Make the most of your time
So little is still known about Burma, it’s worth exploring different regions to discover how varied its landscapes are, and how beautifully local traditions have been preserved
. Burma is the largest country in mainland SE Asia, its roads are poor and the government prohibits driving in many areas, so internal flights are necessary to make any headway on the landscape. Northern Burma is more popular; few visitors currently explore the south. Be aware that many towns and regions have changed their colonial names; both versions may still be used
Here are three of our top itineraries, incorporating our favourite Burma highlights. Click on the map points for more information about each one
Burma’s former capital is a fabulous introduction to the country, and it remains the pulsing cultural and historical heart, with vibrant markets and the fabulous Shwedagon Pagoda, as well as Chinatown, Indiatown – and strands of Buddha Gautama’s hair. A slow, circular railway takes you through the suburbs and neighbouring villages for a close-up look at Burmese life, but do take the chance to just walk around and soak up the atmosphere.
Mandalay & U Bein
This colonial city was immortalised by Kipling. Much of old Mandalay was destroyed during the WW2, yet a walk up Mandalay Hill – accompanied by pilgrims – reveals a sprawl of sparkling stupas, mosaics and gardens. Explore by horse and cart, and discover the gold leaf industry and 2,000-year-old golden Buddha. Don’t miss U Bein at sunset; at 1.2km, it’s the world’s longest teak bridge.
Pyin U Lwin
There is much to refresh you in Pyin U Lwin – including the lush botanical gardens and nearby waterfalls, as well as the 1,200m altitude, which pleased the heat-feating British, who had a hill-station here. This 19th century town is filled with villas and horses and carts, transporting you back in time. For a true colonial experience, travel here by train, crossing the Goitek Viaduct and passing small villages filled with vendors.
This is the classic Burma postcard scene – thousands of temples and pagodas peeking above the trees and mist, stretching into the horizon. Most date back to between the 11th and 13th centuries, with different styles honouring Buddhist and Hindu deities. Bagan can be explored by horse and cart or by bike – a great chance to off-road and discover hidden spots. A hot air balloon ride provides a spectacular sunrise view.
This sacred mountain is the core of an extinct volcano that rises 1,518m above the surrounding hills. Believed to be home to deities and spirits, known as nats, Mount Popa attracts many pilgrims, and you can walk with them on the 777 steps to the shrine at the top.
Set high on a ridge overlooking a lake, the tunnels and chambers of the cavernous Pindaya Caves - known as the Golden Caves – are filled with around 8,000 Buddha images. You’ll be joined by local pilgrims, trekking across the Shan Plateau to pay their respects and meditate. The walk passes through hill tribe villages, who see few tourists; if you’re lucky you may get invited in for tea.
For villagers living around the shore of the serene Lake Inle, water is a part of daily life. There are stilt-house villages, floating vegetable gardens and markets, and the famous “leg-rowers”, who wrap one leg around the paddle, leaving their hands free to cast their nets. Discover brightly dressed hill tribes, the Shwe Yan Pyay teak monastery and mountainside pagodas, and visit silversmithing, cigar rolling and weaving workshops.
Irrawaddy River (Ayeyarwady)
Most of Burma’s population lives in the valley of its longest river. Flowing through much of the country, a cruise along the Irrawaddy reveals local village life, picturesque hill landscapes, the Sagaing temples and gold-plated stupas. You can take a daytrip; boats for longer cruises have mattresses and mosquito nets for sleeping on deck under the stars. Look out for rare Irrawaddy dolphins.
The leafy, British hill-station of Kalaw, high enough in the mountains to escape the burning lowland heat, is a tranquil base for hikers. The surrounding hills offer plenty of walking routes, and guided hikes explore the plantations and small villages of the Palaung, Danu and Pa-O tribes. Take a daytrip to the nearby elephant conservation centre, which preserves the elephants’ habitat and supports local communities.
Hsipaw & Kyaukme
In the heart of Shan country, Hsipaw is a true immersion into this rich culture. Each village has a “spirit house” at the entrance, and activities include rice cultivation, bamboo weaving and rolling cheroot cigars. Kyaukme has full-day treks through mountain passes and remote Palaung villages – the adventure begins with the bus ride here – picking up sacks of rice and vegetables as well as villagers.
Bago & the Golden Rock
Burma’s largest monastery, the Kha Khat Wain, is found in Bago, the former capital of the Mon Kingdom. From here, it’s a short, steep drive to the famous Golden (or Hanging) Rock at Kyaiktiyo – a Buddhist pilgrimage site. The large, gold-plated boulder balances precariously on the edge of a mountain is said to be held in place by a single strand of the Buddha’s hair. A golden pagoda sits atop it.
George Orwell's former home now houses Kipling’s pagoda, buzzing markets and colonial architecture. A massive reclining Buddha sprawls nearby, plus a cemetery for allied POWs who died building the Kanchanaburi railway. Cruise along Thanlwin River to the Hpa An, and explore the surrounding limestone karsts, with their tunnels and caves, on foot and by road.
Once the capital of a small empire which stretched to Bangladesh, today the peaceful town of Mrauk U houses the remains of three kingdoms, including the crumbling ruins of the Royal Palace. The Shittaung Pagoda is the best-known, but many more rise out of the surrounding fields. Get your bearings with a model of Mrauk U in the Archaeology Museum, or take a trip to the surrounding, remote Chin villages.
Scattered off the southern Burmese coast, far from the beaten track, the 800 islands of the Myeik Archipelago offer a glimpse of Southeast Asia’s beaches long before the tourists and resorts arrived. Take a multi-day cruise to discover traditional cultures – including the boat-dwelling Moken sea gypsies – as well as untouched beaches, pristine forest and fantastic snorkelling above thriving reefs.
The long Chindwin River flows through Burma’s remote interior. Multi-day river tours reveal the 947 caves of Po Win Taung, filled with painted murals, rarely-visited market villages, hidden pagodas and colonial outposts. You can also follow in the footsteps of “Elephant Bill”, who led a troop of elephants and refugees to safety in India during the Second World War.
Burma’s charming rustic beach resort, this little fishing village is fringed with powder-white sand, azure seas and just a few little bungalows and tasty seafood shacks catering to a handful of well-to-do tourists, who have the 3.5km beach to themselves. But things could soon change as more rooms open and an airport is scheduled to be built, opening it up to backpackers and businessmen.
Sample Myanmar itineraries
Myanmar highlights (15 days):
Yangon (flight) ► Mandalay ► Pyin U Lwin ► Irrawaddy River ► Bagan ► Mount Popa ► Kalaw ► Pindaya ► Inle Lake (flight) ► Yangon
Myanmar encompassed (18 days):
Yangon ► Bago ► Golden Rock ► Mawlamlyine ► (Bilu Kyun) ► Hpa An ► Yangon (flight) ►
Mandalay ► Pyin U Lwin ► Irrawaddy River ► Bagan ► Mount Popa ► Kalaw ► Pindaya ►
Inle Lake (flight) ► Yangon
Southern Myanmar (10 days):
Yangon ► Bago ► Golden Rock ► Mawlamlyine ► (Bilu Kyun) ► Hpa An ► Yangon