The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all but essential travel to parts of Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states. Check the latest before you travel.
It's a new era for this extraordinary and complex land, where the landscape is scattered with gilded pagodas and the traditional ways of Asia endure.
Amazingly, over a century later, Myanmar retains the power to surprise and delight even the most jaded of travelers. Be dazzled by the 'winking wonder' of Shwedagon Paya. Contemplate the 4000 sacred stupas scattered across the plains of Bagan. Stare in disbelief at the Golden Rock at Mt Kyaiktiyo, teetering impossibly on the edge of a chasm. These are all important Buddhist sights in a country where pious monks are more revered than rock stars.
For all the recent changes, Myanmar remains at heart a rural nation of traditional values. You'll encounter men wearing the sarong-like longyi and chewing betel nut, spitting the blood-red juice onto the ground, women with faces smothered in thanakha (a natural sunblock), and cheroot-smoking grannies. Trishaws still ply city streets, while the horse or bullock and cart is common rural transport. Drinking tea – a British colonial custom – is enthusiastically embraced in thousands of teahouses.
The New Myanmar
In 2015, Myanmar voted in its first democratically elected government in more than half a century. Sanctions have been dropped and Asian investors especially are coming to do business. Modern travel conveniences, such as mobile-phone coverage and internet access, are now common. But the economic and social changes Myanmar is undergoing are largely confined to the big cities and towns, and large swaths of the country remain off limits due to ongoing ethnic conflict. The Burmese military continue to play a key, if less visible, role in politics. The new Myanmar is very much a work in progress.
Thankfully, the pace of change is not overwhelming, leaving the simple pleasures of travel in Myanmar intact. Drift down the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River in an old steamer or luxury cruiser. Stake out a slice of beach on the blissful Bay of Bengal. Trek through pine forests to minority villages scattered across the Shan Hills without jostling with scores of fellow travelers. Best of all, you'll encounter locals who are gentle, humorous, engaging, considerate, inquisitive and passionate – they want to play a part in the world, and to know what you make of their country. Now is the time to make that connection.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Myanmar (Burma).
One of Buddhism's most sacred sites, the 326ft zedi (stupa) here is adorned with 27 metric tons of gold leaf, along with thousands of diamonds and other gems, and is believed to enshrine strands of the Gautama Buddha's hair as well as relics of three former buddhas. Four entrance stairways lead to the main terrace. Visit at dawn if you want tranquillity; otherwise, pay your respects when the golden stupa flames crimson and burnt orange in the setting sun. The following covers the history and layout of Shwedagon Paya. Freelance guides (they’ll locate you before you can find them) can provide more details. Tour agencies can also arrange guides; a good, regularly scheduled tour that also includes the surrounding area is offered by Khiri Travel. History Legend has it that there's been a stupa on Singuttara Hill for 2600 years, ever since two merchant brothers, Tapussa and Ballika, met the Buddha. He gave them eight of his hairs to take back to Myanmar, a land ruled by King Okkalapa. Okkalapa enshrined the hairs in a temple of gold, together with relics of three former buddhas, which was then enclosed in a temple of silver, then one of tin, then copper, then lead, then marble and, finally, one of plain iron-brick. Archaeologists suggest that the original stupa was built by the Mon people some time between the 6th and 10th centuries. In common with many other ancient zedi in earthquake-prone Myanmar, it has been rebuilt many times. During the Bagan (Pagan) period of Myanmar’s history (10th to 14th centuries), the story of the stupa emerged from the mists of legend to become hard fact. In the 15th century, the tradition of gilding the stupa began. Queen Shinsawbu, who was responsible for many improvements to the stupa, provided her own weight (88lb) in gold, which was beaten into gold leaf and used to cover the structure. Her son-in-law, Dhammazedi, went several better, offering four times his own weight and that of his wife in gold. In 1612 Portuguese renegade adventurer Philip de Brito raided the stupa from his base in Thanlyin and carried away Dhammazedi's 300-ton bell, with the intention of melting it down for cannons. As the British were to do later with another bell, he accidentally dropped it into the river, where it remains. During the 17th century the monument suffered earthquake damage on eight occasions. Worse was to follow in 1768, when a quake brought down the whole top of the zedi. King Hsinbyushin had it rebuilt to virtually its present height, and its current configuration dates from that renovation. British troops occupied the compound for two years immediately after the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824. In 1852, during the Second Anglo-Burmese War, the British again took the paya, the soldiers pillaged it once more and it remained under military control for 77 years, until 1929. Prior to the British takeover of southern Myanmar there had been defensive earthworks around the paya, but these were considerably extended by the occupiers. The emplacements for their cannons can still be seen outside the outer wall. In 1871 the provision of a new hti (the umbrella-like decorative top of a stupa) by King Mindon Min from Mandalay caused considerable head-scratching for the British, who were not at all keen for such an association to be made with the still-independent part of Myanmar. The huge earthquake of 1930, which totally destroyed the Shwemawdaw in Bago, caused only minor damage to Shwedagon. The following year it wasn't so lucky, when the paya suffered from a serious fire. After another minor earthquake in 1970, the zedi was clad in bamboo scaffolding, which extended beyond King Mindon’s 100-year-old hti, and was refurbished. The stupa also had to be repaired following the 2008 Cyclone Nargis. During recent centuries, Shwedagon Paya was the scene for much political activity during the Myanmar independence movement – Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to massive crowds here in 1988, and the temple was also at the centre of the monks’ protests in 2007. Temple Layout The hill on which the stupa stands is 190ft above sea level, with the entire complex covering 114 acres. As is common with temples in Myanmar, the main terrace is approached by four zaungdan (covered walkways), each of which is flanked at its entrance by a pair of 30ft-tall chinthe (half-lion/half-dragon deities). If you don't want to climb the steps, there are elevators at the southern, eastern and northern entrances, while the western zaungdan has sets of escalators. All but the western zaungdan are lined with stalls selling flowers – both real and beautifully made paper ones – for offerings, buddha images, ceremonial umbrellas, books, antiques, incense sticks and much more. There are also fortune tellers and money-exchange booths. You emerge from the shade of the zaungdan into a visual cacophony of technicoloured glitter at the marble-floored main terrace, littered with pavilions and worship halls containing buddha images and two giant cast-iron bells. At the centre of the terrace Shwedagon Paya sits on a square plinth, which stands 21ft above the clutter of the main platform and immediately sets the stupa above the lesser structures. Smaller stupas also sit on this raised platform – four large ones mark the four cardinal directions, four medium-sized ones mark the four corners of the plinth and 60 small ones run around the perimeter. From this base, the zedi rises first in three terraces, then in ‘octagonal’ terraces and then in five circular bands. The shoulder of the bell is decorated with 16 ‘flowers’. The bell is topped by the ‘inverted bowl’, another traditional element of stupa architecture, and above this stand the mouldings, then the ‘lotus petals’. These consist of a band of downturned petals, followed by a band of upturned petals. The banana bud is the final element of the zedi before the jewel-encrusted hti tops it. Around the stupa's base, eight planetary posts conform to the days of the week; locals pray at the station that represents the day they were born. If you want to join them, and don't know the day of your birth, the fortune tellers at the temple have almanacs that will provide the answer. Note that Wednesday is divided into births in the morning and births in afternoon – for the latter you worship at the Rahu post at the northwestern corner of the stupa base. Before leaving the main terrace, pop into the small museum, which is chock-full of buddha statues and religious ornaments. Look for the scale model of the stupa and the beautiful painting of the temple by MT Hla. The photo gallery is also well worth a look, particularly for the close-up snaps it displays of the top of the stupa.
To get a sense of Mandalay’s pancake-flat sprawl, climb the 760ft hill that breaks it. The walk up covered stairways on the hill's southern slope is a major part of the experience – note that you'll need to go barefoot in places, as you pass through numerous temples and pagodas. The climb takes 30 minutes, but much longer if you allow for stops en route. The summit viewpoint is especially popular at sunset, when young monks converge on foreigners for language practice. South Routes There are two southern stairways. The most obvious starts between two giant chinthe (half-lion, half-dragon guardian deities), with 1729 steps. There's an alternative southeastern stairway that's more interesting for glimpsed views, but harder on the feet. The two routes converge, then climb to a shrine building containing a large standing buddha, whose outstretched arm points towards the royal palace. This evokes the legend in which the historical Buddha supposedly visited Burma, accompanied by his disciple Ananda, and on climbing Mandalay Hill prophesied that a great city would be founded below after 2400 years. Scholars calculated that to mean 1857, the year that King Mindon did indeed decree the capital’s move from Amarapura to Mandalay. Further up, behind the forgettable Myatsawnyinaung Ordination Hall, are the windowless ruins of a three-storey stone fortress retaken from the Japanese by Britain’s Royal Berkshire Regiment in a battle in 1945. Near the summit, on the eastern side, facing the penultimate stupa, a contemporary statue depicts ogress San Dha Mukhi offering forth her severed breasts. That’s the sort of display that might have alarmed the more squeamish, but according to legend her feat of self-mutilation impressed the Buddha so much that he ensured her reincarnation 2400 years later as King Mindon. Mandalay Hill St, the winding one-way road for vehicles that begins at the corner of 10th and 68th Sts, is busy with locals jogging, walking and riding bikes up the steep switchbacks in the late afternoon. Other Stairways Steeper stairways lead up from the north (in 25 minutes) or west (15 minutes), but there's little to see en route apart from canoodling couples (north) or lounging monks (west). Wear shoes for these stairways and, near the top of the northern route, be prepared to clamber across and between a trio of pipes. Vehicles It's possible to drive most of the way up Mandalay Hill. From the upper car park, both a lift and an escalator tower should be able to whisk you up to the hilltop. However, as both are often broken you'll probably need to walk the last five minutes on stairways. From 10th St at 68th St, shared pick-up route 16 (per person K1000) shuttles to the car park. Motorcycle taxis typically charge K3000 up and K2000 down (even though the down route is much further due to a long one-way loop).
With its 170ft-high, gold corn-cob hti (decorated pinnacle) shimmering across the plains, Ananda is one of the finest, largest, best-preserved and most revered of all Bagan temples. Thought to have been built between 1090 and 1105 by King Kyanzittha, this perfectly proportioned temple heralds the stylistic end of the early Bagan period and the beginning of the middle period. The central square measures 175ft along each side. Upper floors are closed to visitors. The entrance ways make the structure a perfect Greek cross; each entrance is crowned with a stupa finial. The base and the terraces are decorated with 554 glazed tiles showing scenes from the Jataka (stories of the Buddha's past lives) thought to be derived from Mon texts. Look back as you enter to see the huge carved-teak doors that separate interior halls from cross passages on all four sides. Facing outward from the centre of the cube are four 31ft-tall standing buddhas. Only the Bagan-style images facing north and south are original; both display the dhammachakka mudra (a hand position symbolising the Buddha teaching his first sermon). The other two images are replacements for figures destroyed by fire in the 1600s. All four have bodies of solid teak, though guides may claim that the southern image is made of a bronze alloy. Guides like to point out that if you stand by the donation box in front of the original southern buddha, his face looks sad, while from a distance he tends to look mirthful. The western and eastern standing buddha images are done in the later Konbaung, or Mandalay, style. If looked at from the right angle, the two lions at the eastern side resemble an ogre. A small, nut-like sphere held between the thumb and middle finger of the east-facing buddha image is said to resemble a herbal pill, and may represent the Buddha offering dhamma (Buddhist teachings) as a cure for suffering. Both arms hang at the image’s sides with hands outstretched, a mudra (hand position) unknown to traditional Buddhist sculpture outside this temple. The west-facing buddha features the abhaya mudra (the hands outstretched, in the gesture of no fear). At its feet sit two life-size lacquer statues, said to represent King Kyanzittha and Shin Arahan, the Mon monk who initiated King Anawrahta into Theravada Buddhism. Inside the western portico are two symbols on pedestals of the Buddha’s footprints. Don’t leave without taking a brief walk around the outside of the temple, where you can see many glazed tiles and lovely views of the spires and terraced roofs (often away from the hassle of vendors too). In 1990, on its 900th anniversary, the temple spires were gilded. The remainder of the temple exterior is whitewashed from time to time. Ananda Pahto was damaged during the 2016 earthquake and was under repair at the time of research, but it remains open to visitors. It can feel more like a souvenir stand than a temple given the proliferation of peddlers outside selling books, postcards and oil paintings, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from visiting. Ananda is roughly 1600ft east of Thatbyinnyu, 1600ft north of Shwesandaw and 0.6 miles northwest of Dhammayangyi Pahto. Most visitors access it from the northern side, where the highest concentration of hawkers is. For a quieter approach, enter from the eastern side.
Visible from all parts of Bagan, this massive, walled, 12th-century temple – about 1600ft east of Shwesandaw – is infamous for its mysterious, bricked-up inner passageways and cruel history. It’s said that King Narathu built the temple to atone for his sins: he smothered his father and brother to death and executed one of his wives, an Indian princess, for practising Hindu rituals. The best-preserved of Bagan's temples, it features detailed mortar work in its upper levels. Narathu is also said to have mandated that the mortar-less brickwork fit together so tightly that even a pin couldn’t pass between any two bricks. Workers who failed in this task had their arms chopped off (which is a little ironic seeing as the temple was being constructed to atone for his past sins). Just inside the west entrance, note the stones with arm-sized grooves where these amputations allegedly happened. After Narathu died – by assassination in 1170 – the inner encircling ambulatory was filled with brick rubble as ‘payback’. Others quietly argue that the temple dates from the earlier reign of Alaungsithu, which would refute this legend. It’s also likely that this bricking up of the passages was a crude way of ensuring the massive structure didn’t collapse. The plan here is similar to that of Ananda Pahto, with projecting porticoes and receding terraces, though its sikhara (corn-cob-like temple finial) is reduced to a stub nowadays. Walking around the outer ambulatory, under ceilings so high you can only hear the squeaks of bats circling in the dark, you can see some intact stucco reliefs and paintings, suggesting that the work had been completed. The mystery goes on. Three out of the four buddha sanctums were also filled with bricks. The remaining western shrine features two original side-by-side images of Gautama and Maitreya, the historical and future Buddhas (it’s the only Bagan site with two side-by-side buddhas). The temple’s bad karma may be the reason it remains one of the few temples not to have undergone major restoration. Perhaps in time one of the great architectural mysteries of Bagan will be solved.
The highest peak in Chin State – 10,016ft – and the third-highest in Myanmar, stunning Mt Victoria is one of the principal attractions of southern Chin State. Located within Nat Ma Taung National Park, the mountain is covered in large rhododendron trees that bloom in a delightful riot of red, yellow and white flowers between October and February. It's an easy two- to three-hour climb (round trip) to the twin summits from the trailhead, accessed from the town of Kanpetlet. Fortunately, motorcycle taxis are now supposed to be prohibited on the road to the summit, though private vehicles can and do ferry passengers, marring the experience with dust and pollution for some (rubbish at the summit is also a problem). There is an alternative dirt trail through the bush that will take you halfway there before joining up with the road. There are many other trails across the mountain, as well as fascinating villages all around, but you'll require transport and a guide to access them and to interact with the locals. While it's possible to visit Mt Victoria as an individual traveller, the complete lack of public transport in the Kanpetlet area and the need for a guide mean most people visit on three- or four-day tours from Bagan or possibly out of Mindat. Prices start at US$80 per person per day for a group of four, not including accommodation and food. If you're going solo, ask your resort or guesthouse in Kanpetlet for help in arranging a motorbike to take you to the trailhead. Expect to pay K30,000 for the return trip (a jeep would be a very-pricey K100,000). A better deal is to pay for transport and a guide for the hike (US$40). Most places should be able to sort this out; if not, contact Aung Ling Thang (09 471 70219), the manager of the Mountain Oasis Resort. The K10,000 fee for entering the national park is not always collected during the low season. A new facility with bathrooms and basic food was being built on the roadside at the trailhead at the time of our visit. Mt Victoria is not accessible during the rainy season (mid-May to mid-October).
Every day, thousands of colourfully dressed faithful venerate Mahamuni's 13ft-tall seated buddha, a nationally celebrated image that’s popularly believed to be some 2000 years old. Centuries of votary gold leaf applied by male devotees (women may only watch) have left the figure knobbly with a 6in layer of pure gold…except on his radiantly gleaming face, which is ceremonially polished daily at 4.30am. The statue was already ancient in 1784 when it was seized from Mrauk U by the Burmese army of King Bodawpaya. The epic story of how it was dragged back to Mandalay is retold in a series of 1950s paintings in a picture gallery across the pagoda’s inner courtyard to the northeast of the Buddha image. Bodawpaya also nabbed a collection of Hindu-Buddhist Khmer bronze figures, which had already been pilfered centuries earlier from Angkor Wat, and reached Mrauk U by a series of other historical thefts. Many figures were reputedly melted down to make cannons for Mandalay’s 1885 defence against the British, but six rather battered figures remain, which have all been rubbed raw by devotees seeking good health. They're housed in a drab concrete building near the giant gong on the north side of the northwest inner courtyard. Near Mahamuni's outer northeast exit you'll find a merrily kitsch clock tower and the Maha Buddhavamsa Museum of World Buddhism, which is effectively a gallery of paintings about the life of the Buddha, and photos of archaeological sites associated with that saga. From the central shrine with its multitiered golden roof, long concrete passageways leading in each cardinal direction are crammed with stalls selling all manner of religio-tourist trinkets. The western passage (which foreigners are officially not permitted to access) emerges on 84th St amid fascinating marble workshops, where buddha statues are expertly crafted using power tools. Mahamuni can be conveniently visited en route to Amarapura, Inwa or Sagaing.
Shittaung means ‘Shrine of the 80,000 Images’, a reference to the number of holy images inside. King Minbin, the most powerful of Rakhine’s kings, built Shittaung in 1535. This is Mrauk U's most complex temple, a frenzy of stupas of various sizes: 26 surround a central stupa. Thick walls, with windows and nooks, encircle the two-tiered structure, which has been highly reconstructed over the centuries – in some places rather clumsily. Outside the temple, beside the southwestern entrance stairway, and inside a locked mint-green building, is the much-studied Shittaung Pillar, a 10ft-high sandstone obelisk brought here from Wethali by King Minbin. Considered the ‘oldest history book in Myanmar’ (by the Rakhine, at least), the obelisk has four sides, three inscribed in faded Sanskrit. The east-facing side likely dates from the end of the 5th century. The western face displays a list dating from the 8th century, outlining Rakhine kings from 638 BC to AD 729 (King Anandacandra). Lying on its back next to the pillar is a cracked, 12ft-long sandstone slab featuring an engraved lotus flower (a Buddhist motif) growing from a wavy line of water and touching an intricately engraved dhammacakka (Pali for ‘Wheel of the Law’). Along the outer walls, several reliefs can be seen (some are hard to reach); a few on the southern side are rather pornographic. Inside the temple’s prayer hall you’ll see several doors ahead. Two lead to passageways that encircle the main buddha image in the cave hall (which can be seen straight ahead). The far-left (southwestern) doorway leads to the outer chamber, a 310ft passageway with sandstone slabs cut into six tiers. More than 1000 sculptures depict Rakhine customs (eg traditionally dressed dancers, boxers and acrobats), beasts of burden and hundreds of Jataka (scenes from the Buddha’s past 550 lives). At each corner are bigger figures, including the maker, King Minbin, and his queens at the southwestern corner. The passage opens in the front, where you can step out for views. Next to the outer chamber entry is a coiling inner chamber leading past scores of buddha images in niches and passing a footprint where – it’s said – the Buddha walked during his post-enlightenment. Once you get to the dead end, double back to the hall and see if you can feel the passageway becoming cooler. Some claim it does, symbolising the ‘cooling effect’ of Buddhist teachings.
Founded in 1915 and carved out by Turkish prisoners captured by the British during WWI, this lovingly maintained 435-acre botanical garden features more than 480 species of flower, shrub and tree. The most appealing aspect is the way flowers and overhanging branches frame views of Kandawgyi Lake’s wooden bridges and small gilded pagoda. Admission includes the swimming pool, the aviary, the orchid garden and butterfly museum, and the bizarre Nan Myint Tower. Looking like a space rocket designed for a medieval Chinese emperor, the 12-storey tower offers panoramic views, which are better appreciated from the external staircase than through the grease-smeared windows of the observation deck. Unfortunately, you can’t use a bicycle to get around the grounds, so bring walking shoes and allow around two hours to do the place justice. Using the southern entrance slightly reduces the walking you have to do. By 6pm both gates will probably be locked, so watch the time, as there are no closure warnings. It gets very busy at weekends (Sunday in particular) and at times the orchids seem to be outnumbered by canoodling couples behind every tree. It does add some local colour! The garden’s two entrances are both on the eastern side of Kandawgyi Lake, around a mile south of smaller Kandawlay Lake.
This small, heart-shaped lake has huge spiritual significance for the Mizo people, who inhabit both sides of the nearby Myanmar–India border. Rih Lake certainly has a magical, tranquil setting: the water shines a deep blue and the lake is surrounded by rice paddies and forested hills. Rih Lake is accessed from nearby Rihkhawdar, a 15-minute ride away on a motorcycle taxi (K5000 return). Although the Mizo have largely been converted to Christianity, Rih Lake is part of their ancient animist traditions: it's the gateway to the Mizo version of heaven, known as Piairal, through which all the dead must pass to reach their eternal home. These days the concept of Piairal has been blended with the Christian idea of paradise, allowing Rih Lake's mystical status to continue. The lake's aura is enhanced by its remoteness, and it remains a key pilgrimage site for Mizo people in both Chin State and Mizoram State in India, as well as a favourite hangout for the people living nearby, who come to swim, drink and make merry at weekends. During the week the lake is much more peaceful and you'll have it mostly to yourself.
The best of Myanmar's Buddhist sites beyond Bagan
The best of Bagan temples