Defying all expectations, Ruchi and I didn’t feel ready to leave Myanmar. Sitting in the departure lounge looking like a pair of jilted brides at the altar. Post-holiday blues had already kicked in.
You know you love a place when you find yourself practically holding back the tears because you really, really, don’t want to leave. It’s hard not to feel this way after being bedazzled by golden pagodas, mesmerised by Intha fishermen, and charmed by the kindness of strangers. In only two weeks, this country had given us a profoundly wonderful experience that would be hard to find anywhere else in the world.
Though we concluded that two weeks really wasn’t enough to see everything that Myanmar has to offer, it’s still a good length of time to see many of its highlights if you follow an itinerary.
This doesn’t mean you have to be anal about sticking to a concrete plan, we certainly didn’t, we planned on being more active, but on arrival we both adopted a fairly relaxed pace of travel. Ruchi also ended up getting the lurgy on our way to Mandalay so we had to sack off any plans for a hike in Hsipaw.
I must also give a quick thanks to my friend Kat, who spent a month in Myanmar prior to my departure and gave me lots of essential tips. Kat, you’re a star.
Yangon – 2 or 3 nights
Yangon may be the country’s largest city but it’s not the capital, at least not anymore – the title now goes to Naypyidaw since 2006. Regardless of this, Yangon is the biggest and most popular city in Myanmar and still commonly mistaken as the capital. It’s an easy mistake to make since Yangon is the international gateway, and usually the first stop on any itinerary to Myanmar.
I recommend staying two or three nights to get a decent feel of the city, making sure to wander down the colonial district. The buildings here are full of character, most have been left to perish with no real prospect of renovation since the capital’s relocation to Naypyidaw.
Taxis are inexpensive in the city and worth getting if you want to catch all the main attractions whilst having enough time to indulge in the city’s culinary offerings. You’ve got to try lahpet thoq (fermented tea-leaf salad).
- Shwedagon Pagoda
- Kandawgyi Lake
- Bogyoke Market (also known as Scott’s Market)
- Chaukhtatgyi Paya (Reclining Buddha)
Golden Rock – Full day or 1 night
I almost didn’t go to see the Golden Rock (also known as Kyaiktio) but I’m so glad I did because the whole experience of getting there was hilarious. Instead of spending a night on the mountain, Ruchi and I woke up at the crack of dawn determined to see it in a day.
From Yangon it took approximately 5.5 hours, but I’d say the journey really begins in Kinpun, the small village where the bus terminates. Once here, you then transfer onto a dump truck refurbished with seats for the 25 minutes journey up the mountain. Sitting in a dump truck is one thing, but being squashed inside like a can of sardines is another thing altogether. It sounds dreadful but I can’t tell you how much fun it was, holding on for dear life without a seat belt, sitting on the cusp of exhilaration and fear.
The whole experience was like being on a rollercoaster in a theme park, you even had to wait in a queue before getting on the ride…
Once we made it to the top it didn’t take long to spot the Golden Rock, utterly defying all notions of gravity.
- Earplugs, it’s impossible to sleep on a day-bus without them.
- Cover your shoulders and legs, and don’t wear anything too clingy.
- The latest bus back to Yangon is at 5pm.
Bagan – 2 or 3 nights
From Yangon we took an overnight bus ride to Bagan, taking approximately 9 hours. Not wanting to compromise on sleep we paid extra for a bus with reclining seats. Expect to pay about 15 US dollars which is extremely reasonable considering how far we had to travel. You could fly to Bagan but it’s much pricier, and these night buses are surprisingly comfortable so you also get to save on accommodation for the night as well.
Once in Bagan, prepare for pagoda overload! This is an ancient city that really is unlike anywhere else, the sheer number of ruins is truly a vision to behold. Scattered across an arid plain in a bend of the Ayeyarwady are the ruins of around 2000 monasteries, temples, shrines and stupas – telling the story of a bygone era.
Bagan is at its most magical at sunrise or sunset, with the warm light intensifying the red-brown hues of their brickwork. During this time, many tourists climb atop the ruins to watch the sky transform in colour. It’s an incredibly uplifting experience.
Whilst here you should rent a bike or an e-bike if you feel confident enough. Since neither Ruchi or I had tried e-biking before, we thought there was no time like the present to give it a bash. Though we survived to tell the tale, it was at times very concerning to watch Ruchi wobble towards oncoming cars. She’s a scary woman when she’s let loose on the road!
- Ananda Temple
- Shwezigon Pagoda
Splurge – Being closer to the main attractions means you pay more for accommodation in Old Bagan, if it suits your budget I recommend staying at the beautiful Bagan Thande Hotel.
Mid-range – Staying in New Bagan at Theiddhi Hotel which is a little further away from the historical centre yet close to a wide variety of restaurants offers a great budget alternative. If you have a bicycle or e-bike then staying in New Bagan or even Nyaung U won’t be an issue.
(Optional 1 night in Kalaw)
Lying between Bagan and Inle Lake is Kalaw where you can stop for the night before embarking on a two day hike to Inle Lake. Kat did this through Sam’s Treks and she gives it her seal of approval.
I think I paid $30 for the two day trek, which included all meals (their food was some of the best I had in Myanmar!) and accommodation. Which was in a rustic bamboo hut, blankets provided. No shower, and only squat loos — be sure to take toilet paper! I am really squeamish about squat loos, but managed it fine on the trek. The trek itself wasn’t too difficult, maybe 15km each day but I actually wished we walked longer, it was so wonderful.
Inle Lake – 3 or 4 nights
I fell in love with Inle Lake, it’s incredibly peaceful and the culture of the Intha people and the captivating work of the leg-rowing fishermen who live in stilt villages along the fringes of the lake is truly fascinating to discover.
I could easily have spent longer than three nights here, it’s a place that can make you forget about everything, a place to relax and do little of nothing. Yet there’s also a lot more to do and see than anywhere else. We stayed in Nyaungshwe which is utterly charming, a town with lots of small cafes, markets and local shops.
Things to do
- Boat trip on Inle Lake (a must!)
- Get a massage
- Saturday floating market
- Join a cookery class
- Hire a bike
Where we stayed and loved – The Grand Nyaung Shwe Hotel
Mandalay – 2 nights
From Inle Lake we caught an overnight bus to Mandalay for the final leg of our trip. On the arrival at the bus terminal I couldn’t find Ruchi after we disembarked the bus to collect our rucksacks. A few taxi drivers approached me to see if they could take me somewhere and I told them I wouldn’t be going anywhere until I found my friend. Then one man pointed over to a dumpster by the edge of a road, and there she was, trying to shield herself from the crowds as she puked up. My girl was poorly.
We took it easy in Mandalay, ensuring that Ruchi was within close quarters to a toilet on our first day. We visited Mandalay Palace which was nice and had a little stroll to Mandalay Hill but to be honest, we didn’t warm to the city I have to say.
The roads are really long and wide and the traffic never seems to stop. Waiting to cross is just plain tedious unless you’re quick on your toes.
In my personal experience I think Mandalay is good for two days so you can go on day trips to Mingun and Amarapura.
Got a few more days to spare?
If we had a few more days we would definitely have caught the train from Mandalay to Lashio which, in part, is connected by the infamous Gokteik Bridge, a gravity-defying feat of engineering described by Paul Theroux as, “a monster of silver geometry in all the ragged rock and jungle”.
In this region you could also go hiking in Hsipaw, I’ve heard really good things about this region, it’s less touristy and the landscape is extremely rural.