… but we have them uncovered, right here!
Still pondering where to go for your next backpacking trip? I suggest you book a ticket for Myanmar. This Southeast Asian nation may have only relaxed its borders in recent years, but their tourism game is giving neighbours Laos and Vietnam a run for their money. Inter-state travel is fairly uncomplicated, and you’ll get to travel in large, comfortable tour buses that come replete with bus attendants personally serving you refreshments and even a toothbrush set. There’s plenty to do and see in Myanmar but if you want to avoid the burgeoning tourist crowds, here is a list of recommendations from Marcus Allender, founder of Myanmar travel website, Go-Myanmar.com.
1. Discover the ancient capital of Mrauk U
The temples of Bagan get all the attention but Mrauk U, once capital of the mighty Arakan Kingdom, is for many its equal. Set in a remote corner of western Myanmar, you will find hundreds of temples dotted across the rolling Rakhine State hills – and hardly another tourist in sight. The journey there is part of the experience, first flying from Yangon to the historic port town of Sittwe, and then taking a boat trip up the Kaladan River through exotic tropical landscapes.
2. Visit a vineyard in the Shan hills
Myanmar has two established vineyards high in the hills of Shan State, where the earth and cooler climate are more conducive to winemaking than in the tropical south. The quality of the wine at the Aythaya vineyard (near Taunggyi) and the Red Mountain Estate vineyard (near Inle Lake) can be patchy, but it is improving – and both vineyards offer tasting sessions set to beautiful, panoramic views. Both are a short drive from Heho airport (direct flights from Yangon and Mandalay).
3. Explore the port town of Myeik
For centuries an infamous pirate enclave, Myeik is now a characterful and bustling port town in the far south of Myanmar. It’s only in the last few years that foreigners have been allowed to leave the city limits, but now there are a growing number of quality hotels here, allowing you to enjoy your stay in style after a day of exploring the winding colonial streets and nearby islands. There are plenty of awesome Thai-Myanmar fusion food to be found here too. Daily flights from Yangon and Kawthaung.
4. Follow in George Orwell’s footsteps to Katha
Orwell’s experiences as an imperial policeman in this Irrawaddy riverside town in northern Myanmar were the inspiration for his scathing work on the dark side of the declining British Empire. Today in Katha you can still find Orwell’s British club and the tennis club (which feature heavily in the novel), as well as a host of other teak colonial-era buildings. Accommodation in Katha is basic and getting there is an adventure in itself – first you must fly to Mandalay or Myitkyina, then take the train.
5. Go to the Drug Elimination Museum in Yangon
This weird and wonderful place is a gigantic propaganda exercise, built by the ruling generals to show what a good job they were doing in fighting crime and providing for the people. In some parts disturbing and in other parts hilarious, the Drug Elimination Museum is guaranteed to be a bizarre experience you won’t find elsewhere. It can be reached easily by taxi from downtown Yangon, more details here.
6. Witness the mountains and caves of Hpa An
The sleepy capital of Karen State, Hpa An is surrounded by gorgeous karst mountain scenery reminiscent of China’s Yangshuo, Vietnam’s Halong Bay or Thailand’s Krabi. (Karst refers to a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum.) Some of these mountains can be climbed, including the sacred and monolithic Mount Zwegabin – and many have huge caves in their interiors that are filled with thousands of Buddhist shrines. Hpa An can be reached by car or bus from Yangon, or over land from Mae Sot in Thailand.
7. Watch the sun set at a scenic beer station
A perfect way to enjoy Myanmar culture is to hang out at a beer station and chat with locals as the sun goes down. These watering holes line the roads of virtually every town and village in the country, but some particularly scenic and fun spots include a roadside place to the south of Hpa An, with wonderful mountain views or busy Wardan and Botataung jetties in Yangon. The river banks of Myitikyina, Katha and Mawlamyine all have a number of lovely little places that serve drinks and simple but delicious grub.
Go-Myanmar.com is a comprehensive and continually updated travel and bookings website. Find a wide range of tours at www.go-myanmar.com/tours, including a variety of off the beaten track and outward bound options.