Note: This article was inspired by our 9-day Myanmar Highlights trip.
The days when Myanmar was almost as impenetrable as North Korea and the economy was in ruins is a thing of the past. The people now have cellphones. There’s Wi-Fi in the hotels, and, despite what you may read in out-of-date guidebooks, you can withdraw money from ATM machines across the country. Things are far from perfect (though isn’t that always the case?). But the streets feel more free. The people are quick to smile. And, of course, the country remains as beautiful as ever. Here’s one way to do Myanmar justice in just seven days.
Day 1: Yangon
Magnificent colonial buildings on the point of collapse. Locals furiously chewing betel, their mouths stained red. Quirky bars and restaurants around quiet corners. The noise of a rowdy Buddhist prayer session blaring from speakers outside a pagoda. I would challenge anyone to be bored with Yangon.
For an unadulterated view of the city, consider riding the circle train, kind of an above-ground metro. The carriages are dirty, the hawkers aggressive, the chaos all around you. This is as real as it gets. Just wandering the streets of downtown Yangon is a beautiful way to spend your first day, but if you’re keen to see a site check out the labyrinthine Bogyoke market and complete your souvenir shopping early.
In the early evening, head down to Botataung Jetty, and visit the Botataung Pagoda. The entrance fee is cheap and you won’t have to compete with other tourists. Then wander a couple of hundred meters along the water to the bar at the Vintage Luxury Yacht hotel, and reward yourself with a chilled Myanmar Beer. Congratulations, you’ve arrived.
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Day 2: Yangon
A 99 meter high gold pagoda is going to be pretty hard to miss no matter where you put it, but Yangon is still, for the most part, a city without skyscrapers. This makes this sacred site all the more awe-inspiring, especially when approached on foot (be sure to take off your shoes and hold them in your hand when you approach). Take the time to wander around inside and take in the statues, carvings and icons. Your eyes will be spinning from the gold, and you’ll get a sense of the spiritual heart of the Myanmar people.
For your second afternoon, you could either head to Vista Bar not far from the Pagoda, and enjoy sweeping sunset views from it’s cool rooftop. Or, if you’re in the mood for an adventure, go to the train station, and get a ticket for the overnight train to Mandalay. The journey takes about 14 hours, is quite bumpy and is, in this writer’s opinion, the best way to make the journey. As the sun fades you’ll see the green fields turn to dark, the farmers head towards their huts, and the golden glow of pagodas flashing by your window.
Day 3: Mandalay
Mandalay was founded in 1857, but compared to the faded colonial grandeur of Yangon, the city feels almost temporary. Few buildings exceed one story, and traffic hurries through at a frantic pace. What anchors the city is the Mandalay Palace right in the center, the residence of Myanmar’s final two kings. Rent a bicycle, cycle around the gates, and explore the towers, museums and buildings within. Just look out: you may well find that some curious monks are snapping your photo!
End the day with a performance of the Moustache Brothers. A thorn in the side of the Myanmar’s former military dictatorship, comedians U Par Par Lay and U Lu Maw were a favorite of Aung San Su Kyi and other National League for Democracy supporters. They rose to semi-celebrity and even got a shout-out from Hugh Grant in the movie About a Boy, a clip they will no doubt play you during the show. U Par Par Lay died in 2013, so today Lu Maw performs alongside his equally talented cousin, Lu Zaw.
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Day 4: Mandalay
To the Northeast of Mandalay lies the hill that gives the city its name. Catch a taxi to the base and walk to the top for stunning views of the old city walls, the Irrawaddy river and the surrounding hills strewn with pagodas and sacred sites. At the top, of course, stands another pagoda. Remove your shoes, pay and entrance fee, and breath in the views from the terrace while swapping life stories with one of the monks who approach tourists to practice their English. Yes, you are as interesting to them as they are to you!
In the evening head back to the city and head to Daung Lan Gyi restaurant for dinner. Expect traditional Burmese fare with all the exotic flavors served banquet-style. You’ll leave satisfied, and yet barely able to move. But if you manage the energy, or you’ve dined early, another ‘landmark’ worth knowing about is the Ayeyarwaddy hotel. They offer great happy hour deals and magnificent views of the river and Mandalay Hill from their rooftop bar.
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Day 5: Bagan
This is the big one. If you’ve been around Southeast Asia before, you might call it the Angkor Wat of Myanmar. Over 2000 pagodas – some small, some damaged, others huge and immaculately restored – stand scattered across what seems like a giant field, once the ancient kingdom of Pagan. Unlike tightly controlled Angkor, here the pagodas are your playground. There are few if any fences, and people frequently climb to the top of the taller structures to enjoy the view.
Chances are the journey from Mandalay has taken you the better part of the day, and you’re feeling a bit shaken up. My driver had a penchant for playing Britney Spears at full volume, almost running over farm animals, and spitting betel juice on the floor. Get settled into your hotel, and get an early night. Tomorrow begins early.
Day 6: Bagan
Awake before dawn, hire yourself a motorbike – there are stands all over the city, they’ll be open at this hour and ready for you – and make a beeline for one of the many suitable pagodas for the classic dawn experience. I chose the Shwesandaw pagoda, it’s easily climbable and not usually too crowded. There are competing opinions as to which is the perfect pagoda, but what matters is that you’re there. The sun rises, and ancient pagodas rise from the darkness. Suddenly, the bus journey seems worth it.
Spend the rest of today zipping around the Archaeological Park on your motorbike. Whenever a pagoda catches your eye, stop and have a peek inside – just remember to remove your shoes! The Sunset Garden restaurant by the river has gorgeous views and decent food, but be mindful that, this being tourist-central, prices will be higher than you got used to in Yangon or Mandalay.
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Day 7: Bagan
If you’re still feeling energetic, hit dawn again and make for an alternative temple to catch the sunrise from another perspective. Or, you may want to sleep in. You’ve certainly earned it. Enjoy a leisurely lie-in, and then spend your final day bidding farewell to the pagodas. There’s more than enough to see here to justify a second, third or even fourth day, if you can spare the time.
The giant Ananda and Sulamani temples are not to be missed, and since I took the time to figure out how to spell it, Dhammayangyi (although reportedly haunted) is another must-see.
Drinking options in Bagan are limited and I had to teach my hotel how to to prepare a gin and tonic, but the relaxed Sarabha Restaurant in Bagan town is a nice, low-key way to end your visit. Sip on your last Myanmar Beer, and think about what must surely have been one of the most intense, outstanding weeks of your life.
Want to see Myanmar’s stunning highlights for yourself? This 9-day trip is the one.
Image Credits: All c/o Intrepid Travel