After spending nearly a half century walled off under military rule from the rest of the world, from 2011 to 2021 Burma (renamed Myanmar) experienced a decade of progress in its political system, economy, and society – including finally opening up to tourism. Sadly, though, just over a year and a half ago the military took control again and the ruling junta has since then been cracking down – sometimes brutally – on all of that progress. Yet the same time tourists have continued to come, and the Ministry of Tourism has continued to roll out initiatives to encourage yet more visitors.
And it must be said that for the most part, tourists in the most popular areas to visit remain pretty much unaffected by the strife, which is most notable in less visited areas, including parts of Kachin state, northern Shan state, southern Chin state, and Rakhine state (home to the Rohingya Muslims, who have made headlines in recent years because of the junta´s abuses against them).
So while safety in the more visited parts of the country is perfectly fine – and street crime, for instance, is very low – whether you choose to come or not for ethical reasons is up to you (just do keep in mind that your tourist dollar or euro or whatever your relevant currency mostly goes to help ordinary Burmese working in tourism and hospitality, even more than benefitting the dictatorship). But it´s still worth noting what an amazing destination this is for so many reasons.
First off, the rich Burmese cultural heritage – with influences from neighboring China, India, and Thailand – and an astonishing wealth of ancient temples, pagodas, monasteries, palaces, and colonial architecture.
Then there are breathtaking landscapes, from lush jungles and pristine beaches to scenic lakes and dramatic mountain ranges, with rewarding experiences in many of these settings including fabulous hiking, biking, and caving.
The ethnically diverse Burmese people, too, are a huge factor – warm, welcoming, and spiritual in their Buddhist faith – and travellers can often have the chance to engage with them, learn about their customs and traditions, and even participate in some of their various festivals and ceremonies. Since tourism is relatively new here, you can still have a more authentic and uncommercialized travel experience than in places like Thailand, for example (though to be sure, there are definitely parts of Thailand where that is also still possible, but perhaps fewer).
The delicious cuisine, too, will absolutely delight you, with specialities such as Burmese curry (milder than Thai, for example, and making use of dried as well as spices), mohinga (a fish noodle soup), and tea leaf salad.
There are scores of amazing places to visit in this country, but if I had to choose just a half dozen, it would be these:
This is no longer technically the capital – since 2005 that status has been held by Myanmar´s now third-largest city Naypyidaw, purpose built up in the north centre of the country. But Yangon remains the largest city (with a population of more than 5.6 million) and is a bustling mix of modern and architecture and that left over from Burma´s century and a quarter (1824-1948) as part of the British Empire; its urban core is home to the largest grouping of colonial-era structures in Southeast Asia).
One absolute must in Yangon is 367-foot (112-meter) tall Shwedagon Pagoda (above), one of this country´s most sacred Buddhist sites, and according to legend it was built during the Buddha´s lifetime but is believed by researchers more likely between the 6th and 10th centuries CE. Also known as the Golden Pagoda because of its massive, gilded stupa, adorned with thousands of diamonds and other precious gems, it's still a place of worship and pilgrimage for Buddhists and offers a unique opportunity to witness local spiritual life.
Also very much worth a visit are Yangon´s vibrant street markets, tea shops, historic Bogyoke Aung San Market, and beautiful Kandawgyi Lake.
José Javier Martín Espartosa
Just over seven hours south of Yangon by car (or a 3 ½-hour flight), one of Myanmar´s most iconic and mesmerizing destinations is a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its ancient temples and pagodas, with more than 2,000 of them spread across the archaeological zone. Watching the sunrise or sunset over the plains of Bagan – the temples bathed in a golden glow, and often with hot air balloons drifting above – is a truly magical experience.
Also in central Myanmar, located in the Shan Hills of southern Shan state, the country´s second largest lake is renowned for its scenic beauty and unique way of life. It´s surrounded by picturesque mountains and inhabited by the Intha people, known for their traditional leg-rowing technique, and floating gardens. Take a boat trip to floating villages, markets, and monasteries, and explore local crafts, including silk weaving and silverware. And don´t forget the very impressive Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda.
On the banks of the Irawaddy River a 6½-hour drive or 3½-hour flight north of Yangon, the second-largest city (pop. 1.5 million) has traditionally been considered the Burmese cultural capital. Visit the Mandalay Palace (above, built in the 1850s and used by the last two kings of Burma), explore the intricate wood carvings of 145-year-old Shwenandaw Monastery, climb Mandalay Hill for panoramic views, marvel at U Bein Bridge (built in the mid-19th century and still the longest in the world made of teak wood), and explore traditional Burmese arts and crafts. The nearby ancient cities of Amarapura, Ava, and Sagaing are also worth exploring for their historical significance and serene landscapes.
Myanmar's premier beach destination is down on the Bay of Bengal in Rakhine state, a six-hour drive or just under two by air. It features pristine white sands, calm, crystal-clear waters, and a delightfully laid-back atmosphere – no hopped up mass beach-resort tourism in sight. It's a great place to unwind, savour wonderful fresh seafood, and hang out in traditional fishing villages.
Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo Pagoda)
This one is a little more off the beaten path, but I include it because it´s so special. Located on the Bay of Bengal coast down in Mon state, this gravity-defying boulder – 7.6 metres (25 feet) high and covered in gold leaf – balance precariously on the edge of a cliff 1,100m (3,600 ft.) over the water (and supposedly, so the legend goes, perched on a strand of the Lord Buddha´s hair), topped by a small pagoda, whose origins are uncertain but appear to stretch back to at least the 3rd century BCE. It's one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Myanmar and offers stunning panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Fun fact: The pagoda is reached from the nearby town of Kinpun in dump trucks converted to carry people.
Myanmar´s tourism website is VisitMyanmar.com.