In Rudyard Kipling's famous poem 'Mandalay' the poet writes of Myanmar (at the time called Burma): “This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about.” True at his time and true to this day, Myanmar differs greatly from its Southeast Asian neighbors and the list of must-sees in the nation are endless.
One of the most popular travel destinations in Myanmar is Mandalay. A great starting point for the rest of central and northern Myanmar, the dynamic town was an important post of the British and is today the commercial focal point of central and northern Myanmar.
From Mandalay, head north in a river boat on the Irrawaddy River towards Bhamo and Katha while soaking up the countryside. In Katha, visit the Former British Club which was featured in George Orwell's Burmese Days and explore the old town's British architecture and colonial heritage. Close to the Chinese border, visit the riverside market in Bhammo or rent a bike and tour out to the countryside.
Inle Lake is another must-see when you're in the central and northern parts of Myanmar. The lake is the main support of local life and agriculture in this part of Myanmar, with many people relying on it for their livelihoods.
In the lower central region, visitors can marvel at the incredible landscape of Bagan where over 2,000 temples and stupas remain since they were first erected in the 9th century. The area has the largest and densest concentration of stupas and temple ruins and is one of the most important Buddhist landmarks in the world. Undoubtedly one of the best ways to take in the ancient city is from the skies in perhaps one of the most scenic hot air balloon flights in the world.
Northern Myanmar is still affected by armed conflict between the Myanmar army and ethnic militia, which often reaches international headlines. The conflict centres much around the northern states of Shan and Kachin; travelers must obtain travel permits and much of the northern part of the country remains off limits for travelers. Those parts that are, however offer stunning natural scenery, untouched nature, small rural farming and fishing villages and cultural experiences unique to this region.
Northern Myanmar has the highest concentration of ethnic minorities, allowing visitors to experience several cultures and languages in a geographically small area.
The majority of attractions in northern Myanmar are located in the southernmost part of the region, around Mandalay and Inle Lake. Outside of Mandalay is the U Bein Bridge, a 1.2 kilometer bridge made of reclaimed teakwood from a former royal palace – the iconic structure has graced the covers of numerous books including the cover of the 2009 edition of Lonely Planet Myanmar. Built around 1850, the bridge is held up by no less than 1,086 pillars and is believed to be the longest and oldest teakwood bridge in the world.
For more adventurous travelers, the far north is harder to explore but exponentially more rewarding as the area is far less traveled than the rest of Myanmar. The climate ranges from tropical to more temperate and cooler climate and in the far north in Kachin there are mountains that are covered in snow for most of the year. Due to decades of isolation, culture and nature is well preserved and travelers can experience ethnic diversity as well as natural beauty that is hard if not impossible to find in other parts of Southeast Asia.
One of the absolute top destinations in Myanmar are the temple ruins of Bagan in the lower central region. Historians believe that as many as 13,000 stupas and temples once stood in the 42 sq km area, however today only around 2,200 remain. For a crash course on the site's history, drop by the on-site museum.
Southwest of Myitkyina in Kachin state is Indawgyi Lake, the largest lake in Myanmar though lesser known than the famous Inle Lake. Besides the tranquility of the lake itself, main attractions include Shwe Myitzu Pagoda, a floating pagoda and an important spiritual and cultural destination for the Myanmar people during the pagoda festival held in March. On the north of the lake is Shwe Taung, or Golden Mountain, which has a pagoda and monastery on the top from which visitors can enjoy the panoramic view of the lake.
One of the best ways to experience the central part of Myanmar is to go on one of the many trips on the Irrawaddy River. Most travelers float downriver from Mandalay to Bagan but it's also possible to travel upstream from Mandalay towards Bhamo and Katha, the latter of which is slower but less busy. In Bhamo it's possible to witness colonial heritage that George Orwell describes in Burmese Days.
Located in the eastern part of Shan state, Kyaing Tong – part of the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet – is a popular place to trek and hike. The mountainous area, which has a cooler climate than most of the country, is also home to various ethnic minorities making it the perfect combination destination with both cultural and natural attractions.
Mandalay is without a doubt the main travel destination in central and northern Myanmar and the starting point for many travelers exploring this region. The town is an important trading hub as well as a spiritual hub, with half of all the monks in Myanmar residing here. One of the main attractions is the Royal Palace, which is the last royal palace of the monarchy before it was abolished.
The north is not directly accessible via international flights or land crossings – most people enter Myanmar via central locations such as Mandalay and Yangon.
There are Myanmar embassies in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, Vientiane, Singapore and Hong Kong and all of them issue 28-day tourist visas. There are also visas on arrival available for some nationalities, but eligibility should be confirmed with the appropriate embassy beforehand.
Most people travel to Myanmar by plane – the main airport is the very basic Yangon International Airport and the only other international airports are Mandalay International Airport and Nay Pyi Taw International Airport located some 320 kilometers north of Yangon. The most common connections to Yangon are from Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, although more and more airlines are adding routes to this up and coming travel destination in addition to Mandalay.
As of August 2013, it is possible to enter Myanmar over land via four Thailand-Myanmar border crossings. These are Tachileik/Mae Sai, Myawaddy/Mae Sot, Htee Kee/Phu Nam Ron in Kanchanaburi province, and Kawthoung/Ranong in the Thai south. The road onwards from Tachileik is closed for foreigners apart from a smaller road to Kengtung three hours away so the only mode of transportation onwards from here is to take the flight from Tachileik to Mandalay and Heho in central Myanmar, or from Kengtung airport to Heho.
Compared to other places in Southeast Asia, travel in Myanmar isn't straightforward but what travelers may endure in inconvenience they get back tenfold in terms of beautiful, unexplored terrain. The road network in Myanmar is still very limited and travelers should expect poor quality roads whenever they exist. In large parts of the country, and even just outside main cities such as Yangon and Naw Pyi Taw, the roads are little more than dirt paths, making travel relatively difficult and time consuming. However, a poor road network doesn't mean no road network and things are rapidly improving.
While popular tourist destinations are open to foreigners, some areas in Myanmar, such as the northern states of Shan and Kachin, are closed to foreigners for security reasons. Some areas are accessible only with permits, which travelers can apply for at the MTT (Myanmar Travel & Tours) office in Yangon. The issuing of permits, however, is very arbitrary.
There are a surprising number of airports in the country, serviced by numerous more or less efficient and well run airlines, however travelers can expect last-minute changes to flight times, so it is recommended to re-confirm tickets at least one day in advance. National airlines include Myanmar Airways International and Myanma Airways while the most well known private carriers include Asian Wings Airways, Air Bagan, Air Mandalay, Yangon Airways and Golden Myanmar Airlines. Between them, they cover the majority of Myanmar and tickets are relatively cheap; expect to pay around US$100 for a round trip between Yangon and Mandalay.
Travelers can also experience Myanmar by train, which is a great way to admire the scenery and get up close and personal with locals who are very friendly and curious. The train network in the country is one of the most extensive in the region but, due to decades of military rule, also unfortunately also one of the worst maintained. The most used train line is the one between Yangon and Mandalay which takes around approximately 15 hours although the distance is just some 390 kilometers. Train tickets can be purchased from major hotels and travel agencies as well as at the train stations. There are sleepers available for overnight trains and it is advisable to book tickets a few days in advance. Tickets start from US$15 for the normal class, US$30 for upper class and US$30-40 for sleepers.
Buses run between all major travel destinations and travelers can choose between old worn out buses or new, modern coaches. A trip between Yangon and Mandalay takes around 10 hours and costs around US$10, while a trip from Mandalay to Hsipaw takes around 6 hours and costs just US$5.