Last year, in 2015, Ollie and I made our first visit to Myanmar. We spent 28 days in this fascinating country and fell in love with the place. I was in tears as we boarded our flight at Yangon international airport, set for our next month of travel in Vietnam, and vowed that it would not be long until we returned. As we began our explorations in Ho Chi Minh City, neither Ollie nor I could get Myanmar out of our heads. We truly had been blown away by this new country that we had discovered.
It was not long before we had made a plan to return to Myanmar. From Vietnam our travels would take us to Bali and from there we would spend a weekend in Bangkok and then fly back to Myanmar for one last impromptu travel month, before trying our luck at working in Australia.
So, as we explored and experienced Vietnam, we made the necessary preparations; it really did go to show what we could achieve when we set our minds to it! We planned the travel route, booked the flights, made guesthouse reservations and then finally got our Myanmar visas at the embassy in Hanoi.
We spent a further six weeks in Myanmar last autumn and now, a year later, we have our next trip planned and booked! On 29th November we will fly back to the country where we will spend another six weeks and yes, we are definitely excited to be there for Christmas and new year! Just to further prove how much we love the country… we are in fact planning to move to Myanmar next May to resume our careers as English teachers.
So why did we fall in love with Myanmar? What was it that captured our hearts?
1) Myanmar is still Raw
Myanmar is a country that many people would see as ‘backwards.’ There are no glitzy shopping malls or skyscrapers, no fast food chains (except one lone KFC that we spied in Yangon), a developing economy with limited infrastructure and a serious lack of adequate healthcare. Roads are still dirt tracks in places, WiFi is sketchy at best and every year, lacking drainage and management strategies, the monsoon wreaks havoc across the country.
But what we saw when we first visited was a country that was still ‘raw’. Myanmar is still authentic and unspoilt by the tourist hordes that have ruined other places in south-east Asia. There is always going to be a juxtaposition where tourism is concerned; it will always be a difficult balance to strike. While some tourism is good and boosts the local economy, it can also cause untold damage, unfortunately mainly to the environment and natural beauty of a place.
So, whilst Myanmar may be 50-70 years behind Thailand, it has, at least for us, got what Thailand no longer has. We fell in love with the spirit, the soul, of Myanmar, and the lack of modern conveniences that all too often we just do not need. With a developing tourism industry and a new democratic government, things look set to change for Myanmar. We just hope that it retains its raw, rugged appeal that first enchanted us; if you are considering going – go now, before it changes forever.
2) Myanmar is a Beautiful Country
The natural beauty of Myanmar is stunning; from the ancient temples of Bagan to the serene waters of Inle Lake, there is so much to see in the country. A highlight for us was trekking around Hsipaw and Kalaw; the countryside is vast and green, the rolling hills are dappled with vegetables and other crops and the only sounds are of birds and nature. Spending at least one night in a rustic homestay in between days of trekking is a wonderful experience; it not only allows you to retreat to a simpler way of life but also allows you to interact with the wonderful local people that heartily welcome people like us into their homes.
There are too many incredible places to visit in Myanmar (and too many wonderful experiences that we were lucky enough to have) for me to list here. But here are a few of my top Myanmar recommendations:
- Watch the sun rise and set from atop a temple in Bagan
- Visit the floating villages and gardens of Inle Lake
- Explore bustling Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city
- Take a trip to the ancient cities around Mandalay and see U-Bein Bridge at sunset
- Visit the two biggest pilgrimage sites in the country – Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and the Golden Rock in Kyaiktiyo
- Explore the caves around Hpa-an and the ‘end of the world’ beaches of Dawei
- Take a voyage down river from Bhamo to Katha and on to Mandalay
3) Myanmar – Temples, Temples Everywhere
Myanmar is a Buddhist country and there are beautiful pagodas and monasteries in every village, town and city. The people of Myanmar are devout in their beliefs and are quick to smile and welcome us foreigners to join them in their merit making.
Nowhere else did we feel the spirituality deeper than at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon; indeed only at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, did we feel anything close to what we felt there. The buzz and energy in the air was palpable and electric.
Also at the Golden Rock did we feel something special. You may ask if it is worth going all that way and then up all that way to see a big golden rock perched perilously on the edge of a cliff. Well, the answer is yes, yes it definitely is! We visited Kyaiktiyo in monsoon season, yet despite the Golden Rock being shrouded in mist, it was still a magnificent sight to see and an experience that we were very glad we had made the effort to have.
Burmese monasteries and pagodas are some of the most impressive and intricate that we have seen in any country. They are unique in style and unlike any others. The Buddha statues in Myanmar are also very special; in other neighbouring countries, like Thailand, the Buddha figures are usually all gold. In Myanmar they are carefully painted so as to look much more realistic and human.
4) Myanmar has the Best People
Whenever we speak to anybody about Myanmar, the topic that usually always comes up first are the incredible people of the country. The people really do make a place and no more so than in Myanmar. Kind, hospitable, welcoming and friendly are just some of the words I could use to describe them.
Of course there are nice people in every country. But what makes Myanmar stand out is that the people as a whole, the population as a whole, are so unbelievably open-armed and giving to us outsiders. The love and warmth that they give is so unlike anything we could reasonably expect from any stranger in the West.
- A total stranger in Hpa-an, who spoke no English, helped and bandaged Ollie up after he cut his toe falling off a pavement – all by smiles and gestures alone. Read the story HERE!
- Our motorbike taxi guide, who we spent a day with around Mawlamyine, invited us for dinner in the evening with his family.
- The girls at our guesthouse in Mandalay, now firm friends, helped me to look after Ollie when he came down with dengue fever.
- The wonderful lady at our guesthouse in Bagan assisted us with so many things and treated us like members of her family.
- The fruit lady in Yangon gave us, along with our change, some oranges as a ‘present’.
I could go on. We have met many wonderful people on our travels but the Burmese stand out above the rest for the genuine kindness and unguarded love of their people as a whole. These people do not judge us by the colour of our skin; in Myanmar we are not ‘silly foreigners’ or ‘rich white Westerners’ but ordinary people who have been treated with extraordinary kindness.
If you are thinking of going to Myanmar and would like some tips or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to contact Ollie and I; we would be only too happy to talk Myanmar and help you on your way to experiencing this unforgettable country.