The best things to see in Burma? All too often we focus on the man-made; those gilded temples and gargantuan Buddhas are undeniably impressive. But make your way through Myanmar’s sprawling states to see this magical landscape chop and change for something extra special.
Here are 10 of our favourite must-sees and top tips to help you make the most of your holiday.
1. Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River, Ayeyarwady Region
At well over 2,000km long, the Irrawaddy River – famously nicknamed ‘The Road to Mandalay’ by Rudyard Kipling – is the largest in Burma (Myanmar). This vast body of water is home to a fascinating hive of activity; see local people going about their daily business on wooden longboats; busy markets selling huge pots and woven bamboo mats on the muddy banks; stilted houses with thatched roofs; and hills studded with pagodas and gnarled trees.
As well as daily domestic life, the Irrawaddy is a vital passage for trade and heaving boats transport rice grown in the Irrawaddy Delta. Around the Delta waits a host of flora and fauna with thick mangrove forests, birdlife and even the odd crocodile. But the most elusive resident of these waters is the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. In the small village of Hsithe, these clever creatures collaborate with local fishermen to catch fish beneath the cloudy waters.
Sadly, the dolphins’ relationship with man isn’t always harmonious; some fishermen use electric currents to catch the fish, inadvertently killing unlucky dolphins nearby. Although this method is now illegal, is hasn’t been completely eradicated.
Top tips: There are a few options to explore the Irrawaddy by boat, from a short overnight cruise between Mandalay and Bagan, to a longer indulgent trip aboard a luxury liner. For those short on time, it’s also possible to see sun set over these busy waters on an evening cruise.
See the dolphins: Support sustainable tourism with a visit to the rural fishing village of Hsithe. While spotting the Irrawaddy dolphin would be incredible, there are also local industries to learn about (such as cigar rolling, jam making and rice farming), and the chance to try your hand at the impressive net throwing technique characteristic of this area.
2. Anisakan Waterfall, Pyin Oo Lwin, Shan Highlands
In a former life the pretty area of Pyin Oo Lwin was a retreat for the colonial British. Located on a plateau 1000m above sea level, its cooler temperatures provided relief in the height of summer; there are still remnants of their presence in the form of brick and timber houses and the impressive Goteik Viaduct – a stomach churning railway line, 102m high.
Surrounded by mountains home to more than 135 different ethnic groups, the town is a great base for hikers interested in rural Burmese life, head out into the countryside to see the impressive 120m high Anisakan Waterfall. It’s half an hour by car or motorbike to the waterfall car park, then a 40-minute walk to the waterfall itself.
Top tips: Be sure to pack sun cream, water, insect repellent and some sturdy trainers or walking boots; the walk is quite steep in places. Avoid the hottest parts of the day and rent a bicycle to ride to the entrance at your own pace.
3. Putao, Kachin State
Having been cut off for a long time, the striking area of northern Kachin State, in the foothills of the Himalayas, has been little trodden (or hiked) by tourists. There are still conflict controls in some areas so travel overland isn’t possible, but the towns of Putao and Myitkyina are safe and it’s well worth the trip. The landscape (sharp snow-covered mountains) is unlike anywhere else in Myanmar, and the area is home to a variety of flora and fauna.
Top tips: Check the FCO advice for up to date information before travelling abroad.
4. Mount Victoria, Nat Ma Taung National Park, Chin State
Breathtaking landscape? Off the beaten track? Chance to meet local people? Tick, tick and tick. Mount Victoria (the highest mountain in Chin State) is one of the country’s best places to go hiking, with options for all levels of fitness. There are also ethnic minority villages in the area – including communities where the local women have striking facial tattoos.
Top tips: Stay in a homestay to make the most out of your time in the village, get to know the local people and culture better, and eat tasty home cooked food.
5. Ngapali, Rakhine State
With empty stretches of coastline Thailand could only dream of, Ngapali is the place for a bit of beachy R&R. The water’s warm, and the small town is a sleepy sort of place with bungalow beach huts. There’s nothing left to do but pitch a towel and close your eyes.
Or is there?
Top tips: Yes, Ngapali is known for its soft, sandy beaches, but Mother Nature gifted two treats in this area with a sweeping expanse of healthy rainforest chock full of exotic wildlife as well as these serene stretches. If you can tear yourself away from the beach, indulge in a hot air balloon ride to take it all in.
6. Macleod Island retreat / Myeik Archipelago, Andaman Sea
The oft-forgotten beauty of the Myeik Archipelago in the Andaman Sea could well work in your favour; where neighbouring country’s islands have fallen foul to overtourism, this chain of 800 islands remains largely undiscovered.
Top tips: For a stay on solid ground, spend a few days on the idyllic Macleod Island. Or for something extra special, go island hopping around the archipelago aboard a luxury yacht. Either way, take a dip and snorkel or scuba dive to see the colourful marine life.
7. Inle Lake, Shan State
Inle Lake is a firm favourite amongst Burma first-timers. Stilted villages, floating markets and fishermen rowing with one leg are all enduring images of this beautiful expanse; explore the main highlights in a longtail boat or take out a kayak to explore at your own pace.
Top tips: You can hike to Inle Lake from other areas in Shan State such as Pindaya or Kalaw, and on the water, it’s possible to explore quieter areas to go bird watching (there are well over a thousand species in this area) or go to the little-visited southern end to see the “sunken” stupas. Raise a glass to a busy day of exploring at Burma’s Red Mountain Vineyard.
8. National Kandawagyi Botanical Gardens, Shan Highlands
When it comes to natural wonders this outstanding 437-acre botanical park, inspired by London’s Kew Gardens in 1915, is a bit of a misnomer – those flowers didn’t plant themselves! But with 600 species of trees – over 500 of them indigenous – as well as 25 kinds of roses carefully manicured around healthy lawns, the National Kandawagyi Botanical Gardens (40 miles from Mandalay) are undoubtedly worth a mention.
Top tips: Set aside a few hours – with an Orchid Garden boasting more than 300 indigenous species, as well as rock gardens, large lakes, a gilded pagoda, aviary, butterfly museum and the (unusual) Nan Myint Tower, there’s enough here to keep you occupied.
9. Kyauk Ka Lat, Hpa An, Kayin State
Although lesser known than Inle Lake, the Shwedagon Pagoda and the Golden Rock, Kyauk Ka Lat (another of Kipling’s inspirations) should be up there in the list of Burma’s most iconic sites. This top heavy narrow limestone pinnacle in the centre of a large lake looks close to collapse but, against all odds, a pagoda balances at its summit. Back on solid ground a working monastery awaits and Mount Zwegabin providing a striking backdrop.
Top tips: Incredible caves await nearby, including the Sadan cave. Walk through the huge, breathtaking expanse passing a lake, and pagodas illuminated with chinks of sunlight that cast shadows on the floor.
10. The Golden Rock, Mon State
On the subject of defying gravity, the 7.6m tall “golden rock” appears to be mid descent. Buddhists believe a strand of Buddha’s hair prevents it from tumbling off the edge. The Kyaiktiyo pagoda has been built on the top (there’s a theme here…) and male worshippers continue to adorn the boulder with gold leaf.
Top tips: Visit at sunset for panoramic views of the Mon State Mountains.
Join an expert tour leader on a Myanmar Small Group Tour or forge your own path on one of our Fully Tailored Journeys. Get in touch with our team of Southeast Asia travel experts to find out more – we promise you won’t miss a thing.