Even though it is no longer the nation's official capital, Yangon – formerly Rangoon – remains Myanmar's largest and most commercially important city. Its downtown skyline is dominated by the 'winking wonder' of Shwedagon Paya, a dazzling Buddhist temple that attracts pilgrims from all over the world.
For those who haven’t been there – and that includes The Road to Mandalay author Rudyard Kipling – the mention of ‘Mandalay’ typically conjures up images of Asia at its most traditional and timeless. The initial reality can be a major anticlimax – a traffic-choked grid of interminable straight roads full of anonymous concrete buildings. But don’t despair.
Slicing the crystal-placid waters of Inle Lake in a boat; trekking among Pa-O and Danu villages outside Kalaw; feeling like you've travelled back in time at a remote hill-tribe market in the back hills of Shan State. What do some of Myanmar's most emblematic experiences have in common? They can all be tackled in the country's east.
This heartland of the Bamar people has been the location of three former Burmese capitals – Bagan, Pyay and Taungoo – as well as the latest surreal one, Nay Pyi Taw. Of this quartet, it’s Bagan with its wondrous vista of pagodas and stupas, many dating back to the 12th century, that’s the star attraction.
Northern Shan State
For an easy escape from the heat and hussle of Mandalay, do what the colonial Brits did – nip up to Pyin Oo Lwin. And as you've come this far, why not continue further across the rolling hills of the Shan Plateau to discover some of Southeast Asia’s most satisfying hill treks from Kyaukme or Hsipaw.
One of Myanmar’s main attractions, this is a temple town. The area known as Bagan (ပုဂ) or, bureaucratically, as the ‘Bagan Archaeological Zone’, occupies an impressive 26-sq-mile area, 118 miles south of Mandalay and 429 miles north of Yangon. The Ayeyarwady River drifts past its northern and western sides.
Pyin Oo Lwin
Founded by the British in 1896, the town was originally called Maymyo (‘May-town’), after Colonel May of the 5th Bengal Infantry and was designed as a place to escape the Mandalay heat. Following the Indian-raj terminology for such places, it has been known ever since as a ‘hill station’, although in fact it’s fairly flat (just at a raised elevation).
Simply put, the deep south of Myanmar, known today as Tanintharyi Region (တနသၤာရီတိုင္း), is a beach bum’s dream. The coastline consists of bridal-white beaches fronting a vast archipelago of more than 800 largely uninhabited islands, nearly all of which have only recently opened to general tourism. We certainly weren't the first foreigners to be drawn to the area.
The main access point for Inle Lake, scruffy Nyaungshwe, at the north end of the lake, has grown into a bustling traveller centre with dozens of guesthouses and hotels, a surfeit of restaurants serving pancakes and pasta, and a pleasantly relaxed traveller vibe. If Myanmar could be said to have a backpacker scene at all, it can be found here.