My friend and I wanted to visit Myanmar before the bandwagon did, and so that we could be these annoying travellers, “yeh, I went there before it was even cool, I went before they had 7/11s!” but on a more serious note I’d wanted to go to Myanmar since I read a few of George Orwell’s tales in the mysterious country and of course his famous novel, Burmese Days. Getting the visa was easy as a British tourist. Sent off an application form, two passport photos, some cash and my passport to the Myanmar embassy in London, and five days later it came back with a shiny new Myanmar tourist visa. I had thirty days on my visa to explore this south-east Asian country, and honestly I didn't know where to begin. But after much reading and actually going to the country myself I feel I can advise on the best places to visit:
The former capital of Myanmar and the only access point if you wish to enter the country by plane. A busy, bustling city with heat to match but not much to do. We only spent one night here and we found that was enough. I would even recommend getting into the city, then getting out as there is Schwedagon Paya to see, and that’s about it…
Basically a Burmese version of Angkor Wat but not as touristy. You can rent bicycles for the day and explore the temples this way, which are all free to get into. Wake up for sunrise or stay up for sunset and head to a tall temple. Bagan has plenty of reasonable priced guesthouses and lots of restaurants so it won't break the bank and it was my favourite place in Myanmar! I stayed at the start of the town in a double room which only cost $10 each night, and some of favourite foody places were Cafe Novel (famous for its lassies), and Moon restaurant, a great vegetarian place. We then took a four hour tourist bus from Bagan to Mandalay (7000kyat)
Another city but less hustle and bustle than Yangon. This city allows motorbikes, which Yangon has banned, therefore the traffic jams aren't as hectic and motorbike taxis make getting around cheaper and easier. The big palace is overpriced but the walks around the moat are worth the sight. Mandalay is a good place to visit all of the shops/factories for many of the locally produced goods such as jade, silk weaving, gold leaf and bamboo. There's also a few day trips available from the city, which I thought were just ok, but some have rated much better. I stayed in Yoe Yoe Lay Guesthouse in the south of the city ($10 per night), and it’s one of the better hostels I've stayed in. From Mandalay we took a two hour pickup truck to Pyin Oo Lwin, which the owner of the guesthouse flagged down for us.
Pyin Oo Lwin
A more peaceful town in the mountains, so a nice place to escape the heat of the city. Not a great deal to do here except to explore some beautiful botanical gardens, revel in the mass of British colonial houses and see a waterfall. If here, visit the Golden Triangle Bakery and perhaps stay at Grace Hotel II ($17 for a double room). Pyin Oo Lwin is a good town to stop off if you want to go on the train to witness the Gokteik Viaduct which is a piece of colonial engineering. It was worth the trip and many say don’t bother going the whole way on this train, just travel from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw (get a two hour pickup truck from Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin before this).
A fantastic place to visit if you want to do some treks through local villages. In actual Hsipaw there isn't a great deal to do, so we just stayed one night before our trek. We chose a three day/two night trek through Mr Charles guesthouse, and it turned out to be one of the best parts of our trip. One local guide, myself, my friend and four French backpackers. We trekked through local villages and met the townspeople and stayed at their houses. Everything was arranged, so the villagers knew we were staying, they provided all of meals which were delicious, and the guide brought snacks for along the way! Treks can range from 1-3 nights and they vary in difficulty from three-seven hours of walking a day. It wasn't too strenuous, but the heat didn't make it any easier. We learnt a lot about Myanmar from the guide who spoke very good English, and we got to meet local people and see how they lived everyday life. From Hsipaw we got the bus to Inle Lake which was supposed to be a fourteen hour night bus, but for some reason it took twenty-two…
I wasn't a massive fan of Inle Lake but my friend really liked it. It was the most touristy out of all the places we visited, with boat trips on every corner, and every local trying to sell their own ‘special’ trip. We did one trip on the lake and it visited the local fisherman, a tobacco shop, a temple and the long-necked women which we avoided for ethical reasons. A beautiful lake but perhaps more enjoyable if experienced on bike.
Another popular place, which we didn't venture to, was Kyaiktiyo. Kyaiktiyo is a spiritual place for the Burmese but overall it’s just a big gold rock on a hill. It's a five hour trek to the top and women aren't allowed to touch it, so my feminist mind-set took over and I said we couldn't go to this place for the principal! But, it really is just a big rock.
Overall Myanmar was a fantastic country to visit, and even though probably one of the most basic countries I have backpacked in, in terms of western development, it was a country like no other! Not as expensive as people had warned me, and honestly similar prices to the rising tourist cost of Thailand. Read more about facts about Myanmar, but overall go before it gets too ran-sacked by every Tom, Dick and Harry.