People say that the Myanmar of today is what southeast Asia used to be. If you've scaled the temples of Angkor Wat, sailed through limestone cliffs of Halong Bay, and ridden elephants in Thailand, then Myanmar is the next stop on your itinerary. With much of the world getting smaller, this is one place where you can still feel you're someplace "different." If the temples at dawn and the relaxed pace of life don't steal a place in your heart, then the genuine openness of the people certainly will. But as tourism grows in this fast changing country, options for visitors grow fast as well, from horse-drawn carriage rides to immaculate 5 star resorts. Let's get started...
Most foreigners will arrive in Yangon. Be absolutely sure you obtain your visa prior to arrival, as a visa on arrival isn't a reliable option. This is a sprawling city and sights are spread out quite far, so having a driver and guide for your stay will save you a lot of time. The Shwedagon Pagoda is everyone's first stop. Know what day of the week you were born on and make an offering to the corresponding Buddha for that day. Take a walk through the colonial architecture of the old downtown district and enjoy sunset views of the pagodas on Kandawgyi Lake.
Insider Tip: ATMs are as common in Myanmar as elephants walking through Times Square, and people aren't kidding when they say bring CRISP dollar bills to change. Banks may reject any bills that are the slightest bit worn, creased, or have marks, so if they're not hot off the press, you might be out of luck. And as always, $100 bills will get you a better exchange rate than smaller bills.
If there's one reason to visit this beautiful country, Bagan seals the deal. You've seen the pictures of ancient pagodas at sunrise, now it's time to experience it for yourself. As in Yangon, hire and driver and a guide. Traveling by horse carriage or bicycle is common, but the region is dry and dusty with many of the temples far apart, so unless you have a few days to take it slow, you'll appreciate the chance to see more with a car. Flip flops are the best footwear to have, as all the temples in the country are to be entered barefoot. Sunset is best viewed, for a small fee, atop the Aureum Palace Hotel tower while you should sunrises atop the pagodas themselves take the cake. Bring a scarf, it gets chilly when it's dark.
Insider Tip: A half day trip to Mount Popa is a 2 hour drive away. This magnificent hilltop temple complex has 777 steps to reach the top. The local monkeys love to throw things at visitors and pilgrims alike, and stairs are quite dirty with their droppings. Save the wet naps given out on the local airlines to clean your feet once you're done. Enjoy a stunning view and a 5 star lunch at the nearby Popa Mountain Resort.
This sprawling modern city has some of its best sights far outside of town. On the way from the airport, visit the famous wooden footbridge in Amarapura, the former Burmese capital. Take a half day trip to Sagaing and Ava, the ancient capital, and ride a horse drawn carriage to temples, monasteries, and the old watch tower. Back in town, you may be templed out from Bagan, but the Golden Palace Monastary, the Mahamuni Buddha Temple, and the World's Largest Book are a trifecta of sights that will blow your mind.
Insider Tip: For those in need of a shopping break, bronze casting, gold work, and woodcarving are prized local arts. Ask your guides for the best artisans shops. As credit cards are only accepted at high end hotels, keep an extra stash of cash for unexpected retail splurges. Banks abound in town for easy money changing.
However long you plan to spend at Inle Lake, it most likely won't be enough. The biggest attraction in the Shan State will give you the perfect place to rest and take life slow after sunrise to sunset temple hopping in the other cities. The landscape of orange earth and green farms populated with a mix of ethnic groups shows a way of life that'll inspire some true Kodak moments. Each resort on the lake will offer boat rides doing the village circuit, where you can see local artisans, one-legged rowing fishermen, and floating islands, gardens, and farms. A half day trip to Pindaya will lead you through beautiful landscapes and villages to the famous cave housing thousands of gold Buddha statues.
Insider Tip: This region is almost 3,000 feet above sea level, so if you visit during the winter months, be sure to dress in layers, as it can get chilly out on the lake, especially in the morning.
Most foreign visitors arrive in Yangon, which offers direct flights from most major cities in Asia. Flights to Mandalay can be found from Bangkok and Kunming. Domestic flights and tours can be arranged by local Burmese travel agents and tour operators.
Photo credits: Photos courtesy of Jonathan Pozniak