Although there are now affordable flights from Bangkok to Mandalay, most people still start their visit in Yangon (Rangoon). This former capital makes a great introduction to the country, with evocative colonial-era buildings, some of the country’s best restaurants and the unmissable Shwedagon Paya – the holiest Buddhist site in the country. Relatively few tourists head southeast from Yangon, other than to the precariously balanced Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo, but Mawlamyine and Hpa-an are great places to hang out, whether you’re exploring caves full of Buddhist art, sleeping at a mountain-top monastery or visiting home-based workshops.
West of Yangon are a handful of beaches, with Ngapali the most highly regarded, but Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung much more affordable. Most travellers instead hasten north to Mandalay, the hub for ‘Upper Burma’ and the base for visiting the remains of several former capital cities, or to Bagan further west for its stunning temple-strewn plains. East of Mandalay is Kalaw, the starting point for some great walks. A trek from Kalaw is one way to reach the magnificent Inle Lake, with its stilt villages and famous leg-rowing fishermen. If time allows, a trip on the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River around Katha and Bhamo offers a great chance to meet locals, as do the hiking routes around Hsipaw in Shan State, which pass through ethnic minority villages.