The country boasts a staggering number of ancient monuments, miles of unspoilt beaches, hiking opportunities to visit remote mountain tribes and the chance to learn about fascinating traditions rooted in a strong Buddhist faith. You could spend weeks exploring Myanmar, but with just 12 days weeks I chose the country's highlights…
Yangon is where the majority of visitors will start and end their stay, and it's well worth a few days of your time. As I was visiting during the Thingyan New Year festival, the city was relatively quiet thanks to the mass exodus to the villages and beaches - I was assured that in high season the roads are much more reminiscent of the frenetic pace of Bangkok! Nevertheless, it's easy to navigate your way on foot around the old colonial district from Chinatown towards the golden Sule Pagoda. Yangon's downtown really comes alive at night with market stalls and tea shops, and even though you might not be tempted to try the various entrails on display, it is a fascinating place to wander.
The Shwedagon Pagoda complex is a "must-see" and particularly atmospheric at dusk or early evening. Come and watch the proud families accompany their young sons to the lavishly-costumed novice monk initiation ceremonies, or simply sit and listen to the tinkling of the hundreds of bells that cover the top of the main gilded stupas.
Bagan & Mandalay
After the busy streets of Yangon, I flew to Bagan to join a river cruise to Mandalay. Despite the slowly increasing numbers of foreign visitors, tour operations can still be challenging, most obvious when taking a slightly chaotic (yet very charming) domestic flight where being given a coloured sticker to wear is a key part of the boarding process!
The route from Bagan to Mandalay is well served by a number of river cruise operators. There's a range of different styles, and all offer easy travel in an area that is almost impossible to navigate independently, allowing you to take in the stunning temples of Bagan, a true highlight of any trip to Myanmar. Best seen at sunrise or sunset, the plain stretches out before you and is dotted with a multitude of stupas and pagodas. It really is breathtaking.
Travelling on to Mandalay along the Ayeyarwady river offers a chance to see the typical daily life of the country. I was delighted by the chance to sit and talk with a group of novice monks at a local school. People were very proud to show off their heritage and seemed to love meeting visitors, and although the Ayeyarwady itself was not so impressive, with much of the scenery an underwhelming mix of sandbanks and dusty fields, visiting small villages really did feel like a cultural exchange.
Inle Lake was every inch the leafy haven I had been looking forward to. Less than an hour's flight from Mandalay, the lake is set at 880 metres above sea level in Shan state, which is known as the "bread basket" of Myanmar and is home to several different ethnic minority groups. As soon as I left the airport I saw the change in the landscape - mountains rising in the distance and the lowland areas covered with lush paddy fields.
My first stop was at a monastery where the courtyard walls were filled with small Buddha statues, each with the name and home town of a donor who had given money towards the renovation of the building. It was heart-warming to see how people from across the globe had contributed to the upkeep of this temple in a rural village. After a passing visit to the Red Mountain vineyard (you will find their wines on most local restaurant menus) we reached the town of Nyaung Shwe and boarded a brightly coloured, motorised gondola that would finally whisk us down the murky canals and then to the other side of the lake. Seeing the floating gardens was probably the most memorable part of my whole trip: utterly tranquil and a fascinating demonstration of how communities adapt to their environment.
An Ayeyarwady river cruise through the heart of Myanmar is perfectly bookended by stays in Yangon and Inle and makes the ideal itinerary for first time visitors. Now I can't wait to return to discover more!