Myanmar (Burma)- the ongoing political turmoil in Myanmar has significantly reduced the widely anticipated boom of tourism following the reopening of the borders in 2011. Compared to neighboring countries like Thailand who thrive on the tourism industry, Myanmar remains largely isolated and has not achieved its goal of opening the economy and jumpstarting their tourist industry. As headlines in 2016 about Myanmar are almost exclusively about the unfolding situation with ethnic conflict and the massive prosecution and displacement of minority Rohingya Muslims, any substantial increase in tourism seems unlikely to change in the near future.
In 2014 during a period of relative calm when Americans were allowed to visit, I quickly made plans to visit Myanmar on my trip through around the region. It turned out to be one of the absolute highlights! The gorgeous and unique temples are open for the public to explore freely yet lack the horde of tourists usually accompanying such a rare and beautiful destination. Perhaps because there is not a history of too many tourists, the people were very welcoming, friendly, and helpful in recommending where to eat and what to do in each city. Although it seems unlikely that there will be any significant increase in tourism in the next few years due to the political situation, this country and its welcoming people are truly one of the best kept secrets in Asia.
-Yangon- after an evening flight into the capital Yangon, my first mission was to find the airline counter where I was supposed to pick up my domestic plane tickets for a flight up to Bagan. After quickly realizing that all of the ticket counters were already closed, I became concerned that I had been suckered into an online scam and purchased a fake ticket. However, after a few minutes of scanning the crowd and wandering around the airport arrival terminal, a young woman approached me who was hand carrying the ticket to deliver in person. As one of the few foreigners to arrive on the flight it probably was not too difficult to pick out a 5’10 blonde American in the crowd. After collecting my ticket, my friend Kristi and I hailed a cab to the hostel we were staying in a few blocks away. En route, the cab driver gave a brief tour of the city where we saw the impressive Shwedagon Pagoda lit up and glowing gold against the night sky. It was just a quick overnight stay in Yangon, which primarily consisted of feasting on some fried spring roll street food and exploring the local area on foot before racking out for the night.
-Old Bagan-the temples of Old Bagan have gained notoriety over the past few years after being featured in National Geographic, as well as on numerous travel shows and websites. The area fully lives up to its spectacular reputation. Over two thousand temples fill the 40 square miles in the Bagan region making it easy to visit a lot of them in a short period of time. Since the area is not yet over run by tourists, visitors are still allowed to explore the inside of the hollow gu-style temples and climb the exterior of the pagoda style temples. The tops of the pagodas offer wide panoramic views of the Plains with mountains and the Irrawaddy River framing the image. Although there are various small vendor stands set up at the entrance of many of the larger temples, they stayed outside the walls and respectfully left us alone after we entered the temple courtyards.
-Bicycle Tour- the best way of exploring the Bagan area is by renting a bicycle and pedaling around. This makes it easier to take some of the rough dirt roads that link many of the temples past the main road entrances. Although we considered getting scooters or Vespas, we opted for the bicycles so that we could get a little exercise while exploring and also alleviate any concerns about finding a fuel station. The bikes worked great for almost the entire day until right before sunset when Kristi's chain fell off and we could not get it back on because of the rust or lack of expertise on our part (I standby that the issue was the former and not user error). Eventually we gave up and left it, marking the temple’s location on a map which we delivered back to the rental and thankfully they just laughed about it. After marking the map and putting Kristi on the back of my bike, we headed off to catch the sunset before starting the 2-mile trek home. Riding on the paved roads definitely helped, but the busy traffic and hills at the edge of town provided a better workout than I had bargained for. Overall it was still an excellent and very cheap way of visiting dozens of temples in the area.
-Bagan Plains Sunsets- One of the most remarkable parts of visiting Old Bagan was watching the sunset over the Bagan Plains. With numerous temples sprinkled throughout the area, small handfuls of tourists made their way up to the top ledges of the temples during the Golden Hour. Hues of pink and orange filled the sky as the sun slowly descended over the mountains in the distance. The quiet of the Plains accompanied with the backdrop of the neighboring temples made this one of the most breathtaking sunsets I have ever experienced. Sitting on the ledge of one of the temples with my feet dangling over the edge, watching the sunset in Bagan was like stepping into the pages of an exotic history book and having a front-row seat. It was absolutely worth the trek and sketchy plane flight out, especially as the country and region are just beginning to reach their potential.
Hostel Average Cost: $12
Currency: Burmese Kyat
Drink: Toddy Palm Wine- naturally fermented palm juice.
Food: Laphot Thoke (aka fermented Tea Leaf Salad)
Electric Outlet: European-Type C
Visa: Required- Tourist eVisa's are available.