Ollie and I first travelled in Myanmar in 2015, spending one month hitting the country’s top destinations. Since then, we have not only returned on multiple trips to journey across the length and breadth of the country, but we have also spent the last 18 months living here in Yangon.
We’ve travelled in every state, gone off the beaten path to some lesser known towns and villages and learnt a hell of a lot along the way. We may not be local but we like to think we know Myanmar pretty well! So without further ado, I present to you our…
Top 12 Travel Experiences in Myanmar:
1. Being Awed by Shwedagon Pagoda at Night
Nothing quite prepares you for the sight of Shwedagon Pagoda lit up at night. The first time you see it, it’s guaranteed to take your breath away. This glistening, golden pagoda is the most famous sight in all of Myanmar, a sacred Buddhist site that attracts people from across the country and from further afield.
As you wander around the main terrace, on which the stupa stands, you can’t help but be awed by the sheer majesty of the place. The air is charged with fervour, energy and piety, the atmosphere one of wonder, of devotion.
Time your visit for just before sunset and watch as the sky changes colour, as stars begin to twinkle and lights illuminate the golden structure. Once dusk has fallen, the stupa is magnificently lit up; this is the perfect time for photographs.
Read more about Shwedagon Pagoda in – Your Ultimate Yangon Travel Guide with 46+ Things to See.
2. Trekking in Shan State
For those who enjoy trekking, Shan state is the best place to get out and experience beautiful rural Myanmar. Most treks begin in either Kalaw, in the south of the state, or Hsipaw in the north. There are a plethora of trekking agencies in both places that offer a range of options; you can do anything from one-day hikes to multi-day treks.
Multi-day treks typically take you to the villages of various ethnic groups, staying overnight in local homestays or monasteries. The most popular trek is the 3-day walk from Kalaw to Inle Lake which, although now firmly on the tourist trail, is still a beautiful option.
Upon arriving at the lake’s shore, you’ll board a small boat and then enjoy a trip across the calm waters to Nyaungshwe, the end point of your trek and likely your base to explore the area.
Talk to guides for more off-the-beaten-track options, including the highly recommended trek from Kalaw to Pindaya. Most guides are friendly, knowledgeable and speak good English but make sure you do your research and check what is and isn’t included in the price they quote!
To find out All you Need to Know about Hsipaw check out our post!
3. Discovering Umbrellas and Wetlands in Pathein
Pathein is a small city that lies in the delta region of the Ayeyarwady River with the Bay of Bengal to the south and west. The port at Pathein is the most important in Myanmar outside of Yangon.
Peaceful and easy to navigate, we really enjoyed our time in Pathein. There’s a scenic waterfront, lots of interesting Buddhist temples and the umbrella workshops that the city is famous for. Do make sure you pay a visit to the latter; seeing the traditional umbrellas being made and painted is an experience unique to Pathein. The products are available to purchase and can even be exported to your home country!
Whilst you’re in Pathein, we recommend you hire a guide for a tour of the surrounding rivers and wetlands; the experience offers a wonderful opportunity to get a taste of traditional village life in the delta region.
Journey through the narrow waterways, surrounded by lush green paddies and open expanses of countryside, and witness local people busy with their agricultural work. We were treated to lunch in one of the villages and were made to feel very welcome!
Check out our post for more on Exploring Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Region and to book a tour of the wetlands, as well as a number of other trips, contact Soe Moe Aung. His website is a mine of information, has plenty of photos to pique your interest and is also where you’ll find contact details.
4. Touring the Ancient Cities around Mandalay
Some of our best travel memories in Myanmar are the days we spent riding around the Mandalay region, exploring the captivating ancient cities that make for some truly outstanding photographs.
We suggest hiring a motorbike to explore at your own pace; there’s a lot to see and it would be a shame to rush. Day tours by taxi or motorbike taxi are also possible, as well as limited public transport options.
Amarapura, the penultimate royal capital of Myanmar, has a number of sights including the famous U-Bein Bridge, which is especially atmospheric at sunset. Inwa (Ava), meanwhile, is a pleasant rural site to explore, dotted with ruins, monastic buildings and stupas; allow at least half a day to fully take it all in.
Sagaing lies on the other side of the Ayeyarwady River, across from Mandalay, Amarapura and Inwa. Sagaing is easily recognised by the crest of green hills dotted with white-and-gold pagodas that define the skyline of this laidback, friendly town. Although no individual sight here stands out as a particular must-see, the scene as a whole is a delight to explore. Our personal highlights include Sagaing Hill, Tilawkaguru Temple and Shin Pin Nan Kain Stupa.
Pretty Mingun is a small village that is home to several unique sights, including the foundations for what would have been the largest temple in the world. The roughly 20km journey from Sagaing to Mingun follows the quiet road alongside the Ayeyarwady.
Your final ancient city, which is well worth a detour, is Pinya. The stupa ruins here are reminiscent of Bagan but on a far smaller scale, each of which housing well preserved Buddha images.
You can find a lot more detail about the above ancient cities, as well as other Mandalay region highlights, in our post – Road Tripping the Mandalay Region: Your Must-See Guide.
5. Road Tripping Northern Chin State
Remote, mountainous Chin state is Myanmar’s poorest and least developed state; it’s a sparsely populated land that lacks infrastructure and lies off the itineraries of most travellers. One of our greatest travel experiences in Myanmar was when we road tripped northern Chin state, taking local transport between villages and meeting the curious local faces that greeted us.
The gateway to northern Chin is Kalaymyo, a Sagaing Division town that lies in a valley close to the Chin Hills. From there you can journey to pretty Tiddim, a small town strung out along a ridge and surrounded by traditional Chin villages, some of which still have animist beliefs.
From Tiddim take the bumpy road to Rihkhawdar, a small but hectic border town that provides a route into India. It is here that you’ll find mystical Rih Lake, a small heart-shaped lake that has huge spiritual significance to the Mizo people, who live on both sides of the border.
Head back to Kalaymyo, before taking the road that leads to Falam and Hakha. Falam, surrounded by endless peaks and countryside, has a spectacular hilltop location with traditional wooden homes rising up and down the hillsides.
Hakha, meanwhile, is the sprawling capital of Chin state. The city is surrounded by more spectacular countryside and traditional villages, all totally untouched by tourism. Be sure to head up to the viewing platform for unparalleled vistas over town and the surrounding hills.
The highlight of a trip to northern Chin state is simply wandering around the small towns and villages, taking in the impressive scenery and meeting the local people. Christianity is the predominant religion and it’s fun to seek out and photograph the wide array of churches that dot the landscape!
For much more information about the places mentioned above, including details of where to stay and how to get around, check out our post – Escaping the Crowds in Myanmar: Northern Chin State. Be sure to take note of the important information section – it’s wise to be prepared before setting off!
6. Climbing Mount Victoria
On Christmas Day 2016 Ollie and I climbed to the summit of Mount Victoria, the highest mountain in Chin state and the second highest in Myanmar. It was a fantastic day and certainly one of our best travel experiences in Myanmar!
The small village of Kanpetlet serves as a base for anyone looking to climb Mount Victoria. Kanpetlet is accessible by truck from Mindat; the journey takes around three hours. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can only visit Mount Victoria on a tour; expensive tours do run from Bagan but they are certainly not essential!
It’s possible to drive almost all the way to the summit of Mount Victoria. We recommend hiring motorbike taxis to take you as far as ‘Base Camp’, before walking the final 4km. There are a couple of walking tracks along this section that bypass the main vehicular route.
You’re sure to feel a great sense of achievement upon reaching the top of the mountain! A large Buddha statue and a small golden pagoda lie at the summit, a flat grassy ridge offering decent views over the surrounding area. Try to time your visit for between November and February, when panoramas are at their best.
To read more about our experience and to find out where we stayed in Kanpetlet check out our post – Isolated Chin State: A Different World.
7. Exploring the Caves of Hpa-An
Hpa-An is the small, riverside capital of Kayin state and a great base from which to discover the beautiful surrounding area. Spending a couple of days exploring the nearby caves and countryside, with iridescent green paddy fields and tree-covered limestone peaks, has definitely been one of our top travel experiences in Myanmar.
Sadan is the largest and most popular cave around Hpa-An, a huge cavern filled with Buddha statues, a number of pagodas and some newer clay wall carvings. Others that are worth seeking out include Kaw Ka Thawng Cave, Yathaypyan Cave and Kawgun Cave.
Also stop by Bat Cave at sunset to see thousands of bats fly out to begin their nightly search for food. All of the caves have been somewhat gentrified with their tiled floors and myriad Buddha statues; yet they are unique, striking and totally worth visiting.
Find out more about what there is to see and do around Hpa-An, as well as tips and distances, in our post – A Quick Guide to Hpa-An.
8. Temple Hopping in Bagan and Mrauk U
Myanmar’s star attraction is Bagan, an unforgettable temple-studded plain that was once home to more than 4,000 Buddhist temples. Bagan is firmly on the tourist circuit, and rightly so. One of the best travel experiences in Myanmar can be had in Bagan, exploring the countless brick and stucco structures by e-bike and taking in jaw-dropping views across the plain.
Many of Bagan’s temples are decorated inside with beautiful frescoes and well preserved Buddha figures; many are also topped with gilded hti pinnacles and some even combine Buddhist imagery with Hindu and local nat (spirit) beliefs. Ananda Pahto is a fine example of a working temple that gives a sense of what Bagan was like in its heyday.
Read more about Our Time in Bagan in our post!
Despite being Myanmar’s second most famous archaeological site in the country, Mrauk U receives only a fraction of the visitors that flock to Bagan. As such you’re likely to have the temples all to yourself!
Mrauk U is also very different; the temples are smaller and newer and are made of stone, not brick as the Bagan ones are. Moreover, the site at Mrauk U is comparably smaller and less spread out. The temples are dispersed throughout a still-inhabited landscape of small villages, lush rice paddies, rounded hillocks and grazing cows.
For the timelessness of the scene, its remote rural location and the absence of tourist hordes, we found Mrauk U a joy to explore and in some ways preferred it to Bagan.
The riverside town is surrounded by some gorgeous countryside, home to a handful of Chin villages and other important archaeological and religious sights. Stay a few days to really soak up the atmosphere and discover the area.
You’ll find much more information in our post – Exploring Mrauk U: A Gem in Rakhine State.
Note: Mrauk U is located in Rakhine state, which has experienced conflict and political unrest in recent months. Be sure to check the security situation before heading there.
9. Boat Tripping on Inle Lake
Most visitors to Myanmar find themselves taking a boat trip on Inle Lake; it’s one of the top travel experiences in the country for good reason! Located in Shan state and surrounded by rolling hills and fecund countryside, Inle is a large body of water that offers many natural, cultural, religious and historical sites.
Full or half-day trips in slender wooden canoes, fitted with long-tailed outboard motors, offer a window into life on the lake. Keep an eye out for fishermen using the traditional leg technique, a famous image throughout Myanmar.
You’ll also pass small communities of people who have made their homes on the water, wooden and bamboo houses on stilts that require a boat to reach.
On your trip, you’ll visit a number of villages, some of which have workshops or are part of Inle’s five-day rotating market circuit. Indein is especially worth seeing with its atmospheric complex of 1054 weather-beaten stupas, some of which lean at crazy angles. Phaung Daw Oo Paya, meanwhile, is the holiest religious site in southern Shan state, enshrining five ancient Buddha images.
The floating gardens near Nampan village are also a photogenic sight; Intha farmers grow flowers, tomatoes, squash and other fruit and vegetables on long wooden trellises supported on floating mats of vegetation. You might see one of the farmers paddling up and down between the rows, tending to his crops!
10. Hiking to the Golden Rock
Mount Kyaiktiyo, commonly known as the Golden Rock, is one of the most iconic sights in Myanmar. On a cloudless day, the image of this incredible structure shining brilliantly in the sun makes for a stunning view. The 360-degree panorama of the surrounding Mon state mountains is another highlight of a visit to this unique pilgrimage destination.
It’s possible to reach the summit by truck or by cable car. But, for those who think the journey is every bit as important as the destination, hiking to the summit is far more rewarding. The trekking trail is 12km, taking 4-5 hours; the first half is pretty tough going but once you reach the ridgeline the route opens up, becoming easier and flatter.
Despite visiting the Golden Rock in 2015, taking the truck up and down, hiking up to the summit was something that remained on our Myanmar bucket list. We were elated when we finally hit the trail in February of this year. Hiking to the Golden Rock became one of our top travel experiences in Myanmar!
For more information on How to Visit the Golden Rock, check out our post!
11. Discovering the Empty Highways of Nay Pyi Taw
Myanmar’s surreal capital, Nay Pyi Taw, is a vast, sprawling city that was built on scrub land amid rice paddies and small villages in 2005 when the military government decided to relocate the capital to a more strategically central location. It’s home to most government offices, Myanmar’s parliament and mansions of high ranking military officials.
You don’t come to Nay Pyi Taw for the sights so much as for the bizarre experience of traversing the almost deserted streets and seeing one of the world’s strangest capitals for yourself. Discovering the empty highways of Nay Pyi Taw is sure to be a stand-out memory of your time in Myanmar!
Absurdly grandiose in scale, the city has an 18-lane highway, which is so quiet that it’s possible to stop right in the middle for a unique photo opportunity! There’s also a 20-lane highway that runs past the parliament building depicted on 10,000ks notes. Unfortunately, for security reasons, vehicles aren’t allowed to stop as they drive past but the experience is quite something.
To find out all about visiting Nay Pyi Taw, including the sights and how to get around, check out our post – How to See the Best of Taungoo and Nay Pyi Taw.
12. Ambling around Northern Ayeyarwady River Towns
Rugged and remote, northern Myanmar offers some truly fascinating off-the-beaten-track experiences in some of the least visited areas of the country. Towns along the upper Ayeyarwady include Myitkyina, Bhamo, Shwegu, Katha and Kyaukmyaung, all of which make interesting stops when traversing the route by bus, train or ferry.
River transport, either by fast boat or IWT ferry, offers a chance to immerse yourself in local life; it’s a great opportunity to interact with people in a way that is often difficult on dry land. We took the ferry from Bhamo to Katha via Shwegu, before travelling on to Monywa via Kyaukmyaung and Shwebo.
We loved relaxed Bhamo with its riverfront market, attractive temples and slow pace of life. Shwegu and Kyaukmyaung are best known for their pottery, while lively Katha was the setting for George Orwell’s Burmese Days with several of the buildings featured in the book still standing.
Visit Shwebo to see remnants of its status as a royal capital, including a reconstructed palace and the nearby Hanlin Archaeological Zone. Hanlin is an active excavation site, once an important Pyu-era city during the 4th to 9th centuries.
There are plenty of other experiences that I could have added to this list but the 12 that I’ve mentioned are, in our personal opinion, the top travel experiences that we’d recommend to anyone visiting Myanmar. Do check out our other posts for more information and if you have any other questions, feel free to contact us!
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