My recent trip to Myanmar saw me travelling from cities such as Mandalay to tiny rural villages and tranquil highland lakes. This beautiful country is a wonderful place to explore, with the friendliest people I have ever met, and as it’s on the brink of hitting the mainstream tourist radar, now could be the best time to visit Myanmar.
DAY ONE: MANDALAY & PYIN OO LWIN
Although Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city, the airport is strangely quiet. The landscape is parched, with bursts of colour from the fuchsia bougainvillea and sunflower fields, and as we drive down a long, straight road towards the city, we pass only the occasional horse and cart or moped.
As we approach Mandalay, the traffic gets a little busier and we stop to watch a cow cart tournament with hundreds of locals squatting around the road chewing cheroot as two carts drawn by bulls come rattling down the field towards us. I’m told this is an event to mark the fields being harvested.
Although the way of life is obviously still quite traditional, it’s clear that Myanmar is a country on the move. Further down the road we pass men in singlets and lunghis digging trenches: they’re installing fibre optic cable. I’m fairly certain the village I grew up in outside London doesn’t have fibre optic broadband yet.
We continue up steep winding mountain passes, towards the Chinese border, until we finally reach Pyin Oo Lwin.
I recharge with some spicy, sweet and sour soup before exploring the maze of markets. I’m met with warm smiles from the shopkeepers, as I wander past piles of bananas, spicy sausages, and dried fish. You can also pick up great coffee and really good preserves made from the region’s fruit.
I take a horse and cart ride through the town to the National Kandawgyi Gardens, which are modelled on London’s Kew Gardens. Cynically, I assumed a horse and cart ride would be a tourist gimmick, but I now see that it’s simply the way locals get around, and there isn’t a western face to be seen.
In the tranquil gardens, I spot a saffron-clad monk leaning over a potentially dangerous snake to take a photograph of it with his iPhone: surely a perfect summary of Myanmar’s striking blend of tradition and modernity!
At the end of my first day, my thoughts are that Myanmar feels far quieter and less touristy than any other Asian country I have visited, something that I have previously only felt whilst exploring Sri Lanka and Nepal some years ago.
DAY TWO: TRAIN FROM PYIN OO LWIN TO HSIPAW
Today I take the train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw (pronounced see-paw). In upper class, the windows don’t close, but I don’t mind; I live in London, so fresh air is a luxury! The seats are comfortable and the carriage is nearly empty, so I have a peaceful journey admiring the beautiful countryside, lush valleys and verdant rice paddies as we trundle along at a speed of about 18km per hour.
DAY THREE: HSIPAW
After an early start, we board a local boat which takes us up the Dokhtawady River to a small monastery. The trip reveals little glimpses of local life: women washing their clothes in the river, men fishing, and others loading stones into a boat to use as building materials.
DAY FOUR: EN ROUTE TO MANDALAY
On the way back to Mandalay, we stop at Baou Gyo, the most important temple in the Shan state, where there is a great lunch spot in lovely gardens, and Maha Ant Htoo Kan Thar Pagoda in Pyin Oo Lwin, where there is a giant Buddha. This marble statue was destined for China, but the driver crashed his lorry, and after no one could lift it back on board, the Buddha ended up staying.
DAY FIVE: MANDALAY
Seeing the monks receiving alms in the morning is the highlight of the day in Mandalay, and I also enjoy visiting the Golden Palace and the Mahamuni Buddha Temple. We end the day on the top of Mandalay Hill for sunset views, before beers and a Chinese barbecue.
DAY SIX: IRRAWADDY RIVER CRUISE
Taking the pace down a notch, I board the RV Paukan for a leisurely river cruise. The deck is spacious and great for relaxing, and all the rooms face the river, so I can watch the world go by from my bed.
DAY SEVEN: BAGAN
I wish I had more time to spend in Bagan. The landscape is incredible: more than 2000 ancient pagodas set by the river.
The Ananda is perhaps the most famous temple in Bagan, known for its four Buddhas with their backs to each other. The final Buddha you see (walking anticlockwise) is the original, the expression changing according to vantage point.
At the top of Shwesandaw View Point (or the Sunset Pagoda), the views are incredible and the demanding climb well worthwhile. It’s quite busy up here, but on the upside, there is coconut water for sale, which I need after the steep steps!
Fortunately, my guide realises that I’m not enjoying the crowds, so he takes me to another sunset pagoda where only locals go, having ridden up on their mopeds.
DAY EIGHT: KALAW
Following a scenic drive along some windy mountain roads, I find myself 4000 feet above sea level, in Kalaw. This old colonial town is really charming, its main road lined with purple bougainvillea and brilliant red and yellow flowers. Up on the hills are large Tudor-style houses.
The main draw in Kalaw is trekking to visit the Palaung Hill tribe, but you can also go and see the Kalaw Elephant Camp.
The elephants don’t go out when it’s too hot, so I enjoy a leisurely lunch of chicken curry and chapatti while I wait. When the temperatures drops, we walk down to the elephants, of which there are eight. I feed them balls of food and bananas, learn about their backgrounds and how they came to the camp, then give them a good scrub in river. We then ride them back to the camp.
I get a really good vibe from the Elephant Camp; there is a sense of caring for the orphans and those that have spent their lives working in the logging industry that makes it seem very special.
DAY NINE: PINDAYA CAVE & INLE LAKE
Pindaya Cave is a must-see. This incredible cave is packed full of 8000 Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes. Many of them have been donated from as far afield as LA and Switzerland.
After visiting Pindaya, I arrive at Inle Lake. A vast expanse of water flanked by mountains, this is a beautiful spot. Although there are some other tourists, the majority of people I see are the famous Inle Lake leg-rowing fishermen, who have this amazing technique of rowing their boats using a single leg to control the oar.
En route to the Shwe Inn Tain Pagoda, taking a boat down the small waterways that lead off the lake, I pass water buffalo cooling off in the river, monks wandering down the banks, groups of children playing, and women washing colourful blankets and clothes.
The pagoda itself has been overrun with trees and roots growing through the stone, giving it a really ancient and undiscovered appeal. Behind, there are hundreds of other pagodas covering the hill, peppering the landscape with splashes of yellow, gold, orange and white.
DAY TEN: NGAPALI BEACH
Ngapali Beach is beautiful and the lifestyle really laid back. They are only just starting to tarmac the roads here.
I spend the day relaxing by the Bay of Bengal and watching the occasional child cantering bareback on a pony down the beach.
DAY ELEVEN: YANGON
My trip around this incredible country ends in Yangon, home to arguably the most important temple in Myanmar, the golden Shwedagon Pagoda. I stroll past red brick colonial buildings, the place where Aung San was assassinated, and we also drive past the building in which Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest, all of which is an interesting reminder of some of the country’s recent history.
I absolutely love Myanmar and I’m telling everyone to go. Newly opened to tourists, now really is the time to visit.