Lying slightly on the outskirts of the popular Southeast Asian travel loop lies Myanmar, a fascinatingly friendly country. Perhaps due to being a new addition to many travel itineraries, Myanmar offers an authenticity that cannot be replicated or reproduced on demand. From the simplicity of the cuisine to the country’s spectacular landmarks and natural wonder, to the kindness and curiosity of the people, Myanmar offers a holistic beauty unlike that found in any other country I have visited so far.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”#dd3333″ class=”” size=””]I spent a little over a fortnight exploring this enchanting country and on reflection, I have summarised my top seven most memorable moments in order of the route I took which was as follows: Yangon – Bagan – Mandalay – Kalaw – Inle Lake – Hpa An[/perfectpullquote]
A vision of gold, real gold (and diamonds, and many other jewels…). Just a short distance from the hustle and bustle of Yangon lies the spectacular sacred Shwedagon stupa and surrounding temples. Perhaps the main attraction in Yangon. This really is a must see, no matter how many Pagodas you may have already seen!
I would highly recommend paying a few thousand Kyat to one of the local guides in the grounds for their local knowledge and a thorough tour of the temples and pagodas here. It makes the visit much more worthwhile and rewarding and they are so passionate to share their time and information with you.
The entry fee for the Shwedagon Pagoda provides you with a full day’s pass, meaning you can witness the beauty of this stupa both day and night for two very different experiences.
This is quite literally a train that travels in a circle. But what you experience is so much more than that. You can hop on from a starting station in Yangon and it will rattle its way through rural countryside back round to the city. The contrast in communities and landscapes you witness from city to country and back again is indescribable and so clearly distinguished.
This is a local train and certainly provides a glimpse into everyday life of the locals here. It takes approximately 3 hours (non-stop) to complete the full loop. If you purchase a flexible ticket you can hop on and off wherever you like to explore any areas that catch your eye along the route. You can also choose to take a taxi back from any of these stops if you feel you’ve seen enough/are restricted on time but I would recommend completing the loop if possible for the full experience.
Bagan truly is breathtaking. Both figuratively and literally in terms of humidity and the views you can experience here. To maximise these sights, most days involve rising at daybreak to catch sunrise over the temple-laden landscape.
Sunrise here never gets old; each morning showcases a different – but equally impressive – visually remarkable display which you can experience from innumerable perspectives around the city. If possible, it is recommended to pre-explore and find the perfect sunrise spot before setting off in the early hours to avoid disappointment and beat any crowds that may have got there before you.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”#dd3333″ class=”” size=””]The main way to get around Bagan is by e-bike (a slower, more stable electric scooter). These offer a convenient and enjoyable way to travel around the ancient city, discovering a myriad of temples and pagodas along the way.[/perfectpullquote]
This iconic teak wood bridge, located just a short ride from the centre of Mandalay, is best visited at dusk to experience a true golden hour you won’t forget. As well as being a popular tourist spot and a photographer’s dream, this bridge is mainly used by locals at the beginning and end of each new day to get from one area to another, or simply to admire the view and soak up the serenity of the setting sun. U Bien bridge provides a true snapshot into the lives of the people that live here, accompanied by warm and welcoming smiles from passersby.
A couple of small food and drink shacks located under the bridge have begun to capitalise on the new-found tourism this structure attracts, with gain for both parties involved. Local families and curious tourists come together to have a cold drink under the warm-coloured sky.
There are many different treks to choose from in Kalaw, with many different trekking companies to match. Treks range from a few hours to a few days and are a great way to explore the local area and get a true taste of life in rural Myanmar.
I chose to do the three days, two-night homestay trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake with Sam’s family trekking. This was undoubtedly one of the most insightful, rewarding and humbling experiences of my whole Southeast Asian travels.
Treks with Sam’s family ensure you are in a small and well-matched group with a very knowledgeable local guide to lead the way. During the trek, you will encounter an abundance of different terrains, landscapes, people and viewpoints to absorb and appreciate with your new companions.
The overnight homestays are basic in terms of accommodation, but bountiful in terms of culture, friendly families and food. The food provided on this trek was not only the best I had in Myanmar, but possibly some of the best food I’ve ever had! Big banquets of home-cooked food were aplenty at every stop we made, with endless flasks of green tea provided to regenerate any tired souls (and soles) along the way.
After so many early rises in Myanmar, what was one more?
Just before the break of dawn, myself and a few others boarded a small wooden boat on Inle Lake to go and witness the famous fishermen at work. Whilst the experience was still worth sacrificing sleep, it was not quite what I expected. Although visually stunning, capturing the silhouettes of the fishermen against the emerging light upon the lake, it was in no way authentic.
Fishermen wait in the wings of the tourist boats that come out to view their trade, racing to the first in sight. And whilst they do genuinely catch some fish, it is predominantly a performance for which they expect a small tip from their audience.
There is certainly no shortage of caves in Hpa-An. You’d be surprised how many you can fit in in a day; quite literally in some cases as you crouch through tiny crevices to explore how far you can venture into the darkness. Often finding yourself dwarfed by openings the other side, engulfed with natural sunlight pouring in, allowing you to see how far you’ve come.
Local drivers will be happy to take you on a tour of various caves, all as impressive and unique as each other. An array of buddha sculptures in all shapes and sizes are a main feature of these caves. They line the walls and adorn the exterior and interior of the caves, sometimes in their hundreds, ensuring they are not overlooked.
Despite summarising my experience of Myanmar into 7 key moments, what I took away from my visit here was so much more than that. Myanmar has so much to offer its visitors in terms of culture, history and sightseeing, but despite all this, its main selling point is truly effortless. It is the genuine kindheartedness of the people here that you remember and take with you above all else. Unlike inevitable developments to tourism here; I hope this is something that remains unchanged.