10 places to visit in Myanmar’s banner year

TOURISM in Myanmar in 2015 is expected to be a bumper year with international visitor numbers not just steadily increasing but liberally booming, as reported in this article recently. And this banner year got off to a flying start with the ASEAN Tourism Forum finishing up this week (January 22-29) attracting up to 2000 delegates from over 50 countries.

The international exposure and interest in Myanmar not only means more flights and better tourism infrastructure (that has been sorely lacking in the past) but an increased number of destinations constantly opening up as the country modernises and restrictions lift. There is already a well worn tourist circuit between the places in the “5 most visited” list below, and for those new to the country, perhaps considering a visit in 2015, this is a good place to start. Those with a penchant for adventure, or willing to try something new may wish to select from the second list of “emerging destinations”.

5 most visited places in Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
While most tourists leave little time for the rest of Myanmar’s former capital, the Shwedagon Pagoda is always on their list. And simply put, it is unmissable, with its gilda stupa rising 99 metres above the skyline in the city and a clear landmark. It is also the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in the country containing various holy relics and attracting an array of worshippers at all times of the day. It’s always a busy place but perhaps most serene first thing in the morning and last at night.

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Shwedagon Pagoda. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Bagan
The famed temple plain of Bagan needs little introduction. More than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagoda and monasteries lie scattered across an expanse of green fields in this archaeological zone featuring the odd farmer and their flocks. The temples date from the 9th to 13th centuries and their archaeological wealth is on a par with Angkor Wat in Cambodia if you need to put it into context. It’s also a great place for photography so be prepared to be blown away and give your camera  good work out. Bicycles or horse carts can be rented to tour around the temples and the most organic way of touring around if you can handle the heat for which Bagan is notorious. Make sure you spend at least one sunset temple gazing at golden hour. Bagan is also famous for its lacquerware so make sure you have room in your suitcase or backpack for a memento.

Bagan

Bagan temple plain. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Inle Lake
The beautiful freshwater lake of Inle is the nation’s second largest and famed for its beautiful landscapes, floating gardens and villages, unique local markets with various ethnic groups and the leg rowing of its fishermen. Boats can be rented for excursions onto the lake and to visit nearby villages, many which have local cottage industries such as weaving, silversmithing or tobacco which they are happy to demonstrate for you. A popular access route to Inle Lake is via a three day hiking trail across the hills from Kalaw. Ine Lake is a very easy place to wile away some time, and a great place to relax if you have the time in your schedule.

Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Inle Lake waterways. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Mandalay
Myanmar’s second largest city is a wealth of history with numerous historic sites to visit. These include the royal palace grounds, the religious sites on Mandalay Hill, various monasteries and pagodas (one which contains a tooth relic of the Buddha), and the incredible 1.2 kilometre teak U Bein Bridge. It takes some time to get around to these sites so allow plenty of time and allow Mandalay to work its magic as it can seem an unappealing place at first. You may also want to visit the famed Moustache Brothers comedic troop in the city, although one of the brothers died in 2014. Mandalay also has numerous markets; the gem market being one of the most colourful.

From left to right: Lu Maw, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw. Pic: From the Facebook Page for the Moustache Brothers.

From left to right: Lu Maw, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw. Pic: From the Facebook Page for the Moustache Brothers.

Ngapali Beach
Myanmar isn’t that well known for its beaches but the idyllic white sandy beaches of Ngapali will help change that conception. It’s a laid back place, that despite its increasing popularity, still retains some of the coastal, sleepy vibe where you will find fishermen, ox drawn carts and bungalows. Expect great fish meals and friendly locals. A good place to unwind if you’ve just done the circuit of popular places above.

Ngapali Beach. Pic: dominiqueb (Flickr CC)

Ngapali Beach. Pic: dominiqueb (Flickr CC)

5 emerging destinations

We now move on to destinations a little more off the beaten track and for those willing to venture into some places with emerging infrastructure for tourists.

Myeik/Mergui Archipelago
The Myeik/Mergui Archipelago is possibly one of Asia’s last unspoiled coastal regions and virtually closed to foreigners until the late 1990s. There is still little tourism infrastructure and it can only be visited aboard live on board tour boats allowing you to trek, snorkel, fish, bird watch, sea kayak and do other activities as you island hop through the beautiful archipelago. It is still a little hard to reach with some conflicting information about access. Generally access has been easier overland from Thailand as overland transport has reportedly not been possible south of Mawlamyine for foreigners. There are now some reports of access to Dawei and on to Kawthoung and Myeik. Flights do leave Yangon for Myeik.

Myiek / Mergui archipelago. Pic: islandsafarimergui.com/

The beautiful Myeik / Mergui archipelago. Pic: islandsafarimergui.com

Irawaddy/Ayerwady boat trips
The Irawaddy is one of Asia’s great rivers. Think of the Mekong in Indonchina or the Ganges in India or even China’s Yangtze and you’ll get an idea of the scale. The river forms a lifeblood for much of the country and the great thing is that you can get tickets on the river ferries that cruise its lengths. A journey can be made all the way from Bhamo north of Mandalay to Pyay south of Bagan – one of the most popular routes is the day long trip from Mandalay to Bagan. Highlights on the journey north towards Bhamo include stopping off in Katha where George Orwell set Burmese Days, and the village tours around Bhamo. All food is provided on board and the boats make numerous stops in villages along the way where you can get off and feel dry land again. Cabins or deck space are available and prices are definitely according to the level of comfort afforded. Do note if you do the entire route from Mandalay to Bhamo it takes several days and there can be delays on the river.

Sunset on the Ayerwaddy river. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Sunset on the Ayerwaddy river. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Mawlamyine
Far fewer tourists head to the south of the country than the north where the famed destinations of Mandalay and Bagan lie. But there is plenty to see in the south and Mawlamyine is a gateway to this region. One of the most popular emerging travel destinations down here is the boat trip to Hpa An with stunning scenery to enjoy on the way. Many people rate Hpa An as one of their favourite places in Myanmar with nearby caves to explore, a monastery in an artificial lake and various pagodas.

Hpa An. Pic: James Antrobus, Flickr

Hpa An. Pic: James Antrobus, Flickr

Ayerwaddy delta
If the river trips mentioned above get you salivating for river adventure you’ll also enjoy the boat trip from Yangon to Pathein into the delta region. This overnight trip leaves Yangon in the afternoon and arrives in Pathein the next evening . Cabins, deck space or even deck chairs are available onboard, the boat making a number of stops along the way. Pathein is the last staging point to the coast and a lovely colonial town with various pagodas and markets. The Pathein parasols are a popular purchase and made in family run shops around the city. This trip could easily be extended to Chaungtha Beach (see below).

Buddhist nuns walk by Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Typical Burmese parasols that you can buy in Pathein. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Chaungtha Beach
If you haven’t got time to get to Ngapali beach in the list above, Chaungtha is a good option and accessible by road from Yangon in about four hours. It’s also a good extension of a journey to Pathein on the river as buses run regularly from Pathein to Chaungtha. Chaungtha still retains a village feel and is popular with holidaying Myanmar people, however if you prefer you may opt to to stay in the more upmarket Ngwe Saung beach about 10km away with its more exclusive resorts. There’s an excellent motorbike route between the two towns that you can ask riders in Chaungtha to take you on for the day. Chaungtha is a great place to relax, swim, eat seafood by the beach, enjoy a sundowner and relax.

Tubes are a popular past time on Burmese beaches. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Chaungtha beach. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com