One of the world’s most devout Buddhist countries, Myanmar’s unique sights and the genuineness of its people will strike you and win over your heart.by Anita Zaror
Marco Polo called it “The Golden Land.” Rudyard Kipling referred to it as “quite unlike any land you know about.” It’s known as Burma to some, and Myanmar to others. It might have many names, but the country located between Thailand and Bangladesh, bordering the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, has one thing that doesn’t change: it amazes every voyager who passes through.
You might be welcomed to Myanmar by the immigration officer greeting you with “Mingalabar” (hello). Then, the lady at Yangon airport’s exchange booth will check every U.S. dollar you want exchange into kyat and give you back the ones she won’t change; those with marks or tears. And then the taxi drivers at the airport’s exit will probably quarrel over which of them you “belong to.” A little bargain-on-the-fare after, you’ll probably hit the road in a very old taxi where the driver will be sitting on the right—as in the U.K. and its former colonies—but where instead of driving on the left side of the road, they’ll be doing so on the right.
Despite what might look like chaos to the newcomer’s eye, flavors that will vary from region to region (although most of the dishes will use peanut oil in their preparation… a lot of it), two things might really strike you about Myanmar.
The first is the people’s devotion to the Buddha, shown from sunrise till sunset by paying respect in their homes, in shops, and at the thousands of temples all over the country—some millenary, some newer—as Buddhism is deeply embedded in the country’s culture and in its inhabitants’ hearts.
People’s selfless kindness might also strike you. On any given day, and particularly in the less touristy places, you might be surprised by locals trying to help you find your hotel, your bus, a restaurant, or even carrying your suitcase, without expecting a tip or anything in return. The reason being is tourism just starting to really boom, so Burmese are still genuine and happily proud to show you their country and their culture, with no ulterior motive.
The country’s political and economical reforms are allowing the development of the hospitality industry, and you’ll be surprised by construction cranes in cities like Yangon that mark the building of five-star hotels, flourishing like flowers in spring.
Hence, you’ll always find plenty of options to stay comfortably in Myanmar, although room rates are still high compared to hotels of the same category in nearby countries.
There are many places to visit in Burma, such as Yangon, Kyaiktiyo, Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake, Kalaw, Ayeyarwady, and more. However, like other tourists, you may find that your agenda allows you to visit the country for only seven to 10 days. Just keep in mind that you want to spend as little time as possible moving from one city to the next in long bus or boat rides, in order to spend the maximum amount of time in the places you visit—if you don’t, you’ll wish you had.
Myanmar is increasingly becoming a popular tourist destination. These are some of the country’s highlights that you can’t miss, and that you better try to enjoy soon, as some of them—such as Inle Lake and Bagan—still remain quite unspoiled.
The capital will most likely be the starting point of your trip to Myanmar. Many tourists spend little time here, although there are enough pagodas, markets, museums, and gardens to pass a pleasant few days.
A must-visit in the capital, Shwedagon Paya is a religious monument that has been a symbol of the country’s identity for the past 2,500 years. The King of Okkalapa erected a pagoda on a hill, and eight of Siddhartha Gautama’s hairs have been enshrined there, together with relics of previous Buddhas.
You can spend a full day exploring Shwedagon’s main chedi and its 82 other buildings, taking photos, sitting next to devotees or paying respect yourself, and seeing how people sweep the floor walking forward in a line, while tourists have to get out of the way. You might want to wear sunglasses to diminish the brightness of the hundreds of gold plates that cover the monument, and the thousands of diamonds and other stones encrusted in the spire.
One full day is enough to see Mandalay’s attractions. Start by having a very sweet chai and some typical fried dough for breakfast, get the camera ready, and find a tour guide (although it’s likely he’ll find you first). He will be very important in helping you use your time efficiently in the city.
The most important sights to visit here are Mandalay Hill, and doing the 30- to 45-minute walk up it, to experience the journey that the Buddha is said to have done there together with his disciple, Ananda. Have some fresh coconut juice at the top and head back down to continue your visit to the Mandalay Palace and Fort, Kuthodaw Paya, Shwenandaw Kyaung, Shwe In Bin Kyaung, and Mahamuni Paya. And don’t worry, you’ll have time to see many, maybe too many, more temples afterward in Bagan.
The must-see here is U Bein’s Bridge, at Amarapura, around 15 minutes outside the city. This 1.2 kilometer-long bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world, still stands after 200 years. Its 1,060 teak posts and the people crossing it—including many monks coming to and from nearby Maha Ganayon Kyaung monastery—are usually the subject of beautiful photographs by tourists.
Nyaung Shwe is one of those places that you want to dedicate more time to. It’s laid back and, although tourism is surprisingly well organized, it’s still quite unspoiled. You’ll enjoy just chilling in the city, discovering small restaurants serving Shan noodles and other flavors you’ve never tried before.
You can’t miss doing a boat trip around Inle Lake. This scenic trip through the lake will take you past fishermen on stilts and amazing sunsets, perfect for amazing shots. You will get to see different artisan shops where locals have developed commercial activities around blacksmithing, weaving, and tobacco cultivation, among others.
If you ever make a bucket list of “100 places to see,” don’t forget to write down “sunrise in Old Bagan” in it.
Seeing the air balloons float up into the sky while an orange sun rises around 6 a.m. from the temples in Bagan Archaeological Zone is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you don’t want to miss. Get there early to get a good spot, as the temples get really crowded with tourists at sunrise. Sunset is also a good time to be there, although you won’t see the balloons. Leave at least a couple of days to explore the 41 square meters of the archaeological zone, which are home to more than 4,000 temples.