A group of kindhearted Burmese friends set up the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp in 2011 to look after orphaned, injured and retired elephants. The camp, near Kalaw, receives little promotion and only accepts a small number of visitors a day – but it’s well worth visiting on your Burma vacation as it conserves forest, cares for the elephants and supports community projects – as well as being incredibly good fun.
Cuisine on offer in Yangon’s restaurants can be underwhelming – a version of Burmese food that the chefs have attempted to mass-produce to suit tourist tastes. But don’t let this put you off; the fare on offer in the villages, markets and roadside stalls is deliciously spiced and fabulously fresh. Most items are grown locally and the ubiquitous seafood is fantastic.
A cave full of Buddhas may not seem worth traveling halfway round the world for, but Pindaya’s natural temple is a breathtaking sight. Discovered by an ancient king after he was led there in a dream, the cave now attracts pilgrims who each donate their own Buddhas of all sizes. Trekking here is also superb – it’s far less visited than nearby Kalaw, so you’ll have the hill villages and scenery all to yourself.
A lack of tourism has sadly not meant a lack of all things we associate with the western world. For a country so often described as pristine, the amount of visible litter is unexpected and underrated, especially at low tide and in the dry season when rivers recede to reveal what looks like landfill sites along their banks. Be sure not to contribute during your Burma vacation – and push your operator to support local waste disposal initiatives.
This may be the only place in Burma where things have been set up explicitly to attract tourists – but when done well, the cultural displays are wonderful. There are weaving workshops, gold and silver craft, long-tailed boats, one-legged fishermen, and tribes from across the region who come to trade at the markets. Spend a day simply wandering around, putting money into local lands and soaking up Burma.
Pagoda fatigue is a real risk during a Burma vacation – Bagan alone has several thousand of them scattered through its plains. But pick your pagoda carefully, and you will be rewarded. The Golden Rock is rarely visited, but a dramatic sight. And few attractions match up to Yangon’s magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda – whose gold, diamonds and rubies sparkle beneath the setting sun.
The longest teak bridge in the world was constructed near Amarapura over a century and a half ago, and stretches 1.2km across a lake, perched on over 1,000 pillars. Head to U Bein at sunset, and ask a boatman to row you out for wonderful photographs of the sketch-like bridge silhouetted against a saffron sky.
Yes, it’s a Southeast Asian beach resort – but it’s utterly undeveloped in comparison to its Thai counterparts, and so fabulously remote. There are comfortable little bungalows rather than huge hotels, and horse carts trundle along the sand. Eat at the shacks rather than at the hotels – the seafood is fresh, delicious and it’s a great way to support local businesses.
Many Burmese still wear traditional dress, including longi-clad men, long-necked Kayan women and unusual jewellery and wonderful headdresses – a Burma vacation may seem like a photographer’s paradise. But taking pictures without first striking up a conversation with your subject and asking permission is rude and intrusive; most Burmese are just going about their daily lives. Put yourself in their position, and be respectful.
Rumour has it that since Burma started welcoming foreigners, the tourism floodgates have opened, and a new Thailand has been created. There may be ten times more tourists than there were a decade ago – however, this is still a very tiny number for such a large country. You will run into other travelers in popular spots – but this still has the air of destination very much untouched by westerners.
Internet access may be limited to larger hotels and foreign SIM cards may not work – but you’re on vacation in Burma. Live in the moment, don’t waste half a day in town tracking down a speedy wifi connection and speak to the people around you, not those back home. Burma is a country to be immersed in – the lack of technological encroachment is an absolute blessing.
Named in Kipling’s famous “Road to Mandalay” poem, the city stirs up evocative images. But beyond the myth, Mandalay is just another big city; built up and busy. There are plenty of pagodas and temples – but in Burma, this is not enough to make it remarkable. If you do go – take the back streets, visit the markets, avoid traveling by car or coach and see how people really live.