“I want our country to be a sanctuary any of our people can return to and bring their talents back.”
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
PRINT & GO
Before your departure, do not forget to check /bring with you:
– Boarding Pass and Hotel Reservation
– Visa application
As the world gets smaller, it gets easier to get anywhere and reach some countries we would have never imagined to reach. One of those is Myanmar, a country that for many years has been hard or impossible to access for many visitors. With the recent political changes, in 2010 Myanmar finally opened its borders and what was a simple dream in our to-go list became a reality. Therefore in November 2016 I decided to catch a long flight and go and visit this beautiful place, full of rich history and nature, and enjoy its authenticity before it gets too much touristic. I must say I chose the right moment, as they are developing good infrastructure (which makes our traveling easier), but still not enough to attire tons of tourists. In the way the country is growing, I am sure in 5-10 years-time I would have run into a completely different scenario. While modern Myanmar is still going through the growing pains of modernism, the core of the country is very spiritual, and thus its best attractions are Buddhist temples and locals who still live in a very simple way and who still have this wonderful feeling of astonishment when they see anything different. Beyond cities and historical sites, Myanmar also features endless nature, from the coast to the highlands, unique and authentic places. You can spend ages wandering in this beautiful land, but if your time is limited I would say 10 days are sufficient to get an overview of the main attractions. As for all my trips, I try to combine city, nature, architecture, and history, so Myanmar was not going to be an exception to the rule. In 10 days, I managed to diversify my tour and visit great places such as: Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, and Inle Lake.
PRINT & GO
Before your departure, do not forget to check/bring with you :
– Boarding Pass and Hotel Reservation
– Visa (obtained via the online application)
USEFUL TIPS BEFORE YOUR VISIT
- Visa. Getting a tourist visa is very easy. You can fill out the form online and in 48hrs time you will get your visa approved.
- Currency. The local currency is kyat and it is the money you should use to make all payments. Previously, USD was accepted as well, but nowadays people are more and more reluctant to accept them. Although ATM presence is increasing in the territory, it is not yet as spread as in our countries; therefore I would suggest always keeping some cash with you. Credit card payments are also rare, only some hotels accept it.
- Accommodation. As a country that has recently opened its doors to tourism, Myanmar does not offer a huge choice of accommodation. Therefore prices might be higher than the rest of Asia, but still cheaper than Europe. What I would recommend is to select carefully the range of accommodation. Since the standards are generally low, what in other countries can be acceptable in Myanmar might be in horrible conditions. So do not cheap out too much, make sure you stay in clean and good hotels if you don’t want to run into a reception with rats.
- Transportation.The infrastructure of the country, most notably the roads and transportation networks, is behind that of most other Southeast Asian countries. However, it is possible to get around by plane, ferry, buses, and cars. Intercity buses are very modern, clean, and cheap. I have experienced all of them and I must say they are all good functioning.
- Beverage. Although everybody recommends not drinking sink water in Myanmar, I have to say I did not encounter major issues. You can use sink water to wash your teeth, take showers, you can drink juices with ice cubes, but of course try to buy bottled water during your day. And make sure to always have water with you, temperatures might get very high during the day and you need to hydratase constantly.
- Food. Find a place to eat is quite challenging: there is certainly street food, but – although I am a huge lover of street food – not very appealing from a hygienic point of view. There are not a lot of restaurants, and you need to be lucky and find one with the menu in English that is not too touristic. In terms of traditional dishes, I did not find as many as specialties as in the other Asian countries, but still Myanmar can reserve some good surprises. For instance, I would suggest to try the tea leaf salad, or the curry dishes (catfish curry or chicken curry are both very good), or the Shan noodles.
- Dress code. Myanmar is a Buddhist country; therefore you should dress properly, in respect of people. This means avoiding shorts, miniskirts, and tops. An appropriate dress code will allow you to get in the temples, and will make you respect the local habits.Considering also that the roads are still dusty and with mud in case of rain, I would suggest to leave home your fancy dresses and pack the most practical clothes you have, such as trekking shoes, sporty and comfortable pants and t-shirts.
- People. The interaction with locals will be quite difficult because of their lack in the language of Shakespeare. Nevertheless, try to interact with them with gesture, sometimes even a smile helps a lot. They are very kind and polite, always smiley and respectful, so do not miss this opportunity.
- Safety. Like most of the South-East Asian countries, Myanmar is extremely safe. As woman solo traveller, it is a great place to explore. At day or night you have nothing to fear, people are very respectful and I did not see any kind of criminality or harassment over there.
DAY 1: VISIT YANGON
The first day in Myanmar is in the city where my plane landed, Yangon. Although Yangon is not the capital of Myanmar, it is the main entrance in the country from international flights. If you are flying from Dubai, Bangkok, Hong Kong, or any other destination, you will probably land there. Two days of visit can easily fit in the planning.
How to describe Yangon? If I have to use one word I would say…awful! Sadly, Yangon is not the most appealing city I have seen, on the contrary it is dirty, noisy, messy, polluted. Walking in the sidewalk is a challenge for not falling into sewage or to get far from poor sick dogs. There is no green space, no quiet corner, just busy roads with motorbikes and cars everywhere, and people trying to sell you anything. The nightlife is not great neither, as most of the roads have no lights and it’s difficult to walk or do anything. Taking urban buses is a huge challenge as they are packed and stinky, walking requires a lot of patience and kms to make, and eventually you juggle between walking, taxis, and the circle train (a very old train circulating in the city, between old and poor roads, and always packed, but definitely something to experience). All these things are “challenging”, meaning difficult but not impossible, with some flexibility and open mind you will manage to get everything you want to. And yes, the city is not appealing, but there are two main things that make Yangon a “must” in the trip in Myanmar: Inya lake, and the wonderful pagodas.
Inya lake is a beautiful lake in the Northen part of the city (also known as the expat area, the modern and rich area that has 30 years gap with the rest of the city); it is where the Aung San Suu Kyi’s house is, and where you can have a relaxing time, far from the noise of cars.
The pagodas are certainly the biggest attractions in Yangon, particularly 3 of them: Shwedagon Pagoda, Sule Pagoda, and Botataung Pagoda.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is certainly the most popular in the country. The centrepiece of Shwedagon is a 325 foot zedi, adorned with gold, diamonds and other gems and is believed to enshrine hairs of the Gautama Buddha.
The Sule Pagoda is a Burmese stupa located in the heart of downtown Yangon, occupying the centre of the city and an important space in contemporary Burmese politics, ideology and geography. According to legend, it was built before the Shwedagon Pagoda during the time of the Buddha, making it more than 2,500 years old. Burmese legend states that the site for the Shwedagon Pagoda was asked to be revealed from an old nat who resided at the place where the Sule Pagoda now stands. The Sule Pagoda has been the focal point of both Yangon and Burmese politics. It has served as a rallying point in both the 1988 uprisings and 2007 Saffron Revolution.
The Botataung Pagoda is hollow inside and you can walk through it. It’s a sort of mirrored maze inside the pagoda with glass show-cases containing many of the ancient relics and artifacts which were sealed inside the earlier pagoda. Above this interesting interior, the golden pagoda spire rises to 40 metres (132 feet).
Please be aware that the entrance to pagodas requires a fee, and an appropriate dress code (long skirts/trousers, no spaghetti blouse, no shoes or socks).
DAY 2: VISIT YANGON
The second day to Yangon will be taken easily, since it is also the day of departure to Bagan.
During this day you can have a tour downtown, visiting Chinatown or the colonial houses in the main streets, and eventually go and visit Chauckthagyi Buddha temple.
Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple is the most well-known Buddhist temple in Bahan Township. It houses one of the most revered reclining Buddha images in the country. The Buddha image is 66m long, and one of the largest in Myanmar.
In the evening you can leave Yangon and head to Bagan. From Yangon to Bagan, I decided to take a night bus operated by the JJ company, leaving at 20:00 from the Yangon Highway station and arriving in Bagan at 5:00. The ticket costs less than 20USD and allows you to have a night trip in a wonderful bus, fully equipped of all comforts: large seats, food, drink, TV…a 5 star luxury bus that in Europe we can just dream about! Moreover, traveling during the night allows you to save time and money for accommodation. If you are not a big fan of buses, you can also catch a flight (please bear in mind that domestic flights are quite expensive, and it is hard to find something below 100 USD).
DAY 3: VISIT BAGAN
If you arrive in Bagan by bus, you will get to the highway station at 5 AM. From there you can take a taxi to your hotel, and have a quick rest before starting to explore Bagan. Hotels in Bagan are used to early arrivals, therefore they will have your room ready or they will provide you with a public toilet and shower to refresh. You can use these facilities, have a big breakfast, and get ready for Bagan. The best way to explore Bagan is by bike or ebike, you can usually rent them through the hotel, they cost around 5USD/day. Since my hotel was in the middle of the forest, I decided to rent an ebike, it was very good to ride a scooter surrounded by the beautiful nature of Bagan. If Yangon indeed was an urban jungle, Bagan is heaven! A very beautiful and quiet place located in the middle of the nature, one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites, but – for the time being at least – with few visitors. The setting is sublime: a verdant huge plain, surrounded by rivers and mountains. Rising from the plain’s trees are more than 2,000 temples built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1280. Most of those temples are superbly preserved or have been restored by Unesco, among others, and many contain frescoes and carvings and statues of Buddha. Visiting all of them might take days and days, but if you want to optimize your time you can focus on the main ones and admire the others on your way to them. This is a list of the temples I have visited:
- Ananda Temple. Built in 1091, Ananda Temple was fully restored after an earthquake in 1975. The spires were guilded in 1990 for the 900th anniversary of the temple. Once you bypass all of that though, the courtyard is an extremely peaceful place to sit and admire the temple’s exterior. Ananda Temple has four Buddhas adorned with gold leaf and each faces a specific direction to represent attainment of the state of Nirvana. They each have their own name. As pictured above from left to right, Gotama faces west, Kakusandha faces north, Konagamana (the fifth of the seven ancient Buddhas) faces east, and Kassapa faces south. A local Burmese will happily tell you all about them for a dollar or two.
- Gawdawpalin Temple. Gawdawpalin Temple was built in 1175 by King Narapatisithu. Legend has it that the King has committed a terrible crime against his ancestors and as punishment went blind.
- Bu Phaya. This is a beautiful golden pagoda lying along the river. The view to the riverside is very special.
- Shwezigon Pagoda. The pagoda sits in the center of a large platform, around which several other shrines and pagodas have been built. The bell shaped stupa that is completely gilded sits on a square base, of which the sides are about 49 meters long. At the base of the pagoda sits a large golden lion at each of its corners. On top of the base are three receding terraces. The third one has a small stupa on each of its four corners. The solid and completely symmetrical stupa on top of the terraces is almost 49 meters high. On top of the pagoda is a hti, a spire ornament shaped as an umbrella, that is found on almost every Burmese temple.All four sides of the pagoda have a central stairway guarded by Makaras (sea creatures from Hindu mythology) leading to the top of the terraces.
- Dhamayangyi temple. Famous for the ” largest of them all”, Dhammayangyi Temple is one of the most popular tourist places in Bagan with imposing structure from the outside, and its even more majestic and imposing hallways inside. Long, narrow corridors with an extremely high ceiling will make you feel surreal as if you were in one of the Hollywood films. But this temple has a very dark and grim history. It is built by the sadistic King Narathu who killed his own father, brother, and his queen. Legends say building of this temple was so demanding. The tyrant king mandated the mortar less brickwork fit together so tightly so that even a pin couldn’t pass between any two bricks. If a pin could penetrate in between the bricks, then the slaves were killed assumed as they lack of efficient work. Locals believe that the temple is haunted with the sin of those killings.
- Manuha Temple. The temple has a very unique structure, and an even more intriguing history. The name “Manuha” was given after the captive Mon king from Thaton. The Buddha statues all seem too large for their enclosures, and their cramped, uncomfortable positions are said to represent the stress and lack of comfort the ‘captive king’ had to endure. It is said that only the reclining Buddha, in the act of entering nibbana, has a smile on its face, showing that for Manuha only death was a release from his suffering. This is one of the first places that Aung San Suu Kyi visited when she was released from the house-arrest.
- Thatbyinnyu Temple. Built in 1144, Thatbyinnyu is the tallest of the Bagan monuments at 61 meters high. It’s adjacent to the much busier Ananda Temple.
- Sulamani Temple. It’s one of the most visited temples, so is another favorite of the hawkers. The temple has frescoes, though all but the ones on the south have been badly damaged because of their exposure to the elements. Because of the vaulted openings, the light filtering in this temple is lovely.
- Thambula Temple. The Thambula Temple was built by Queen Thambula in 1255. Unlike many of the single story temples, Thambula is actually really well lit and you can easily see the Chinese influences in the Buddhas and murals
- Shwesandaw Pagoda. This is the place that everyone talks about going to watch the sunrise and the sunset in Bagan, and it’s hard to argue why. The panoramic view from this pagoda is purely majestic, breathtaking and one of the best in Asia.
DAY 4: VISIT MOUNT POPA
Since on my first day in Bagan I was very efficient, I had some free time on the second day before heading to Mandalay. Therefore I decided to have a half-day trip to Mt Popa. Mount Popa is an extinct volcano on the slopes of which can be found the sacred Popa Taungkalat monastery, perched dramatically atop a huge rocky outcrop. The monastery offers stunning views of the surrounding plains and Mount Popa itself.
You will reach Mt Popa via a shared taxi of 8 people that comes and pick you up at 8AM and returns at around 2PM. The price is around 10USD and the journey takes 1h30m, depending on the traffic.
The monastery at Taungkalat (meaning ‘Pedestal Hill’) is famed for being home to 37 nats (Burmese spirits), which are represented by statues at the base of the volcanic outcrop. From here, you can climb up the 777 steps to the monastery at the top, where you will find a 360 degree panorama and a labyrinth of shrines to explore. On your way there you will be surrounded by a beautiful view, people asking for donations, selling kiosks, and aggressive monkeys.
After the trip to Mt Popa, I caught the bus to Mandalay. There is a bus leaving at 18:00 and arriving in Mandalay at 22:00 (it will take you directly to the hotel or it will take you to the highway station, depending on the company you will opt for). The 4 hours trip pass very fast and the buses are very comfy, although if you have more time I would suggest you to do the trip by boat. The journey takes around 10h but the experience is worth.
DAY 5: VISIT MANDALAY
After a long and recharging sleep, time to visit Mandalay! Mandalay is together with Yangon one of the main cities in Myanmar, which means traffic, noise, pollution. Nevertheless, I found Mandalay nicer than Yangon and easier to navigate, with more quiet and green spaces. Even if distances are still big, Mandalay is doable on foot, and the sidewalks are less challenging than in Yangon.
The visit started with a beautiful area, the green lung of Mandalay: the Royal Palace and its hectares of forest. You usually find these huge green spaces only in New York or Dublin, but Mandalay is not less in the list. In fact the Royal Palace is located in a huge park right in the middle of the city.
The access to this citadel is granted to foreigners only via the East Gate, where you will have to pass through a scanning process ruled by the Army.
Mandalay Palace was the first palace to be built in Mandalay, by King Mindon when he shifted his capital from Amarapura in 1861, to fulfil an old prophecy. The magnificent palace was built of teak wood on raised brick plinth gilded with gold and vermilion. The city was a perfect square, measuring about 2,000 m per side. The palace was placed exactly in the centre with its outer walls facing the cardinal points of the compass. Twelve gates lead into the city each marked with a different zodiac sign. Viewed from afar, it resembled the other worldly abode the king had sought to create.
The palace was dominated by a 78m tall tower known as the “centre of the universe”. This pyat-that tower had a seven-tiered roof structure that was completely gold plated. It rose directly above the Lion Throne and was supposed to be a great conduit for wisdom from above.
The visit of the Royal Palace will take around 2 hours. Afterwards you can enjoy a tour in the citadel, surrounded by trees and flowers. Please notice that some areas have restricted access, therefore make sure to read the signs properly and respect the accessible areas.
After the visit of the Royal Palace you can head North East and visit the beautiful temples that Mandalay features. They are all at walking distance.
- Sandamani Pagoda. Inside this pagoda you’ll find the largest iron Buddha, topping 18.5 metric tons and, like most important Buddha images, arriving here via various previous homes due to war and changing capital cities. This location was where King Mindon’s provisional palace once stood, and the pagoda was his memorial to a younger half-brother.
- Kyauktawgyi Pagoda. This pagoda takes its name from its central Buddha image, a large statue carved from light green marble. Surrounding it are 80 shrines to the 80 Great Disciples of the Buddha. The statue is carved from one piece of marble and comes from 20 km north of Mandalay. It is said that more than 10,000 workers were required to move it to its home here.
- Shwenandaw Kyaung (Teak Temple). Once part of the king’s residence, this beautifully carved teak pagoda is a must see. It is one of the few original buildings surviving in Mandalay but it is not in its original location. It was carried piece by piece from the palace grounds and set up here as a Buddhist monastery in 1880.
- Kuthodaw Pagoda. This may seem like a pagoda, but actually it is a book. Only partly kidding: each of the 729 small stupas spread throughout the grounds contains a tablet with part of the text of the Buddhist scriptures.
The visit to these pagodas shall finish before the sunset, because by that time you absolutely need to go on the top of Mandalay Hill. You can reach there by “taxis” ( in bracket because in Mandalay there is no official taxi company, taxis consists in private cars or motorbikes offering rides to the hill at crazy prices – make sure to negotiate properly!) in 10minutes time. On the top of the hill is a temple from which you can enjoy a stunning view at sunset.
DAY 6: VISIT SAGAING, INWA, AND AMARAPURA
A “must” during your staying in Mandalay is a day excursions outside the city, specifically to Sagaing, Inwa, and Amarapura. You can reserve this shared tour (van of max 8 people) via your hotel, the trip will take you the entire day (from 8AM to 8PM) and will cost around 17USD (English speaking guide, lunch and beverage included, entrance fees excluded). The tour will take you to three of the most popular and beautiful spots in the region.
- Sagaing was the capital of Myanmar from just 1360-64 and 1760-64. The city has nowadays very few residents who aren’t monks, and a lot of temples.
- Inwa.Serving as capital three times, totalling about half of the past 650 years and most recently from 1823-41, Inwa’s main sights include two monasteries, the palace ruins and a pagoda. It’s also the textbook definition of a tourist trap. Even though you’ve paid for your tour, you’ll be dumped off at a river’s edge, where you have to pay a boat operator 1,000 kyat to take you 30 seconds across the water to a stable of horse-cart drivers. There’s no way to see the sights other than by horse cart and the fare is 5,000 kyat for one person. During this ride, you will visit the teak Bagaya Kyaung monastery, the ruins of the old royal castle (with only an observatory tower left), and Yedanasini Paya (probably the only building that is worth a visit).
- The highlight of the entire day is Amarapura’s U Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak footbridge curves some 1,300 meters across the shallow Thaungthaman Lake. The bridge is busy throughout the day but seems like hosting the whole population of Myanmar at the sunset. The place gets very crowded to admire the wonderful views of the sun and its effects on the river and the bridge.
DAY 6: VISIT MINGUN
On the 3rd day in Mandalay, I have decided to do another day trip outside the city, this time lasting half day: Mingun. Mingun is located about 11 km upriver from Mandalay, on the opposite (western) bank. To get there, you need to hop on a boat departing from Myan Gyan Jetty in Mandalay (at the western end of 26th Street) at 9:00 and the journey takes one hour; the return boat leaves at 13:00 and takes 45 minutes (downstream is faster).
Once you get off in Mingun, the entire site can be easily explored on foot in few hours by following one only road. This road is surrounded by beautiful pagodas and nice kiosks selling any kind of stuff.
The highlights of Mingun are 2 pagodas.
- The Hsinbyume Pagoda is a beautiful all white structure on the banks of the Irrawaddy river just North of Mandalay. During the large earthquake of 1838 the Hsinbyume Pagoda was severely damaged and partially restored. The pagoda’s architectural style is very different from other pagodas in Myanmar. The base of the structure shaped like circular terraces is a representation of the seven mountain ranges surrounding Mount Meru, the center of the universe in Buddhist cosmology. The pagoda on top is said to be built after the Chulamanee pagoda in the center of the universe on top of Mount Meru. The pagoda that is topped with a gold spire enshrines a Buddha image. The seven tiered concentric base shaped like waves contains niches, some of which contain small statues of mythological figures.
- The Mingun Pagoda is a massive unfinished pagoda built at the end of the 18th century, that was meant to be the largest pagoda in the country. The massive paya, also known as the Mantara Gyi Pagoda, the Mingun Pahtodawgyi and the Great Royal Stupa makes for an impressive site on the banks of the Irrawaddy river. In front of the pagoda facing the river are the remains of two giant Chinthe lions about 29 meters high, guarding the temple. At the center of the 50 meter high pagoda facing the river is a huge richly decorated entrance. Inside the pagoda is a small shrine with a Buddha image.
After the visit of Mingun, you can head to the hotel for a rest, and in the evening at 20:00 take the night bus, which for me was the last night bus of my trip. After a resting trip, at 5:00 I arrived in the Shan region, more exactly in the very famous Inle Lake.
DAY 7: VISIT INLE LAKE
After days of pagodas and pagodas, it was time to get back to the nature and explore a pure jewel of the Burmese territory. Inle Lake is indeed a beautiful highland lake, 900 meters above sea level, 22km long and 10km across. It is inhabited by many different ethnic nationals of the area.
The best way to start exploring is, once arrived in Heho airport or bus station, to get a taxi to Nyaung Shwe town with 6500 kyat. Then the driver will stop at Nyaung Shwe town, located at the north of Inle Lake. From there, you can rent a boat at 15,000 kyat to visit the lake.
I must say the boat ride is another tourist trap, since most of the stops are made in handcraft places with shops for tourists (I counted it, 9 stops of tourist traps!), but the rest of the tour is simply amazing. It includes visits to the famous sights in the northern part of the lake, such as Phaung Daw Oo Paya in Tha Ley, the Nga Hpe Kyaung (Jumping Cat Monastery) in Nga Phe village, and the floating gardens. Make sure to spend time observing the Intha fishermen and their unique technique of rowing the boat with one leg while using both hands to fish.
The entire Inle Lake is fantastic: in Europe we have Bruges as the Venice of Northern Europe; in Myanmar we have the poor Venice of Asia. The lake indeed hosts bamboo houses, gardens, restaurants, shops, and everybody living there has no other choice than moving by boat. You will pass from very busy corners to quiet ones, where you will find yourself (and the boat driver) alone with the nature. This is definitely a destination that you cannot miss on your trip to Myanmar.
In the evening – like in the rest of Myanmar – there are not so many activities to do; therefore you can enjoy a delicious dinner in one of the several beautiful restaurants with view on the lake.
DAY 8: VISIT INLE LAKE
On the last day in Inle Lake, you can have a breakfast and then visit around Nyaung Shwe, have breakfast in hotel and then walk around Mingala market near to Mong Li canal. On the evening, you can leave this beautiful region and take a flight to Yangon.
DAY 9-10: GOLDEN ROCK
Mount Kyaiktiyo is not always in the “to do” list in a trip to Myanmar, since not very touristic. However I would strongly suggest experiencing this journey if you have enough time.
This mount is one of the three most sacred religious sites in Myanmar, and famous for its golden rock located on the top of it. Pilgrims come here from far and wide to worship and add gold leaf to the rock, which seems to defy gravity by delicately balancing on the edge of the 1100-metre high mountain. For many visitors, the rock (standing 7.6 metres tall) and the gilded pagoda which sits on top of it (itself 7.3 metres tall), which are said to cover a hair of the Buddha, are the main draw, but another reason to make the journey are the panoramic 360 degree views of the surrounding Mon State mountains from the summit.
In order to get there, you need to take an old and crowded bus from Yangon to Kinpun (around 3 h journey), the ‘base camp’ village for Mount Kyaiktiyo – and is where the non-mountaintop hotels can be found.
The journey up Mount Kyaiktiyo involves taking an extremely crowded open-top truck (which rushes alarmingly through the spectacular jungle scenery like a roller coaster). But once on the top the journey will be definitely worth.
I would suggest leaving from Yangon to Kinpun in the morning, so that you will get to the Golden Rock before the sunset and you will be able to enjoy the beautiful scenario. You can spend the night in Kinpun and leave again for Yangon the day after. From Yangon you can then take your flight back home the evening or you can spend an extra day in the city relaxing or doing any interesting activity.