Must see attractions in Western Myanmar

  • Top ChoiceSights in Chin State

    Mt Victoria

    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).

  • Top ChoiceSights in Rakhine State

    Shittaung 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. 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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Chin State

    Rih 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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Rakhine State

    Kothaung Paya

    One of Mrauk U’s star attractions, Kothaung Paya is also the area's largest temple. It was built in 1553 by King Minbin’s son, King Mintaikkha, to outdo his dad’s Shittaung by 10,000 images (Kothaung means ‘Shrine of 90,000 Images’). Kothaung Paya is located a mile or so east of the palace; follow the road directly north of the market, veering left on the much smaller road before the bridge. Much of Kothaung Paya was found in fragments. Legends vary – that lightning or an earthquake destroyed it in 1776, that jewel-seekers overturned walls, or that it was built with inferior stones by a superstitious king bent on beating a six-month deadline. Regardless, the structure as it looks today is the result of a rather heavy-handed 1996 reconstruction. Recalling Borobudur in Indonesia, the exterior is coated with bell-like stone stupas. The 90,000 images in question line the outer passageway, the entrances to which are guarded by grimacing ogres. Stairways lead to a top terrace, once dotted with 108 stupas.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Rakhine State

    Mahabodhi Shwegu

    The highlight of this squat, little-visited temple is its passageway with bas-relief illustrations of the tribumi (Buddhist visions of heaven, earth and hell), including acrobats, worshippers and animals. At the end there's a 6ft-high central buddha and four buddhas in niches; the throne of the former includes some erotic carvings. Mahabodhi Shwegu is largely hidden behind shrubbery on a hilltop northeast of Ratanabon Paya. To get here, proceed up the barely discernible uphill path that starts behind the covered water well.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Rakhine State

    Dukkanthein Paya

    Built by King Minphalaung in 1571, Dukkanthein Paya smacks of a bunker (with stupas). Wide stone steps lead up the southern and eastern side of the building considered to be an ordination hall; take the east-side steps to reach the entrance. The interior features spiralling cloisters lined with images of buddhas and ordinary people (landlords, governors, officials and wives) sporting all of Mrauk U’s 64 traditional hairstyles. The passageway nearly encircles the centre three times before reaching the sun-drenched buddha image.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Chin State

    Chin Antiques & Cultural Exhibition Centre

    Trained lawyer and maths teacher Robert Om Kee, son of Vakok vilage chief, has dedicated himself to this fascinating and tiny house museum. He'll quickly run through the diverse array of artefacts: animal skulls, enormous plug earrings, bamboo string instruments, jewellery, homemade guns, fossilised elephant teeth and clay, stone, silver and bronze objects that are more than 1000 years old. Donations appreciated. Robert hopes to expand the space into a more conventional museum, with exhibits and descriptions in English.

  • Sights in Chin State

    Siang Sawn

    This rather strange, impeccably tidy village is an oddity in that it follows its own religion despite its proximity to heavily Christian Tiddim. In fact, all its inhabitants – about 60 families (some of whom wear traditional Chin clothing) – adhere to a faith that's overseen by the village spiritual leader. It's about 2 miles northeast of Tiddim. Follow the main road almost to the end of town, turn right and head downhill – locals will point the way. A bird's-eye view of Siang Sawn would reveal that it was intentionally laid out in the shape of a pair of human eyes and accompanying nervous system. The religion's founder Pau Cin Hau is considered a prophet who saw heaven (there are 30 steps or stages to get to this point) and his teachings are collected in a book, essentially about how to live. Inhabitants of Siang Sawn welcome visitors and if travelling with an English-speaking guide it's worth a visit. You'll be taken to a model traditional home and shown how people lived several generations ago, see the building that functions as a prayer hall (Monday to Saturday at 7pm, Sunday at 6am and 3pm) and meeting room, and a tiny 'museum' with three displays showing how the dress and tools of the people have evolved. Otherwise, the village has a fairly comprehensive booklet in English available that chronicles the history of the religion and village. A fairly modern-looking clock tower chimes every hour.

  • Sights in Rakhine State

    Mahamuni Paya

    Twenty miles north of Wethali, just beyond the former ancient capital of Dhanyawady, is Mahamuni Paya, the alleged first home of the buddha image now housed in the temple of the same name in Mandalay. The legend goes that the image was cast when Buddha visited the area in 554 BC. Even now, some Rakhine recount with fiery passion how the Burmese king Bodawpaya sent soldiers to dismantle and remove the Mahamuni buddha in 1784. Today ‘Mahamuni’s brother’ – a smaller statue allegedly cast from the same materials – is one of three fine golden images resting inside. A replica of the original, commissioned 100 years ago by a wealthy resident of Sittwe, sits to the left. The temple structure dates from the 19th century, as earlier temples were destroyed by fire. Down the steps, near the southern walls of the shrine, is a museum (admission US$5) with a couple of dozen relics and some beautiful engraved stones. There is a strip of good Burmese restaurants across from Mahamuni Paya, so it's a clever idea to combine this trip with lunch. The trip can be arranged through the Regional Guides Society – Mrauk U. It spans about half a day, including a visit to Wethali; car hire costs about US$40 to US$50, and guide fees are US$35.

  • Sights in Rakhine State

    View Point

    Strand Rd leads about 1.5 miles south to a location called View Point, a paved urban park with a small lighthouse built over the point where the Kaladan River empties into the Bay of Bengal, popular with locals for sunset views. Thoun bein (motorised trishaws) will take you there and back for K5000; taxis for K10,000.

  • Sights in Rakhine State

    Sanda Muhni Phara Gri Kyaung Taik

    The highlight at this hilltop monastery, and the temple's namesake, is the Sanda Muhni, a buddha statue said to have been cast from the precious metal left over from making the Mahamuni buddha. Legend has it that this 4ft-high image was encased in concrete in the 1850s to protect it from pillaging British troops, and then forgotten about for over a century. In April 1988 one of the glazed eyes dropped out, revealing the metal statue beneath. The main hall is packed with more ancient buddha images that the monks will happily explain to you. They will also point out a large copper roof tile (now used as a table top), saved from Mrauk U’s palace after the Burmese carted the rest off to Mandalay back in the 18th century. Next door, a small elevated structure – not open to the public – is home to Buddha’s many scattered molars, relics brought here from Sri Lanka in the 16th century.

  • Sights in Rakhine State

    Wethali

    About 7 miles north of Mrauk U are the barely discernible remains of the kingdom of Wethali. It was founded in AD 327 by King Mahataing Chandra, according to the Rakhine chronicles; archaeologists believe that the kingdom lasted until the 8th century. Today, in addition to the walls of the 1650ft-by-990ft central-palace site, the main attraction for visitors is the so-called Great Image of Hsu Taung Pre, a 16.5ft-high Rakhine-style sitting buddha said to date from AD 327. The elevated track that runs adjacent to Wethali is in fact an abandoned railway line. A rare incidence of the former military government bowing to popular opinion occurred here in late 2010, when a few brave locals protested against the planned route of a new railway linking Sittwe with Minbu, the construction of which was damaging temples and sites within the archaeological area. The project was halted and the railway’s route changed.

  • Sights in Rakhine State

    Andaw Thein

    Andaw Thein takes the form of an eight-sided monument with a linear layout: rectangular prayer hall to the east, multispired sanctuary to the west. Sixteen zedi (stupas) are aligned in a square-cornered U-shape around the southern, northern and western platforms. Two concentric passageways are lined with buddha niches; in the centre of the shrine, an eight-sided pillar supports the roof. The original construction of the shrine is ascribed to King Minhlaraza in 1521. King Minrazagyi then rebuilt Andaw in 1596 to enshrine a piece of the Buddha tooth relic supposedly brought from Sri Lanka by King Minbin in the early 16th century.

  • Sights in Chin State

    Kennedy Peak

    Kennedy Peak stands 8868ft high, making it Chin State's second-highest mountain. The site of a battle between the British and Japanese in WWII, the peak is as yet untouched by tourism, so there are no known hiking routes to its summit. Instead, a rough road leads to the summit from Sozang village, about 15 miles from Tiddim on the road back to Kalaymyo, which hugs the base of the mountain. The hike up is an easy couple of hours and the views are great along the way (except during the rainy season when it's completely obscured in clouds and fog), but unfortunately there's a TV tower at the top.

  • Sights in Rakhine State

    Sakyamanaung Paya

    Roughly half a mile northeast of the palace walls, and behind Shwegudaung hill, this graceful Mon-influenced zedi (stupa) was erected in 1629 by King Thirithudhammaraza, at a time when stupas were built more vertically and ornately than before. The lower half of the well-preserved 280ft zedi features a multi-tiered octagonal shape, as at Laungbanpyauk Paya, but beyond this the bells revert to a layered circular shape mounted by a decorative hti (umbrella-like top). You’ll see brightly painted, half-kneeling giants at the west gate.

  • Sights in Rakhine State

    Peisi Daung Paya

    Sitting on a hilltop, this unrestored four-door pagoda is thought to predate the Mrauk U period. Climb to the top, push your way past the rubble and cobwebs and inside you'll find four sandstone buddha images, three of which have marble eyes – ostensibly added later by merit-seeking monks. The view from the top, of seemingly endless hillocks that were each allegedly home to some sort of Buddhist monument, puts Mrauk U's former wealth and glory in perspective.

  • Sights in Rakhine State

    Lokananda Paya

    You can’t miss this big golden pagoda between the airport and the city centre. Its cavernous gilded worship hall, held aloft by decorated pillars, is pretty spectacular. On the western side of the compound is a small ordination hall, which houses the intriguing Sachamuni Image, a bronze buddha with its surface entirely encrusted with mini-buddhas. Apparently the image dates from 24 BC and is said to have been found by Mrauk U fishermen.

  • Sights in Rakhine State

    Jama Mosque

    This impressive 1859 building – the oldest mosque in Sittwe – could have been lifted out of the pages of Arabian Nights. Sadly, since the 2012 sectarian riots, it's been strictly off limits, with barbed wire and armed guards preventing access (photography of the exterior is also discouraged), and has fallen into a state of disrepair. But its impressive white minarets still poke above the trees and the wall that surrounds it.

  • Sights in Rakhine State

    Central Market

    Focused on the 1956 municipal market building, Sittwe's market has lots of action from dawn to noon and beyond – it’s well worth popping by before your boat or plane leaves. Head straight past longyi (sarong-style garment), fishing-net and vegetable stands to the fish and meat area, where stingrays, gutted eels and drying sharks make quite a scene. In the bay, small boats jostle for space to unload their catch.

  • Sights in Chin State

    Yanpaymanpay Paya

    This temple with a golden zedi (stupa) and a sitting, white-faced Buddha surrounded by five disciples looms over Falam from almost the highest point above the town. There are sublime views across the countryside from here: on a clear day you can really see for miles and miles. It's a steep 20-minute walk from the centre of town: take the road past Holy Guest House and KBZ Bank and keep walking uphill.