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Burma is chock-a-block with must-visit sites, from the thousand-strong stupas of Bagan to the great, glassy expanse of Inle Lake and the “winking wonder” that is Shwedagon Pagoda. But sometimes it’s not the big-ticket sights but the unexpected gems that form the highlight of a trip.
Myanmar is a country in flux, with new destinations coming to light every year as restrictions are relaxed and infrastructure improves. The following destinations are just some of our favourite places to get “off the beaten track” this year…
Little-known Hpa An, in the south of Burma, is replete with attractions for the adventurous tourist. Marvel at surreal Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda, balancing atop a limestone pillar at the centre of a lake; explore Buddhist caves crammed with thousands of statues; scale Mount Zwe Kabin for fabulous views over the countryside, and wander through Lumbini Gardens – where rows of identical Buddhas guard your approach.
When the British first arrived in Myanmar, Loikaw was the seat of a powerful local ruler – or “Sky Prince” – whose palace dominated the town and ruled over the surrounding region. Though Burma’s Sky Princes are now long gone, it’s still possible to visit the palace (now a monastery) for a glimpse of the country’s rich history – and scale the bizarre Taung Kwe Pagoda, built on top of a jagged rock formation in the centre of town. Loikaw is also a fantastic base for exploring surrounding Kayah State, where the local Padaung women still use brass coils to elongate their necks.
Monywa lies between Mandalay and Bagan, on the banks of the Chindwin River, and is famous for its one unmissable site: the world’s second-tallest Buddha. Towering over the town and countryside, the Laykyun Setkyar stands at 130 metres (427 ft) tall, and contains some rather graphic murals of stories from Buddhist myths. But Monywa is worth a stop for more than just its giant Buddha: it’s also home to the Mohnyin Thambuddhei Paya (think Indonesia’s Borobudur, but sparklier), a monastery housing half a million Buddha statues, and Shwe Ba Taung – the cliffside temple that’s nicknamed “Burma’s Petra”.
Burma’s capital city may not have much to recommend it at first sight, but if you have an appetite for the offbeat, this is one weird destination you won’t want to miss. Built in secret by the Burmese military dictatorship and surrounded by controversy, Naypyidaw is a vast city built to house millions – yet its 20-lane highways and Beverley Hills-style mansions still stand deserted. Visit it on your way from Yangon to Mandalay (or vice versa) to marvel at the sheer hubris of the thing – it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Venturing southwards along Burma’s long, thin southern prong, the sleepy seaside town of Dawei is a wonderful place to experience the slow pace of life in Burma’s tropical south. Here you’ll find early influences from Portuguese, Dutch and Thai traders mingling with some of the best-preserved British colonial buildings of any provincial Burmese town, and precious few modern developments to mar the low-rise town centre. Pair all this with some lovely beaches on the Andaman Sea and a laid-back and welcoming atmosphere, and you have the perfect place to relax and soak it all in.