Things to do in Myanmar
There is no better time to visit Myanmar than now. As the country opens up to tourism (and everything else), it’s going to get increasingly crowded and touristy. Improvements to tourist infrastructure is a good thing, but sometimes it’s just more interesting to experience the more rustic side of things. Travellers we’ve met that have been to Myanmar in the past are already talking about the massive changes they are seeing. So if avoiding tourist crowds is your cup of tea, I suggest you include Myanmar as one of your must visit places soon!
This is our second trip to Myanmar, and I must say that it’s still a picturesque country with some of the warmest people in Southeast Asia. Here are 11 of the best things we’ve tried or heard, that would make your trip memorable. There’s some useful Myanmar travel information at the end of the post too!
Protip: Travel with an open mind, eat local, talk to the locals, smile more, be respectful. Most locals who know some English (especially the kids) will approach you for practice!
1) Hot Air Balloon in Bagan
If there’s one touristy thing to do in Myanmar, and you can afford it, take the hot air balloon in Bagan. Nothing is as surreal as floating across thousands of temples in Bagan during sunrise. You can explore the area by electric bike (which we also recommend), but this is probably the only way to appreciate the sheer scale and beauty of the temples in this region. Not to mention that it’s insanely beautiful!
For details and more pictures, see how I was going Balloons Over Bagan here.
2) Climb 777 steps up Mount Popa
A half day trip out of Bagan, Mount Popa is an extinct volcano with the sacred Popa Taungkalat monastery sitting at the top of it. The 777 steps up the monastery may seem pretty daunting, but the 260 degree views from above are pretty spectacular. Other than the monastery being home to the 37 Nats (Burmese spirits), it’s also home to hundreds of cheeky monkeys. Remember to keep your loose items close if you don’t want them snatched!
3) Sunset on Inle Lake
Hands down the best sunset we’ve witnessed in this country. The tours around the lake may be the single most touristy attraction in Myanmar, but the sunset more than made up for it. Hire a boat and spend the day exploring the different villages/markets, meandering through smaller canals visiting temples, touristy workshops (weaving, cigar…), and floating gardens. If you’re afraid you’ll get bored seeing touristy stuff, start the tour after lunch! You’ll get to skip the overpriced floating restaurants too.
4) Fire Balloon Festival in Taungyyi
The Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival takes place once a year, in the week before the new moon of November. A huge fair with tons of food, amusement rides, and performances are set up in an area just outside the town of Taunggyi near Inle Lake. The main event however, is the Fire Balloon competition in the middle of the fair. Different groups compete with hot air paper balloons of different sizes and designs. Some even have fireworks hanging from the bottom.
We caught this during our previous trip, and what an experience it was! Just take a look at the video.
This video showed one of the balloons going a little crazy though most are usually ok. Lots of fun and interaction with the locals!
5) Trekking and Homestay in Kalaw/Hsipaw
There are two popular simple village treks in the Shan state. The first starts from Kalaw and ends in Inle, while the second happens around Hsipaw.
We’ve experienced both and found them to be really authentic. The treks were pretty simple, but the homestay was the highlight. Coming from a concrete jungle like Singapore, it was really refreshing to be out in the village where life seems to be more peaceful. Looking at the villagers, I realised how simple life can be, and what little we need to be happy. It’s also nice to know that they have not changed their lifestyle drastically just to accommodate tourists.
If you’re keen on seeing what the experience was like, check out 2D1N Hsipaw Trekking and Homestay.
6) Train across Goteik Viaduct
The famous Goteik viaduct is a hair raising section of a train ride between the former colonial summer capital Pyin U Lwin, and Lashio, a main town in the northern Shan State. At 689m long at about 250m high, it can get pretty nerve wrecking as the train slows to a crawl as it crosses the bridge. Any train running between Mandalay and Lashio will take you past the viaduct. It’s a very long ride from Mandalay though, so you might want to mix the journey up with busses or private transport.
7) Sunrise on Ubein Bridge
The 1.2km Ubein bridge in Mandalay, is known as the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. It is easy to just sit and watch the morning go by as monks and street hawkers take their daily commute between the two ends of the bridge. There are a couple of breakfast places near the bridge so no worries about going hungry.
Bundle this together with a full day excursion to neighbouring towns of Inwa, Sagaing, and Minigun as well!
8) Journey to Golden Rock
Golden Rock, or the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is a pilgrimage site at the top of Mt Kyaiktiyo in the Mon State. Legend has it that the small pagoda perfectly balanced on the top of a gold leaf coated granite bolder, is said to defy gravity due to a strand of Buddha’s hair underneath.
To get to the top, you take a sardine packed
rollercoaster truck from the small towns of either Kyaikto or Kin Pun to the top. It’s worth spending a night here just for sunset as the last public truck leaves for town at 6pm.
9) Hang around Shwedagon Pagoda
The most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, the Shwedagon pagoda is a sight/site to behold. It easily dominates the skyline around Yangon and is frequented by locals and tourists. What I thoroughly enjoyed was sitting in the compound people watching. The best time to visit is around the evening, where you can see the transition from day to night.
10) Join in the Thingyan Water Festival during the Burmese New Year
Photo credit: Holiday&AdventureUK
We weren’t around during the Burmese New Year, but we can only imagine how much fun it must have been. Taking place around mid-April, the Buddhist festival is celebrated around Myanmar for a period of 4-5 days in the lead up to the new year. It started with just sprinkling of water as a symbol of washing away ones sins. But I guess somewhere along the way, serious water dousing/spraying/dunking became a way of celebrating and having fun!
11) Try local Burmese food
Fluffy pancakes on the street with a twist. The nuts gave it more texture and flavour.
Nothing like trying street food to truly experience local culture. There are heavy Chinese and Indian influences in the cuisine, and a walk around the streets of Sule Pagoda will open your eyes to how similar and different they are. Be sure to try the popular mohinga (first image above), which consists of rice noodles and a fish based broth.
For the more adventurous, you can even take up a local Burmese cooking class to learn the secrets behind the dishes. Highly recommended!
– Best time to visit: November to February. Avoid the rainy season in-between cause roads can flood and places become inaccessible by road!
– Money: Bring sparkling clean and unfolded notes because the money changers are very particular. US$50 & US$100 bills get better exchange rates. ATMs accepting foreign cards are becoming more common too.
– Safety: Myanmar is actually one of the safest Southeast Asian country I’ve been. No joke. Plus everyone is really nice and friendly.
Flying to Myanmar via Yangon
Tigerair flies from Singapore to Yangon in approximately 3.5hrs, 5 times a week, with all-in return fares from under S$200! The low price meant we could save on the flight and spend more on the activities instead. The departure time from Singapore is pretty good as well, allowing you to arrive in Yangon at 08:45AM. This means you still have an entire day left for exploration!
Hope you enjoyed the post and do drop a comment below if you have other places to recommend!