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Burma/Myanmar travel guide

Years of isolation have kept Burma an unspoiled gem, with creaking teak monasteries and temples of stone, gracefully ageing in a cycle-paced society

Burma is truly an extraordinary country – its people, its landscapes and its culture are all  unique. Travellers who visit Burma are welcomed by gentle, smiling people and some of the world’s most impressive monuments.

Yangon (Rangoon) is Burma’s main city. This is where you'll find the grand colonial buildings of the colonial age, charmingly neglected in a part of Asia that hasn't joined the rush to modernise. The people look instead to the Shwedagon Paya, the ‘Golden Pagoda’, a huge hill-top temple at the heart of the city that's always thronged with devotees.

Mandalay, upcountry in Burma's north, is a low-rise, slow-moving outpost where bicycles set the pace and every hill is topped with a pagoda: it feels more town than city. This is the launching point for visits to ancient temples and the cool hill station of Pyin U Lwin, where stagecoaches trundle around town.

Bagan is Burma’s Angkor, the site of hundreds of Buddhist temples scattered across a vast plain, all that remain of a long-vanished ancient capital where the wooden houses have long since disappeared and only the stone-built holy monuments remain.

Inle Lake in central Burma is the perfect place to explore the rural side of the country, with boat rides to lively markets and floating villages and hikes to tribal settlements. For some relaxation on the coast, the southern destinations - they can't really be called resorts - of Ngapali and Ngwe Saung offer sweeping beaches.

Burma’s recent past has been tragically overshadowed by long-term repression and isolation created by the military junta who ruled for so long. Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party had called for a tourism boycott. However, things are beginning to change: elections were held in 2010, and there is now a civilian government in place. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, and both she and the NLD have now sanctioned "responsible" travel to Burma.There is still a long way to go before the country is truly democratic, but things are definitely changing.

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Take in a Temple. Cradled by the Irrawaddy River the plain of Bagan is strewn with temples dating back to the birth of the Hindu religion, the stone-built relics of a long-lost city. Atmospherically mouldering in the tropical heat this is Burma's answer to Angkor Wat
  2. Meet the Leg-Boatmen. On the still waters of Inle Lake the fishermen propel their narrow dugout canoes by paddling an oar with one leg. Catch them throwing their nets at dawn, framed by stilted monasteries and the surrounding hills
  3. Join the Pilgrims. Rangoon's Schwedagon Pagoda is the spiritual heart of the country, and always busy with devotees offering alms. Light your own candle and pray for change to come to Burma
  4. Return to Mandalay. The low-rise, low-key capital of Mandalay is a charming, slow-moving city, where local cafes are furnished with tiny child-sized stools, imported goods are rarely seen and everything is hand-made. The cracked stupa at Mingun is a short boat-ride up the river
  5. Climb Rock Mountain. The temple at Kyaiktyo is perched on top of a rock outcrop that towers over the surrounging plain. Steep steps gain access to a holy place where fine views make contemplation easy
  6. Chill on the beach. Burma's beaches on the Bay of Bengal have scarcely been developed. Visit Ngapali and find white-sand beaches more used to drying shrimp than sun-loungers, with fishy snacks fresh from the sea

Wanderlust tips

Carry plenty of low denomination US dollar bills as well as kyat for smaller outlays. To avoid your money reaching the military – at least, as much as possible – steer clear of large businesses and transport companies. Don't tempt local guides/drivers/boatmen to disobey government travel restrictions: they'll be left to face the consequences long after you've flown home. 

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