Formally known as Burma, this corner of South East Asia has been off-limits to most tourists for many years due to a military junta, international sanctions and impenetrable border bureaucracy. However recent elections have seen democracy restored to Myanmar and the country become more open to foreign visitors. It’s still well off the beaten track for many tourists; so expect to have the ancient temples, bustling markets and fantastic scenery almost to yourself. We’ve picked our highlights of this unique country.
Drift Over Ancient Temples
Bagan crams over 2000 Buddhist temples into 26 square miles of riverside plains. Founded in the 9th Century, most of the temples date from 1044-1287 when the city was the capital of the Pagan Empire. At the kingdom’s peak there were up to 200,000 residents and many more temples than survive today. Hire a bike to explore or take a tour of the most interesting temples on a horse and cart. For a truly special experience, float over the plain on a hot air balloon at dawn.
Enter A Spider’s Lair
The Pindaya Cave complex was apparently the home of an enormous spider who imprisoned seven princesses. Luckily a prince came to slay the spider and the temple at the mouth of the cave now sports an enormous statue of the deceased arachnid. Once past this, visitors enter a 500 foot long cave lined with over 8000 depictions of Buddha dating from 1773 to the present day. Practically every style of Buddha can be found, with one notably holding a seed in his right palm. This pose has not been found in any other Buddhist site suggesting that the cave was once home to a unique Buddhist cult.
Climb A Sacred Mountain
Mount Popa is a monumental volcanic rock with a Buddhist temple perched on top. The temple was built to honour “Nats”, a type of spirit unique to Burmese Buddhism. The whole mountain is deemed part of the shrine, so leave your shoes at the bottom as you climb 777 steps to the top. After dodging groups of curious monkeys, you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views over the surrounding countryside and the temple of 37 Buddhist Nats. One of the most notable of these is Ko Gyi Kyaw, who supposedly died from his hedonistic lifestyle. He’s seen as the patron saint of drunks, gamblers and tramps; pilgrims often leave whisky and other treats on his shrine.
Eat Green Tea
The people of Myanmar really love their food and Burmese cuisine is delicious blend of Thai, Chinese and Indian styles with a unique local twist. Signature Burmese dishes include Mohinga (rice noodles in a mildly spicy fish stock) Laphet Thoke (salad with fermented green tea leaves) and Shan noodles (rice noodles in an aromatic spicy broth with meat and vegetables). Look out for food stalls on the roadside or night markets; anything with a queue of locals is bound to be worth a try. Follow it up with a visit to a ‘beer station’ – essentially a small roadside bar serving drinks and simple snacks.
Stroll Along The World’s Longest Teak Bridge
An early example of recycling, teak planks from the former royal palace at Inwa were repurposed in to the 1209m U Bein footbridge just outside Mandalay. Curving gracefully across Taungthaman Lake with pavilions and removable sections to allow boats to pass through, this beautiful bridge gives a glimpse in to Myanmar before western influences. The bridge, fishing boats and lake are particularly photogenic at sunset, with tourists and locals alike stopping to admire the view.
Explore A Deserted Capital
In 2002 construction started on Naypyidaw and the city was made the capital of Myanmar in 2005, for no reason other than the apparent whim of the ruling elite. They hoped that the new build city would become as busy as the previous capital Yangon and built accordingly; there’s even a replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda, renamed Uppatasanti. The city is nearly six times the size of New York and has 20 lane highways, yet few people live here currently. Located between Yangon and Mandalay it’s worth a stop for an empty motorway selfie or two.
Want to explore more of South East Asia?
Occupying a prime spot between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, Malaysia is the hidden gem of South East Asia. Our highlights of Malaysia’s most inspiring and unique attractions are worth a look.