Here are 10 reasons why you need to go to Myanmar, the state formerly (and sometimes still, depending on your specific geopolitical position) known as Burma, immediately:
That was the year the Myanmar government eased restrictions on tourist visas and opened up the country to foreign tourists for longer than 7 days. The world has been slow to catch up, although that is beginning to change. Go now before the trickle of foreign tourists in Myanmar turns into a flood. While I was there, even at some of the major sites, I went entire days without seeing another obvious foreigner (read: white person).
2. The People
The people in Myanmar are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met. Maybe it’s because the country is only now seeing large numbers of foreign visitors for the first time, but whatever the reason, they’re incredibly helpful and eager to strike up a conversation. They’re happy to share their culture and have yet to develop the aggressive sales tactics seen in other tourist destinations.
3. Shwedagon Paya
The country’s most important Buddhist monument is right in the heart of the capital city of Yangon. The site is a riot of Buddhist imagery and architecture surrounding a 325-foot central monument that purportedly encloses, beneath 27 tons of gold leaf and thousands of gems, eight hairs of the Gautama Buddha. At sunset, the views of Shwedagon Paya from the banks of the nearby Kandawgyi Lake are fantastic.
A 230-year orgy of temple construction by Bagan’s ancient kings during the first centuries of the second millennium resulted in one of Southeast Asia’s most incredible ancient sites. Today, over 4,000 temples dot the 26 square miles of the Bagan Archeological Zone. Be sure to get up in time for sunrise when the smoke from the locals’ fires shrouds the river plain in smoke to create an otherwordly panorama.
5. Mrauk U
Mrauk U (pronouced ‘mraw-oo’) is another stunning temple zone, located in southwest Myanmar. The area was the capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine state from 1430 to 1826 and boasts numerous monuments that prove its prestigious status. Highlights include the Shittaung Paya (the ‘Shrine of the 80,000 Images’) and the Kothaung Paya (the ‘Shrine of 90,000 Images’). In an hilarious case of someone putting their daddy issues to good use, the latter was built by the son of the king who built the former.
Mrauk U was accessible only by plane as recently as the last the few months. Fortunately, bus lines now run to the difficult to access area.
Monywa’s surrounding countryside hosts several intriguing sites. The first is a pair of colossal buddhas, one standing and one reclining, at Bodhi Tataung. The 424-ft tall standing buddha is the second tallest in the world. The interior of the structure is covered with over a dozen levels of fascinating paintings drawn from Buddhist mythology.
Other popular sites around Monywa are the Hpo Win Daung Caves and the Thanboddhay Paya.
7. Inle Lake
Inle Lake is a major attraction in Myanmar’s Shan state. The shores of this beautiful lake are home to everything from massive floating gardens to villages on stilts and traditional crafts such as jewelry- and cloth-making. Adding to the fun, the area around the lake contains some of the best trekking in the country.
8. Yoe Yoe Lay Guest House
This place is the best. For $10, you get an all you can eat and drink breakfast in the morning, then fresh cut watermelon in the evening. In between, you’ll stay in clean rooms, enjoy good wifi, meet tons of friendly locals and travelers, and have all the help you need arranging sightseeing trips or transportation to your next destination. The owner and staff are friendlier and more helpful than you can imagine.
9. The Beaches
Myanmar is often described as “Thailand … but twenty-five year ago.” In this case, that means you can explore stunningly white beaches and the more than 800 islands that comprise the Tanintharyi region’s coast al archipelago without hordes of other tourists cramping your style. This area was so recently opened to tourism that the infrastructure for many activities is still being developed. For example, most dive trips to the area are run out of Thailand because there are no experienced dive companies operating out of Myanmar.
10. The Mountains
It is almost unfair for one country to have such diverse geography. Not only does Myanmar have spectacular beaches, but the northern state of Kachin is home to Hkakabo Razi, the highest peak in Southeast East Asia. This 5,881 m/19,295 ft peak lies in a sub-range of the Himalayas that extends into the border region between India, China and Myanmar. Travelers to this seldom visited area can wander through climatic zones ranging from lowland tropical to high alpine.
So there you have it. Go to Myanmar, and do it soon.