I have no doubt that if you make the journey Myanmar, the country and its people will capture your heart. A place where Betel Nut smiles and enthusiastic waves are always on tap, the locals will literally take you by the hand and bring you into their world. They are truly beautiful both inside and out.
Not generally at the top of holiday-goers’ to-do lists, Myanmar is relatively untouched by tourism and seems to be one of the world’s best-kept secrets. Foreigners are a rare sight, which means they are treated like much-loved celebrities. It’s hard not to feel welcome.
We explored Myanmar as part of a guided tour, a requirement for overland adventurers. Having found a group of similarly placed travellers via Horizons Unlimited, we were able to bring the total cost down and enjoy the journey with kindred spirits.
We chose to team up with Burma Senses for our tour and highly recommend it as a company. The guides took care of our every need, including the tedious aspects of overland travel (e.g. border post transitions, paying toll fees, figuring out where to eat, arranging hotel bookings, topping us up with bottled water and face wipes, and finding toilets etc.). In the context of Myanmar, it was luxury.
Throughout the ten-day journey, I encountered some of my favourite travel experiences to date. They will forever remain tattooed to my brain and I hope my tales about them lure you to the captivating land of Myanmar.
#1 THINGYAN WATER FESTIVAL (YANGON)
There is simply no better time to visit Mynmar than during the Thingyan Water Festival. The marathon water fight welcomes in the New Year over four days in April, showcasing the local spirit and vibrant community in all of their glory.
While celebrations go wet ‘n’ wild throughout the country (even in the middle of nowhere), the heartbeat of the action is Yangon, Myanmar’s most populated city. The scene is like a kids’ ultimate battleground, a water wonderland with infinite weapons of mass drenching, including: water pistols, buckets, hoses, drums, water bottles and super strength water jets. Staying dry isn’t an option.
The fun is unavoidably infectious. Kids, the elderly, breastfeeding mum’s, families on scooters, street food vendors, rebellious monks, police officers, tourists…everyone is quick to let their hair down and join in the fun.
The battle course, an inescapable ring around the city centre, is lined with thousands of hoses mounted on concert stages. The area is positively pumping with dance, techno and popular beats. The base reverberates through every fibre of your body, igniting your adrenalin and enhancing the thrill of the battle.
Utes, packed to the brim with jumping passengers, bounce their way through the course like something out of an R&B video clip. Other party-goers (mainly teenage boys with pop-punk fashion, black make-up and wild hair cuts) weave their way through the traffic, stopping to dance and get drenched along the way.
It’s one of the funniest and most uplifting things I’ve seen in my life. People letting go of their inhibitions, strangers hugging each other and roaring the words, “Happy New Year!”, and an entire community sharing in a tremendously joyous experience. Thingyan just goes to show, people can simply get high on fun – no drugs or alcohol required.
#2 SHWEDAGON PAGODA (YANGON)
The first time you gaze upon this majestic creation, you’ll understand why she’s the Mother of all pagodas. Epic in every way imaginable, Shwedagon is the biggest, blingiest, most beloved Buddhist stupa in Myanmar. Constructed more than 2,500 years ago, she is also the oldest in the world.
So the story goes, people all over the country, as well as monarchs throughout Myanmar’s history, have donated gold to the pagoda to maintain it. The practice continues to this day after being started in the 15th century by the Queen Binnya Thau, who literally gave her weight in gold. Today, this ultra-opulent structure has become so blindingly beautiful, you practically need to wear sunnies just to look at it!
Considering her history and majesty, it’s little wonder Shwedagon Pagoda has become a focus of religious as well as community activities for the people of Myanmar. As you explore the temple compound, which extends well beyond the star attraction, local life takes stage before you. From meditating monks and bustling devotees to flower vendors and family feasts, it’s surprisingly lively for a spiritual sanctuary. So, sit back, soak up a bit of Myanmar culture and study a true wonder of the religious world.
#3 THE ANCIENT KINGDOM (BAGAN)
A trip to the Bagan plains is an enchanting journey into the past. This kingdom experienced its golden era between the 11th and 13th centuries, when over 10,000 ornate Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built.
Today, many of these structures still exist albeit in a weathered, battle-worn state. This gives the area an eerie gravesite-like vibe. It’s like a beautiful forgotten land, with thousands of stories locked mysteriously inside its crumbling walls. Having said that, the temples certainly haven’t been forgotten…
The Bagan Archaeological Zone is one of Myanmar’s major tourist draw cards. As such, it’s perfectly set up to accommodate visitors, offering an extensive menu of hotels, resorts and restaurants. Akin to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the star attractions are swarming with holiday-goers around sunset, all looking to capture the perfect money shot.
Smart dessert dogs are hot on the tourist trail. Weaving in between bushes, buses and boulder-structures, they hunt out any crumb of food they can possibly find. It only makes the experience seem more wild and true to life.
If you want to avoid the hustle and bustle, explore the temples at sunrise. The ancient city is possibly more picturesque at the crack of dawn, especially when it’s peak season and a dozen or so air-balloons take to the skies.
I have no doubt Bagon will climb the “so hot right now” travel destination list along with Myanmar. So, get in quick before this mystical place loses some of its raw charm.
#4 U BEIN BRIDGE (MANDALAY)
If it wasn’t peppered with litter, this site would be one of the most picturesque in Myanmar. Even with it blemishes, U Bein Bridge is pretty impressive. Built in 1850 and stretching a mighty 1.2km, it’s the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. For both of these reasons, it’s a slightly knee-trembling experience trying to cross it. With hundreds of other people stomping on its planks at any given time, it feels like this rustic relic could collapse at any moment…and it’s a long sprint to terra firma!
Having said that, there are a number of utterly magical moments to be enjoyed at this local hot-spot-come-tourist-hub. A sunset boat ride around Taungthaman Lake is one of them. Weave in between angelic birds like a scene out of The Notebook as the silhouette of U Bein Bridge ripples on the water surface.
For another peaceful moment, wander away from the bridge (past the restaurants) until you reach the goose farm. If you time things just right, you’ll get to watch the owners herd hundreds of the feathered flappers back into their enclosure like pros. The lake and sunset in the background make for glorious photographs and time-lapse videos.
I recommend arriving at U Bein Bridge at least an hour before sunset if you want to relax, enjoy the experiences on offer and capture every picturesque moment. The site is heaving with people at this time of day, so everything takes longer than expected.
Plus, there’s so much to do! You can explore the markets (I had to get myself a watermelon seed bag), make the slow journey across the bridge, sip on coconuts by the water’s edge, play with farm animals and take a gazillion photos. If you’re up for a calmer experience, make the journey to U Bein Bridge for sunrise.
#5 MAHAMUNI BUDDHA TEMPLE (MANDALAY)
For a taste of Myanmar madness (the good kind), head to the Mahamuni Buddha Temple. This highly venerated pilgrimage site draws thousands of visitors on a daily basis. Ancient tradition refers to only five likenesses of the Buddha made during his lifetime: two in India, two in paradise, and the fifth is the Mahamuni Buddha image in Mandalay. It’s little wonder this sacred site has become such a nucleus of activity for the people of Myanmar.
From the moment you attempt to spot a car park amongst the sea of scooters, you know things are about to get seriously frantic. As you push your way through the markets, which masterfully filter people through to the temple, your senses get swept away by a tantalising cocktail of vivid colours, hunger-inducing smells and curious events.
Once you finally make it into the main compound, the crowd becomes “next-level” hectic. Devotees, monks and visitors clog every artery leading to its heart, the Muhamundi Buddha statue (which can only be approached by men).
While this might sound like most people’s idea of hell, it’s actually quite a fun experience. Being thrust into a festival of Myanmar culture is truly thrilling. The locals, especially the women, make an incredible effort to wear their finest and brightest traditional clothing. The result is a moving palette of rich colours, which would put an Indian wedding to shame.
As a visitor, I think the best way to enjoy this sacred site is take a step back and watch the unique rituals and events unfold. Oh! And don’t forget to buy one of the homemade, technicolour ice-creams. They’re heaven in the heat.
#6 GOLDEN ROCK (MT KYAIKTIYO)
This has to be one of the most entertaining things a traveller can do in Myanmar. But, it’s not the act of pasting gold leaf on a gravity-defying rock which makes it so engaging. It’s the bus ride up Mt Kyaiktiyo which really gets your giggles going.
The buses in regional Myanmar aren’t like the ones we complain about in the Western World. They are giant, rickety, open-air trucks with bench seats in the back. People are packed into them like cattle; strangers sit shoulder to shoulder and knee to bum under a blazing sun. The unlucky buggers in the middle have nowhere to look but up. And that’s not the half of it.
The bus trip up Mt Kyaiktiyo is a knuckle-biting, heart-stopping, boob-bouncing thrill ride like no other. The course involves a relentless series of hairpin turns, steep inclines, killer drop-offs and breath-taking views. It’s so foreign and frightening, all you can do is laugh.
Once the ride comes to an end, your reward is laid out before you: a busting mountain village amongst the cloudy heavens. A trail of activity leads you to the pièce de résistance. Witness hefty tourists being carried on the backs of able bodied men like royalty, roving ice-pop and samosa vendors, exotic street stalls (fried snake anyone?), random explosions of cash being thrown in the air for good luck, the cutest babies in the world and thousands of devotees focused on their pilgrimage.
And then there’s the Golden Rock. Indeed, it’s a spectacular site to be seen, especially in light of the panoramic views in the background. According to legend, the mammoth feature is precariously perched on a strand of the Buddha’s hair, making it the third most important pilgrimage site after the Shwedagon Pagoda and Mahamuni Buddha Temple. But, as a non-Buddhist tourist, I have to say Golden Rock delivered the most memorable travel experience.
There you have it, six mind-blowing experiences just waiting to ignite your eternal love for Myanmar. Put this magnificent country on your radar, add these authentic adventures to your bucket list, get amongst the action, share your stories and enjoy the memories. They’ll be one of a kind.