With the Ayeyarwaddy river running through it, the gateway to the Delta and the ocean, Myanmar is a feast for those who love nature and fascinating, dynamic Asian cities. Let’s look at the history, culture, fashion, food, and the best places to visit in Myanmar.
A British colony for over a hundred years, a battleground between the British and Japanese during the Second World War, and a country that’s survived four invasions from China throughout its history. Myanmar is certainly a country that’s seen its fair share of turbulence and, even today, with its newfound freedom and democracy, politics is generally not discussed. Immediately, you’ll notice some unique things about the country; heritage is still incredibly pertinent throughout Myanmar. The traditional dress longyi is still commonly worn by men and women, even in the cities. It resembles a skirt and can be worn in a number of ways. The women (and men up until a certain age) paint their faces with the vibrant yellow ‘thanaka’, a tree bark that protects against the sun and improves skin tone.
Yangon, (formerly known as Rangoon) doesn’t at first strike you as a particularly charming city. Although, as you drive to the centre from the airport and you spot the striking Shwedagon Pagoda on your right, you’ll quickly get an inkling of what’s to come. Yangon is certainly a place that unfurls as you dig a little deeper, making it one of the best places to visit in Myanmar.
Here are some of my favourite things to get up to while in Yangon, one of the best places to visit in Myanmar.
Take a Heritage Tour
One of the best ways to get to know Yangon is on foot and above all, I’d highly recommend starting your trip with a heritage tour of the city hosted by the Yangon Heritage Trust. They do a lot of work to protect these old buildings from demolition (your tour fee helps them out with that) and hold a wealth of knowledge that allows you to dig deep into the history of the city. There are over 2000 heritage buildings in the city and this is where the magic of Yangon lies, particularly as many of them are overgrown with plants or are still in the original state they were 100 years ago.Yangon lies, particularly as many of them are overgrown with plants or are still in the original state they were 100 years ago.
Sites that you’ll likely see on a walking tour of Yangon include:
We started our walk in the Maha Bandula Park which provides a unique 360-view of the city’s new towering skyline along with the religious monuments and colonial buildings. If you were to look at the park from above, you’d notice that the obelisk in the centre make a star shape representing the old flag of Myanmar.
City Hall : Visible from the Maha Bandula Park, the building was originally designed in the British style and at the last minute, some typical Burmese affectations like tiered roofs and archways instead of columns were added which makes for a wonderful pastiche, unique building.
Bensolen Street : A perfect stop for seeing 1920s colonial architecture at its most well- preserved. You’ll also see the Myanmar Port Authority building there which is where all ships would pass on when Myanmar was part of the colonial trading route.
The District Court : This Florentine-style ex-cathedral is still in full use as a government building despite the fact it was bombed in the war and never repaired. Many of the windows are missing. It looks amazing with plants growing over it and the fact that the back tower has never been repaired adds to the dystopian charm.
The circular route starts at Yangon Central Train Station which is an impressive structure in itself, somewhere between your average train station and a pagoda. You’ll see some impressive sights before you even get on the train as daily life very much starts within the station.
You can buy tickets on the platform but don’t expect any kind of timeliness when it comes to this train journey. The train comes when it comes and can often change platforms on a whim. Just keep an eye on what everyone else is up to.
Shwedagon Pagoda: It’s one of the most famous pagodas in the world for a reason, a feast of gold for the eyes, explore the 6th-century complex to the sound of tinkling bells and running water. It’s an incredibly peaceful place that houses some famous relics like hairs from the Gautama Buddha and one of the best places to visit in Myanmar.
Bagan is a special place. Yes, if you type Myanmar into any search bar you come across, you’ll probably quickly encounter the photo that has become one of the images most synonymous with the country, However, as is often the case, this is with good reason.
The view of Bagan from above, with over 20,000 pagodas stretching as far as the eye can see, and hot air balloons framing it all beautifully, is one of the best reasons to visit the area, and the area itself is absolutely one of the best places to visit in Myanmar.
If you love photography, this way you can really get lost in the maze of temples that make up the archaeological zone and have them all to yourself. And it’s the photo opportunities that make this one of the best places to visit in Myanmar for travellers.
Fee: You have to pay a fee of 27,000 kyat ($20) at the airport to enter the archaeological zone, you’re free to explore the temples at your leisure – you’ll find ATMS at Bagan airport if you’re caught short.
Sulamani Temple: One of the most popular temples in Bagan, this 12th-century red brick temple features beautiful paintings on the interior walls. You’ll also find numerous stalls selling souvenirs around the temple.
Dhamayangyi Temple: This is the largest temple in Bagan and has some of the most well- preserved brickwork, it’s iconic due to its beautiful design resembling one of the Mesoamerican pyramids. Give yourself ample time to explore this one and make sure you leave the temple and walk a little to catch a view from afar, it’s gorgeous!
With references by Orwell and Kipling, and countless songs sounding out the city’s name, Mandalay is probably one of the most recognisable spots in Myanmar to our Western ears. However, not many people know what to get up to while they’re there. It’s not one of the most attractive cities in the world, and today it lacks some of the charm of Yangon.
However, there are some very good reasons Mandalay should be at least a short stop on any Myanmar itinerary, meaning it’s still one of the best places to visit in Myanmar, even if for a short time. One of those reasons is the U Bein Bridge, one of the most dramatic sights I’ve come across in Asia.
U Bein Bridge
If you visit one place in Mandalay, let it be this. It’s the longest teak bridge in the world, stretching out over 1.2km over the Taungthaman Lake and is over 200-years old! The U Bein Bridge alone is one of the best places to visit in Myanmar.
You can enjoy the bridge in a couple of ways, either walk the bridge the whole distance for great views. Watch you don’t fall off (or get pushed off) as there are no barriers which was quite nerve-racking at sunset when it was particularly busy Or you can take a colourful rowboat out onto the lake which I highly recommend. It’s 20,000 kyat for a boat which can fit four people. The views are insanely good from the boat and you stay out on the water for a long time.
Kuthodaw Pagoda : An impressive complex of gilded pagoda and hundreds of white shrines. Each one contains a marble slab (726 in total) with the Buddhist teachings written on within. It’s absolutely stunning and if you visited one pagoda in Mandalay then this is the one. Admittedly, I spent a lot of time there filming a family of kittens instead of exploring the shrines but it was worth it. It’s a popular spot for wedding shoots so you may get lucky and see some happy couples.
Shwenandaw Monastery: A dramatic wooden structure with intricate carvings, I absolutely loved exploring and taking pictures here. It’s also near the Mahamuni Pagoda so you’ll be able to see both easily. It’s one of the finest examples of a traditional 19th-century wooden monastery in Myanmar and used to be part of the Myanmar Royal Palace. This was one of my favourite structures I visited and absolutely one of the best places to visit in Myanmar.
Inle Lake lies in Shan Province, one of the most spectacular and mountainous regions of the country. It’s situated 3000 ft above sea level and feels like stepping into a traditional painting. If ever there was a place in Myanmar that feels untouched by modernity it’s here. You’ll find yourself traveling by boat for most of your time here with canals weaving through the villages, houseboats on stilts, water farms and mountain ranges being your primary views. It’s one of the most relaxing and picturesque spots in Myanmar, making it one of the best places to visit in Myanmar. It’s also home to the shan people, you’ll quickly notice the different clothes that the people in this area wear due to the colder weather in this part of the country. The colours are vibrant and life is traditional with crafts like lotus silk weaving, fishing, and farming being some of the primary skills passed down through generations. You’ll even find families using a specific kind of weave to catch certain fish meaning they’ll be the exclusive provider of that fish. Don’t miss the floating markets on long-boats where these wears get sold on. Every year, at the end of September the area will hold a boat race. Due to the unusual style of rowing with the feet which is practiced in this part of the country, watching the boat race here is not only amazing fun but also a way to see this unique practice at its most dramatic.