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Nuns on U Bein Bridge in Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar

For many years veiled and hidden from view, Myanmar has long been a curious enigma to outsiders. Peek behind the curtain, however, and you'll discover a land of great natural beauty and ethnic diversity.

Thrust into the limelight in 2010 following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar has quickly entered the Asian hotspot list, despite quietly receiving many visitors for decades. Its years of isolation bestowed on Myanmar a certain mystique, and while its re-emergence may have reduced some of this mysticism, the country has lost none of its charm and character, its gentle people as shyly welcoming as ever.

Myanmar is culturally intact in a way that few other modern nations are. Wherever you look, and whatever part of the country you visit, you'll find evidence of old customs and traditions. Men wear the traditional longyi, a type of sarong; monks, in their distinctive maroon-robes, are a common sight on city streets; young women apply curious patches of white paste to their faces to protect their skin from the sun; while the red-stained teeth of the Burmese men testifies to the undiminishing popularity of the betel nut.

Yangon, formerly Rangoon, is a cosmopolitan city that attracts visitors and pilgrims from neighbouring Thailand, China and, in more recent years, from the West. Though it is no longer the capital, Yangon is still very much the heart of Burmese life and remains the country’s largest city. Its recent history is visible in the faded British colonial architecture that dominates the centre of town, but Yangon's most memorable building is the 15th-century Shwedagon Pagoda, a huge mounted temple with a golden stupa that glistens like a beacon in the sun.

Nearly all visitors to Myanmar include three major destinations in their itinerary: Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake, all of which can be visited in the course of a short holiday. Bagan is a truly remarkable site with thousands of temples scattered across its wide open plains. Mandalay, its evocative name conjuring up romantic images of a bygone Asia, is a bustling trading centre named after the famous Mandalay Hill, where locals and visitors congregate each evening to watch the sun set over the town and the Ayeyarwaddy River. Inle Lake contrasts greatly with busy Mandalay, its vast waters home to serene floating gardens and markets, and many temples and stupas.

Beyond the major sights, Myanmar is home to hill tribes, former colonial hill stations and, in the north of the country, fantastic trekking routes. And while Myanmar is not generally considered a premier beach destination, the coastline is virtually undeveloped, with vast stretches of white sand beaches lined with coconut palms. Here you will find small and stylish resorts, not mega-hotels. Elsewhere you can choose between modern hotels in Yangon and Mandalay, exclusive villa-style accommodation and traditional guesthouses in Bagan, luxury resorts such as the iconic Strand Hotel and gorgeous converted colonial mansions.

MYANMAR TRAVEL ADVICE

  • Myanmar’s cool, dry season runs from November to February. This is the peak holiday season.

  • The monsoon rains fall from May until October, mainly in the afternoons and evenings.

  • Myanmar's beach resorts usually close in the rainy season between June and September.

  • If you fancy a few days on the beach, Myanmar has some excellent small resorts at Ngapali and Ngwe Saung. Ngapali is becoming busier year-by-year, but it hasn't seen anything like the development of some of Thailand and Vietnam's major beach resorts.

  • The highlights (Yangon, Inle, Bagan and Mandalay) can be visited in ten days if in a hurry, but there is so much to see so allow two weeks for your Myanmar holiday if you can.

  • Those with the time should consider a visit to Kachin state in the remote north, which offers great trekking.

  • Keen to travel off the beaten track? Rakhine State in the west, the former heartland of the ancient Arakan Empire, is home of one of Asia's most fascinating yet least explored temple complexes, Mrauk U.

  • Myanmar's New Year celebrations take place in April, when the heat is at its most intense. Expect a soaking as locals throw water indiscriminately during the water festival! The festivities make this a wonderful time to travel, but beware the intense heat (45°C is not unheard of in Bagan and Mandalay at this time of year).

Regions in Myanmar

Temples of Bagan, Burma

Bagan

Myanmar's chief historical attraction, the 11th-century temple complex at Bagan is one of the world's most spectacular archaeological sites. It is home to nearly 3,000 temples and pagodas, relics of the late Pagan Empire which ruled this region in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Lake Inle tour

Inle Lake

One of Myanmar's great natural wonders, Inle Lake is located in the heart of the Shan Highlands. Its natural beauty and cool, crisp climate make it a wonderful retreat to escape to after a tour of central Myanmar's hot and arid lowland regions.

Cooking at Mahagandayon monastery in Amarapura, Mandalay

Mandalay

Its name conjures up images of a bygone Asia, a legacy of Kipling's famous tribute to the city, but Myanmar's second city Mandalay is a busy, bustling place, with a modern outlook and a wealth of attractions.

Shan Monastery, Northern Myanmar (Burma)

Northern Myanmar

In the north of Myanmar, the dusty lowlands around Mandalay and Bagan give way to a landscape of hills and high valleys, where cooler temperatures prevail.

Gilding Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon

Myanmar's largest city and former capital, Yangon is a surprisingly relaxed city, lacking the steel-and-glass high rises that dominate other major Asian capitals. Instead, Yangon's skyline is defined by its rusty tin-roofed homes, old colonial architecture, and, standing above it all, the gleaming gilt of its famous hilltop pagoda, Shwedagon.

Example itineraries in Myanmar

Yangon to Mandalay

10-day itinerary taking in the best of Myanmar, including the old capital Yangon, the historic temples of Bagan, beautiful Inle Lake, and vibrant, bustling Mandalay.

Complete Myanmar

This comprehensive three week tour takes in the very best of Myanmar, from the beautiful central coast to northernmost Putao on the border with Tibet

Bagan to Katha - Upper Irrawaddy Cruise

Explore the Upper Irrawaddy and remote Kachin State on this 11-day Myanmar river cruise.

Mandalay to Homalin River Cruise

Follow the Chindwin River into the heart of Burmese Nagaland on this unique 8-day river cruise. Departing from Monywa, near Mandalay, your cruise will take you along the Upper Chindwin to Homalin, the capital of Nagaland, on the border with India. En-route, you’ll find time to stop and explore remote villages, religious sites from the Konbaung-era, and old colonial towns.

Kalaw to Inle Lake Guided Trek

Explore Myanmar's beautiful Shan Hills on this 3-day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Also included in this itinerary is a one night stay in Yangon with guided tour and two days' exploration of the lake.

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