Wherever your itinerary takes you, travel in Myanmar (Burma) is sure to provide a wealth of new exotic experiences – whether you’re air-kissing at your waiter in a city teahouse or witnessing your first nat ceremony. To mark the release of our first guide to the country, we've picked the best things to do in Myanmar.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Myanmar (Burma), your essential guide for visiting Myanmar.
1. Eat breakfast in a Burmese teahouse
From Yangon’s traffic-choked streets to dusty village lanes, Myanmar’s teahouses are local institutions. Enthusiastic tea boys dodge between the tables, slopping tea into saucers and serving up deep-fried snacks.
Patrons air kiss loudly to attract the staff’s attention, their eyes on the football match on TV and their minds on teashop gossip. Stop for a bowl of mohinga – the nation’s favourite noodle soup, or refuel with a char kway (a Chinese-style doughnut) dunked in a delicious cup of sweet, milky tea.
A visit to Myanmar is a magical experience. Take this tailor-made Myanmar Highlights trip and explore Yangon, with its busy harbour bustling markets and glistening pagodas. Encounter meditating Buddhas and traditional villages, and be awestruck by mystical Mandalay’s hidden gems.
2. Float down the Irrawaddy
The Irrawaddy River curls south from the foothills of the Himalayas, unfurling past Mandalay and Bagan’s temple-covered plain before spilling its silt-rich waters into the Andaman Sea. Myanmar’s most important waterway is plied by everything from luxury teak-decked steamers to ponderous government ferries and leaking speedboats.
Climb aboard your vessel of choice and float downstream to see a slice of riverside life – and remember to keep an eye out for rare Irrawaddy dolphins. See our tailor-made trip to the Famous Waterways of Myanmar and you will experience Myanmar as never before. Cruise along the Irrawaddy River, take a boat trip around Inle Lake and Sagar and fly over Bagan and its many temples in a hot-air balloon.
3. Relive the Raj
Echoes of British Burma reverberate in a handful of places around Myanmar. From streets lined with peeling colonial-era buildings and afternoon tea at The Strand in Yangon, to ghostly locations from George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days in Katha.
Nowhere are these echoes louder than in Pyin Oo Lwin, a former hill station. Here horse-drawn carriages trundle past mouldering teakwood mansions and a bell cast for George V’s Silver Jubilee still chimes from the town’s Purcell Tower.
4. Enjoy local food and drink culture
As in other Southeast Asian countries, in Burmese food it’s considered important to balance sour, spicy, bitter and salty flavours. This is generally done across a series of dishes rather than within a single dish.
Enthusiastic tea drinkers, the Burmese are one of the few cultures to eat tea as well, in the form of lahpet thouq or tealeaf salad. Irregular, caramel-coloured lumps of jaggery are one of the great pleasures of a Burmese meal. Made from boiled toddy palm sap and jokingly called “Burmese chocolate”, jaggery is exceedingly addictive. Try it plain or flavoured with coconut shreds and sesame seeds.
All over Myanmar, you’ll see spindly bamboo ladders disappearing into spiky Palmyra palm trees – a sure sign that a toddy tapper is at work nearby. The palm’s sweet, white sap ferments naturally into toddy, a cloudy, lightly alcoholic beverage also called palm wine or tan-ye.
Myanmar’s only home-grown alcoholic drink toddy is only available from low-key village bars close to where it’s made. Tasting it one of the unique things to do in Myanmar.
Jaggery in Myanmar @ Image by Jo James
5. Explore Buddhism’s quirky side
Myanmar’s Theravada Buddhism is shot through with a thick vein of mystery and magic, with enough offbeat sights and stories to revive the interest of the most jaded temple-goer.
Climb to the Golden Rock, a precarious gold-crusted boulder held in place for centuries by a few strands of Buddha’s hair. Meet alchemist monks searching for the secret to eternal life at Hpa-An’s crag-top pagoda and clamber through the insides of a vast concrete Buddha outside Mawlamyine.
6. Join a nat ceremony
Natkadaws ply a middle-aged lady with whisky as she gyrates to music from a traditional orchestra. Members of the audience tuck 1,000-kyat notes into her clothing to propitiate the nat who has possessed her.
Myanmar’s native belief system – that the world is suffused by a collection of unruly nats who require frequent mollification with alcohol, music and money – contrasts sharply with Buddhism. However, many Burmese people happily believe in both. Catch the country’s largest nat ceremony in Taungbyone each August, or head to Mount Popa, Myanmar’s most important centre of nat worship.
7. Take your time on a Burmese train
Journeys on Myanmar’s antiquated narrow-gauge rail network are often uncomfortable and comically bouncy, and timing is unpredictable in the extreme.
However, in exchange for risking a bruised bum and late arrival, train travellers are rewarded with one of the best things to do in Myanmar - a fantastic chance to interact with local people. From friendly fellow passengers and holidaying monks to the poised ladies who sway down the aisle selling snacks from trays balanced precariously on their heads.
8. Try thanaka
Each morning Burmese women and children daub their cheeks with powdery yellow swipes of thanaka. This is a natural sunblock and cosmetic made from the ground bark of the wood apple tree, with its sandalwood-like fragrance. However, you feel about its beautifying abilities – that tawny shade of yellow isn’t for everyone – freshly applied thanaka is wonderfully cooling, and makes your face smell great for hours.
9. Rock famous Burmese items
Once you’ve sorted out your thanaka, the natural next step is to get yourself a longyi – a tube of fabric worn by men and women across Myanmar. The male version (a paso) is often nattily checked or striped, and tied with a knot in front, while the female version (a htamein) is more richly patterned, and tucked into a fold around the waist.
Pick out your favourite design and take it to a tailor, who will sew it up for you and you’re all set. Just ensure that it’s tied tightly enough to avoid any inadvertent flashing. Also, note other famous Burmese handicrafts, for example, the elegant Shan paper umbrellas, which can be both an accessory and a great gift from a trip.
10. Sample village life
Whichever hike you choose, you’ll have the opportunity to stay overnight in Shan and Palaung villages along each trail which something that isn’t yet possible elsewhere in Myanmar. It offers the opportunity to experience rural life first-hand, with roosters for alarm clocks and water buffalo for trail mates.
11. Shop at Bogyoke Aung San (Scott Market)
Bookending the northern side of downtown Yangon is the city’s principal tourist honeypot, Bogyoke Market – or Bogyoke Aung San Market, as it’s officially known – home to Myanmar’s most diverse and foreigner-friendly collection of souvenir shops, jewellery wallahs and other consumerist collectables.
The modern market is an attractive and atmospheric place, albeit a million miles away from the ramshackle chaos of your average Myanmar bazaar. It also hosts the best collection of craft and souvenir shops under a single roof in the country. The most upmarket and touristy shops are the streetside places under the arcade fronting Bogyoke Aung San Road, many of them stuffed with huge quantities of Myanmar jade.
12. Get wet during Thingyan
While in theory, Thingyan – the week-long Burmese New Year festival – is a time to solemnly reaffirm one’s Buddhist beliefs. However, to the outside observer, it seems more like a raucous, countrywide water fight.
As temperatures soar each April, everyday life grinds to a halt and children and teenagers take to the streets to soak each other and passers-by (foreigners are singled out with particular relish) with buckets and out-sized water pistols. Festivities reach fever pitch in Mandalay, where streets are lined with makeshift stages from which revellers hose down passing motorists to a booming soundtrack of local hits.
13. Watch the sunset over the ancient temples of Bagan
Bagan is unquestionably one of Asia’s great sights. A vast swathe of temples and pagodas rises from the hot flat plains bordering the Ayeyarwady River. The landscape is bristling with uncountable shrines and stupas which carpet the countryside in an almost surreal profusion.
While visiting Bagan, you'll be amazed by the Ananda Paya one of the largest and most stunning of all the Bagan temples, its landmark spire rising 52m high above the surrounding plains. The Ananda is generally considered the culminating masterpiece of early-period Bagan architecture.
Find more accommodation options to stay in Bagan.
14. Exploring Inle Lake - one of the best things to do in Myanmar
A land of rolling mountains, idyllic lakes, floating farms and umpteen minority peoples, Shan State is by far the largest in the country. It is also deservedly one of the most popular with foreign travellers. In a giant place with only three major cities, it’s perhaps inevitable that the primary attractions are the natural variety – Inle Lake is a swoon-worthy postcard picture come to life.
To the east is the delightful town of Nyaungshwe, which functions as the main base for Inle Lake. This is the most popular attraction in Shan State by far, and one of the best things to do in Myanmar. The overwhelming majority of those who visit go on a boat tour of some description, but other drawcards include a charming winery, a soothing hot spring resort and scores of great restaurants.
This exciting, active tailor-made Off the Beaten Track trip is split into two parts: the first takes in the best that Southern Myanmar has to offer, including Yangon and Inle Lake; whilst the second ventures off the beaten track, exploring ancient pagodas, rivers, mountains and caves.
15. Be amazed by Mandalay Royal Palace
Mandalay is centred on the moated square of land that once hosted the large Mandalay Royal Palace - the last royal palace of the Burmese monarchy. The area has belonged to the military for decades, and the palace itself is long gone, though a huge replica has been erected.
The whole area is still a functional part of town, though one controlled by the military and, as such, mostly off-limits to foreigners. You’re free to visit the shops and teahouses just off the main road heading in from the east, but precious little else bar the reconstructed palace at the centre.
Find more accommodation options to stay in Mandalay.
16. Pay respect at the Shwedagon Pagoda
Myanmar’s and Asia's most sacred temple, and one of the world’s most majestic Buddha monuments, the Shwedagon Pagoda towers above Yangon like some kind of supersized spiritual beacon. A magically shimmering outline by day, a spectacular blaze of gold after dusk, when the lights come on.
The pagoda is the most revered in Myanmar, said to enshrine eight strands of hair of the historical Buddha, Gautama, along with further relics of his three predecessors. The pagoda remains not only the holiest shrine in Myanmar but also a potent symbol of national identity and a major rallying point for the pro-democracy movement since colonial times.
Visiting the pagoda remains one of the magical things to do in Myanmar at any time of the day or night. It is particularly beautiful around sunset when locals come to pray and the great gilded stupa seems almost to catch fire in the last of the day’s light.
17. Walk across U Bein Bridge
One of the best things to do in Myanmar if you’re in the Mandalay area, the spectacular U Bein Bridge stretches more than 1200m across Lake Taungthaman. It is, in fact, the world’s longest teak footbridge. Most evenings it probably also hosts the world’s longest unbroken line of tourists. No bad thing, and in fact quite a spectacle when the colours of everyone’s shirts are flared up by the sun’s last rays.
A visit to the bridge can complicate some day-trip itineraries – most visitors like to walk the length of the bridge, so unless you want to walk it twice, ask your driver to pick you up from the other end. It’s also possible to rent paddle boats here; these are usually only available at the western end, where most of the tour buses drop off.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Myanmar without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
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