Myanmar has much to offer, as adventurers realize after a bit of quick research. Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake, and Ngapali Beach are well on their way to becoming major tourist destinations.
To get the full Myanmar experience, you should combine the colonial heritage of the cities with ancient Buddhist culture and stunning rural landscapes. The classic Yangon-Mandalay-Bagan-Yangon journey gives visitors an insight into all of the above. Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Myanmar!
Things to do while Visiting Yangon, Myanmar
The Yangon International Airport (RGN) is served by a number of airlines, including Air China, Qatar Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and AirAsia. As the country’s main economic hub and former capital, as well as Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon is a logical starting point. Plus, this city has plenty to offer the curious traveler!
For lodging, we recommend the Governor’s Residence, which is one of the most famous luxury hotels in Yangon. The colonial-style mansion has a romantic old-world atmosphere. The Strand Hotel is another stunning spot—it was built in 1901 by two of the Sarkies Brothers and has a fascinating history.
Once you’ve settled into your hotel, explore the area. One of the first impressions you’ll have is that this city of five million has a completely different feel than others in Asia. Downtown Yangon, where much of the colonial architecture still remains, is accessible by foot. However, some of the sites are a lengthy walk and it may be best to call for a taxi.
Shwedagon Pagoda is the most important religious site in Yangon. The golden structure watches over Yangon from Singuttara Hill. You’ll be absolutely amazed by this 112-meter tall monument, which was designed by King Okkalapa. It’s covered in gold and gems, and at the very top sits a 75-carat diamond. If you walk around the complex at night, at certain points marked on the ground (a guide can help you find them), you can see different colors appear in the diamond.
Second in command is Sule Pagoda, located almost perfectly in the center of the city. The 46-meter-tall, octagonal-shaped gold pagoda serves as a major traffic circle and is impossible to miss.
For a taste of nature within the city limits, join the young couples walking around Inya Lake and Kandawgyi Lake, both of which have paths for easy, casual walking. If you’re a little tired, float on over to the giant Burmese royal boat on Kandawgyi Lake, where you can eat dinner while enjoying traditional dancing and theatre. The sunset from here is especially stunning.
And before you leave town, do some shopping at Bogyoke Aung San Market, a bustling bazaar where you can purchase local crafts, traditional textiles, and wonderful gifts for your friends and family.
Things to do while Visiting Mandalay, Myanmar
Mandalay, Myanmar should definitely be on your bucket list! The second-largest city in the country, this highly-religious area is home to about half of Myanmar’s monks. Mandalay was established by King Mingdon Min of Burma in 1857, and the city has seen its fair share of drama, from British conquest to bombing and fires during World War II.
Outside of Myanmar, consider taking a day trip to Sagaing, located 20 km southwest of Mandalay on the opposite bank of the Ayeyarwady River. It is home to some 500 stupas, and has a peaceful pace led by local Buddhists.
You also might enjoy visiting Inle Lake in Shan State, east of the Mandalay Region—this is the second-largest lake in all of Myanmar, and is the source of livelihood for the towns and villages around its perimeter. You’ll be impressed by the way the locals have figured out how to see beyond the weeds into the waters below to find what they need: they stand on the boat with an oar attached to one leg, so they can control the boat while standing up!
What to Eat in Mandalay, Myanmar
If you’re a foodie, Mandalay may just be the best place in Myanmar to find amazing local cuisine. A cultural melting pot of Chinese, Indian, and Burmese influences, Mandalay’s food scene is justly famous. It’s home to the Shan cuisine, a type of food found in the northern region of the country, and actually is similar to the cuisine found in the mountains of northern Thailand. Shan cuisine is characterized by heavier dishes of nuts and beans, with flavors like sesame and tumeric.
Many of the foods you’ll find in Mandalay contain fish from the nearby Inle Lake, as well as chicken, pork, and beef. You can also find spicy curries, fresh chapatis, and plenty of noodles and rice. And at the end of your meal, don’t forget to try the local dessert, htou mon, which is sold only in Mandalay.
Here are our top picks for best places to eat in Mandalay!
Too-Too Myanmar Cuisine
Location: 27th Street, Between 74th and 75th Streets
If you’re looking for traditional Burmese dining Too-Too Myanmar Cuisine is the place to go! Choose a curry dish, and then select three cold vegetable dishes to have on the side. Most of the curries include lamb, chicken, or prawns, so it may be difficult to find vegetarian options at this locale.
Location: No. 65 23rd Street, Between 83rd and 84th Streets
This buffet-style restaurant introduces you to to Shan cuisine through heaping portions and low prices. There are usually 20 dishes on offer, including Mandalay-style fried potatoes and quail eggs with watercress. Lashio Lay is an excellent choice for travelers looking to taste the local food on a backpacker’s budget.
Location: Corner of 28th and 82nd Streets
This unassuming food stall on the corner offers up cheap and tasty Indian specialties, including curries, soups, rice, and delicious fresh chapatis. Vegetarian options are also available.
Location: No 582 81st Street, Between 38th and 39th Streets
At Super 82, you can sample Chinese-influenced dishes, such as pork in coconut curry and chicken simmered in a clay pot. It’s also conveniently located near the Moustache Brothers, a famous local comedy troupe.
A Little Bit of Mandalay
Location: 413(B), 65th Street, Between 27th and 28th Streets
Situated in an outdoor pavilion, this popular spot offers traditional Burmese cuisine without the trademark copious amounts of oil or too much spice. Sample local specialties like hot and sour chicken, beef curry, and banana cake—reservations are recommended for this popular spot.
Vegetarian Option: Marie Min
Location: 27th Street, Between 74th and 75th Streets
If you’re a vegetarian in search of a delicious meal, then look no further than Marie Min! Here you’ll find a wide array of Indian dishes made from local, cruelty-free ingredients, as well as a friendly, English-speaking staff happy to make adjustments to accommodate a wide range of dietary needs.
Things to do while Visiting Bagan, Myanmar
What’s the best way to see the largest and most dense concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas, and ruins—many dating back to the 11th century? Nothing compares to a hot air balloon ride over the archeological gem of Southeast Asia: Bagan, Myanmar.
Located along the Irrawaddy River in central Myanmar, Bagan is sublime: a lush 26-square-mile plain spotted with palms and tamarind with thousands of temples rising from the verdant land. Built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287, many of the temples were destroyed by earthquakes and Kublai Khan and his invading Mongols. About 2,230 of the original 4,450 temples survive, most of them in excellent condition. Many contain frescoes and carvings, and ornate statues of Buddha.
Rivaling Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Machu Picchu in Peru, Bagan is comparatively rarely frequented. The number of tourists and vendors are increasing, but this is a magnificently unsullied destination that you should make time to see when planning a trip to Myanmar.
For years the horse cart was the only option for visitors to Bagan. Now, the flat, vast space is enjoyed by bicycle and electronic bikes—a perfect opportunity to see some of this area’s most famous temples! There are 2,000-plus temples in Bagan, but we’ve included five you should make time to see, based on their beauty as well as their historic and religious significance:
- Ananda Temple: Built in 1091, the holiest temple in Bagan houses four statues of Buddha, facing the cardinal directions, and symbolizing the four Buddhas who have attained Nirvana. Ananda comes from the Pali word anantapannya, meaning “boundless wisdom.”
- Shwesandaw Temple: The “sunset temple” is a popular gathering point to view the vibrant Bagan sunset. After a five-minute walk up a narrow flight of stairs, visitors are rewarded with breathtaking views of the sky ablaze with color over the temples and landscape of Bagan.
- Shwegugyi Temple: A good alternative for watching the sunset, Shwegugyi, commissioned by King Alaunsithu in 1131, is one of the best-preserved temples in the area.
- Thatbyinnyu Temple: Built in the 12th century and reaching 66 meters high, Thatbyinnyu is the tallest pagoda in Bagan.
- Gubyaukgyi Temple: Located in Wetkyi-Inn Village, this durian-shaped temple was modeled after Bodh Gaya in India. It features a rooftop with an excellent view of the surrounding area, as well as murals depicting scenes from the Jataka tales, literature native to India that tells about the previous lives of the Buddha.
Wondering where to find food and other amenities? The main jumping point for visiting Bagan’s temples and trying fine dining, exquisite hotels, and adventurous tour options is Nyaung-U Township. And two miles to the west, you’ll find the quiet village of Old Bagan, whose residents were forcibly located in 1990 to New Bagan.
If you’re looking for places to tour slightly beyond Bagan, consider Mount Popa, a sacred mountain frequented by pilgrims, or Salay, a religious center dating back to the 12th century with colonial-era buildings and an old-world feel.
Things to do while Visiting Other Areas of Myanmar: Saramati Mountain, Mergui Archipelago, Mrauk U
If you’ve traveled to Inle Lake, you may consider going a bit further north to Saramati Mountain, which is located right near the border of Myanmar and India. Standing 3,826 meters, this prominent mountain is an excellent option for travelers who are physically fit and have some time—about 1 to 2 weeks—to climb its peak. Along the way, you’ll have gorgeous views of spectacular forests and the Naga people’s villages surrounding it.
Southernmost of Myanmar is the Mergui Archipelago—a part of the country with some of the most beautiful islands and beaches in the world. To the east of Inle Lake, you’ll be able to visit Kyaing Tong, only recently opened to tourists and isolated from the rest of the country. Here you’ll be able to see what life is like for some of the country’s unique ethnic minority communities.
And to the west of the country, you’ll find some of Myanmar’s most breathtaking ruins in Mrauk U. This 7-kilometer-square complex is home to more than 700 temples, sometimes referred to as the “next Angkor Wat.” A testament to the religious center of the region (much like Bagan), Mrauk U has also only recently opened to tourists and is a semi-untouched area that you should make time to see and appreciate during your tour of Myanmar.
Recommended Reading about Myanmar
The Glass Palace: A Novel by Amitav Ghosh
The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U
Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
About the authors
Sophia Guida has been living in Lima, Peru off and on since the beginning of 2012, where she works as a freelance writer/photojournalist and takes every opportunity to explore the areas left out of the guidebooks.
Melissa Reichwage is an avid traveler and international development and health professional currently living in Colombia. She holds a Master’s in Public Health from Emory University in Atlanta (USA). With familial ties in Myanmar, she has a special affinity for the beautiful landscapes and people of Myanmar.
Sarah Vandenberg is the Editor-in-Chief of Frayed Passport. She is a digital nomad, but calls Miami her home base. If you would like to contribute to Frayed Passport, or if you have questions, please email her at Sarah@FrayedPassport.com.