of wonderful activities including visiting the Bawrithat Pagoda in the southern part of the town, browsing the vibrant shops lining the main street and sampling Burmese cuisine at one of the many local restaurants. Don’t miss a visit to the stilted Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung Monastery and learn about the town’s rich cultural heritage at the Nyaung Shwe Cultural Museum. Other activities include: cycling, longboat tours, sunset cruises, and soaking up the spectacular views of the Shan Mountains.
Making its home along the banks of the Chindwin River of Northern Myanmar, Monywa offers a rich tapestry of culture, tradition and natural beauty. Home to the world’s largest reclining Buddha statue, visitors have the chance to walk inside this vast idol, measuring 90 metres from head to toe. Experience the breathtaking ecosystem of the protected Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park, as you take an elephant-back ride through the forests or walk paths once tread by ancient Buddhist monks as you explore Pho Win Daung – a vast network of sandstone caves decorated with over 400 000 images of Buddha, offering a cultural and visual experience not to be forgotten.
With a population of over 5 million, Yangon, also known as Rangoon, was the capital of Myanmar up until the end of 2005. It remains the largest city, and is still the pivotal commercial hub of the country today. A visit to this magnificent city will allow you to take in the interesting mix of British, Burmese, Chinese and Indian cultures that mingle there. The skyline is an interesting contrast of decaying colonial architecture and modern high-rises, dominated by the golden glow of the Shwedagon Pagoda, an exquisite Buddhist temple that draws pilgrims from across the globe. Your time here would be well spent visiting the impressive array of temples, museums and markets that the city has to offer.
Situated high up in the western Shan State, Kalaw is a former hill station founded by British civil servants. It is something of a high-altitude resort – cool, calm and leafy – but is also widely known as a trekking Mecca in Myanmar, as those wishing to explore the surrounds can do so without prior permission. Its population is diverse, as Nepali Gurkhas, Indian Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims came here to build the roads and railway line during the British period. A wide variety of exploring options are available, including three-day treks to Inle Lake or Pindaya. At the town’s heart is its market, where villagers from the surrounding areas come to sell their produce and an eclectic range of foods. Visit the Aung Chang stupa, or take a taxi ride to the Green Hill Valley elephant camp, founded in 2011 to care for ageing and ailing elephants.
Myanmar’s fourth largest city and the capital of Mon state, Mawlamyine is nevertheless still a charming, laid back destination that feels far more like a small town than an urban metropolis. Set on the shores of the Thanlwin (Salween) River estuary, it has an interesting history that has seen it under both British and Burmese occupation, at times as the country’s capital. Take a wander through the city to see its various Buddhist pagodas and temples, as well as a Christian church dating back to the end of the 19th century, and pay a visit to the markets to experience authentic local life.
Made up of some 800 islands in the Andaman Sea, the remote Mergui Archipelago is one of Myanmar’s least travelled and most pristine destinations. This marine Garden of Eden has valleys covered in virgin jungle, tangled mangrove swamps flanking river estuaries, countless idyllic deserted, white beaches, translucent turquoise waters and an incredible diversity of bird, animal and aquatic life. The islands are also culturally rich – inhabited largely by sea gypsies who live a traditional, ocean-based existence. Sounds like paradise? It is.
Set in beautiful Myanmar, Mandalay is the stuff of literature, lyrics and legend – with good reason: the city’s combination of crumbling colonial charm, elegant Buddhist temples, and lush hilly surrounds have rendered many a traveller hopelessly intoxicated with it. Visiting here is like stepping back 50 years in time: beat-up buses trundle along wide avenues, men in longyis cycle serenely around the moat, and monks pad silently through dusty temple courtyards. Add to that Mandalay’s warm, dignified locals and many nearby sightseeing gems, and you have a recipe for an amazing travel experience. Don’t miss a trip up Mandalay Hill to take in panoramic city views; sunset at Ubein Bridge– the longest teakwood bridge in the world; a visit to the Buddhist Mecca of Sagaing, encompassing scores of temples and the Buddhist University; and a mellow boat trip down the Irrawaddy River to see the colossal stupa base at Mingun.
The ancient capital of Myanmar’s south, Bago is now a bustling town located 80 kilometres from Yangon. The main attraction here lies just beyond the town centre: an impressive complex of ancient temples, reclining Buddha statues and pagodas dating back hundreds of years. Just a short trip from the current capital, Bago is well worth visiting to spend a few hours wandering or biking around the beautifully preserved ruins. When there, don’t miss Shwethar lyaung Pagoda, where you can see the second-largest reclining Buddha in the world or the 114-metre-high Shwe mawdaw Pagoda, otherwise known as the ‘Golden God Temple’.
Pyin Oo Lwin
Pyin Oo Lwin, also known as Maymyo, was the summer capital for the British colonial administration when the country was under their rule in the early 1900s. The area, which is lauded as the ‘City of Flowers’ for its beauty, has retained its colonial charm, along with a smattering of Tudor houses and horse carriages. A visit to this area wouldn’t be complete without sampling the fruit, vegetables, jams and fruit wines for which the area is famed for, and a visit to the exquisite botanical gardens.
Located in central Myanmar, Naypyidaw ‘The Royal City of the Sun’ was made the country’s current capital in 2005, replacing its predecessor Yangon, some 300 kilometres to the south. Purposely built to accommodate government staff, offices and private residences, this curious metropolis is gaudily grandiose but strangely empty, with few pedestrians dotting the wide avenues between its pastel-hued villas and modern shopping malls. Popular attractions within the city include the gilded Uppatasanti Pagoda – a replica of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon that is almost as impressive as (and only 30cm shorter than) the real thing; the zoo and safari park; and the Water Fountain Park – best visited at sunset, when the trajectories of water catch and refract the pink-gold light.
The small, serene town of Heho is most often visited by travellers en route to or from Inle Lake, Taunggyi and other destinations in Shan State. It’s a charming place to overnight in, especially during the Festival of Lights in October and the Shin Pyu Festival, which celebrates the ordination of novice Buddhist monks. Nearby Inle Lake is Myanmar’s second largest freshwater lake and one of the country’s most enticing attractions. Here an entire culture exists on the lake, with stilted villages and craft centres, floating crops and fishermen who have perfected a useful balancing act – standing on one leg while rowing their longtail boats with the other, keeping their hands free to cast their nets.
Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state hides a beautiful secret: Mrauk U – once a key trading port under the indigenous Arakanese people, and still surrounded by the elegant ruins of centuries-old temples and chedis. This collection of ancient holy sites constitutes one of Myanmar’s most important archaeological sites and was only recently opened to tourists. Mrauk U’s historical treasures are eclipsed only by the splendour of the sprawling sacred complex at Bagan, and visitors to the town can look forward to beautifully preserved shrines and pagodas dotted across the area’s misty rolling hills.
While always a favourite spot for backpackers, Hsipaw, in northern Myanmar’s Shan State, is now attracting its fair share of ‘regular’ tourists. Resting on the banks of the Duthawadi River, the city – once the seat of Shan royalty – has many stories to tell and many delights to share. The surrounds offer an array of hill-trekking opportunities, while nearby Shan villages such as Bowgoy Village, famous for its Pagoda, and Naloy present visitors with friendly local hospitality. In town visit the Mahamyatmuni Paya, the largest religious building in Hsipaw, and Shan Palace, the erstwhile home of the Shan royal family, as well as the central market, where vendors sell an array of Burmese hats and traditional sarongs, known as longyi.
Situated at the confluence of the Kaladan, Mayu, and Lay Mro rivers, in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, the city of Sittwe serves as the regional capital and is home to some lively local markets. It predominantly provides the perfect stopover for visitors en route to explore the spectacular surrounding area, which features the ruins of Mrauk U, Myanmar’s second-most-famous archaeological site. Visitors can look forward to a number of wonderful activities including: soaking up the impressive views of the beautiful Bay of Bengal from the popular ‘Viewpoint’, nicknamed ‘The Point’, discovering the famous century-old Shwezedi Monastery, and learning about local Rakhine culture and history at the Rakhine State Cultural Museum.
The capital of Shan State, Taunggyi is home to a diversity of ethnic groups, making it a melting pot of cultures, languages and traditions. Don’t miss the local market for people-watching, superb Shan cuisine and strong, sweet Burmese tea; and visit the Shwe Pwint Pagoda, an impressive golden chedi set atop a mountain ridge to the east, with fantastic views over the city. Taunggyi is at its most lively during the annual Fire Balloon Festival when hot air balloons shaped like animals are floated across the sky and vibrant celebrations are held across town.
Located in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Region, the beach resort town of Ngwesaung is known for its hotel fringed shoreline with its white-sand beaches lapped by crystal clear waters. This little village boasts a laid-back atmosphere perfect for relaxation. Visitors can look forward to spending long sun-filled days lazing on picturesque beaches, browsing a collection of shops selling traditional handicrafts and sampling the daily catch, as well as a variety of other fantastic seafood dishes including shrimp, lobster, and crab, at a local seaside restaurant. Don’t miss the opportunity to watch the sunset over the Bay of Bengal, a truly spectacular sight. Other popular activities include: boating, fishing, snorkelling, taking a walk to Lover’s Island at low tide, and visiting a local fishing village at the southern end of the beach.
Directly across the Myanmar border from the Thai town of Mae Sai, Tachilek is popular with visitors looking to extend their Thai holiday visas. This border town features a bustling market offering excellent, low-budget shopping offering a wide variety of items ranging from clothing, scarves and homeware, to CDs, videos and electrical goods. Visitors can also look forward to cycling around the town and surrounding area, viewing the massive golden stupa, and exploring the streets of the this dusty frontier town.
Situated in Myanmar’s Bago Region, the city of Taungoo played an important role in Burmese history. It was the home of the Toungoo dynasty which ruled the country from the16th to the 18th centuries and was once the capital of the country. It is conveniently accessible from the highway and therefore serves as a convenient stopover for visitors. This walled city features a moat and offers many fascinating temples to discover, a vibrant market to browse and a glittering lake to view. The city is surrounded by mountains, coffee plantations as well as many areca (betel) palms. Taungoo is also an important pilgrimage site for Buddhist devotees who flock to the Shwesandaw Pagoda.
Overlooking the calm waters of the Pone Ta lote Lake, the quaint town of Pindaya rests upon its shores. Most visit this area to experience the ancient glory of the Pindaya Caves, a set of limestone caverns that host thousands upon thousands of Buddha statues and images, which have been collected there over centuries for worship purposes. To round off your tour of the region, visit a local monastery, as well as a Shan paper umbrella (or bamboo hat) workshop, where you can purchase authentic local handicrafts.
A short distance from the Shan-Kayah border lies Loikaw, the capital of Myanmar’s Kayah State. Meaning ‘island of the mountains’ in Shan, Loikaw offers a rare glimpse into a culture and natural beauty seemingly untouched by the outside world. Home to nine tribes, the most renowned of these being the long neck or ‘giraffe women’ of the Padaung tribe, the ethnographic and cultural diversity of Loikaw is incomparable. Experience exquisite sunsets from the Taung Kwe Pagoda, a shimmering white and gold Buddhist temple that adorns the town’s rich archeological landscape; or journey through the Kyet cave, where you’ll be met by one of the local monks.