I have to admit I was a little apprehensive about visiting Myanmar at first. As a fairly inexperienced solo traveller in a country only recently open for tourism, I wondered if I would feel safe and if travelling around was going to be straight forward. Luckily for me, there is already a common backpacker route which is very well catered to. Granted, following a backpacker route is not the most adventurous but it was ideal for me and provided a perfect introduction to Myanmar.
The majority of backpackers fly to Yangon or Mandalay, take a bus or trek to Inle Lake, bus to Bagan or in a different order. With just over two weeks, I flew to Yangon and took night buses to Inle Lake, then Bagan, then back to Yangon.
There was just so much I loved about Myanmar that I could write about it all day. Instead, I have whittled it down to my favourite things about the country in roughly the order I travelled.
Early Morning at Yangon’s Chinatown
I flew into Yangon and stayed in Downtown which is where Chinatown is located. First thing in the morning when street sellers and hawkers are setting up it was hectic and I could barely move down some of the streets but enjoying the mad atmosphere was definitely one of my highlights. I did however manage to take a few snaps once everyone was ready to roll.
Shwedagon Pagoda at Night
Just a short taxi north, I went to visit the sparkling, golden Shwedagon Pagoda. I headed there just before sunset which ended up being a perfect time. It’s cooler for one and when the sun goes down the whole place is lit up. You can just hang out and enjoy its beautiful, relaxed atmosphere. I met one family who had come for the evening to celebrate their eldest sons birthday and I can totally understand why. It’s a really special place.
Strolling around Nyaung Shwe
After a couple of days, I took a night bus from Yangon to the closest town to Inle Lake. I finally got off the 12 hour journey (they tell you 8) at around 6am at Nyaung Shwe. I stayed at quite a cheesy hostel but it was super clean and comfy, sharing an ensuite bathroom with just 3 other girls. Although a little flashpackery, I had booked the previous night at the hostel so I could get straight in the room. For me, it was worth every penny to get into bed after the journey but I know some people will take advantage of being up that early and get straight on a boat for sunrise across the lake. I saved my boat trip for the next day.
The town itself is so lovely with a huge traditional and not too touristy market, loads of nice restaurants for local food and back roads for exploring the countryside. I’m not confident on two wheels, but probably should have hired a bicycle for a bit further afield exploring. Apparently there is a pretty winery (however the wine is not good) where you can get some lovely views. I found my own pretty spots just from walking about.
Inle Lake Boat Ride
I’ll be honest, at first I didn’t think it was as idyllic as the Kerala backwaters but on reflection it really shouldn’t be compared. Inle Lake has a raw beauty that provides a fascinating type of agriculture to its farmers, fishermen and local people. When on the lake there is so much life from the communities but also vast tomato, giant cucumber and other veg growing in abundance surrounded by flourishing rice fields.
As tourism is quite big here, you will be taken to various ‘craft workshops’ on the lake where you can learn how stuff is made and then gently encouraged to buy locally made jewellery, umbrellas (parasols), hand woven textiles and cigars. I’m pretty sure you can be taken out on a boat without the stops if, like me, you hate that kind of thing but I was with a group so just sat outside and kept quiet when I’d had enough of the group learning activities.
Myanmar has its own unique cuisine quite different to any I have had before. I couldn’t really compare it closely enough anyway. Traditional dishes include curries with chick pea tofu or pork. Tomato and tea leaf salads as staples, as well as one of my favourites the rice salad which like a lot of dishes, includes peanuts that creates a real contrast of textures and flavours. And finally I took a cooking class!
Beautiful, beautiful people of Myanmar! The smiliest bunch I have come into contact with so far are those from this country. Children were excited to see my funny white face and would always wave and giggle. This bunch came running over to me as I took a walk off the beaten track. They spoke no English but we connected over some flowers / weeds they had picked and then gave to me!
The most unique thing about how Myanmar people look is definitely the use of Thanaka on their faces. Apparently, Thanaka is a 2000 year old beauty secret worn by mostly women and children but also men. Made from ground bark, it is a multi-functional sun protection, fashion statement and is said to promote healthy skin from acne and ageing. Obviously coped myself two tubs!
Whilst in Nyaung Shwe I was lucky enough to see a monthly procession where locals celebrated with offerings for the monasteries. All ages were dressed up for the occasion, including children as young as 4 or 5 in snazzy dresses and make-up.
Despite my reservations, I felt so safe every where I went in Myanmar. Everyone was so welcoming and warm, offering advice and just chatting with no agenda. There was no hassling. The standard of hospitality in hotels, hostels, restaurants and even the buses was really impressive. I did have to deal with a bit of Yangon-to-the-toilet when I first arrived but that’s my weak western stomachs problem. Local taxis were easy to use as well as pick up vans which you can jump on a off for next to nothing.
Wow Wow Bagan
My final stop before heading back to Yangon was Bagan. If there is a must see spot in Myanmar, there is no doubt it is here. It’s 2000 plus temples and pagodas spread across the landscape is utterly unique and magical to see. It’s an impressive archeological site dating back to as far as 12th century from huge temples to tiny stupas. You can, currently, climb up the very small and dark internal staircases to get a better a view although I’m sure this won’t be possible forever. My photos do not do it justice but I tried.
Hire an e-bike for the best experience for exploring the huge site and make sure you see at least one sunrise (was 5am for me!) and one sunset. In May, its excruciatingly hot so ideally you have to start your day at sunrise anyway but it’s worth it. I took the flashpacker option again and hired a horse cart for my trips out. Sorry to all my animal and horse loving friends – I don’t know how you feel about this but hopefully we can still be friends!?
I would love to come back and visit some of the beaches in the south which are said to be beautiful but maybe a bit earlier in the year as it was seriously.. boiling.