Cheap food, cheaper beer, few tourists, forgotten temples in the middle of the jungle, and world-class historical sites: a travel blogger I follow once described Myanmar as “backpacker gold.” I think he had a point: Myanmar far exceeded my expectations, and quickly became one of my favorite countries. The people were the friendliest I’ve met, the food was delicious, the influences eclectic. It was incredibly cheap, and the sites I saw absolutely blew my mind. However, I didn’t come without first struggling ethically with the decision.
I had at one point considered skipping going to Myanmar altogether. The country had been in the news quite a bit several months ago, due to human rights atrocities committed against an ethnic group in the Rakhine state. Several organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the UN, likened this conflict to ethnic cleansing, and the accounts of what was happening to the Rohingya were as sickening as they were disheartening.
I chose to go after considering several important things:
First, the conflict has largely been over for several months, and I didn’t see the point in boycotting the country after the violence has ended. Second, I wanted to hear how people in the country viewed the conflict themselves, and maybe try to engage in meaningful conversation about the issue in the process. Third, I have two good friends living in Myanmar - one is a journalist, and the other, a diplomat - and I thought it would be a shame not to visit them where they live. Fourth, I don’t boycott my own country for its own numerous and well-documented human rights abuses, nor do I boycott other countries that suffer from these problems (like India, for starters). Fifth, Myanmar has only opened up to tourism six years ago, and I thought it would be a rare chance to see a country that has been closed off to the world for 50 years, and not yet heavily affected by globalization.
After my visit, I have actually become convinced that more people should visit Myanmar. The more people that visit the country, the more the Burmese will understand the outsider’s perspective on the conflict. Along with an increase in tourism will come an increase in foreign investment, which could in turn be used as a carrot and a stick in order to keep Myanmar respectful of international norms.
All disclaimers aside, people can make what they want about my choice to go, but having learned about the conflict from people on the ground - including locals, public health workers, aid workers, and two friends who have been living there - I got a more intimate understanding of the Burmese issue and a better appreciation of internal politics in the country, which are seldom as simple as the international press makes it out to be.
My first day in Myanmar, I was quickly overwhelmed by the amount of things to do. Looking at a map, it practically seemed like a feat to see all the major sites within the amount of time allotted by the 28-day visa. Aiming to see as much as possible, we hit the road every two or three days, took overnight buses practically every other night, and covered a ton of ground: from the major tourist sites in the central and northern part of the country, to Yangon and the beaches in the south. In this post, I’ll quickly go over all of the highlights (of which there were many), and hopefully give others a better idea of how to travel this amazing country on their own.
We first landed in Yangon. The country’s former capital until 2006 (when the military junta moved the capital to Naypyidaw, a modern ghost town), it is Myanmar’s main political, commercial, and economic hub. The city boasts the largest collection of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia (and some say, the world), and Shwedagon pagoda, one of the world’s largest, covered in 60 tons of pure gold.
The first thing that struck me about Yangon was the aesthetic of its people. The women sported long, elegant dresses, and many of the men wore longyis, a traditional cloth wrapped around the waist. Between Chinatown, the colonial Victorian architecture, the fancy cafes and little noodle shops, a walk through the streets of Yangon is a beautifully eclectic mix of sights and smells.
Next, we took a night bus up to Mandalay, the second largest city and the cultural center of Myanmar. The U Bein Bridge in nearby Amarapura is the world’s longest teakwood footbridge, and provides an amazing opportunity to watch sunset.
About a half hour from Mandalay is the Mingun pagoda, which has a fascinating history. A little over 200 years ago, an eccentric and ambitious king ordered thousands of slaves to build this stupa, which, if it had been completed, would become the largest in the world. A prophecy said that the structure would be completed upon the king’s death; however, in an ironic twist he died unexpectedly and the site was left abandoned before its completion. It now holds the dubious title of the world’s largest pile of bricks. The crack in the middle, which adds a sense of mystery to the structure, was caused by a major earthquake in 1839.
Off to another night bus and we landed in Kalaw, a big town that is the starting point for many treks and outdoor activities. From here, we rented a scooter and drove out to the Pindaya, a massive collection of limestone caves that contains over 8,000 Buddha statues - an assortment which has been continuously enlarging since the 18th century.
There are several unique features in this cave: graffiti from Japanese soldiers who hid there during World War II, two meditation crawlspaces which require you to crawl on your hands and knees to reach, and a “labyrinth” which you must navigate in the dark among hundreds of smiling golden Buddhas.
From there, we headed to Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most famous sites. It is a huge lake that is inhabited by mostly ethnic Intha, who make their living by maintaining floating farms, selling handicrafts, trading, and fishing.
The fisherman among in Inle Lake have devised a unique way of rowing. By standing on the boat with one leg and using their other leg wrapped around the oar to row, they have both hands free to cast their nets. This allows them to navigate the waters and fish at the same time. Standing up also lets them see better through the water, which is rarely deeper than six or seven feet. We took a boat around for the day, and we visited the floating villages and handicraft stores, as well as a monastery and pagoda.
After a few nights in Inle, we made our way to Mt. Popa, a sacred monastery built on a steep volcano. As with any monastery, we had to take our shoes off to enter.
However, the dozens of monkeys that roamed around enjoy emptying their bladders on the steps up the hill, making it virtually impossible to escape with dry feet. After a 15-minute hike straight up hill, avoiding eye contact with some of the more aggressive monkeys, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset view of the entire valley below.
While this is also one of Myanmar’s most iconic sites, I would suggest skipping it if time is limited: the mountaintop monastery was a little tacky (as southeast Asian Buddhist pilgrimage sites are wont to be), and the monkeys were a bit more aggressive than what I am used to or comfortable with.
Following a quick bus ride from Inle Lake, we found ourselves in Bagan, one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been. Along with Borobudur in Indonesia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bagan is considered one of the three most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, and one of the most important sites in the history of Buddhism.
From the 9th to 13th centuries, Bagan was the capital of a kingdom called Pagan, the first of several kingdoms that would eventually form into the boundaries of modern Myanmar. Eventually, this kingdom collapsed due to repeated invasions from the Mongols. At its height, Bagan boasted about 10,000 temples and pagodas. Today, only about 2,000 of those original structures remain, but even what is left is mind-bogglingly impressive, and imagining five times as many temples in the valley is almost hard to comprehend.
With these temples spread out in a massive valley of over 40 square kilometers, we rented scooters and drove around exploring for three days. You could simply walk in and explore 95% of temples, many with thousand-year-old frescoes inside and intricate architecture. Driving from temple to temple, many hidden in the jungle or overgrown with the slow march of time, I felt so fortunate to have such immediate and intimate access to history, one that wasn’t gated off or crowded with tourists. We had many, if not most, ancient temples to ourselves, and it definitely felt like a privilege to be able to wander in and simply explore on your own.
After this incredible experience, we took another night bus back to Yangon in order to do laundry and rest for a day before heading to the southern part of the country. First, we hit Kyaiktiyo, the site of an iconic pagoda, balanced precariously on a rock overhanging a cliff. A major pilgrimage and tourist site, Kyaiktiyo was crowded with families and tourists, but was interesting to see nonetheless.
The “Golden Rock,” as it is commonly known, is said to balance precariously on the side of the cliff on a single strand of the Buddha’s hair.
Hpa-An was another highlight. A few hours south of Kyaiktiyo, there was so much to do in and around this city. We hiked up Mount Zwegabin in the grueling mid-day heat, and marveled at the rock formations rising out of the flat valley below.
We hiked to the Kyauk Ka Lat pagoda, another monastery perched on a rock in the middle of a circular manmade lake.
We visited a bat cave at sunset, where millions of bats fly out of the cave to feed at night, simultaneously looking for their next meal while dodging circling eagles from above. With two days in Hpa-An, our schedule was packed.
From Hpa-An, we took a four hour boat down river to Mawlamyine, another decent sized city on the southern coast of the country.
Here, we gazed at the world's largest reclining Buddha, resting in the middle of the forest. At 180 meters long, the Buddha is the size of a large building, but sadly construction incomplete due to a lack of funds.
We spent the night and then headed to Dawei the next day. From there, we rented a motorbike and pushed on to Paradise Beach, about two hours further south. Inaccessible by road, we reached the beach by driving about one kilometer through a foot-wide path in the middle of the jungle to reach this idyllic beach. With white sand, turquoise waters, and palm trees blowing in the wind, we spent our night admiring sunset and listening to reggae in a little corner we made away from our bungalow. After a beautiful and relaxing night on Paradise Beach, we made our way back to Dawei. This was during the week between Christmas and New Years Eve, and peak season for tourists. We hadn’t made reservations in Dawei, and the bungalows where we had stayed previously were sold out. All of the other hotels, hostels, homestays, bed and breakfasts, Airbnbs, and other forms of accommodation were going for upwards of $80 a night, following the laws of supply and demand (that’s about three days of traveling for us on our budget).
Not wanting to leave the beach quite yet, and in no rush to get back to Yangon, we did what any other reasonable budget traveler would do, and slept on the beach. Without a tent or other shelter, we laid down our towels, fell asleep to the sounds of the waves breaking gently to shore, and woke up surprisingly rested at sunrise.
The next day, yet another overnight bus awaited us, and we got back to Yangon, received warmly by our eagerly awaiting friends. With the bulk of our travels behind us, we stayed for another five days in the city, exploring the streets, eateries, and sites of Yangon. We took time to read, visit rooftop bars, debate current events and world affairs, and generally feel thankful for our youth, our good health, and the incredible month we spent in this country. Myanmar was an incredible experience and we will certainly be back for more.