Welcome to our travel guide for globetrotters & UNESCO enthusiasts and discover top Myanmar (Burma) travel tips – the country of gilded pagodas, spirituality and hospitality.
Tips for planning your journey
Our Highlights in Myanmar
If you want to read more about the country, we can recommend you some books.
First and ever remaining impressions of Myanmar (Burma)
On the 16th February 2017, we arrived in Myanmar – our second to the last country on our round-the-world trip. The first thing we have recognized arriving in Myanmar is the extremely friendly people. Consequently, walking through the streets people offered their help to find what we are looking for. Unbelievable for us: without trying to sell us something or to lead us to their shops or restaurants. We need to get used to not directly rejecting their offers what we have ourselves adopted in the other Southeast Asian countries. In total, we could not imagine a better ending for these two months of being in Southeast Asia. We hope, the Burmese do not get upset of tourists and keep their openness and friendliness. Even monks are looking with an amazing open-mind for contacts with foreigners and took pictures of us or with us.
Together with its cultural highlights like astonishing Bagan and the pagodas in Bago and Yangon, Myanmar is really a unique country.
Our route through Myanmar
We arrived in Mandalay by plane from Bangkok. Unfortunately, self driving is not possible for tourists in Myanmar. Therefore, we have taken for the longer distances buses and trains. The buses and trains were in general all comfortable and very cheap. For example, we have taken a train from Yangon to Bago and paid around 30 cent for a a lower class ticket for the two hours drive which was written by hand. In addition, in the cities and towns we have always rented electric scooter and e-bikes to get around.
Conditions of the roads
However, we have read about the bad condition of the roads due to the small investments in the infrastructure after the colonial era. But we have not expected such bad roads. The journey lasted six hours for approx. 300 km from Mandalay to Yangon with “free massage” as we have been well shaken during the drive. This journey is currently the most shaky we had on our trip. Therefore, we are lucky that we could share this experience with Paul’s cousin Michael and his wife Katrin with whom we are traveling together in Myanmar for one week.
Countryside in Myanmar
The journey lead us through barren landscape and a lot of beggars along the route. This is the other side of the coin for the low tourism. Since 1962, the military is governing Myanmar with focus on the wealthiness of certain group of people. The population has to pay for this mismanagement and inability with poverty. Above all, the name Myanmar was introduced arbitrarily in 1989 by the government without involvement of the people.
Driving in Myanmar – on the left or right side?
Since Myanmar is a former British colony, we have expected a left-hand traffic. However, they are driving on the right hand side but the majority of the cars have their steering wheel on the right side. This is caused by a vision of the former dictator in the 1960’s. From one day to the next he changed from left to right-hand traffic in order to relieve from a British colonial relic. The actual reason was a fortune teller who said that the left side is bad. Due to the fact that many cars are imported from Thailand where the cars drive on the left side, the steering wheels are still on the right side.
This is only one story about the dictator’s superstition. Another one is that he introduced 45 and 90 Kyat bills and voided all others since the number nine was his lucky number. Consequently, this resulted in math exercises during shopping.
Our ultimate Myanmar (Burma) Travel Tips
Mandalay as the second largest city in Myanmar is Myanmar’s religious center with its many monasteries and monks. Moreover, Mandalay was the former royal capital before the British defeated the Upper Burma. The city was named after the Mandalay Hill that you should climb up to get breathtaking view of sunset or sunrise.
Myanmar is the first country where we are taking less pictures from the locals compared to the pictures the locals are taking of us or even ask us for pictures and selfies. We met a group of monks in one of the pagoda in Mandalay and every one wanted a pictures with us together.
One gold leaf manufacturer next to another can be found in the 36th street. Small gold nuggets are transferred into extremely thin gold leaves through rhythmic hammering by well-trained men. Despite this hard work, it is a popular job because the gold leaves are used for higher purpose: it is used to stick on Buddha statues to earn points for the reincarnation. Some Buddhas are covered with so many gold leaves only that their shape is already gone.
The Kuthodaw pagoda consists of 729 small stupas containing each a marble board with stories about Buddha’s life and doctrines. This pagoda is also called the biggest book in the world and the construction lasted more than seven years. If someone would read every day for eight hours, he would need probably 450 days to read the whole book.
The golden Royal Palace in Mandalay was built 1857 and contains more than 130 buildings. Since the king feared leaving his palace, a 55 meters high tower was built as the single possibility to watch the outside life. However, most parts of the palace were destroyed by the colonial power as well as during the war against the Japanese occupying forces. For the restoration, corrugated iron roofs and golden color instead of gold leaves were used.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bagan
Bagan is one of the architectural highlight in Southeast Asia. But compared to Angkor, Bagan has still something magical and mysterious. There a no huge crowds of tourists and exploring the area is mainly possible by horse carts or electric bikes. Big buses are rare. And so it happened that we were completely alone visiting some temples. Pictures from Bagan temples and balloons are the most popular picture of Myanmar and one will have it in mind when thinking of Myanmar. Around 2,200 temples, pagodas and stupas are located in Bagan. Bagan was listed recently as UNESCO World heritage. The reason for this long waiting list was that Myanmar did not adhere to the specifications for historical landmarks and the restoration was done with cheap construction material not matching to the original one. In 2019, the UNESCO finally added Bagan to the list of cultural heritage sites.
Recommended horse cart tour
We started our exploration tour of Bagan with a traditional horse cart ride. For one full day we went from the most popular temples with a horse cart. Unbelievable, entering the temples and pagodas is only possible without shoes and socks. Walking around barefoot in these around 800 years old temples and pagodas was a challenge due to the sun heated stones as well as the many small stones and sand on the ground.
Sunset and sunrise in Bagan
For the sunset on the first day we have chosen a stupa where we could climb up to the third level with an amazing view over its temples and stupas scattered area. However, this spot is quite popular and so we were already climbing up the temple around 4.30 pm to get a good place for the sunset around 6 pm.
For the sunrise the next morning we have identified another temple off the beaten path with less tourists (maybe also due to the early sunrise at 5.45 am). It was astonishing when the balloons started and were flying over the temples. This view has more than paid off the early getting up.
Remote temples at Bagan
For the second and third day in Bagan we rented e-bikes to explore the more remote temples. E-bikes are (rather electronic scooter) a good idea in this dry and hot area of Myanmar. The temples with only one level at the ground floor are older compared to them with several levels. The main material was brick stones brought to Bagan by boat. All still existing buildings had religious purposes, the palaces and the houses of the kings have not survived the long time and especially the fights against the Mongols. Even after the period where Bagan was a royal city, Burmese kings donated bells and gold for the stupas and even two new temples were built in the 18th century. Uncountable are the Buddha statues in the temples in many different sizes and colors.
We hired a private taxi to get from Bagan to Mount Popa for a half day. The reason for the private taxi was mainly due to time constraints and we wanted to enjoy another half day at least in Bagan. 787 steps lead to the top of the mountain but also here we had to walk barefoot. Another challenge were the many monkeys running and jumping around and their poops on the stairs. But the view from the top and the small temples were worth climbing up.
Pyay – non touristic place
A huge adventure was our trip to Pyay. From Yangon Pyay can be reached via bus (approx. seven hours drive). Sri Ksetra located just a few kilometres from Pyay is an ancient capital. Not many buildings have survived since the 9th century when the center was relocated towards Bagan. The Baw Baw Gyi Pagoda remained with its 43 meters tall stupa. The last king has taken some relics away and brought them to one of the pagodas in Bagan. To avoid further theft the ‘Grand Lady’ is watching the pagoda sitting on a swing. Devouts donate scarfs to the Grand Lady.
Pyu (Pyay) Ancient Cities – UNESCO World Heritage Site
To get to the area of the ancient capital in Pyay we have rented a motorcycle directly at the hotel since we arrived quite late with the bus from Yangon. Besides issues starting the motorcycle, changing the gears felt like riding a horse. Paved roads are not really existing in Pyay and so we had to cross sandy roads – sometimes with so many sands that we had trouble to not fall down – with wild dogs everywhere around. Due to the late afternoon we only stopped for some minutes at each pagoda to avoid driving during darkness through this countryside. We have the impression that not many tourists visit this site since we haven’t met anybody else and the choice of hotels is very limited. And why did we do all of this? For extend our lovely bucket list of UNESCO sites.
Bago is just 80 km from Yangon and so we decided to take a train to get there. Our train didn’t had windows and also the door was not closing during the journey but due to the low speed of the train it was perfect. The train station looks like an original heritage from the colonial era.
Taking the train from Yangon to Bago revealed a side of Myanmar that we haven’t seen before: the extreme poverty of the Burmese people and the non-existence of a waste management system.
No other city in Myanmar has such a density of religious sites like it is the case in Bago. We rented e-bikes to visit the pagodas in this non-touristic city. It seems that e-bikes are not common in Bago since the locals were surprisingly looking at us. To confuse them even more, when passing slow motorcycles we started pedaling as much as possible despite the electric engine.
In the South of Bago four sitting Buddhas are located. Of course there are many Buddha statues in Myanmar and one is bigger, more beautiful or more golden like the other but these Kyaikpun Buddhas are special. They are sitting back to back and looking into the four cardinal points. The one looking to the North is the current Buddha Gautama and the other three are his predecessors. The statues are originally from the 15th century but have been restored in the last years with brilliant fingernails, white skin and deep red lips.
The reclining Buddha inside the Shwethalyaung Pagode is with its length of more than 50 meters one of the largest Buddhas in the world. This position symbolizes Buddha shortly before his death. This Buddha was standing outside but to protect him, a roof construction (inconvenient for pictures) was built.
Directly next to the Shwethalyaung Pagoda lies another huge Buddha statue – but this time, in the open air. This Buddha was built around ten years ago. Since there are no big trees around to provide shade, our feet were grilled walking around barefoot on these green tiles.
The Shwemawdaw Pagoda has the highest stupa of Myanmar and was restored several times due to earthquakes. And every time the pagoda was getting bigger and more beautiful. The once fallen down top of the pagoda has now been integrated into the structure in a way to remind of this occurrence.
The Golden Rock in Kinpun is one of the most important Buddhist sanctuary in Myanmar. The rock is only held tight by Buddha’s one hair that is positioned inside the golden stupa on top of the rock. To get up on the mountain you can either walk three hours or take a truck for 40 minutes. A truck starts when the benches on the loading area are more than full (approximately 40 people). Going up the around 700 meters is fine due to the ascent but for going down we have kept the fingers crossed that the breaks will make it.
We spent our last two days in Myanmar in Yangon. Yangon was Myanmar’s capital until 2006 when the army declared surprisingly the newly founded city Nay Pyi Taw as the new capital. However, the new capital is located in a region that is still closed for foreigners.
The Shwedagon pagode in Yangon is one highlight of our trip so that we spent a lot of time there to see the sunrise and the sunset. It is said that the pagoda is around 2,500 years old. The stupa is around 100 meters high and with the gold leaves on it, the stupa weights around 150 tons whereof around ten tons are pure gold. Every third year, the gold is taken away and the stupa gets completely new gold. The umbrella on top has several thousands of diamonds and little bells.
What you should not miss in Yangon is the visit of the downtown area. We have taken a bus from the Shwedagon Pagoda to the city center. In the middle of a roundabout, there is another beautiful golden pagoda (Sule Pagoda).
Yangon’s second face consists of respectable colonial houses. The majority of the houses were built at the beginning of the 20th century. Despite the tendency to modernize Yangon, the locals renovate the ancient houses on a regular basis. Still in use is the baby blue City House with Yangon’s government and the post office. In the latter we have learned that the post office for parcels is only open 2.5 hours per day – despite many employees have been around four hours after the official closure.
Myanmar from another time
The man on the picture looks like from another time. We found him sitting in front of a house with this old typewriter. What an impressive end of the really stunning visit of Myanmar. Highly recommended to visit Myanmar to all of you.
You might have seen a bright crème in the Burmese’s face and may ask yourself: what is this that they put on their face? This is Thanaka paste – the most widely used skin lotion in Myanmar. The Thanaka tree grows mostly in the sandy regions of Central Myanmar and needs about 30 years to be harvested. The locals use Thanaka as a protection against the sun. Moreover, the paste lightens the skin and many say that it is the secret for their anti-aging.
Our book recommendations
|As a English guidebook we have made good experience with the Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma) guide. It has a good overview of country highlights, some maps and useful accommodation tips.|
The following novels have we either read by our own or they have been recommended to us.
|Burmese Days – George Orwell: Orwell draws on his years of experience in India to tell this story of the waning days of British imperialism. A handful of Englishmen living in a settlement in Burma congregate in the European Club, drink whiskey, and argue over an impending order to admit a token Asian.|
|The Art of Hearing Herat Beats – Jan-Philipp Sendker: When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion. It will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains.|
|The Long Path to Wisdom – Jan-Philipp Sendker: These moving stories speak to the rich mythology of the diverse peoples of Burma, the spirituality of humankind, and the profound social impact of Buddhist thought. Some are so strange he couldn’t classify them or identify a familiar moral, while others reminded him of the fairy tales of his childhood. Except that here monkeys, tigers, elephants, and crocodiles inhabited the fantastic lands instead of hedgehogs, donkeys, or geese. Their morals resemble those of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, illustrating how all cultures draw on a universal wisdom to create their myths.|
|Saving Fish from Drowning – Amy Tan: San Francisco art patron Bibi Chen has planned a journey of the senses along the famed Burma Road for eleven lucky friends. But after her mysterious death, Bibi watches aghast from her ghostly perch as the travelers veer off her itinerary and embark on a trail paved with cultural gaffes and tribal curses, Buddhist illusions and romantic desires. On Christmas morning, the tourists cruise across a misty lake and disappear.|
|Myanmar (Burma): Temples of Bagan – David Raezer: We have read this book by ourselves during the visit of Bagan. Bagan, the ancient Buddhist capital in central Myanmar (Burma) that thrived from 850-1300, is one of the most magnificent and inspiring sites in Southeast Asia. It is yours to uncover.|
|The River of Lost Footsteps – Thant Myint-U: How is interested in Burma’s history and political system, should not miss this book. hant Myint-U tells the story of modern Burma, and the story of his own family, in an interwoven narrative that is by turns lyrical, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Through his prominent family’s stories and those of others, he portrays Burma’s rise and decline in the modern world. From the time of Portuguese pirates and renegade Mughal princes through a sixty-year civil war that continues today―the longest-running war anywhere in the world.|
|Freedom from fear- Aung San Suu Kyi: Aung San Suu Kyi is the most popular person of Burma. How wants to read more about her life as opposition politician and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate should read this biography of the Swedish journalist Jesper Bengtsson.|