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6 Must See Sites in Myanmar

Photo Credit: Courtney Lambert

Photo Credit: Courtney Lambert

Take in the smells of spicy foods cooking along the streets, men smoking cigarettes through giant homemade water pipes, and children and street dogs trotting alongside traffic on roads stained burgundy with splashes of betel nut spit. In a land where Buddhism reigns, the glittering tips of pagodas and temples reach for the sun amongst the throngs of ramshackle huts and stores. The magic of Myanmar (also known as Burma) is not an exaggeration.

If you find yourself planning a trip out to Southeast Asia, a visit here should be on the travel itinerary for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. There is much to see and do—narrowing down the list will be the tough part. Here are 6 Myanmar must’s that should be at the top of the list.

Explore Ancient Temples in Bagan
The ancient temple town, Bagan, may be the most popular destination in Myanmar, and for good reason. The religious history is well preserved here and though well known by travelers, you won’t find night clubs, ritzy resorts or modern tourist amenities; quiet village life carries on. Stop by the markets and enjoy interacting with the friendly local folk. The small and simple town center is dotted with a few guesthouses and restaurants. No need to hire a guide to explore, rent an electric bike and take off down winding dirt roads past crumbling Buddhist temples  that dot the horizon by the hundreds. Climb to the top of one and enjoy the sun setting over the illustrious landscapes—where else can you get lost amongst a city of ancient temples?

Trek in Hsipaw
Discover the beautiful countryside of Myanmar in the Northern Shan State town, Hsipaw, where trekking is the best way to explore the pristine, mountainous landscape. Hop on an old British colonial train from Mandalay and bounce your way up to quiet Hsipaw. Cheap accommodation from $8-$17 USD can be found at Mr. Charles Guesthouse. Private and dorm rooms are available, with a scrumptious breakfast buffet provided for free. It’s easy to arrange your trekking adventure here, and set off the next morning from the hotel.

You can book one day to three day treks and sleep in a home stay in the Shan State villages. Try the delicious Shan noodle soup, learn about Shan village culture, and take in the traditional simple living of a village stuck in time and tradition.

Photo Credit: Courtney Lambert

Photo Credit: Courtney Lambert

Have Breakfast with Buddhists in Mandalay
Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar, but is quieter and more spread out than the capital, Yangon. There is much see, but can be planned in one full day. The Yo Yo Lay Guesthouse is a wonderful place (and one of the cheaper options) to stay, thanks to the enormous heart of “Mama” who runs the establishment. She greets you at reception with never-ending plates of juicy watermelon slices and orange juice, offers clean and comfortable dorm beds and will help with anything, from organizing a day trip of sightseeing with a trusted taxi driver to overseeing costs of tuk tuks and train tickets so as not to get scammed.

Start the day by observing the monks at Mahagandhayon Monastery line up for their one hot meal of the day. It’s a humbling occasion and you will get a unique insight into monastery life. Walk the shaded gardens and colonial buildings where the Buddhists live and study—it will leave you with a deep feeling of peace and gratitude.

Lay Under the Palms on Ngapali Beach
Get away from chilly nights in the north and dust of the roads from trekking and head west to the Rahkine State for quaint fishing village vibes, white sand and fresh seafood. Lay on the beach and watch fishing boats bringing their catch to shore in the evenings, supplying to local restaurants. Here, you will find sophisticated accommodation, but can still enjoy an off-the-beaten-path feel. Traditional ways of life intertwine with the burgeoning  influx of tourism, where ox pulled carts intermingle with motorized vehicles on the beach and roads. This is a beautiful tropical escape that has yet to be fully taken over by tourism.

Photo Credit: Courtney Lambert

Photo Credit: Courtney Lambert

Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake
One of the more popular trekking adventures in Myanmar starts in the cool central region at Kalaw. Here, travelers can arrange a trek to the majestic  Inle Lake  with their hotel. At Golden Lily Guest House they offer cheaper lodging and breakfast. As with any area of Myanmar, don’t expect exceptional wifi or hot water showers. It was easy to organize a trek at Golden Lily, and I didn’t have any worries when it came to my backpack. They will transport your bags and luggage to your hotel in Inle Lake. If you don’t know where to stay in Inle, they can make suggestions for you.

Then, set off on a trek led by a Burmese guide. Long days on the road end at a monastery or village in the mountains, where it’s refreshing to meet other trekkers, enjoy home cooked Burmese cuisine and sleep on floor mats, awaking to the singing of monk children.

The trek ends at Inle Lake, where a long boat will take you careening past waterfront bungalows and  shops to a vast water world surrounded by deep blue green mountain ranges and fishermen maneuvering their boats by foot, casting nets with techniques only found at Inle Lake. Go for a swim and explore the town—a place where you can easily get stuck for a few days.

Get Lost in Yangon
The capital city is a special place, and just exploring by foot or bicycle will show you more and put you in the thick of it than taking an organized tour. Savor the flavors of Myanmar cuisine at the Theingyi Zei and Thiri Mingalar markets and observe first hand a modern city emerging from the bloodshed and destruction of war to a metropolis of innovation, cultural diversity and a progressive future.

Go back to British colonial times and enjoy a drink at the historical Strand Hotel—an exquisite example of Victorian architecture. This grand establishment has housed literary greats such as Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, and Noël Coward.

Feel the magic at Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most important religious sites in Yangon, and all of Myanmar. The chedi is plated from top to bottom in glistening gold, a shining beacon that can be observed from almost anywhere in the city.

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