Gilded Buddhas and golden stupas, green jungle and caramel sands, Myanmar has both a troubled past and a prevailing sense of peace. Previously inaccessible, it’s an unspoiled land of ingrained culture, tribal dress and warm welcomes where you can jiggle past colonial ruins in a horse and cart, float over glowing temples in a hot air balloon and drift downriver past stilted villages and crimson sunsets.
The spiritual heart and former capital of Myanmar, this city was once the focal point for British settlers who left behind the country’s best collection of colonial buildings. Recent history has been tougher, with riots in 2007 and a cyclone in 2008 but visit now and you’ll discover exceptionally welcoming locals and a multi-ethnic city that is bouncing back.
Yangon’s skyline is dominated by the gilded stupa of Shwedagon Paya – a jaw-dropping pagoda that is said to enshrine strands of Buddha’s hair. Once you’ve basked in its golden glory, head downtown and spend your kyats in the markets, shopping for handicrafts, artwork and antiques. To veer away from the tourist trail, experience daily life in Hledan market or stroll along the boardwalks at Kandawgyi Lake.
Enter the ancient Myanmar Kingdom near Bagan, where the central plains are scattered with thousands of gilded stupas. From the town of Nyaung U you can rattle along the dirt roads in a horse and cart, drift over the temples in a hot air balloon or follow a guide through locked doors to find Buddhist statues and fantastic frescoes.
Further inland, lively Nyaungshwe is the best base for visiting the tribes of Lake Inle. Learn the fine art of leg rowing or putter along the lake in a motorboat to tour the markets and see stilted villages with floating gardens. Set off through the morning mists, stop to admire the long necks of the Paduang women and look forward to fish and fermented rice for lunch.
Meandering through the country from north to south, the Ayeyarwaddy River is a lifeline for the local people who live on its banks, fish in its waters and transport their teak logs along its length. Floating along the river for up to a week is a wonderful way to travel between river towns and rural villages, while daily life in Myanmar drifts by.
Sail on a public boat with locals and live chickens or travel in style on a luxury cruise ship. Sit on deck and look for dolphin and rare river shark as you glide past deep jungle and green paddies. Step off to see the golden stupas of Bagan, the woodcarvings of Salay and the colonial buildings of Thayetmyo, sailing all the way to the monasteries of Mandalay.
Monks and motorbikes fill the wide streets of Myanmar’s second largest city, which is home to a huge military base and the reconstructed Royal Palace. The last capital of the Myanmar Kingdom, local culture runs strong and the sprawling centre is a great place to shop for carvings, castings and embroidery before you visit the Buddha Temple and teak monastery of Shwenandaw.
Escape on a scooter and explore the surrounding towns and villages, stopping off to climb to the hilltop pagodas in Sagaing or take a horse and trap around the former capital of Inwa. Back in the city, climb Mandalay Hill at sunset, pausing at the shrines on the way up and taking in the view from the pagoda at the top.