For years now, travellers to Burma have trodden the same old, tried-and-true trail: a loop that begins in Yangon, heads north to Inle Lake, and concludes in magnificent Bagan via the historic city of Mandalay.
And there’s a reason for this: it is a fantastic route. Superlative, in fact. And even in these popular destinations there are still a mere fraction of the tourists you’ll find in any of the other Southeast Asian hotspots. These are still, undeniably, the unmissable highlights of Burma.
But as every year more places in Myanmar begin to open up to travellers, these days there is so much more to be discovered. Given the wealth of opportunities on offer, it would be a huge shame not to wander off the beaten path at least once or twice on your travels.
With this in mind, on our recent three-week trip to Myanmar, Kate and I decided to mix up the classic destinations with a few more unusual twists. And the surprising thing was that these lesser-known spots weren’t just interesting diversions, they were some of our favourite parts of the whole trip!
All of the locations below are excellent additions to the classic Burma loop, meaning it couldn’t be easier to mix the famous with the off-beat on your first visit to Myanmar.
1. Ngwe Saung
When you think of Myanmar, I’m willing to bet that beaches aren’t the first things that come to mind. If you want beaches, you go to Thailand, Vietnam, maybe the Maldives… right?
Granted, if you’ve done your Myanmar research, you may have heard of Ngapali Beach. But what of the rest of Burma’s two-thousand-odd kilometres of coastline? Kate and I decided to find out, and eventually settled on a place called Ngwe Saung, a five-hour drive from Yangon.
Given Ngwe Saung’s low profile among western tourists, we weren’t expecting an awful lot. We certainly weren’t expecting it to be bloody gorgeous. Miles upon miles of pristine, palm-lined sand; perfect breezy, sunny weather; warm, turquoise water: in short, the archetypal tropical paradise. The town may not the most interesting of spots, but with plenty of excellent seafood restaurants and reasonably priced cocktails (check out happy hour at the Lux Hotel!) it has everything you could possibly need for a wonderful beach break.
And the best part? We were completely alone. Besides the occasional moped or quadbike zipping along the sand, we had the whole thing to ourselves. And the question we couldn’t stop asking ourselves was why doesn’t anybody know about this??
2. The slow boat to Inle
Of all Myanmar’s big ticket sights, Inle Lake is probably the most ‘touristy’ (though it’s debatable if anywhere in Myanmar really deserves the term). Boat tours and traveller-centric ‘workshops’ are ubiquitous, and occasionally it can feel as though you’re not getting the real deal.
But is still a ‘real deal’ to be found at Inle Lake, and we were darned if we’d leave without discovering it. Our solution was to approach by boat from the south, boarding the local longtail taxi in Pekon and travelling the six hours north to Nyaung Shwe.
It may not be the lap of luxury (you’ll be sitting on the floor with your bags and the locals), but there’s no more authentic Inle experience out there.
The journey begins on Moebyel Lake, several kilometres to the south of Inle, and continues upriver through the countryside, passing floating farms, fields of cattle, beautiful mountains, tumbledown temples, fishing boats and stilt villages, before finally crossing Inle proper and concluding at the town of Nyaung Shwe.
For anyone who wants to see a side of local life as yet untouched by tourism, where the locals are still surprised and delighted to see you pass by, this journey is an absolute must. We loved it!
At first glance, modern Mandalay is a rather nondescript city – but you only need to travel a little way out of the city to discover a wealth of fascinating sites – from the unfinished pagoda of Mingun to the hills of Sagaing. Of all these, the ancient city of Ava (also known as Inwa) was our clear favourite.
Inwa was the seat of various Burmese kingdoms from the 14th until the 19th century, but since then the ancient city has gradually crumbled away, and its ruins now lie dotted through a peaceful, bucolic landscape of villages and farmland.
Kate and I visited by bike, taking the ferry across the Irrawaddy and meandering through paddy fields and palm trees, stopping in at wooden monasteries, colonial-era watchtowers, old city walls and brick temples reminiscent of a smaller, quieter Bagan.
In the whole time we were there, we only saw one other group of tourists, and had the superb templetop views all to ourselves. It was a wonderfully peaceful place to explore, and the perfect spot for a secluded picnic in the shade.
The low-key town of Monywa is the perfect place to break up your journey from Mandalay to Bagan, or vice versa.
Though best-known for its gargantuan standing Buddha, the Laykyun Setkyar, which clocks in as the second-tallest statue in the world, Kate and I were pleased to find that Monywa had plenty more to offer than we first suspected.
For a start, there’s Thanboddhay Pagoda: a gloriously weird confection in pastel-coloured plaster, complete with strange Buddhist dioramas and glittering, disco-like interiors.
Then there’s the awesome Shwe Ba Taung and Po Win Taung: the former an series of elaborately gated cave temples (earning them the nickname ‘Burma’s Petra’); the latter a seemingly endless series of Buddhist grottoes carved into the hillsides. Both are entirely unrestored and blissfully quiet, though be sure to keep your snacks away from naughty thieving monkeys!
Then, in Monywa proper, there is the excellent evening food market, the stomach-bursting and delicious Zawe Marn restaurant, the atmospheric Shwezigon Paya (a miniature version of Yangon’s Shwedagon, and the perfect place to hang with the locals), and Kan Thar Yar Lake – the ideal spot for a couple of sundowner cocktails.
In short, Monywa is ace!
Now, though all the places I’ve mentioned here were highlights of our trip to Myanmar, I have saved the best till last.
Loikaw, an unassuming little town in the highlands north of Yangon and south of Inle Lake, is quite possibly the nicest place I’ve ever visited. It’s so nice, in fact, that I almost don’t want to tell you about it – lest it change even the slightest bit.
Pretty, quiet streets lined with spacious wooden houses and flowering shrubs; a bustling morning market selling everything from red bananas to fresh fish; leafy riverside restaurants serving cold beers and good food; a beautiful lake surrounded by tropical foliage straight out of The Jungle Book – and to cap it all off, spectacular hilltop temples ranged through the suburbs, overlooking the whole.
But however idyllic the setting, the best thing about Loikaw is the people. Every passerby smiles and waves, people run out of their houses to say hello, schoolchildren introduce themselves to practice their English, and if you get lost, half the town comes out to conduct you safely to wherever you want to go. We only spent a day in town, but what a perfect day it was!
So go to Loikaw… but please, just don’t tell anyone else about it.
Follow in our footsteps…
Our three-week trip to Burma was the perfect mixture of classic sights and alternative destinations, and left us dying to come back for more. If you’re interested in any of the places mentioned here, don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our travel consultants and they’ll help you start planning straight away!