Change down a gear in sleepy, spiritual, Myanmar
As a relatively new arrival on the tourist map, travelling in Myanmar feels like stepping back in time. With its multitude of distinct ethnic groups, traditional customs and dress are very much in evidence in this largely rural nation of small-scale farms and rice paddies. Buddhism is the main religion and sacred temples and glittering pagodas are dotted across the verdant landscapes. You’ll find the people calm, engaging and eager to welcome you to their magical land. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited in for tea – a remnant of British colonial rule that is still very much embraced.
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Top things to do in Myanmar
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in this spiritual country. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top three things to do in Myanmar.
Marvel at magical Bagan
Otherworldly Bagan is a sight to behold, with ornate Buddhist temples and golden pagodas punctuating fertile tropical plains. As the former capital of the Pagan Kingdom, 10,000 religious monuments were built here between the 9th and 13th centuries, of which some 2000 remain. A great way to drink in the sublime views is to take a hot air balloon ride at sunrise or sunset, when golden light imbues the scene with even more magic.
Navigate the Irrawaddy River
The Irrawaddy River runs from north to south, rising in the Himalayas and draining into the Andaman Ocean. As early as the 6th Century the river was used for trade and transportation and it retains a beautiful timeless quality. Board a riverboat and float down stream watching rural life unfold along its banks. Thatched houses on stilts, ox-drawn ploughs and tiered pagodas slip by as you relax into a slower pace of life.
Find the divine in Yangon
Myanmar’s former capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is the country’s largest and most exciting city. Its colonial downtown is home to some of the continent’s most impressive colonial architecture, some of it beautifully weathered and surrounded by animated street markets. The spiritual heart of the city, and the country, is found at the revered Shwedagon Pagoda, a pristine temple glinting with polished gold and diamonds.
Lesser-known things to do in Myanmar
While there are many well-known things to do in Myanmar, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative adventure.
Experience community-based tourism
Myanmar’s traditional villages and hill tribes offer unparalleled cultural insights. In the Kayah and Tanitharyi regions, you can visit traditional homes, halls and hunting shrines; learn about local beliefs and spiritual life; explore lotus ponds and lakes; and listen to favourite folk music over delicious barbecued lunches. Traditional crafts can be tried such as bracelet making or enjoy a trek to discover local sights with your hosts.
Try weaving in the ‘Frontier State’
The traditional weaving industry in Myanmar’s Chin State is enjoying a revival, with this artisanal skill being passed on to keen younger generations. The remote Chin were previously ridiculed within Myanmar for their different attire, but this very difference is now attracting interest. With over 50 traditional villages in the Southern Rakhine region alone, learning to weave in the typical local style is a fascinating way to really get to know the Chin.
Go trekking in the Shan states
Myanmar’s cooler season from November to March is the ideal time to tread the hills on foot. With a low-key trekking industry, ‘givens’ like refreshment stops, facilities or porters aren’t always available which gives more remote trips a pioneering, self-sufficient edge. For most, the glorious guided trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake scratches the itch. To up the ante, embark on a longer trek with homestays into the cooler temperatures of the green Shan hills.
When is the best time to visit Myanmar?
The most popular and best time to visit Myanmar is from mid-October to late February, as the weather is dry, warm and pleasant. Temperatures start to really shoot up in March and April, which can be uncomfortable if you are not used to the tropics. The southwest monsoon dominates from May to October, with coastal areas in particular seeing heavy rainfall for much of this period. On the plus side the whole country and its sights are quiet – no availability issues, traffic isn’t so bad and prices are softer.
Interesting facts about Myanmar
Myanmar is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top five facts about it?
- Fishermen on Myanmar’s Inle Lake fish with one leg in the boat and the other on stilts in the water to better see their prey through the reeds.
- Burma or Myanmar? The country was called Burma until the military junta renamed it Myanmar in 1989. At the same time, capital Rangoon became Yangon. The BBC says Burma, the UN says Myanmar and ultimately the two words derive from each other. Pre-trip research will help you pick the term to best suit the context.
- South East Asia’s highest peak is Hkakabo Razi at 5,881m. It’s in the country’s northern state of Kachin in the greater Himalayan mountain range.
- Bagan contains the planet’s densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas and stupas.
- Myanmar’s women (and sometimes its men) paste 'thanaka' onto their cheeks, nose and neck. This yellow substance is made from tree bark and it serves to cool and protect the skin.
Insider tips from our trusted local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Myanmar. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
Notoriously nutritious 19th Street…
Head to Yangon’s foodie mecca - 19th Street - for all things scrumptious. It’s in hectic Chinatown, whose main street Maha Bundala ignites with vendors and traders at night. Dive into 19th Street and the tempo drops just a beat, with more spaciously laid out restaurants and less crammed counters. Chinese food and Myanmar-styled barbecues and beers are what keep the salivating crowds coming.
Birdwatching in Chin State…
The biodiversity of Nat Ma Taung National Park has earned it ASEAN Heritage Park status. It’s in western Myanmar’s Chin State, whose hills are a southern extension of the Himalayas. Pine, oak and evergreen trees coat these hills, with bamboo forests and rhododendrons catching the eye. Untouched by ornithologists until the 20th Century, the park ripples with rare and beautiful birds from the white-browed nuthatch to the Burmese tit. Trekkers can hike Nat Ma Taung; at 3,053m it’s the State’s highest peak.
Thingyan Water Festival…
During sweltering mid-April, the Thingyan Water Festival acts as the wet preamble to Myanmar’s Buddhist New Year’s Day. Locals symbolically pour cleansing water over each other over a four to five-day period, accompanied by singing and dancing. Pavilions are decorated, children turn out in their finest clothes and meritorious deeds are carried out to honour each other and the coming year. Locals of all ages eagerly anticipate Thingyan, as should you.
Visit Pyu’s Ancient Cities…
Myanmar’s only UNESCO site encompasses the ruins of three walled and moated cities: Halin, Beikthano and Sri Ksetra. Each partially excavated site rises from the Irrawaddy basin’s arid zones as a testament to the ingenuity of the Pyu kingdoms that once ruled. Explore palaces, citadels, Buddhist ruins and water features that allowed intensive farming to flourish.
What to read before you go on holiday to Myanmar
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to Myanmar, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'From the Land of Green Ghosts' by Pascal Khoo Thwe
This flawless memoir tells the astonishing tale of a man’s journey from ancestor-worshipping tribal life to studying English at Cambridge. It features captured Jesuits, tribal conversion to Christianity, a grandmother forced to tour England as a ‘freak’ for her elongated neck, brutality and guerrilla warfare. Thwe’s story is so incredible it would beggar belief as fiction. It’s all the more remarkable for being true.
'Burmese Days' by George Orwell
This was Orwell’s first novel. The devastating image of colonial life it conjures was inspired by his time spent as a policeman in what was then Burma. Imperial bigotry, racism and corruption are omnipresent, with his peers openly deeming the ‘natives’ inferior. Protagonist Flory sees a way to help his local friend, Dr Veraswami, but must buck the colonial trend. This influential period in Orwell’s life is also captured in his ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and ‘A Hanging’.
'The Glass Palace' by Amitav Ghosh
Ghosh’s masterful novel takes place during Britain’s invasion of what was Burma in 1885. Rajkumar is a young boy buffeted by the currents of chaos and politics who carves a place for himself in adulthood as a teak trader. He falls for a royal courtier, exiled from the Glass Palace, and his ensuing struggles are emblematic of those that made Myanmar what it is today. An unforgettable and illuminating read.
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