If you are planning a trip to South East Asia, I urge you to read this article and consider a stop in Myanmar. The country is bursting with culture, gorgeous countryside, breathtaking sunrises and more temples than you could ever hope to visit. Keep reading to find out even more reasons why Myanmar should be your next travel destination.
Pictures of Bagan should be enough to influence even the most reluctant traveler to book a flight to Myanmar. I have never witnessed anything as magical as the sunrises and sunsets over the temples and didn’t miss a single one while I was there. Seriously, this reason alone should have you opening a tab right now to look up prices of airfare. Go on and do it… I’ll wait.
• Inle Lake
Still not convinced? Outside of Bagan, there are plenty more noteworthy temples that are just as impressive. Near Inle Lake are the Kakku Pagodas, a collection of thousands of pagoda that stretch toward the sky and dazzle in the sunlight from the white and gold decorations. On the Western shores of the lake in Indein Village is another collection of a few hundred pagodas, Shwe Indein Paya, equally as beautiful.
The pagoda at the Shwe Yan Paya Monestary is unique in that the monks carve small niches in the walls into which they place small Buddhas after receiving donations. The fading red paint of the walls and mosaic floors simply add to the allure.
In Yangon, you can visit Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the country’s holiest sites. The large gold pagoda surrounding by smaller ones is sure to astound. One of the largest reclining Buddhas in South East Asia is also located in the city.
In Mandlay you can visit a temple that also is the world’s largest book. Contrary to what you might be picturing, this ‘book’ is a collection of stone tablets that are each housed in its own structure with a roof to protect the ancient inscriptions. It is not everyday you can claim to walk through a book. Go to Mandalay and cross if off the list.
Also in Mandalay is the gorgeous Sutaungpyae Paya that sits at the top of Mandalay Hill. It is the perfect place to catch a sunset and watch the sun rays bounce off the glass covered walls of the temple.
Is there such a thing as too many temples? Perhaps in other countries, but not in Myanmar. There are so many more than I have included in this list, but I guess you will have to visit to find them for yourself!
Myanmar only recently opened its borders to foreigners and as a result has been kept in a bit of a time capsule. This gives visitors the unique opportunity to enjoy a more authentic feel of a South East Asian country as opposed to its neighbors that have been open to Western influences for far longer. It was very interesting to witness many people living a more traditional lifestyle.
• Dress Almost all of the men in Myanmar wear the traditional ‘longyi,’ a skirt-like article of clothing. Both young and old men sport this with pride. By the end of my trip, I saw many tourists who had adopted it as well.
• Monks You will not go a day in Myanmar without crossing paths with a monk. They are quite integrated into the society. As I am no expert on the Buddhist religion, I cannot claim to know much about the life of a monk, but it is really fascinating to see them walking around, talking on cell phones, waiting in line at the ATM or collecting alms in the morning. It is possible to visit a monastery during your visit to see more of how they live their lives, which I recommend.
Young novices study at Shwe Paya Monastery
• Paan This is one part of the culture I did not find endearing but was extremely prevalent. Many men chew a combination of tobacco and areca nuts wrapped in a lime-coated betel nut called ‘paan.’ This potent combination stains the teeth a reddish brown and causes them to look like they have just been punched in the mouth. Along the streets you can see the tell-tale red stains from the spit. At first, you may be alarmed thinking the men are spitting out blood, but this color comes from the betel nut. Nothing quite like a stimulant with a side of oral cancer, right? It seemed hugely popular despite the health risks – old habits die hard, I guess.
• Thanaka When you visit Myanmar, you will see many people with a white paste on their faces. This cosmetic paste is made from ground bark and serves as natural sun protection. Many of the hotels had thanaka available for guests to try. Locals are more than happy to apply thanaka on visitor’s faces if you are curious about it.
• Crafts Throughout Myanmar, you can visit workshops where they create some of the most beautiful items I have seen: hand-embroidered silk parasols, scarves painstakingly woven from thread made from lotus fibers or pure silk, lacquered bowls, cups, or figurines, carved Buddhas from stone… the list goes on and on. These crafts make unique gifts or souvenirs from your travels through the country.
• Inle Lake A visit to this lake is a must in order to see how the people live in the floating villages scattered across it. My day trip on the lake was a highlight of my trip and definitely something that should not be missed if you are interested in learning more about the culture of the people living there.
The Burmese are still learning to accommodate tourists in their country but they all have a great desire to please visitors. Most of the people I encountered were incredibly sweet, from the friendly taxi driver who gave me a free tour of the city on the way to my hotel to the monk in a temple who showed me around simply in an effort to practice his English. I also found that a lot of people spoke some level of English, which surprised me. There are definitely other countries in South East Asia that are difficult to navigate partially because of the language barrier. I did not feel much of a language barrier in the areas I visited, though I did follow the basic tourist path which may account for this. Overall, Myanmar is full of great people who are very inviting and helpful!
Didn’t expect to see this one on the list huh? But Myanmar has wineries people. The one I visited had amazing sweeping views of the mountains, a lake and the sunset… honestly I almost felt like I was in the Italian countryside. I say almost because it was not the best wine I’ve ever had – but what do you really expect from Myanmar? I was just so happy to enjoy a bottle and watch the sun sink behind the mountains. Admittedly, the bottle got better with each glass, and by the end, it was pretty good. =)
While I wish I could include culinary delights on the list of reasons to visit, I found the Burmese food left something to be desired. Most of the traditional dishes were quite oily but I did have a few meals that I quite enjoyed! While you are visiting it is worth trying a few classics like the traditional Tomato Salad (essentially tomatoes, onions, and crushed peanuts mixed together in a dressing – it tastes better than it sounds) or a Tea Leaves Salad (depending on the spot, this is a dish that can get a bit oily). Be sure to ask you hotel or hostel for restaurant recommendations if you are looking to try Burmese food. And when you tire of traditional food, there are restaurants that have excellent choices for tourists who are craving a taste of home, especially in the area around Inle Lake.
Before You Go: Apply for a Visa
In order to visit Myanmar, most foreigners must apply for a visa. If you are flying into Yangon or Mandalay, you can apply for a Visa on Arrival. Another alternative, which I found easier, was to apply online for an evisa from the official government website before your trip. The cost is $50 and when you land you simply walk straight up to the immigration counter with your PRINTED approval letter. That’s it! The visa allows you 30 days to travel in the country, which should be plenty for first-timers. If you are traveling over land, I am not sure if an evisa would still be advised. Please check the government’s website for further instruction if you plan to travel into Myanmar by car or bus.
Traveling in Myanmar
There are two main ways to travel within the country. One is to take domestic flights; the other is to take buses. The former can be extremely expensive (for South East Asia) while the latter seems to be the preferred method for those on a budget. I did all of my traveling within Myanmar on overnight buses which helped me to save money on accommodation. However, I did always arrive at ungodly hours in the morning. Most hotels and hostels are used to this though, and were able to accommodate me just fine despite my early arrivals.
It is very easy to book buses in Myanmar. All of the hotels and hostels I stayed in were able to book me buses, sometimes even for the same day! I do recommend booking a seat at least a day in advance to ensure you have a spot though. Just make sure to bundle up – the buses can get pretty frigid!
For more information on things to do in Myanmar, check out the posts at https://www.stellasout.com/category/asia/myanmar/