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).
Buddhist TempleShwedagon Paya
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.
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.
Buddhist MonasteryBagaya Kyaung
This lovely 1834 teak monastery is Inwa’s most memorable individual attraction. It's supported on 267 teak posts, the largest 60ft high and 9ft in circumference, creating a cool and dark prayer hall that feels genuinely aged. Stained timbers are inscribed with repeating peacock and lotus-flower motifs. Despite the constant flow of visitors, this remains a living monastery, with globes hung above the little school section to assist in the novices’ geography lessons. Beware of protruding floorboard nails.
Buddhist TempleAnanda Pahto
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.
Buddhist TempleDhammayangyi Pahto
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.
Buddhist TempleShwesandaw Paya & Around
Set atop a hill in the town centre, the stunning Shwesandaw Paya (and the surrounding pagodas and monasteries) is not only Pyay’s major point of interest, but also one of the country’s biggest Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Just over 3ft taller than the main zedi (stupa) at Yangon’s Shwedagon, the Shwesandaw stupa follows the classic Burmese design seen at Bagan’s Shwezigon. Highly atmospheric and bustling with locals and pilgrims at dawn and dusk, it's one of Myanmar's most interesting paya.
Buddhist TempleMahamuni Paya
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.
Buddhist TempleShwezigon Paya
At the western end of Nyaung U, this big, beautiful zedi (stupa) is the town’s main religious site, and is most famous for its link with Myanmar's main nat (spirit beings). Lit up impressively at dusk, the gilded zedi sits on three rising terraces. Enamelled plaques in panels around the base illustrate scenes from the Jataka (stories from the Buddha's past lives).
Buddhist TempleShittaung Paya
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.
Whether it’s a guided tour of a historic landmark, private tasting of local delicacies, or an off-road adventure — explore the best experiences in Myanmar (Burma).
The best of Myanmar's Buddhist sites beyond Bagan
The best of Bagan temples