From its glorious gilded stupas to its dreamy tropical isles, Myanmar offers a glimpse into a world where Buddhist culture and colonial heritage are both beautifully preserved. Here are 10 reasons to visit Myanmar, Asia’s best-kept secret.
You set your watch back 30 minutes when you fly from Bangkok to Yangon, the former Burmese capital. Here, you’ll find leafy streets and sidewalks are lined with glorious colonial buildings that time forgot. The air is a heavy mix of incense and jasmine. There are no skyscrapers but instead, gold-leaf stupas line the horizon. Among them the imposing Shwedagon.
Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda is an extraordinary 99-metre-high temple complex on Singuttara Hill in Yangon’s heart. Dozens of spires and statues reach into the sky. They encircle a magnificent stupa crowned by 4,351 diamonds weighing 1,800 carats. It’s said that the temple is home to a relic of the original Buddha’s hair, along with other holy monuments. As a homage, the complex is decorated with seated Buddhas, reclining Buddhas, and Buddhas lit up by neon. As the sun disappears, the entire place shimmers in a hazy orange light.
Shwedagon is the country’s most sacred Buddhist pagoda, and arguably the most beautiful of its kind in the world. There is constant chanting and praying and groups of nuns and monks ambulating on the smooth marble ground.
Temple treasures of Myanmar
The temples at Bagan rival Cambodia’s Angkor in terms of magnificence. Much of the ancient capital was built on an arid plain between 850 AD and 1287. More than 4,400 temples enshrine it as the centre of Buddhist study.
Bagan, inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2019, has an unreal landscape with mystical pagodas which make it one of the best locations for a hot air balloon ride. Bagan’s balloons have become an iconic symbol of Myanmar and have carried many travellers on soaring adventures. Set amongst thick greenery on the Ayeyawady river basin with misty mountains at a distance, Bagan is enchanting with its mystical appearance. The temples rise above the canopy of trees, presenting a picture-perfect scenery to visitors.
Today, temples amid this 4,100-hectare archaeological zone are under constant restoration; some have gold-leaf stupas and refinished interiors with original murals illuminated and visible. Others are untouched.
It’s easy to understand why Marco Polo described Bagan as “one of the finest sights in the world”.
Myanmar has its fair share of jaw-dropping attractions, but few steal the show quite like Inle Lake. Small Intha and Shan villages dot the shores of this fabled waterway. It is home to fishermen who have adopted an unconventional style of catching their prey: standing at the bow of longtail boats, they wind one leg around an oar to steer, leaving hands free to throw nets. I’m still haunted by my visit to the lake’s beautiful Indein Village, a cluster of hundreds of stupas, petrified in a peaceful state and swallowed by nature, a place where time passes without the world noticing.
Cool little capital: Nay Pyi Taw
Modern, green and clean, Myanmar’s purpose-built capital sits between two dramatic mountain ranges. It’s home to a gilded temple that rivals Shwedagon, Uppatasanti Pagoda. The glimmering stupa is home to four precious jade Buddha statues as well as serene gardens laced with bo trees.
Sitting in the shade here, it’s hard to believe I’m in the country’s capital. It feels like I’m a world away from chaos. Travellers will also find landmarks such as the Gems Museum, Parliament, Government buildings and Water Fountain Garden as well as natural locations such as the Nay Pyi Taw Hot Spring and Waterfalls here.
U Bein Bridge: Myanmar’s record-breaking attraction
U Bein Bridge is like a movie set – the bridge stretches 1.2-kilometres over Taungthaman Lake. Kids clamber over each other in fits of laughter, and glossy-haired women carry home bags of fruit in one hand and colourful paper umbrellas in the other.
On the outskirts of Mandalay – that fabled city Rudyard Kipling once wrote about – U Bein takes home honours as the longest teak footbridge in the world. Tip your hat to those who built the 1,000-plus pillars that span the water. Come here at sunset for silhouettes that reach all the way to the horizon.
Step back in time: Goat Htaik Bridge
When the journey matters just as much as the destination, jump aboard a train departing the town of Pyin Oo Lwin to cross the Goat Htaik Bridge. Constructed by British colonialists in 1901, this is the highest (and most dreamy) railway bridge in Myanmar. My chariot’s hypnotic click-clack slows as we follow the curves and bends of the hills, locals leaning out of train windows to snap a shot of the distinctive bridge on the horizon. I feel like I’ve stepped back into the golden age of travel, when there was nothing to distract you aside from the tropical outlook.
Journey to monk-hood
Myanmar is unabashedly Buddhist in beliefs, and every year in March/April the Novitiation Ceremony marks the coming of age for boys under 20 years old. Celebrated throughout the country, it sees families partake in a short journey guided by monks, to learn the ways of Buddhism. It’s as peaceful and spiritual as it is colourful, with monks-in-training dressed up in silk robes parading through town en route to monasteries – under the watch of very proud parents. This is an honour, after all.
Dive in: Ngapali Beach
Ngapali Beach is postcard-perfect. It has azure water, powdery sand and fabulously draped palm trees. Blissfully crowd-free, this patch of paradise promises tranquillity. When I visit it’s all I can do to stretch my legs and order a chilled coconut to sip on while I gaze into the abyss. But if you become restless, explore the fishing village or catch a boat out to Pearl Island for more shimmering moments. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any better…
From beaches to mountains – in northern Myanmar, Mount Hkaka Bo Razi (5,881 metres) is South Asia’s highest mountain, in a range that’s an extension of the Himalayas. From small towns tucked into valleys you can hike to glaciers that twinkle like gems studding the surrounding peaks, then explore forests home to Indigenous hill tribes that have preserved cultures and traditions for generations. And don’t expect to see another tourist – this part of the country is remarkably unpeopled.
Burmese New Year
Thingyan, aka Burmese New Year, is a riotous affair, celebrated annually in April with friends and family and lots of food. Respect is paid to generations past, then families get down to the task of washing away the sins of the previous year – yep, a massive water fight ensues. Bring your bucket or hose, and get set to be wet.
This article on 10 reasons to visit Myanmar was produced in partnership with Tourism Myanmar.
Image credits: Tourism Myanmar
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