Myanmar (former Burma) is one of the most fascinating countries in Southeast Asia. No wonder, because the sights Myanmar has to offer are just phenomenal.
Myanmar is a multi-ethnic country, with over 135 different ethnic groups living here with their own cultures. As a tourist, there is usually a lot of culture on the program, because Myanmar has plenty of it. Not for nothing is the epithet “Land of a Thousand Pagodas” – and in truth that is a gross understatement.
Actually, Myanmar as a travel destination has a diverse offer, which ranges from urban jungle to the real jungle, from dream beaches to mountain worlds. Of course, in many places there is still hardly any infrastructure, but the incredibly warm and helpful Burmese quickly make you forget certain development deficits. Be inspired by our list of the 17 best places to visit in Myanmar.
The Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo is considered by Buddhists to be one of the holiest places in Myanmar. The huge boulder, which resembles a human skull, seems to float above a thousand meter deep abyss. According to legend, it is held up only by a hair of Buddha, which Buddha himself gave to a hermit. On top of the gilded rock is a stupa, the 5.5 meter high Kyaiktiyo Pagoda. Over the centuries, pilgrims have covered the sacred rock with gold leaf. Women, however, are not allowed to touch the shrine.
Yangon or Rangoon is not the capital of Myanmar, but somehow it is. The largest airport is located here, all embassies and the most important pagoda of the country is located in this city. Yangon is big and noisy, meanwhile it has modern shopping centers and still this city seems much more original than for example Bangkok.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is the largest and most important pagoda in all of Myanmar and for the Burmese an important spiritual place. Many come here regularly to meditate and enjoy this magical place. The pagoda is 100 meters high and legend has it that there are eight hairs of the Buddha inside. More than 2500 years ago, two merchants traveled to India to meet Buddha. They gave him a gift, became his followers and as a farewell gift Buddha gave them eight hairs. On their way back to Myanmar, the merchants gave two hairs to a king.
They had to give two more hairs to another king when they passed through his territory. Once home, the merchants presented the remaining hairs to their king in a box. Miraculously, all eight hairs were back and the king had the hairs installed in the stupa.
The pagoda with the surrounding statues and halls is huge and the atmosphere is quite special. So you should take enough time for the visit, it is worthwhile to sit on the ground in between and watch the people and the pagoda.
15. Pyin U Lwin
The tranquil town of Pyin U Lwin (or Pyin Oo Lwin or Maymyo) is located barely 70 kilometers from Mandalay and is a beautiful example of 20th century colonial architecture. Once a small village, Pyin U Lwin became a garrison town – “May Town” (Maymyo) by the British Colonel May after the 3rd British-Burmese War.
Due to the cool climate during the usually hot and humid summers in Myanmar, Pyin U Lwin, as the town has been officially called again since 1988 after the military coup, quickly became a popular summer residence for those who could afford it. The construction of the railroad connecting Mandalay and Pyin U Lwin contributed massively to the fact that the city experienced a real boom and numerous new imposing buildings were erected. And fortunately, many of the old colonial mansions are still standing today, adding to the charm of this quiet city.
Tourism plays – still! – a rather insignificant role here, but one notices how the cityscape is slowly changing and opening up more and more to the west. All the sooner you should take the opportunity and make a detour to Pyin U Lwin to enjoy the town in its most original form.
Today, Pyin U Lwin is best known for its orchards, flower fields and fruit wines – and of course for the huge military academy where the future members of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army, are trained.
Kalaw in Myanmar is a former British colonial hill station located on the western edge of the Shan Mountains at an altitude of about 1,350 meters. The town has a relaxed atmosphere, a pleasantly cool climate and impressive views of the countryside.
The British colonial officials already made the place an air health resort. They appreciated the pleasant coolness and excellent hiking opportunities in the neighboring mountains. Extensive pine forests, fertile valleys and villages inhabited by ethnic minorities
Kalaw itself has a lot to offer, for example you can visit the local market or the restored colonial mansions. It is also a suitable starting point for interesting one to five day hiking tours to the nearby villages of the hill tribes Palaung, Pa-O, Taungyo and Dano.
If the former capital Yangon is known as the economic center of Myanmar, Mandalay is the cultural heart – with a turbulent past. In 1885, Mandalay fell under colonial rule after the British invasion, only to be occupied – and bombed – by the Japanese during World War II from 1942 – 1945. Indeed, part of the city, as well as the old 19th century Royal Palace, fell victim to Allied bombing raids.
Today, about a third of the population in Mandalay is of Chinese descent, but Indians, Shan and other ethnic minorities also make for a motley mix of cultures. Meanwhile, there is even a small “Chinatown” and also a “Little India” – but of course in small dimensions.
The golden peaks of the pagodas of Kuthodaw and Kyauktawgyi sparkle above Mandalay, handicraft businesses go about their traditional work producing gold leaf, precious puppets and delicate paper umbrellas, and the cookshops tempt with fresh and spicy dishes. Mandalay is on its way to becoming a real tourist attraction – but everything here still feels “new” and exciting. As if you were the first to discover the beauty of the city!
Bagan was once the capital of a huge kingdom. From here, between about 900 – 1300, the whole empire was ruled, which at that time had almost the dimensions of the present territory of Myanmar.
The heyday of the kingdom began with the accession of King Anawrahtas to the throne in 1044. Anawrahtas was the first Buddhist king. He drove out the priests of the snake cult that had dominated until then.
Due to the favorable location on the Irrawaddy River (trade routes from China and India met here), unimaginable riches flowed into the kingdom’s treasuries. During this period, the various kings used part of the wealth to build over 10,000 temples, pagodas, monasteries and other Buddhist shrines.
Bagan became one of the largest cities of the Middle Ages. About 15 times larger than London at that time. A cosmopolitan city where scholars exchanged ideas on subjects such as religion, philosophy, writing and language. Then, from the middle of the twelfth century, things didn’t go so well.
Tragic: the former cosmopolitan city shrank to a village. Too high costs for the maintenance of the many temple complexes heralded the decline of the kingdom. When the Mongol army advanced into the territory of the weakened Burmese empire, the end of the kingdom was sealed.
Bagan is considered one of the greatest archaeological sites in Asia. The temple area in the middle of the steppe landscape looks very spacious, this is mainly due to the fact that the houses of the former inhabitants still stood between the temples. While the wooden houses rotted, the temples survived the centuries.
The layout of the temples is modeled on the center of the Buddhist cosmos, with its eight known planets of the solar system.
The number of intact temples and pagodas is estimated at about 2200. Due to the dry conditions, many of the historical buildings, as well as the magnificent paintings inside them, are very well preserved.
11. Inle Lake
The idyllic Inle Lake is one of the most visited places in Myanmar and the region around it also consists of the city of Nyaung Shwe, which is the access point to the lake. Besides Inle Lake itself, Nyaung Shwe offers a number of interesting sights such as picturesque pagodas, temples and monasteries.
Nyaung Shwe is the main route to Inle Lake, which is considered the second largest waterway of its kind in Myanmar. The lake is covered with local villages and gardens floating on the clear surface. This is one of the most unique sights in the country, so it is worth the trip here.
Bago, the ancient capital of the Mon, rarely makes it onto the Myanmar itinerary. And this does absolutely no justice to the small provincial town, which is located only 80 kilometers from Yangon. Hardly any other city in Myanmar has such a high density of worth seeing sanctuaries, pagodas, Buddha statues, monasteries and palaces as Bago and is so wonderfully untouristy and authentic.
One of the highlights is the 55 meter long Buddha in the Shwethalyaung Pagoda. It is considered one of the most beautiful in the country and is one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world. For comparison, the famous reclining Buddha of Bangkok in Wat Pho temple measures “just” 46 meters in length.
The Shwethalyaung Buddha dates back to 994, and in its reclining position, the statue symbolizes Buddha at his death and entry into Nirvana. The pillow that covers the Buddha’s head depicts scenes from the Buddha’s life.
In order to protect the Buddha statue from the weather and pollution, a less beautiful roof structure was built around the reclining Buddha in the 19th century. The hall creates a kind of turbulent market atmosphere. School groups, families and worshippers flock to the hall with blankets and picnic baskets to dine at the feet of the Buddha.
In Rakhine State, where Myanmar borders the Indian Ocean and Bangladesh, an hour’s flight from Yangon is a paradise that other countries envy: Ngapali Beach is truly the most beautiful beach you can find in – not only – Myanmar.
At 7-8 kilometers in total length, Ngapali Beach stretches across three bays separated by rocky cliffs. Along the three stretches of beach, you’ll find fine sand, a line of palm trees, and offshore islands set in incredibly clear blue waters. This sight is what catalogs rightly promise, and the choice of accommodations, from five-star resorts to simpler hotels, as well as the variety of activities, make this beach vacation an unforgettable experience.
Between blue hills and high cliffs in the south of Shan State are the mysterious caves of Pindaya. About 8,000 Buddha statues made of various materials are located in the gigantic caves, around whose history, as it should be, various legends entwine.
The giant spider, which is said to have once had its kingdom in Pindaya, you will no longer see today – but a visit to Pindaya can be wonderfully combined with Inle Lake and really should not be missed on a trip to the region.
You will see a different side of Myanmar in this region and dive into traditions as well as into the world of legends and stories – moreover, the beautiful landscape around Pindaya is really worth a visit. Especially in the glittering sunlight, the entire region has a magical aura, which can already be felt around Inle Lake.
Hsipaw is sometimes referred to as Thibaw and is a modest city in the Shan State of Myanmar. This means that it is the perfect place if you want to learn more about Shan culture, as there are a number of pretty artifacts throughout the city to help you do just that.
In addition to its historical and cultural significance, Hsipaw is known for its beautiful scenery, especially since it is surrounded by hills that you can climb and overlook the vast landscape.
As you would expect from a Burmese town, you will also find a number of Shan pagodas and temples. Hsipaw is also located on a river, so you can take a boat ride and explore the countryside from the water’s vantage point.
Another important reason to visit Hsipaw is that it is located on the Mandalay railroad line, one of the most famous and most beautiful railroads in the world.
If you like to travel by train, you should not miss the opportunity to take the train from Mandalay to Hsipaw.
Hpa-An is the incredibly scenic capital of Kayin State in the southeast of the country. A region that has not been open to tourists for too long. And this is noticeable. The tourist offerings are not yet mature and getting there is relatively time-consuming. Also, there are not so many accommodations yet and the choice is only between expensive & luxurious and cheap & simple. Thus, Hpa-An is still a rough diamond in the rough and you can still find the real Myanmar here.
Hpa-An means as much as “vomited out frog”. How do you get such a strange name for a city? According to legend, a cobra wanted to eat a frog. However, the frog had swallowed a magic stone beforehand, which is why the frog got stuck in the cobra’s throat. The cobra spat the frog out again and it landed on the bank of the Thanlyin River – exactly where Hpa-An is today. The frog is an important symbol in Kayin State.
Mawlamyine is Myanmar’s fourth largest city, yet so charmingly small. Before the English took over the south, Mawlamyine was just a small trading town. Today, the city is one of the most important port cities in Myanmar.
From the Golden Rock, it is only two or three hours to Mawlamyine, also known as Moulmein, made world famous by Kipling’s poem “The Road to Mandalay”.
Highlights in Mawlamyine include the magnificent “Queen’s Monastery” and the Kyeik Than Lan Pagoda – although there is reasonable doubt as to whether Kipling even meant this pagoda in his poem “The Road to Mandalay.”
The market of the big city is also absolutely worth seeing and a stroll through the old town will take you back to a time long gone. In the evening, the residents of the city meet while strolling along the promenade at the Thanlwin.
Directly under the large bridge (the longest in the country!) connecting Mawlamyine to Martaban, located on the west bank of Thanlwin, is Gaungse Kyun (“Shampoo Island”), small but famous throughout the country. From here came the holy water with which the Burmese monarchs publicly washed their hair at the New Year! On the nearby Bilu Kyun (“Man-Eater Island”, but don’t worry, the inhabitants are harmless) time seems to have stood still in some places.
The south of Myanmar and especially the Mergui Archipelago (also called Myeik Archipelago) is still an undiscovered jewel. Countless small and larger islands in the Andaman Sea form a small piece of paradise: Untouched beaches, a fascinating underwater world with beautiful coral reefs as well as the encounter with the inhabitants of the islands, the Moken, who move as sea nomads from island to island, will inspire you!
Go on an exciting journey of discovery to the south of the country, still untouched by tourism, and discover the Mergui Archipelago, which was inaccessible to tourists until 1997. Even today, the visit is only allowed with permission, which is why the islands were able to preserve their originality.
3. Ngwe Saung
Almost still an insider tip is a bathing stay at the beach of Ngwe Saung. Far away from mass tourism, the beach is located 210 km west of Yangon in the area of Chaungtha village. You will reach this magnificent beach with a scenic 6-hour overland drive.
You will drive through the Ayeyarwaddi Delta with rice fields, ponds and rivers. The time spent on the partly bumpy road is definitely worth it. Behind Pathein the landscape becomes mountainous and forests with bamboo and large trees adorn the landscape. On the way there are always interesting photo opportunities.
At the 9 km long beach you can swim in the tropical warm sea and take long beach walks. If you wish, you can go on diving safaris in the Bay of Bengal or ride an elephant through the jungle. Birdwatchers will also find excellent viewing opportunities in the forest about 10 km away.
It was not until 2005 that the capital was moved from Rangoon (now Yangon) to the new planned city of Naypyidaw, which was given the city name (translated: “seat of kings”) on March 22, 2006. The official reason for the relocation of the capital was that Naypyidaw is centrally located in the country and is easier to reach from all parts of the country.
The city, by the way, is a planned city, as it is written in the book, because the entire urban area is very clearly divided into different government quarters, residential areas, military zones, shopping centers, as well as hotel and leisure zones. In the residential zone, by the way, the houses are marked with different colors, which indicate the rank of the inhabitants. In between are man-made lakes, parks and disproportionately wide streets.
What is immediately noticeable in the city, however, is the droning emptiness, which almost hurts when you think about the vast sums of money that must have gone into the planning and construction of the city and what could have been done for the population in one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia.
The construction of the city was kept strictly secret from the public by the former military dictatorship and even western tourists have only recently been allowed to visit the test-tube city. Nevertheless, due to the seemingly endless bizarreness, we would advise a short visit, as you probably won’t see such a city again in the world.
1. Mrauk U
Mrauk U is located in Rakhine State on the border with Bangladesh, has the charm of an old, almost forgotten temple town and is one of the most beautiful destinations in Myanmar. If you still want to see the former Myanmar, we recommend visiting the old royal city, because here the life of the Burmese has hardly changed in many years. So far, only a few tourists stray here.
The center is the palace, of which only some remains of walls are left. The former splendor of the once rich royal city can no longer even be imagined. Along a dusty street in the center are a few small wooden houses selling drinks, fruits and vegetables, and packaged food.
People live in poorly built bamboo or wooden huts, wash their laundry in the river, then dry it on the rocks, and children play on dusty streets and paths. Despite the rather poor living conditions, the people here are very friendly and are happy about every foreign smile they encounter.