From Vietnam to Myanmar: An Expert Travel Guide

activities - Saigon/HCMC: Aug. 29, 2016

Myanmar is a country that will tug at your heartstrings.

As one of the least-known countries in Southeast Asia, Myanmar is one of the richest in culture. It has clung to its traditional roots in a way that uniquely connects its people to the land. When you travel to this fascinating place, you will understand why it’s known internationally as the Golden Land.

When travelling to Myanmar, keep in mind that in April there is a festival similar to Songkran in Thailand. Thingyan is the water festival that occurs for three days and can make travel within the country almost impossible.

Naypyidaw: the new city

Construction of Naypyidaw began in 2002, in a location that had remained uninhabited for 2,000 years. The city is divided into various zones, keeping government ministries distant from the military area. There is also a clearly designated commercial zone and, despite a distinct lack of tourists, a hotel zone. Residential areas are arranged into 1,200 four-storey apartment blocks. The roofs of these apartments are colour- coded depending upon the occupations of their inhabitants. There are also enormous 20-lane highways big enough to land aircraft on.

For recreation, there’s the beautiful Uppatasanti Pagoda. This strongly resembles the more famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. There are also several parks and gardens, including a delightful water fountain complex hosting musical light shows each evening. The official population is about 925,000, though the streets do in fact remain fairly deserted.

Yangon: the old capital

Although Naypyidaw is now the capital Yangon, the former capital, is much livelier. This city is home to the most important religious site in the country: the aforementioned Shwedagon Pagoda. Of the many pagodas in the city, Shwedagon is one that is a must-see. It stands on a sacred hill, in all its golden splendor. People’s Park has a splendid view of the west side of the Shwedagon Pagoda and is cool enough for an afternoon picnic.

photo by Lucien Muller

Just next to another remarkable pagoda (Sula) sits a traditional Burmese teahouse, called Thone Pan Hla (Mahabandoola Street/32nd Street). It’s perfect for midday when it’s too hot to think. For dinner, a popular option among expats and business people is Sabai Sabai (Dhammazedi Road). This Thai restaurant is a tempting venue for a relaxing dinner.

For a more inexpensive meal, Monsoon (85-87 Thienbyu Road) offers a menu with Burmese, Laos and Thai options. Post-dinner, if you still have the energy, rooftop bars are a common feature in Myanmar. Yangon has two exceptional options: Sakura Tower and Asia Plaza Hotel. Sakura Tower has outstanding service, with a less remarkable view. If you’re looking for a bar but not necessarily a rooftop, 50th Street Bar is a favourite among expats.

Dala and Pathein: step back in time

If you find yourself in need of a quick escape from the city, you have two options. There’s a ferry south of the Shwedagon Pagoda that gets you to Dala; a quaint, simple village that takes you back in time. In the centre of their Shwesayan Pagoda you can find a mummified monk who lived there over 150 years ago. Alternatively, take a 3-4 hour local bus trip to Pathein, a friendly town lacking tourists, with waterfront cafes and entertaining riverside hustle and bustle.

Mt. Kyaiktiyo: gorgeous sunset views

If you’re willing to take the extremely crowded open-top truck to the top of the mountain, the Mt. Kyaiktiyo (Golden Rock) makes a great day trip from Yangon. According to legend the Golden Rock is balanced precariously on a strand of the Buddha’s hair. It seems to defy gravity, looking as it does, permanently on the verge of toppling off and rolling down the hill. Sorry ladies, but only men are allowed to touch this religious monument. The view makes this a great spot to watch the sunset from, after enjoying your dinner from one of the various eateries below.

Mandalay: home of the world’s largest book

Some 700km north of Yangon, sits Mandalay, a city hot in temperature and diverse in culture. The flat landscape is broken by Mandalay Hill, a point which offers a view of Royal Mandalay, most popular at sunset. It seems as though every pagoda in Myanmar has something special to offer, and it’s true. The Kuthodaw Pagoda contains 729 inscription caves, called Kyauksa Gu. Each cave contains a large marble slab inscribed on both sides with a page of text from the Theravada Buddhist scriptures known as the Tripitaka.

If you need a break from pagodas and temples, the Mandalay Marionettes Theatre has regular shows every evening from 8:30 p.m. Traditionally, Myanmar Puppetry was more than simply entertainment. It was considered to be high art and as such was held in great esteem. Marionettes were a means of relating current events to the general public. Teaching literature, history and religion, and displaying lifestyles and customs. In modern times the old traditional shows have almost faded away.

Pyin Oo Lwin: botanical gardens and waterfalls

An hour and a half away from Mandalay is an escape from the heat: Pyin Oo Lwin, a laid-back town founded by the British in the mid-1800s. Here you’ll find the National Kandawgyi Gardens, over 400 acres of beautiful botanical gardens, with a massive assortment of flowers. There are three refreshing waterfalls to enjoy a quick swim or picnic. Golf is an option, with Pyin Oo Lwin Golf Club being the only 18-hole course.

Bagan: ancient city of temples

With all of the tourists heading to Bagan, it could be difficult to find the temples that are actually quiet and won’t leave you feeling like you just crawled through an angry crowd at a football match.

However, there are four that we found that’ll allow you to lose the crowds. So long as you can find the keyholder (who lives in a hut behind the temple), Lawkaoushaung Temple is best for sunrise. Right after viewing this temple, check out Old Bagan, which will be free from tourists at this time. North Guni Temple is best for sunset. Another great option for dusk is the Pyathada Temple, which has Bagan’s largest open terrace, and an outdoor Buddha that will join you for the sunset.

Mergui Archipelago: a diver’s heaven

If you’re a diver, fisherman or sailor, the Mergui Archipelago is for you. 800 islands have been scattered like marbles across the southernmost part of Myanmar, which is usually accessed by foreigners through Thailand.

Unfortunately, foreigners are only permitted to visit on residential cruise boats or on diving tours. You may miss your chance to see the archipelago if you don’t.