Last Updated February 16, 2020
What is Myanmar and why should I visit?
Myanmar is a country in Southeast Asia, slightly smaller than Texas with a population of 54 million people. It sits between Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, Thailand, and the Indian Ocean. You might know it by its colonial name, Burma.
Myanmar is one of the most wanderlust-y places I’ve ever visited (if you doubt that see the photos in this post). Buddhist temples, both old and new, shimmer and shine over cities and nature. I’ve been to 30 countries at the time of writing, most of them in Latin America and Africa, and Myanmar may be the least Westernized place I’ve visited yet. I didn’t hear western music blaring in the streets or in stores, and most of the signs are in Burmese. Men wear longyis, or long cloth tied at the waist, more often than pants. A long civil war and closed off society means that Myanmar is outside of globalization trends.
Is Myanmar safe?
You’ve probably heard Myanmar in the news in recent years associated with the Rohingya genocide, which has forced more than a million people to flee the country. The things happening in Rakhine State in the northwest are nothing short of tragic crimes against humanity. Deciding to visit Myanmar during this time and the risk that my funds would support a genocidal government gave me a lot of pause during the planning process. Ultimately I decided to go, because I had a friend there who was leaving soon, but I did feel conflicted.
The most dissonant thing about visiting a country in the midst of a conflict was how peaceful it felt. Myanmar is a large country though, and the most popular tourist destinations are far from the conflict areas. I felt completely safe, safer than in many other countries. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t dangers, but it did not feel like a war zone.
What is a possible one-week itinerary?
If you only have one week, you’re going to need to balance time, money, and priority destinations. It’s a big country! I visited 4 destinations at a breakneck pace: Yangon, Inle Lake, Bagan, and Mandalay. These locations are far apart from each other, minimum 5 hours bus ride but often more. Your options, in order of cheapest to most expensive (generally), are to take the bus, train, fly, or drive. None of these options have a stellar safety record, so in the words of the late Anthony Bourdain, “So really the question on the end of this journey is: come back on the train, or fly back in a coffin? Mishaps on both Burmese planes and trains are not, shall we say, unheard of.”
Day 1: Yangon – a former capital, the largest city, and a first stop for many tourists. Landed midday after 22 hours in transit. Visited the country’s largest pagoda, Shwedagon ($8 USD). This place has it all. Stunning gold stupas. Giant Buddha statues. Gongs. Offerings. An entire complex – the national temple, a place that pilgrims from around the Buddhist world aim to visit. It is really quite spectacular.
Because I visited during the rainy season, from May to October, the afternoon was somewhat spoiled with a lot of rain but I didn’t mind with all the jet lag. I visited Pansuriya, an adorable cafe downtown, before promptly falling asleep.
Day 2: Feasted on coconut noodle soup for Burmese brunch at Rangoon Tea House. Found HLA Day craft store which focuses on local and eco-friendly crafts. It’s amazing! Best finds: bamboo straws, a backpack made out of fabric from broken umbrellas, and a Burmese nativity set. But I wanted to buy everything.
Next, a late afternoon 1-hour flight to Heho, the closest airport to Inle Lake ($89 USD on Myanmar National Airlines). Fun fact: These are propeller planes that run commuter routes around the country, with people hopping off and on at each stop. We landed directly on the tarmac and walked into the airport, and they wheeled our luggage behind us on a cart.
I stayed at Ananta Inle Hotel for $58 USD per night – a stunning place right on the lake.
Day 3: Inle Lake, an idyllic spot where the locals have made a living off of building things on water. Took a boat tour directly from the hotel where we visited a series of local craftspeople – silversmiths and jewelers, paper and clothing made from lotus root, homemade umbrellas, hand-rolled cigars among others. We also passed floating villages (homes built on stilts over the lake), Phaungdaw Oo Pagoda (the most important religious site in the Shan State), and Nge Hpe Kyaung Monastery (or jumping cat monastery, though most of the cats are gone). I also got to watch local fisherman balance and steer the boats with their feet as they harvest seaweed from the lake.
The trip ended at a lakeside restaurant with tea leaf salad, which is known for its fermented tea leaves, and lemongrass tea as the afternoon rains washed in. I did have a moment where I thought our Burmese-speaking boat driver abandoned me at lunch, leaving me to find my own way back to the hotel, but luckily he popped up right in time.
Day 4: I rented a bike from the hotel. First stop, Forest Monastery lookout. It’s barely mentioned in the guide books, but the views from the top are fantastic and worth the heart-pumping uphill climb.
Next, stopped for refreshments at the adorable Mot Cafe, a Korean-owned social enterprise supporting an after school program for local kids. Final stop was the Red Mountain Estate Winery. It’s fun, as it’s accessible and has great views, but the experience is better than the wine. Ended the day on a $8 night bus to Bagan.
Day 5: Bagan is an 18-mile collection of 3800+ stunning Buddhist temples built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Already awake after the night bus, I entered Bagan (approx. $20 USD) for sunrise photos. After a few hours of rest, I rented an e-bike from the hotel and drove around to see the temples. I took out the Lonely Planet travel guide e-book for free from the library (gotta love the library!) which has a great guide to the most famous ones and their history. There are SO many that are stunning but my favorites were Ananda and Shwesandaw (don’t miss the reclining Buddha, ask a local).
Here’s a tip: Bring temple-friendly clothing which includes covering your shoulders and pants/skirts/shorts that reach at least to your knees. You’ll need to take your shoes off for every temple, so choose ones that slip on and off easily.
I ended the day with sunset at the Nann Myint Viewing Tower ($10 USD) and a night visit to Shwezigon Paya in Nyaung U which I cannot recommend enough. There are very few tourists there at night and they light up the golden pagoda:
Day 6: More e-bike exploring! Went early to Dhammayangi Temple, the largest in Bagan, and enjoyed it with relatively few people. After more temples, I stopped for lunch at Myo Myo Myanmar Rice Food. It was quite the experience as they lay a bunch of tapas-style dishes in front of you and you pay for what you eat. Even after asking the waitress I wasn’t entirely sure what I was eating (and paid for it the next day). Ended the day with a sunset boat ride on the Irrawaddy River.
Day 7: Took an early morning flight to Mandalay, the former capital and now second-largest city. To maximize my one day, I arranged a driver to take me to the main sights. While you can DIY, if you’re pinched for time having a driver makes a huge difference. In just one day he took us to the U Bein bridge, the longest teakwood bridge in the world, and Mahamuni Temple, a major pilgrimage site because it hosts one of only 5 likenesses of Buddha in the world.
After another small-plate lunch at Golden Palace, I visited a gold leaf making exhibition where they show you how it can be pounded by hand (spoiler: most gold leaf today isn’t made this way, I’m pretty sure it’s a show for tourists). I also stopped by the Royal Palace, which is a replica of what was once the real thing, and one of my favorite spots: the Shwenandaw (Golden Palace) Monastery, made out of intricate teakwood carvings. Next was Kuthodaw Pagoda, known as the world’s largest book. It’s not a paper-bound book as you might expect, but 730 marble slabs in mini pagodas containing the Tripitaka, the canon of Theravada Buddhism.
The final stop was Su Taung Pyai Pagoda resting on top of Mandalay Hill, where I was treated to yet another stunning temple overlooking the city. As a bonus after a long and jam-packed day, I stayed at the Mercure Hotel and rested in their amazing pool.
There you have it – 7 days in Myanmar! Have you been? What were your favorite parts? Have questions? Let me know in the comments below.