Burma (also known as Myanmar) has historically been difficult to visit and, compared to other South East Asian countries, is unexplored and untouched by tourism. The country has become more open to tourists and easier to visit in the past few years, providing a great opportunity to explore the country, its amazing temples and its colonial history, whilst avoiding the crowds that come with many of the main sites in South East Asia.
Where to Go in Burma
Burma is a large country (around the same size as France and Turkey) and has very distinct regions from the Himalayan Mountains in north of the country, to the beaches and archipelagos of the south, to the Irawaddy Delta around the Capital – Yangon.
A trip around Burma therefore involves diverse scenery, architecture and activities.
Irrawaddy Delta and Central Burma
The Irrawaddy Delta and Central Burma has most of the major sites that tourists come to see, and has the best tourism infrastructure in the country.
Yangon (formerly Rangoon) was the capital of Burma under British Colonial rule and remained the capital until 2006. Today Yangon is a lively city and is still the business heart of the country. The city retains some colonial architecture among its lively streets, has beautiful Buddhist Pagodas and is the best place in Burma for shopping and restaurants.
Shwedagon Pagoda is the main sight in the city. Located in the centre of Yangon, it is a huge Buddhist Stupa (monument containing sacred relics). The Pagoda is a gold coloured structure that dominates the Yangon skyline and is surrounded by smaller monuments and temples.
The heart of the city – by the river – is a grid of bustling streets filled with shops, restaurants and bars. This area contains a mixture of Buddhist Pagodas (including the Sule Pagoda) and colonial buildings. The best preserved colonial buildings are hotels (especially The Strand Hotel), with many of the others in a state of decay.
A great way to explore the rest of Yangon is on the circular train. This commuter train runs in a large circle through 38 stations around Yangon. Tickets are very cheap and allow you to hop on and off as you like, and the ride itself is an experience. The seats are uncomfortable and the trains are usually busy but the stops are very frequent and you can always find a taxi if you have had enough.
Bago is an ancient capital around 2 hours from Yangon (either by train or by taxi). The city has lots of old Pagodas and makes a good day trip from Yangon or a stop off point if you are heading elsewhere in Burma.
Bagan is an ancient capital with thousands of ancient temples scattered over the plains surrounding the modern day town. The temples were mostly built around 1000 years ago and are in various states of ruin.
The site rivals Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu in its historical significance and scale, but is much less visited. The main temples can be done in a day, but a big part of the attraction is exploring the lesser known and more isolated sites. Hiring a tuk-tuk and driver for the day, or renting bikes is a fun way to explore – make sure you time it so that you catch sunset from the top of one of the Pagodas. Hot air balloons rides are also very popular.
There are three towns in the area – Old Bagan (at the heart of the archaeological site) has mostly luxury hotels; Nyaung-U attracts more backpackers and has the most nightlife; whilst New Bagan is somewhere in between the two in terms of standard of accommodation and nightlife.
A popular day trip from Bagan is to Mt Popa. Mt Popa is a volcano but the main attraction is a shrine – The Popa Taungkalat – that sits impressively on top of a volcanic plug. The shrine is believed to be home to 37 Nats – or animist spirits. Climbing the 777 steps to the shrine takes around 45 minutes and results in spectacular views of the countryside in addition to the opportunity to look more closely at the shrine.
Mandalay was the royal capital until the British took control of the country and forced the Royal Family into exile. The main sights in the city are focused on its role as Royal Capital and the ruling family.
The city is dominated by the Royal Palace in the centre (surrounded by a square moat). The current palace is a 1990s reconstruction as the original was heavily damaged during the Second World War. You can enter the compound and explore the Palace, or a walk around the moat is good way to spend a couple of hours.
To the north of the city is Mandalay Hill, on top of which sits Sutaungpyei Pagoda. Walking up the 1700+ steps to the Pagoda is a great experience. A lot of the route is a covered walkway that takes you to smaller Pagodas and gives great views of the city below. You can also drive up most of the way. In addition to the Pagoda at the top, the views are fantastic and it’s a very popular spot for watching the sunset. Monks tend to wait at the top with the hope of practising their English with tourists, which is a great way to learn more about the Pagoda.
Mandalay is the second largest city in Burma, and so apart from the sights there are plenty of bars and restaurants covering a range of cuisines and price points.
U Leg Bridge
To the south of Mandalay is the city of Amarapura (although today it is essentially a suburb of Mandalay). Amarapura was the royal capital before Mandalay, and is a lot quieter. Amarapura sits alongside a large lake, which is crossed by the U Bein Bridge – the main site of Amarapura and believed to be the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world.
Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo)
In the hills to the east of Mandalay is the colonial town of Pyin Oo Lwin. The town was built to allow the British administration to escape the heat of Mandalay, and became the summer capital. The town still has many colonial houses and churches.
Naypyidaw is a strange place. The city was built by the military rulers of Burma to replace Yangon as the capital. Although it became the capital in 2006, much of the city wasn’t finished until 2012.
The city is built on a grid system, with clearly designated areas. If you arrive by bus you will be dropped off in the transport zone, from where you will have to get a taxi along completely empty 6 lane wide highways to the hotel zone to find your accommodation. When you want to go out for dinner you will need to get another taxi (as the city is spread out to walk) along the still empty highways to the bar and restaurant area.
As a new city there is not a huge amount to see in Naypyidaw, apart from the slightly tasteless new government buildings. But if you are interested in a bizarre example of new city planning then it may be worth seeing it with your own eyes.
Southern Burma is a thin stretch of land between the Andaman Sea and the Thai border. Most tourists don’t make it to the area at all, and those that do tend to not venture too far down.
Maylamyine is an historic small city in southern Burma. The port city was the British capital for 25 years due to its use in the teak trade. Today the city is one of the best preserved colonial cities in Burma and is much quieter and less visited than others.
Aside from the colonial buildings in the centre, the ridge of hills behind the city is topped with several Stupas and Monasteries that make for a great days’ walking and exploring. One of these Pagodas inspired Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Mandalay’.
Along the seafront are a number of bars, and at night small restaurants pop up providing great barbecued fish.
Nearby is the end of the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway and the Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery – a memorial to Allied Soldiers who died building the railway.
Close to Mawlamyine is the small town of Hpa-An. There is not much to do in the town itself but the surrounding area has some great hiking opportunities and boat trips. One of the most popular treks is climbing up Mt Zwegabin to the monastery at the top – this takes 2-4 hours depending on pace.
Other Places in Southern Burma
Further south than Mawlamyine has only opened to tourists in the last few years and receives very few visitors. The Myeik Archipelago is increasingly popular but hard to get to (see Beach section), whilst cities like Dawei offer a good opportunity to see authentic Burma.
Inle Lake and Eastern Burma
The whole of Eastern Burma is included in Shan State. To the west of Shan State is the popular tourist destination of Inle Lake, but few tourists have ventured to the more mountainous area to the east due to government bans, poor infrastructure and ongoing conflict between the Shan State Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the government. The area has recently become more open to tourists but often you are required to have a guide and some areas are still out of bounds.
Rower, Inle Lake
Inle Lake is a large but shallow lake set in the hills to the west of Shan State. The Intha people live on the lake in houses built on stilts and a floating market moves between five of the villages. A boat trip on the lake is the main draw of the area and is a great way to see the floating market and villages, as well as the unique leg rowing style used by the Intha.
Trekking is also popular in the hills around the lake. Whether you just want to go for a few hours through the rice paddies and villages, or a multi-day trek over hills and mountains to isolated villages and monasteries the area has some of the best and most accessible trekking in Burma.
The Red Mountain Estate is in the hills just above the lake and is one of only a couple of vineyards in Burma. The estate offers a tour and wine tasting, as well as great views.
The town closest to the lake is Nyaung Shwe, which has a lot of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and bars. The town is quite lively and is where you will find the best nightlife in the area. Luxury resorts are located on the lake itself, away from the town.
Kalaw is a small colonial hill town near Inle Lake. The town itself is attractive and cool, but the main reason most people visit is to start a multi-day trek to Inle Lake. The trek takes 3 days and whilst the days tend to involve 8-9 hours of walking, the terrain is not too difficult and is manageable by anyone who is reasonably fit.
Further afield is the village of Pindaya, which has more trekking options and is less visited by tourists than the area around Inle Lake.
Towards the eastern border of Burma, in the Golden Triangle area where the borders of Laos, Thailand, China and Burma converge is the town of Kyaingtong. The area is very rarely visited by tourists, and to reach it overland you need a special permit. Flying there doesn’t require a permit.
Many ethnic minorities live in the mountains that surround the towns, and the area is great for treks and scenery.
Much of Northern Burma remains off limits to tourists due to ongoing conflicts, however there are a few areas of this less visited region that are accessible and worth the journey. Reaching the limited destinations is possible by train and road (at last time of checking) but a river cruise is a popular, and more comfortable, way to see the region.
Katha is a small northern town on the Irrawaddy River. George Orwell was the town’s police commissioner in 1926-27 and his novel Burmese Days is set in the town. Many of the colonial buildings still exist including Orwell’s house, and the colonial club that is central to the book.
Katha has a few monasteries where the monks are very keen to chat, and has some good restaurants and bars overhanging the Irrawaddy. The town receives very few visitors and the tourism infrastructure is basic. The town is increasingly a stop off point for river cruises.
Bhamo is a town further up the Irrawaddy River from Katha. There are a few Pagodas and an ancient Shan capital in the area, but most people visit Bhamo to simply relax and enjoy the quiet town and its riverside location.
Beaches Holidays in Burma
Thabyugyaing Beach, Burma
Burma is not the best location in South East Asia for a beach holiday: the infrastructure is not as good as Thailand or Malaysia and there are limited resorts. However, there are a few beaches that are worth visiting and staying at for a few days if you are already in the country.
The most popular beach resort in Burma is Ngapali Beach. The resort is on a quiet stretch of beach on the west coast. The area has a few luxury hotels with stunning views and spas, although the décor is still Burmese.
Despite being the biggest beach resort the area is still quiet, with little in the way of nightlife. There are lots of small fishing villages along the coast that are worth visiting, and the area is not showing the impact of increasing tourism yet.
The Myeik Archipelago is in the Andaman Sea at the south of Burma. The area is very difficult to get to, and you will need a special permit to visit the islands. The area is famous for its unspoiled and natural beauty. Diving and kayaking are great ways to explore the sea.
There are only a few hotels on the islands, however many people opt for a sailing holiday aboard a yacht that takes you around the archipelago.
The main sites are in the central region and can be explored in a couple of weeks. If you have more time and want to see less visited parts of the country you can venture further beyond into the south, the east or the north. The itineraries below are some ideas of possible trips – they can all be fully customised.
The Best of Burma
If you have a couple of weeks and want to see the main sites a good itinerary is to fly into Yangon and spend a couple of nights there. From Yangon you can head up to Inle Lake (with a possible stop at Bago or Naypyidaw). At Inle Lake you can spend a couple of days trekking and a couple of days relaxing by the lake before heading to Bagan to cycle round the Stupas. A boat trip from Bagan to Mandalay is a great way to see the Irrawaddy River, and from Mandalay you can catch an international flight out of the country. If you have extra time you could also fit in a few days on the beach at Ngapali.
If you want to see some of the lesser visited areas, easy additions to the Best of Burma itinerary include a trip down to Hpa-An and Mawlamyine in the south from Yangon, and a trip up to see George Orwell’s house in Katha from Mandalay. These areas are much less visited than the central region.
Where to Stay in Burma
The major tourist areas in Burma (Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay, Ngapali, and Bagan) all have a range of accommodation from guesthouses to luxury hotels, although the prices are higher than in other parts of South East Asia.
Outside of the tourist destinations accommodation is less developed, but there are still generally good mid-market options in many of the less visited towns (such as Maywlamyine). Once you get off the beaten track to places like Katha or Kyaingtong your options become more restricted to 3 star hotels and guesthouses at best.
When to Go to Burma
You can visit Burma at any time of year, however October to May sees the best weather. From June to September rain is more frequent and can be heavy and persistent, and the beach hotels are generally closed. That said, the country is at its greenest and you should still have windows of good weather where you can trek.
Getting Around Burma
For longer journeys around Burma flying is the best option. There are frequent flights between the major sites, and less frequent to smaller towns such as Mawlamyine. Buses and trains are an option but are slow and uncomfortable, although a journey by train is an unforgettable experience due to the slow and bumpy narrow gauge railways.
For shorter journeys, or if you want to avoid flying hiring a car and driver is an easy option.
Getting to Burma
There are no direct flights into Burma, all involve a stop somewhere depending on who you fly with. A popular option is for a few days in Bangkok, from where you can catch a flight to Mandalay or Yangon.