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Back Roads of Burma: Off the Beaten Track

by Martha Hales

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You’ve enjoyed the incredible spectacle of Bagan, been dazzled by the golden splendour of Shwedagon in Yangon, and witnessed the view from Mandalay Hill. So how can you get off the beaten track on your next Burma visit? If you’re short of ideas, here’s TravelLocal’s guide to getting to know the back roads of Burma; the lesser trodden corners just waiting to be discovered.

Irrawaddy north of MandalayMandalay bridge
In the north of the country, where much of the region is still off-limits to foreign visitors, you can find an untainted slice of Burmese life. If you would like to understand the intricacies of provincial Burmese culture and traditions, this is a good place to do it. Try taking a boat north on the Irrawaddy from Mandalay towards the small and relatively under-touristed town of Katha, featured in George Orwell’s book Burmese Days. Or venture to the riverside hub of Bhamo, known for the nearby bamboo bridge that is claimed by the annual monsoon, and diligently rebuilt by the resourceful locals who rely on it.

The Myeik (or Mergui) Archipelago 

MerguiOver 800 islands lie in the glorious aquamarine of the Andaman sea in the far south of Burma. The beaches are blindingly white, the coral reefs are unblemished and extensive, and the local Moken ‘sea-gypsy’ culture is intriguing. Currently, the islands are almost totally un-touristed, and a visit must be undertaken as part of an organised cruise, either as a day trip or a multi-day itinerary. This remote and unexplored paradise is a delight for divers, snorkelers, amateur anthropologists and beach bums alike. What makes it so refreshing is that very few foreign visitors come this way so the islanders are keen to interact. Some islands are totally uninhabited by humans and are havens for exciting wildlife such as gibbons, snakes, lizards and macaques. These diverse islands range from mere specks of rock to many hundreds of square kilometres. It's an incredible proposition to spend time on islands barely accustomed to human footfall, let alone by foreign feet. 

Treks around Kengtung
Firmly inside the Golden Triangle, Kengtung was for years off limits to outsiders. However,  with new flight paths, it is now more accessible than ever before. The city itself is absorbing and welcoming, embraced by mountains and spread across a hilly landscape dotted with lakes in the far east of Shan state. Take in the standing Buddha by the scenic city lake or stroll to the top of Thit Ta Bin Taung to admire the landscape from the foot of a sprawling and ancient tree. Consider a rejuvenating trip to the hot springs that can be found just outside the town, or venture into the hills surrounding Kengtung where there are numerous tribal villages which you can hike to, particularly those of the Shan, Lahu and Akha tribes.

ArakanMrauk U ancient kingdom
Deep in the hills of the remote Rakhine region, the ancient seat of the Arakan kingdom endures in the form of a ruined city and hundreds of grand temples and pagodas scattered across the landscape. This was the hub of an important trading network that flourished for around four hundred years until the city entered a period of decline in the early 19th century and was eventually abandoned. One of the primary reasons that it is worth the lengthy and time-consuming journey to reach this fascinating site is because of its relative isolation. Not many travellers make it this far into the depths of Western Burma and you are likely to be sharing the magnificent temples and ancient structures solely with local villagers and livestock. The highest concentration of historically significant stupas is located in the northern sector, notably the Shittaung pagoda dating from 1535. This northern section also hosts the best location to view the sunset in the Mrauk U kingdom.

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