Unlike what the headlines are saying right now, many cities in Myanmar are very safe for tourists. Myanmar has so many fascinating tourist attractions, ranging from a beautiful temple, a fascinating pagoda, and a turquoise coast, Traveling to Myanmar would grant you an experience of a lifetime.
Where is Burma (Myanmar)?
Burma or Myanmar is a country in South East Asia. The country has five neighbors, Thailand, and Laos on the east, Bangladesh and India on the west, and China on the north. You are free to call the country either Burma or Myanmar, but “Myanmar” is a newer name for the country.
Where to go in Myanmar then?
1. Rangoon and its surroundings
Once the capital of Myanmar, Rangoon is the largest city in the country. The city developed from a fishing village to one of the most significant ports in South East Asia. After the British won the Second Anglo-Burmese War, Rangoon became the capital of British Burma. Thus, it is quite common that there are several colonial buildings left.
The top destination in Rangoon is indeed the Shwedagon Pagoda. The pagoda is the holiest site for Buddhists in Burma. The building is covered with gold plates. Hence, it looks majestic and brilliant both in daytime and nighttime. The pagoda is a paragon of Burmese architecture.
When you visit the site, you could realize that there are so many Burmese around. Please be respectful to them as well. They are kind and willing to help you if you have any problems.
You must take off your shoes before entering the pagoda! This is a strict rule that you have to follow. Based on my experiences, you don’t have to worry that your feet would be dirty, because there are workers nearby who clean the floors all the time.
Apart from Shwedagon Pagoda, there are other interesting sites as well, such as Sule Pagoda, Chauk-
At Rangoon, you can shop at Bogyoke Market or Scott’s Market. Tourists could find several Burmese goods here such as jade, clothing, and traditional handicraft.
Within 60 miles (96 km) from Rangoon, there is a city named Bago (Pegu.) This city was the ancient capital of the Mon and Burmese kingdoms. Thus, tourists have many things to see here.
First of all, you should visit Shwemawdaw Pagoda. The pagoda is the tallest pagoda in Burma, and one of the oldest. Currently, it is more than 1,000 years old. Kings of Mon and Burma usually prayed to the pagoda before going to battle. The pagoda was under repair several times due to earthquakes that occurred nearby.
Another top destination is the Shwethalyaung Buddha Temple. The site has a statue of a huge reclining Buddha. The statue length is 55 m, while the height is 16m. Many believed that the statue disappeared after the sack of Pegu in 1757. Subsequently, it was rediscovered in 1880.
In addition, there are other destinations worth visiting. All of them relate to Buddhism such as Mahazedi Pagoda, or Kyaikpun Buddha which has four large statues of Buddhas (including previous Buddhas.)
Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is not in any town. It is a standalone site in a town of Kyaiktiyo in the state of Mon. This pagoda is unique because the pagoda itself is on a large rock that seems to be falling from the hill. Both are somehow defying the force of gravity. There is a myth that Indra used his godly powers to prevent the pagoda and the rock from falling. Currently, the rock is covered with gold that devout Buddhists pasted over it for centuries.
The pagoda is one of the most significant pilgrimage sites for Buddhists in Myanmar. Many Thais also visit the pagoda every year. From the nearest accommodations, tourists have to walk upstairs for 10-20 minutes, depending on your pace, to reach the pagoda.
There is a common belief that one should visit the pagoda three times. Thus, tourists would spend a night at the accommodation on top of the hill, and follow these steps
- Visit the pagoda immediately after you drop your stuff at the accommodation, then come back down for a dinner
- After dinner, walk upstairs to pay a visit to the pagoda again
- Walk back to the accommodation, spend a night there, then visit the pagoda for the last time before or after breakfast
It’s worth noting that women are not allowed to enter the interior of the pagoda. They can still see the pagoda clearly from the gate.
2. Mandalay and its surroundings
Mandalay is a relatively new city. Mindon, the penultimate king of Burma built the city in 1857 as his new capital. Mandalay was the capital of Burma for only almost three decades, as the British Empire annexed Burma in 1885.
The first destination that every tourist should visit is the Mandalay Palace. The palace was built to be a residence of the king and his family. This is where King Thibaw surrendered to the British. Unfortunately, most of the palace was destroyed in WW2. The buildings there were rebuilt in 1990, but they still perfectly represent Burmese culture and art.
Traveling to Myanmar would never complete without a visit to the sacred Mahamuni Buddha Temple. The temple houses one of the most beautiful and holiest images of Buddha in Burma. The image was built by the Arakanese more than a thousand years ago. After the Burmese conquest of Arakan, the king brought the image to Amarapura, his capital. The image was moved to Mandalay subsequently. It has remained there ever since.
At the temple, there is a daily ritual of face-cleaning the image at 4 AM. If you want to attend, make sure you arrive at the temple early, as almost every tourist is looking forward to it.
In Mandalay, there are other interesting destinations to see. This includes Mandalay Hill, Kuthodaw Pagoda, and Shwenandaw Monastery. Tourists could easily spend 2 days in Mandalay.
If you have more time, I recommend a visit to Amarapura and Inwa, two former capitals near Mandalay. Amarapura features U-Bein Bridge, the longest teakwood bridge in the world. This bridge is 1.2 km long. Currently, locals still use it as a passageway to cross the lake. Inwa has ruins of the old palace and monastery. The most interesting one is Me Nu Brick Monastery.
“Sea of Pagodas” is probably the best definition of Bagan. As the capital of Bagan Kingdom, the city has more than 2,000 surviving pagodas from the 11th to 13th centuries. When you visit Bagan, you could see many pagodas scattered over the plains. Many travelers love to see the sunrise or sunset from the pagodas. Make sure you have time to see one as well.
Bagan plains are very active for earthquakes. Some of them were major ones that destroyed the temple irreparably, but it does not occur that often. Currently, Bagan has an underdeveloped tourism industry. Hence, the accommodations might not be up to western standards but Bagan is still a must-see for travelers.
4. Andaman Coast
Myanmar has a long coast in the south. The white sand beaches there have almost no tourists. Thus, they are very fresh for those who admire the real beauty of nature. The corals and aquatic animals are still abundant.
Currently, there are many diving tours for tourists to explore the islands of Myanmar. It’s worth noting that we may not be able to visit them by ourselves. A trip with an eligible tour guide is necessary to enter these islands. As of March 2019, several Thai tours also offer a 3 day trip to these islands, but I think you can buy tours from Rangoon or Tavoy as well.
Popular islands are Cock’s Comb (Emerald Heart Island), Nyuang OO Phee
Other parts of the country
Many parts of Burma are not safe for tourists, especially the western and northern parts of the country, where there are separatist activities. It’s highly recommended that you avoid those places.
Besides, those destinations above, I believe Myanmar is interesting because of its unique culture. You could see many of them wearing traditional clothes in their daily life. Buddhism is held in the highest regard within their hearts. Their lives are so associated with religion. Overall, Myanmar is a beautiful and fascinating country.
Burmese people are generous and helpful, especially if you show respect to them and their culture. I believe you would have a great time visiting Myanmar.