Following the lifting of Western sanctions, Myanmar - also known as Burma - has become a magnet for tourists. It has some wondrous sights: a thousand temples scattered across the countryside in Bagan; the leg-rowers and floating gardens of Inle Lake, and majestic rivers - the Ayeyarwady and the Chindwin - navigable into the furthest reaches of the country. But the big draw is the chance to see a country where the 21st-century world has barely intruded. This is changing but there is still a strong sense of the old Orient here. It's a place where Buddhism is still a way of life.
Be prepared for the different way of travelling you will encounter in Myanmar, and don’t believe the stories about the ridiculous expenses and immense difficulties that are putting many people off from travelling here. The beauty of being here is in not knowing what will happen and in the understanding that both you as a traveller, alongside the local people are helping to bring about a new beginning.
Whether it cycling through the incredible stupas in Bagan, hike through the limestone caves at Pandya, a walk among the rice paddies to visit the tribes in the hills or ride a balloon over Bagan, Myanmar has it all.
Myanmar has some of the world’s best walks, hikes and treks, ranging from excellent mountain hiking and trekking trails in the Himalayan north around Putao (in particular to Burma's highest peak: the snow-capped Hkakabo Razi (5881m) and the more accessible Phon Kan Razi at 3,635m); to fascinating hill tribe trekking in the hills and mountains of much of the country, particularly on the Shan plateau in the east.
The best time for hiking in most of Myanmar is November to early March. Once on trial, lodging is mostly in local homes, with camping in remoter areas. Walking in Myanmar isn’t just for hard-nuts, although there is plenty (especially in the far north) to get their juices flowing. Myanmar walking, trekking and hiking holidays and tours really can be for (almost) everyone.
Many treks through Myanmar’s Himalayas are rarely explored. For those who do venture into this region, they’ll discover mammoth snow-capped peaks and colourful villages, where the locals are always happy to help travellers find their way.
Although it’s probably the least challenging mountain trek in Myanmar’s Himalayans, exploring Phon Gan Razi is no simple stroll. Located near the Arunachal Pradesh of India, the trails pass through several villages while heading to the summit.
One can stay in local homes along the way. The trail then leads to Namh Lant Mountain, which is blessed with spectacular views of the rugged landscape.
This is usually a 10 day-return hike. The trek takes on past lush meadows filled with flowers, something that is not common in the Himalayan treks. The hike takes one to an elevation of about 4300 metres, which provides a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains.
This less familiar route takes hikers through amazing terrain layered in exotic flowers and lush vegetation. Unlike other Himalayan routes, there are no locals who can help with accommodation on the way. Be sure to plan well for this trek, which takes at least two weeks round trip, or hire a very knowledgeable guide.
Rising almost 6,000 meters, Hkakabo Razi is the highest peak in Southeast Asia. The summit of this treacherous mountain wasn’t conquered until 1997, when a team of Japanese and Myanmar climbers took on the challenge.
Unless you’re a veteran explorer with ample climbing experience, it’s unlikely summiting Khakaborazi is in your near future. Instead, you can spend a few weeks working your way to the mountain’s basecamp. You’ll pass through nine different villages on this trek, until you reach DaHonDam. Then you’ll be camping outdoors for the next few days enduring the strenuous final push to the basecamp.
This colonial era hill station has some fine hiking trails. Secondary forested hills and farmed valleys; lovely views, monasteries and shrines and, of course, the idiosyncratic hill tribes who live the area make these hikes memorable.
Hikes vary from half day to multi day and can be organized locally. An overnight expedition, sleeping in a tribal village, is a good way to enjoy some local hospitality as well as enjoy their way of life. These Kalaw to Inle Lake walk trails are the most popular.
Some way off is Pindaya, home to a famous Buddhist cave. There is lovely hikes around the town, with pagodas on nearby high points and trekking out to tribal villages in the surrounding area.
Rough mountains with remote tribal villages and their irrigated fields nestling among them, make this region one of the most beautiful to hike through. Once can come across several ethnic groups during a single day’s trek through this diverse landscape.
There is a wide range of day hikes to choose from. One would do well to choose a walk starting a bit of a way off, as getting into the remote countryside becomes easy.
There are 5000 miles of navigable river in Myanmar, with the most important river being the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy). Hence, travelling by boat in Myanmar can be a genuine alternative to the bus or train, connecting some major destinations and allowing visitors to get a real taste of life on the river; taking in sunsets over stupa-lined river banks; and mixing with the locals. Here are a couple of boat journeys that one can choose from.
Connecting two of Myanmar’s biggest tourist spots, this is probably the most popular boat journey in the country, taking in a beautiful section of the vast Irrawaddy River (up to two kilometres wide at some points), and including fascinating stops at riverside villages, where you will get to see village life and have the opportunity to buy fresh local produce.
For the truly adventurous, a boat journey in the far north of Myanmar is an experience like no other. This will need plenty of time, but the journey from Myitkyina, Bhamo or Katha southwards down the Irrawaddy is a rewarding trip, far off the normal tourist trail.
The Inle Lake is 13.5 miles long and 7 miles wide but up close it’s hard to tell where the water finishes and the marshes start. Most of the time the surface of the lake seems to perpetually resemble a vast silver sheet, one interspersed with stilt-house villages, island-bound Buddhist temples and floating gardens.
Commuter and tourist motorboats and flat-bottomed skiffs navigate this watery world, the latter propelled by the unique Intha technique of leg rowing – in which one leg is wrapped around the paddle to drive the blade through the water in a snake-like motion – adding to the ephemeral aura. A boat ride on one of the flat-bottomed skiffs is truly an amazing experience.
Located on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River in the Mandalay Region of Burma, beautiful Bagan is once again the heart of Myanmar.
The hot air balloon is a very popular way to see the city, especially since flights typically take place at sunset or sunrise. Bagan is known for its sunrises and sunsets. They are absolutely stunning, producing striking orange and gold hues as a backdrop for the thousands of temples dotted as far as the eye can see.