After years of isolation, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is slowly making its mark on bucket lists far and wide. The country, of course, has much to offer the keen traveller – the general nonchalance of the locals towards foreigners, an unspoilt culture, countless pagodas and the thrill of exploring the unknown – making Myanmar an unbeatable destination this year.
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If you are travelling for the first time to Myanmar, here is a list of 7 must-have experiences in the country:
1. Get a bird’s eye view of Bagan temples
Hot air ballooning over Bagan can easily be the highlight of your trip. While on the ground it is impossible to imagine the spread of the ancient temples across the small town of Bagan, but at a height of 10,000 ft. you get to witness the awe-inspiring view of the temples across the Bagan plains with the majestic Irrawaddy River running alongside.
There are three main operators in Bagan – Golden Eagle, Balloons Over Bagan and Oriental Ballooning. The whole affair starts before daybreak and is roughly 3.5 hours long, of which you will be in the air for around 45–60 mins. The hot air ballooning runs from April to October and costs around US$290 to US$320 (Pretty affordable, ha!). On a serious note, if you have the means and time, then it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
- I flew with Oriental Ballooning and found them to be highly professional. Book through a local travel agent to get a better deal.
- Book well in advance as they are fully booked most of the time.
- If you have the luxury of time, check with the ballooning company on wind conditions before scheduling – it can be a dull day if there is no/little wind.
2. Sail away from Mandalay to Bagan (or from Bagan to Mandalay)
Slow travel is the way to soak in this country. If you are on the fence about signing up for this experience, ask yourself when you will get the chance to be in Burma next and get to sail down the mighty Irrawaddy. Take out some time from your packed sightseeing schedule to take this trip. Get hold of Burmese Days and/or The Glass Palace (or whatever catches your fancy), get a beer, put your feet up and relax as the boat gently makes it way along the river.
The boat from Mandalay leaves early in the morning around 7am and reaches Bagan at 4pm. Yes, it is 10-hour long journey. Mind you, these are the express boats! The tickets can be booked easily through any hotel or local travel agent. The one-way journey costs around US$42 which includes breakfast, lunch, and refreshments (beer is also available for sale). The fabulous views of Sagaing Hill on leaving Mandalay and ruins of temples on reaching Bagan are excellent photo opportunities.
- You can ask your hotel to pack breakfast for you (the food provided on the boat does not suffice.
- Only about 60% of the seats are shaded. Try to reach the jetty early to get the shaded seats.
- It is a hot country. Wear comfortable clothes, do not forget your sun-glasses, hat, sun block and of course, mosquito repellant.
3. Indulge in the healthy street food
Image credit: Fighting Irish 1977
Street food? Healthy? Get ready to be impressed by the variety of salads eaten in this country. No, the tea leaf salad is not the only salad that the people eat here. Expect anything and everything from avocado to tomato peanut to watercress – there are like a hundred versions of salads that you’ll get to see while walking on the road. Don’t shy away from trying one yourself. They are delicious too!
4. Celebrate the festival of Thadingyut with the locals
Consider yourself lucky if you arrive in Myanmar during Thadingyut festival. It falls on the full moon night of the seventh month of the Burmese calendar, which is the end of Buddhist lent. It is a public holiday so expect the markets to be shut. The festival is celebrated with lights and firecrackers, and locals can be seen lighting candles outside their homes and temples.
Doesn’t matter which city you are in, any big temple such as Shwedagon in Yangon, Su Taung Pyi Pagoda in Mandalay or Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan, will have the same exuberance and ambience. By dusk, the whole nation is shining in festive glory. The energy during the festival is so high that soon you’ll be immersed in sharing the joy with the locals. In Mandalay, a street market serving a vast variety of street food comes up just below the temples near the palace compound.
5. Take a break for tea-time
Image credit: Emilio Labrador
Myanmar is a tea drinking country. Don’t be surprised to see people drinking tea at roadside tea-stalls all the time. Mornings in downtown Yangon get lively when road side tea stalls begin to set up, selling vivid snacks with tea. For a foreigner, this is the best way to blend in the Burmese lifestyle, interact with locals and observe the daily lives of people.
6. Experience the local life on Kalaw-Inle Lake trek
A colonial hill town, Kalaw, is an excellent spot to get respite from the scorching sun. It is a great place to begin the trek to Inle Lake which is around 70 km. If relishing nature, interacting with locals and experiencing the village life is your style of travelling, then this is definitely what you should be doing in Myanmar.
There is a bevy of local travel agents in the town who you can book you for the trek easily. For a group tour, it costs around US$13 per person and more for a private tour. The trek is generally done over 3 days and 2 nights but special arrangements can be made if you have less time. You will be accompanied by a local English-speaking guide who will educate you about the local lifestyle. The tour ends with the boat ride on the quaint Inle Lake.
- It can be a strenuous activity, if you are in the mood for a stress-free holiday, then keep it for the next time.
7. Capture the best of Myanmar
Myanmar is the indisputable photographer’s paradise. Each destination in the country has its own charm – climb a tall pagoda in Bagan to capture the vivid hues of the sky during the sunrise/sunset; if portrait is your forte then the monks in red robes would definitely catch your attention; or you may like to stroll around downtown Yangon to capture its colonial past.
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list of experiences to indulge in while in Myanmar. A large country at the crossroads of many cultures and influences, Myanmar has a variety of things-to-do which are still waiting to be discovered. The volume of tourists visiting the country is growing rapidly, but the country and culture are still pristine. Undoubtedly, this is the best time to visit the country and make the experience your own.