Myanmar: Where to Go & What to Do
Myanmar is magical in its innocence. Over the years the country has experienced its fair share of turmoil. Military junta rule resulted in plenty of bloodshed and the Burmese people suffered greatly. Dead bodies laying in the street were commonplace, so much so that the locals would simply walk around them; the bodies not being removed until a wagon appeared to take them away, and in Asia there was no way of knowing when that wagon would be rolling by.
Myanmar, in many ways, it still new, and therefore more untouched than other Southeast Asian countries, making it a new favourite destination choice among backpackers. Myself included.
My plan for Myanmar was simple, fly into Yangon from Bangkok, then spend twelve days travelling from Yangon to Inle Lake, Bagan, and finally Mandalay.
Unaware of what I would experience in Yangon, and desperate for a break from hostel living in Bangkok, I decided to begin my trip with a little luxury, staying at Sule Shangri-La for a couple nights. It’s extravagant, but worth every penny for a decent shower and cozy bed – occasional luxuries while travelling are important for my sanity.
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Myanmar has a very strict dress code for visiting temples and pagodas. No shorts or short skirts, no tank tops or spaghetti straps. If you show up wearing inappropriate attire you’ll be given a longyi (traditional Burmese skirt) to wear, or turned away.
Yangon’s Circle Line – One of the best ways to experience local life in Yangon is to take the city’s circle line, which travels to the outer edges of the city, passing through country stations – some of which turn into chaotic outdoor markets.
The round trip will take about 3 hours, and costs around K300 (24 cents US). There are air conditioned trains available, but if you really want to get a glimpse of local life, opt for a local commuter train instead.
Bobyoke Market – Located near the Sule Pagoda, the Bogyoke Market features vendors selling everything from gems to longyis to antiques. As a foreigner children will be drawn to you and feel the need to sell you a fan, or postcards, or show you to shops with good prices. You can simply tell them no thanks, about a million times, and they will eventually disappear.
Nyaung Shwe is relatively small, but there are plenty of guesthouses to choose from. As with accommodations in Yangon, ask to see your room first. Generally you’ll be given the option of paying in USD or Myanmar kyats (pronounced jh-ats).
Finding yummy Burmese food won’t be hard in Nyaung Shwe, but if you’re craving something a little more Western or European the newly opened One Owl Grill on the main road is delicious. I’m still dreaming of their fries and creamy garlic sauce.
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If you do the sunrise tour, make sure you ask them to go to Ywama market after the sunrise. If it’s not the day for the floating market, don’t worry, there is a wonderful local market that happens before all the tourists arrive, and if you’re early enough the souvenir stalls will still be setting up.
The one annoying part of this trip will be the stops at shops. You don’t have to buy. This is the downside to hiring a local, instead of going through one of the tour companies.
Go hiking – there are a few companies in Nyaung Shwe who will offer hiking trips. I didn’t go hiking as I was too busy exploring the lake, but I spoke to a few backpackers who did, and they were quite impressed.
Rent a motorbike and explore around town – you can rent motorbikes fairly cheap in Nyaung Shwe. It’s a small town, but not too small. I love riding around on a motorbike, it offers such a unique view of the town and the locals.
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There is also a fabulous hostel in New Bagan called Ostello Bello Bagan, which I highly recommend. It’s an Italian hostel brand (random, right?), and one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in while travelling in Asia. The staff speak pretty good English, they have an impressive, and yummy menu, wifi is free and good, and you’ll be surrounded by like-minded travelers. It can be a nice break when traveling solo.
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Rent an E-Bike and Explore – There are several places in Bagan that rent e-bikes (electric bikes), allowing you to explore Bagan on your own timetable. The bikes usual run K5,000 for the day for regular bikes, and K7,000 for the larger bikes.
Take the boat from Bagan to Mandalay – okay, this is not an activity in Bagan, but I highly recommend the boat vs the bus. That being said the boat will take about 11.5 hours, where the bus is about 5 hours. The boat is also about K41,600 in cost. Alternatively, you can also take the boat from Mandalay to Bagan, but this trip is slightly more expensive. I’m not sure why.
Pyin Oo Lwin
While there are things to see and do in the cities, you will get a better understanding of the country, people, and customs by leaving the city behind and exploring small towns and villages. This is where you meet the soft spoken and curious locals, who will be fascinated by your presence. And unlike many countries, the locals are not trying to scam you all the time, they are actually quite genuine and kind.
So open your eyes and your heart, interact with the locals, sit in a roadside tea shop and watch the world go by. Myanmar is a fascinating country. You’ll love it.