Discover Myanmar’s History, Nature and Culture
With the Aowadde river running through it, the gateway to the Delta and the ocean, Myanmar is a feast for those who love nature and fascinating, dynamic Asian cities. Let’s look at the history, culture, fashion, food, and the best places to visit in Myanmar.
A British colony for over a hundred years, a battleground between the British and Japanese during the Second World War, and a country that’s survived four invasions from China throughout its history. Myanmar is certainly a country that’s seen its fair share of turbulence and, even today, with its newfound freedom and democracy, politics is generally not discussed.
Immediately, you’ll notice some unique things about the country; heritage is still incredibly pertinent throughout Myanmar. The traditional dress longyi is still commonly worn by men and women, even in the cities. It resembles a skirt and can be worn in a number of ways. The women (and men up until a certain age) paint their faces with the vibrant yellow ‘thanaka’, a tree bark that protects against the sun and improves skin tone.
You’ll find a blend of Indian and Chinese cultural influences within Myanmar but it’s also very much its own place with its own identity, one that’s suspiciously easy to fall in love with.
Read More: Before you go, make sure you know about Myanmar’s history and read some of its literature with these ten books.
Read to read on? Here are the four best places to visit in Myanmar I’d recommend for your first trip.
Yangon, (formerly known as Rangoon) doesn’t at first strike you as a particularly charming city. Although, as you drive to the centre from the airport and you spot the striking Shwedagon Pagon on your right, you’ll quickly get an inkling of what’s to come. Yangon is certainly a place that unfurls as you dig a little deeper, making it one of the best places to visit in Myanmar.
The fascinating aspects of the city include its diversity of religion and the architecture that remains from its colonial past. While you’ll see the first signs of mass globalisation popping up with Korean fast-food chains and towering luxury hotels, it’s still very much a city that has a firm grip on its historic culture, making it a fascinating place to explore right now. It was the capital under British rule when they moved the capital from Mandalay to Rangoon, reclaiming much of the city’s swamplands to create parks and buildings. History surrounds you in this old capital and it’s fascinating to explore.
Here are some of my favourite things to get up to while in Yangon, one of the best places to visit in Myanmar.
Take a Heritage Tour
One of the best ways to get to know Yangon is on foot and above all, I’d highly recommend starting your trip with a heritage tour of the city hosted by the Yangon Heritage Trust. They do a lot of work to protect these old buildings from demolition (your tour fee helps them out with that) and hold a wealth of knowledge which allows you to dig deep into the history of the city. There are over 2000 heritage buildings in the city and this is where the magic of Yangon lies, particularly as many of them are overgrown with plants or are still in the original state they were 100 years ago.
The Yangon Heritage Trust have four tour routes so whether you’re looking to explore Chinatown, the city’s fascinating historical buildings or dig into the pagodas, mosques and churches, you can’t really go wrong.
Sites that you’ll likely see on a walking tour of Yangon include:
We started our walk in the Maha Bandula Park which provides a unique 360-view of the city’s new towering skyline along with the religious monuments and colonial buildings. If you were to look at the park from above, you’d notice that the obelisk in the centre make a star shape representing the old flag of Myanmar.
City Hall : Visible from the Maha Bandula Park, the building was originally designed in the British style and at the last minute, some typical Burmese affectations like tiered roofs and archways instead of columns were added which makes for a wonderful pastiche, unique building.
Bensolen Street : A perfect stop for seeing 1920s colonial architecture at its most well-preserved. You’ll also see the Myanmar Port Authority building there which is where all ships would pass on when Myanmar was part of the colonial trading route.
The District Court : This Florentine-style ex-cathedral is still in full use as a government building despite the fact it was bombed in the war and never repaired. Many of the windows are missing. It looks amazing with plants growing over it and the fact that the back tower has never been repaired adds to the dystopian charm.
Ride the Circular Train
If you’d like to see a cross-section of life in Yangon and get some amazing pictures then riding the Circular Train for a few stops will be an eye-opening experience. The trains are the old-style without windows or doors (it was built by British colonialists in 1954) so you can enjoy what’s outside the train as much as inside. The route covers 39-stops and runs in a circle (hence the name), at any point you can get off and enjoy some fascinating spots around the city including train station markets along the way. We got off at Tadalay Station and visited Tooth Relic Pagoda.
Tip: If you’d rather experience the train with a guide then we recommend this one.
The circular route starts at Yangon Central Train Station which is an impressive structure in itself, somewhere between your average train station and a pagoda. You’ll see some impressive sights before you even get on the train as daily life very much starts within the station.
You can buy tickets on the platform but don’t expect any kind of timeliness when it comes to this train journey. The train comes when it comes and can often change platforms on a whim. Just keep an eye on what everyone else is up to.
If you want to combine both a ride on the train and a city tour then this package will be ideal for you.
Don’t miss in Yangon
There’s a lot to see in Yangon and you could easily spend days exploring but if you’re short on time then don’t miss out on:
Shwedagon Pagoda: It’s one of the most famous pagodas in the world for a reason, a feast of gold for the eyes, explore the 6th-century complex to the sound of tinkling bells and running water. It’s an incredibly peaceful place that houses some famous relics like hairs from the Gautama Buddah and one of the best places to visit in Myanmar. While you’re there:
- Don’t forget that you’ll need to take your shoes off at the entrance and wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees.
- Watch out for ‘guides’ who’ll ask if you need historical info and charge you for it at the end.
- Strangely enough, you’ll find WiFi throughout the complex.
- For a view across to the pagoda, pay a visit to the peaceful Kandawgyi Park where you can also see the giant golden dragon boat on the lake
The National Museum: A five-floor menagerie of history and culture awaits you in The National Museum of Myanmar, this is one of the prettiest national museums I‘ve seen seeing as its set in beautifully landscaped grounds and features over 5000 items of interest from artifacts to art.
Where to eat in Yangon:
- A particularly special place to eat in Yangon, if only for how beautiful the building is, is at the House of Memories a national heritage building and old office of Aung San, the hero of Burmese independence. For history lovers, you’ll be surrounded by antiques and items concerning the events that have taken place there over the past 100-years. If you’re in the House of Memories solely for the food then you won’t be disappointed, I highly recommend the beef curry!
- Tea Houses are an integral part of life in Myanmar and if you’re looking to experience this culture along with a menu that brings together a medley of Chinese, Indian and Burmese cuisine then Rangoon Tea House is a must.
- If you love unpretentious local spots then you’ll need to pay a visit to 999 Shan Noodles for one of the best cheap lunches in the city. Noodles accompanied by vegetables, meat and sauce is always a winner in my book and this dish originating from Shan state (one of the northern regions of Myanmar) is no exception.
Where to stay in Yangon:
I’d generally recommend straying downtown or in Chinatown (19th street is great for nightlife) as you’ll be within walking distance to most of the city’s main sites and interesting architecture.
Budget – A great option for a stay in Yangon is BaobaBed Hostel, you’ll get a free buffet breakfast, organised tours to choose from and a clean, modern environment. It’s everything you could want from a hostel.
Luxury – I was lucky enough to stay in the Chatrium Royal Lake Hotel which has amazing views over the city (including the Shwedagon Pagoda) and had one of the most beautiful outdoor swimming pools I’ve seen. The buffet breakfast was also particularly diverse and delicious!
Bagan is a special place. Yes, if you type Myanmar into any search bar you come across, you’ll probably quickly encounter the photo that has become one of the images most synonymous with the country, However, as is often the case, this is with good reason.
The view of Bagan from above, with over 20,000 pagodas stretching as far as the eye can see, and hot air balloons framing it all beautifully, is one of the best reasons to visit the area, and the area itself is absolutely one of the best places to visit in Myanmar.
But that’s not all there is to do in Bagan.
If there’s one area of Myanmar that I’d recommend hiring a scooter and going around by yourself, it’s here. There are pagodas literally everywhere. Your hotel will be able to organise one or you can rent one in town. They’re electric and cost around $6 per day. The roads are quiet in Bagan so even if you’re not a regular scooter rider, you’ll be fine.
If you love photography, this way you can really get lost in the maze of temples that make up the archaeological zone and have them all to yourself. And it’s the photo opportunities that make this one of the best places to visit in Myanmar for travellers.
Fee: You have to pay a fee of 27,000 kyat ($20) at the airport to enter the archaeological zone, you’re free to explore the temples at your leisure – you’ll find ATMS at Bagan airport if you’re caught short.
Tip: If you’d rather take a guided tour by scooter then this a great option.
Where to get ‘that’ Bagan view: Due to earthquakes in the area and it’s new UNESCO status, you can’t technically climb the pagodas anymore. Some people still do but it’s not recommended. The best place to go is the 350-degree viewing platform at Bagan Nan Myint Tower, you pay five dollars to enter and get a drink and WIFI included. Most people get there for sunset which is recommended but bear in mind it’s incredibly busy at that time of day but basically empty the rest of the time. It’s one of the best places to visit in Myanmar to get that Bagan view.
Tip: The balloons are only present in high-season (from the end of September until around March) so if you travel off-season (like I did) you won’t be able to take the ride yourself or have quite the same view. It was still spectacular though so don’t be put off.
Don’t miss in Bagan:
Sulamani Temple: One of the most popular temples in Bagan, this 12th-century red brick temple features beautiful paintings on the interior walls. You’ll also find numerous stalls selling souvenirs around the temple.
Dhamayangyi Temple: This is the largest temple in Bagan and has some of the most well-preserved brickwork, it’s iconic due to its beautiful design resembling one of the Mesoamerican pyramids. Give yourself ample time to explore this one and make sure you leave the temple and walk a little to catch a view from afar, it’s gorgeous!
Take a Cruise Down ‘The Road to Mandalay’
A problematic writer in every sense but Kipling’s descriptions of the river have fascinated readers for years. Yes, he wrote of the famous Irrawaddy River, considered the lifeblood of Myanmar. If you have time, you could actually travel the whole of the country via boat and hop off where you want. It’s still considered one of the easiest and certainly the most scenic ways to go from Bagan to Mandalay.
Whether you’re off to Mandalay or not, you should definitely consider a short cruise on the river. Head down to the dock and you’ll find many a boat waiting for passengers. To book online you’ll usually need to be in a group (or you can join a group here) but by heading down to the dock (Nyaung U jetty), you can just join a boat that’s already almost full. The prices are generally 15,000 kyat per four people.
Enjoy Dinner and See a Marionette Show
For a combination of traditional food and puppet performance, you can’t beat a visit to Nanda Restaurant for dinner. While this is a restaurant catering to tourists, the puppet show was genuinely entertaining and worth seeing if you love traditional music and performance. You can even buy one of the handcrafted marionettes in the attached store (there’s also a parasol shop opposite). Booking in advance is recommended.
Where to eat in Bagan:
- Art of Bagan Restaurant: This a relaxing spot near the temples which offers sweeping views of the Irrawaddy River while you eat.
- Royal Jasmin Restaurant: Near the Shwezigon Pagoda, you’ll find a menu of Western-style, local and Thai food. Everything is delicious, well-priced and served in a good atmosphere.
Where to stay in Bagan:
The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate – Bagan is a very green place, your eyes will adjust to simply seeing greenery and brown pagodas that you’ll have a shock when you leave and start seeing other colours again. This hotel embodies that feeling and provides a hotel that will make you feel like you’re living in the jungle but a luxury jungle.
The pool is superb as is the breakfast and the rooms are set away from the main building in the greenery but one of the best aspects of this hotel is being right in the middle of the archaeological zone. You can walk to numerous pagoda from the hotel meaning you can pop out for some night or early morning photography with ease. This is actually one of my favorite hotels that I’ve stayed in. Period.
Fun Myanmar fact: they use five different calendars in Myanmar (including in Bagan) and people automatically know which calendar is used in which part of the country.
With references by Orwell and Kipling, and countless songs sounding out the city’s name, Mandalay is probably one of the most recognisable spots in Myanmar to our Western ears. However, not many people know what to get up to while they’re there. It’s not one of the most attractive cities in the world, and today it lacks some of the charm of Yangon.
However, there are some very good reasons Mandalay should be at least a short stop on any Myanmar itinerary, meaning it’s still one of the best places to visit in Myanmar, even if for a short time. One of those reasons is the U Bein Bridge, one of the most dramatic sights I’ve come across in Asia.
U Bein Bridge
If you visit one place in Mandalay, let it be this. It’s the longest teak bridge in the world, stretching out over 1.2km over the Taungthaman Lake and is over 200-years old! The U Bein Bridge alone is one of the best places to visit in Myanmar.
You can enjoy the bridge in a couple of ways, either walk the bridge the whole distance for great views. Watch you don’t fall off (or get pushed off) as there are no barriers which was quite nerve-racking at sunset when it was particularly busy
Or you can take a colourful rowboat out onto the lake which I highly recommend. It’s 20,000 kyat for a boat which can fit four people. The views are insanely good from the boat and you stay out on the water for a long time.
Tip: You can also travel to the area surrounding the bridge, explore the bridge area and end with a boat ride with this excellent cycling tour.
Kuthodaw Pagoda: An impressive complex of gilded pagoda and hundreds of white shrines. Each one contains a marble slab (726 in total) with the Buddhist teachings written on within. It’s absolutely stunning and if you visited one pagoda in Mandalay then this is the one. Admittedly, I spent a lot of time there filming a family of kittens instead of exploring the shrines but it was worth it. It’s a popular spot for wedding shoots so you may get lucky and see some happy couples.
Shwenandaw Monastery: A dramatic wooden structure with intricate carvings, I absolutely loved exploring and taking pictures here. It’s also near the Mahamuni Pagoda so you’ll be able to see both easily. It’s one of the finest examples of a traditional 19th-century wooden monastery in Myanmar and used to be part of the Myanmar Royal Palace. This was one of my favourite structures I visited and absolutely one of the best places to visit in Myanmar.
Mahamuni Pagoda: One of the most sacred religious monuments in Myanmar which date back to 1758, the Buddh image inside this pagoda is considered the most highly revered image in the country.
Where to eat in Mandalay:
The Golden Duck Restaurant is an ideal chance to try Burmese style Chinese food and if you like roast duck then this is the perfect spot for you. While I was very much there for the duck, I actually found the spicy chicken to be one of the best things on the table. This pumpkin stew was rather impressive also.
Where to stay in Mandalay:
Luxury: Mercure Mandalay Hill Resort, this is a beautiful hotel with a spectacular view of the greenery and pool below. The dinner served at the hotel is exquisite, everything from local food to a sushi bar and grill where you can have your meat and vegetables cooked to your taste. You enter the spa using stones over a stream and this sums up the elegance of the hotel at large. I’d recommend relaxing in the Kipling lounge during downtime.
Budget: Kaung Hostel is clean, new and a wonderful central location near the cultural museum, library and a number of pagodas. They offer a hearty breakfast buffet and offer private rooms as well as shared rooms.
Inle Lake lies in Shan Province, one of the most spectacular and mountainous regions of the country. It’s situated 3000 ft above sea level and feels like stepping into a traditional painting. If ever there was a place in Myanmar that feels untouched by modernity it’s here. You’ll find yourself traveling by boat for most of your time here with canals weaving through the villages, houseboats on stilts, water farms and mountain ranges being your primary views. It’s one of the most relaxing and picturesque spots in Myanmar, making it one of the best places to visit in Myanmar.
It’s also home to the shan people, you’ll quickly notice the different clothes that the people in this area wear due to the colder weather in this part of the country. The colours are vibrant and life is traditional with crafts like lotus silk weaving, fishing, and farming being some of the primary skills passed down through generations. You’ll even find families using a specific kind of weave to catch certain fish meaning they’ll be the exclusive provider of that fish. Don’t miss the floating markets on long-boats where these wears get sold on.
Every year, at the end of September the area will hold a boat race. Due to the unusual style of rowing with the feet which is practiced in this part of the country, watching the boat race here is not only amazing fun but also a way to see this unique practice at its most dramatic.
Don’t miss in Inle Lake:
Indein Pagoda Complex : This was probably my favourite place during my entire visit to Myanmar, I could have spent the entire day here photographing and getting lost in hundreds of pagodas. The structures here date back to the 16th-century and encapsulate a small village or people. When I went it was community day so the women were out hoeing the land and the men were chopping back the plants.
Where to eat in Inle Lake:
- Mr Toe is an ideal spot (with a great view) for trying shan cuisine, all the food is locally sourced from the lake and nearby farms and everything was simple and delicious. There’s also a couple of stalls selling souvenirs in the restaurant and they were the most unique and colourful items I found going around the country. High-quality to!
We were lucky enough to be treated to a boat race while we were there which made those great views even more spectacular.
- Viewpoint Restaurant and Ecolodge – fine dining in town with a view of the lake, paddies, and mountains. The food here was exquisite and also used locally sourced products from the lake and surroundings. It’s widely known as the best restaurant in the area. They also offer a number of special offers like dinner on the lake or in the nearby quarry for some unique and beautiful dining experiences. You can even stay there!
Where to stay in Inle Lake:
I wouldn’t recommend anywhere aside from Sanctum Inle Resort, it’s a spectacular hotel set on the lake with views of the lake, mountains, and greenery as far as the eye can see. The rooms are tucked away through what feels like a forest and boast a wooden, natural eco-space which very much feels part of the surroundings. You’ll find a balcony and an outdoor shower to enjoy as part of the room but also a gorgeous dining area with views, a natural spa and pool area. This is one of the prettiest hotels I’ve ever stayed in. I’d also recommend the Viewpoint Ecolodge mentioned above.
Some Burmese Language Tips:
Saying hello and thank you in Myanmar immediately warms people to you, people here are so open to talking and taking pictures with you so a few polite words will go a long way. There’s very little English around so this is one country where having a translator app on your phone or a phrasebook will serve you well.
- Hello – Mingalabar (Ming-gala-bah)
- Thank you – ce-zu-tin-ba-deh
- Please – ce-zu-pyu-bi (Je-zu-beh)
- Yes – Houq-keh/ No – Mahouq-pa-bu
Our recommended phrasebook from Lonely Planet.
Currency in Myanmar:
They use the local currency Kyat but unusually most places will take US dollars as long as they’re crisp and not damaged in any way – seriously you won’t be able to convince them to take them if they’re crinkled at all. The ATMS work well and there are currency exchanges dotted around everywhere in Yangon, elsewhere it gets a bit tricky so make sure you do your cash withdrawals etc in Yangon or Mandalay (or at the airports). Haggling down tourist items is pretty common and you can usually knock a bit off souvenirs.
Getting Around in Myanmar:
Every place mentioned above has a small airport which makes getting around easy, flying is certainly the quickest way to get around but since I’m generally a fan of the slow routes, you can also take trains or the boat to most places in the country. Trains are long and unreliable but you see a greater cross-section of society and have more memorable experiences. It’s also cheaper!
You can rent electric scooters in most cities and towns which can help you travel around, people drive on the right