Myanmar is a new frontier for adventure and a growing tourist destination, especially when looking for a warm weather trip to escape the cold. In fact, Lonely Planet named Myanmar one of its top destinations for 2017 too!
Royal and Liz were great adventurers who not only enjoyed America’s national parks, but also ventured abroad – to Europe and South America but also to Asia extensively. For our founders, it was the friends they found that made each trip special, as each new friend constituted a new adventure.
Last winter, Royal Robbins’ product leader Liz Braund visited Myanmar with 6 members of her family (ranging from age 30 to age 99!). Join us for an incredible trip.
Myanmar is a country where the destination is the journey itself. Just getting from place to place can be an adventure, as the country has only recently opened to the wider world (other nations dropped most economic sanctions in 2015 after Myanmar elected its first democratic government in a half century).
Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar borders India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand and is home to nearly 55 million people. And it is the people that make Myanmar so special. Nearly 100 different ethnic groups call Myanmar home, making it one of the more cultural diverse and colorful places in the world.
We treated this as a once in a lifetime trip and promised ourselves that we would do it right. And yes, that meant spending a little more on fantastic hotels. But fear not, there are many comfortable and safe hotel options for the more budget-conscious traveler.
WHEN TO GO
December, January and February are the only months I recommend. Even at temperatures up to 95 degrees, this is the cool time of year. May through September is monsoon season, and many roads become impassable.
HOW TO GET THERE
You’ll fly into the largest city – Yangon. Be prepared to either spend a lot of money on airfare, or spend a lot of time in the air. Flights go through Singapore, Bangkok, Taipei, Guangzhou, Kunming and others.
Our trip lasted a total of two weeks, the perfect amount of time to get a feel for the country, while still leaving us wanting more. From Portland, Oregon we flew to Bangkok and then on to Myanmar’s largest city: Yangon (Rangoon), home to 8 million people and seemingly just as many cars but not nearly enough roads. The next twelve days would take us through much of central Myanmar, to Inle Lake, Mandalay, and the ancient capital of Bagan.
In Yangon, we immediately visited the Schwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, which contains relics from four previous Buddhas.
Aside from the incredible beauty of the pagoda, it was incredible to see groups of volunteers constantly sweeping the site, which they took not as a chore but as a noble act.
The Karaweik Palace, located on Kandawgyi Lake, is another must-see. It’s a building but is designed after a royal barge with an incredibly elaborate gilded bow.
We stayed in the Sule Shangri-La Hotel in Yangon, which was a fantastic 5-star hotel. The accommodations were very comfortable, but the thing that set it apart was the friendliness of the staff there.
From Yangon, we flew to Heho, a small town approximately an hours drive from our next destination – Inle Lake. Located in the state of Shan (which is known for papermaking and silk-weaving), Inle is a magical world built on water. The vast lake is surrounded by marshlands and floating gardens, with houses and Buddhist Temples built on stilts over the water.
Randomly, I ran into an old friend from Portland who was on a bike trip through Myanmar. The magic of Facebook! Backroads had put together an incredible itinerary for them; that would be on my list for next time.
We stayed at the Aureum Palace Hotel, with stunning private villas built out over the waters and shores of the Lake. The Inle Princess Resort is also incredible.
Around the lake, each village has a vibrant, bustling market. The Shwe Indein Pagoda features over 1,000 stupas. My personal favorite was visiting the home/workshop of a family who made paper umbrellas in vibrant, beautiful colors. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any of the fishermen who are famous for perching precariously with one foot on the reeds while fishing.
After a short flight from Heho to Mandalay, we embarked on a 7-day cruise on the Irrawaddy River (our ship normally accommodates 45 passengers but this trip only had 12 passengers vs. 31 crew). This was one of the most incredible weeks of my life.
Each day we would stop at towns along the river, visit markets, and meet people. As a tourist one can feel uncomfortable, can feel that you are encroaching on someone else’s home. But the people I met were just as interested in learning about us as we were about them. Without a doubt, my family was asked to pose in pictures for the locals more than the other way around!
There were also some incredible sights to see along the way, including:
- U Bein Bridge – at ¾ of a mile long, it’s the world’s longest teak bridge
- Monya – on the Chindwin River; the site of the longest reclining and the tallest standing Buddhas in the world
- Kuthodaw Complex – houses the world’s biggest book
And of course – Bagan.
THE ANCIENT CAPITAL CITY – BAGAN
Bagan was the capital of Burma from 1044 to 1287 and was once home to as many as 200,000 people. Today however, it is a vast city of ruins: deserted temples, stupas, pagodas, monasteries and palaces spread across 15 miles of dry plain.
The capital of the Kingdom of Pagan (yes the spelling is correct) was the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar. However, the Pagan empire collapsed in 1287 after repeated Mongol invasions, and Bagan slowly emptied out, becoming no more than a pilgrimage destination by the 15th century. Over time, earthquakes played a large role in the destruction of the historic buildings (over 400 earthquakes were recorded there from 1904 to 1975 alone).
Today, Old Bagan is off limits to permanent dwellings. It has become one of the great tourist sites in the world, on par with Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
After two weeks, I left Myanmar impressed no doubt with many of the historical sites. However, it was the people whom I met that left a lasting impression on me. I exchanged earrings with a merchant in one of the markets, met children who introduced me to thanaka, a creamy paste made from ground bark worn for both cosmetic beauty and sun protection (think zinc oxide but with style), and was taught how to properly wear a longyi.