January 29, 2014
“It will be quite unlike any land you know about”, wrote Rudyard Kipling in 1892.
How right he was, as more than a century later Myanmar remains a world apart from any country I have ever visited. Its stunning landscape, ancient temples and colourful cultures are utterly breathtaking. However, with newly relaxed border restrictions, this culture-rich destination will soon be on budget backpackers’ radar. So if you want to visit this stunning country before the crowds arrive, here are five must-dos whilst you’re out there:
The former capital of Myanmar is a bizarre mix of colonial architectural treasures, disorganised traffic, vibrant street life and friendly locals. One tourist attraction you must visit is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a majestic glittering site, where the interior of this temple is eerily quiet – fit for those looking for tranquillity in a crowded city. When I left the city, I braved the sleeper train to Kalaw – an eight-hour journey which was rather hair-raising, seeing as the track had more or less remained the same since the early 1900s. It’s a bumpy ride to say the least, but well worth it.
Burmese jungle trek
One of the most unforgettable moments of my trip was a four-day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. I weaved through traditional hill tribe villages, met innocent, friendly locals and absorbed some of the most beautiful unspoilt scenery in South East Asia. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted though – the trail was pretty challenging. I was eaten alive by mosquitoes, and the accommodation consisted of a blanket and candle in a traditional wooden monastery. However, it’s an unforgettable journey and there’s no better way to experience the authenticity, culture and hidden treasures of the country.
A boat journey across the lake, exploring the local villages on stilts, provides a snapshot of bucolic local life. Women wade into the water to wash their hair; men gut fish on the grassy banks and the creaking of silk looms can be heard from small workshops. I took a boat ride late in the evening to catch the sunset where I watched local fishermen effortlessly paddling the calm waters of the lake – utterly breathtaking.
With more than 2,200 temples and pagodas, Bagan is one of the most beautiful historic sites I’ve ever visited. I decided to explore the area by bike, which is the cheapest and easiest way to get around. I also recommend going for either sunrise or sunset – the view is even more spectacular, with the golden sunlight highlighting the bizarre structures. For photographers, it’s also the perfect light for incredible shots. Plus it’s far less busy at these times – I barely saw a soul when I was there at 5am!
Pyin Oo Lwin
If you really want to explore the remote regions of the country, then you’ll have to venture off the beaten track and head into the remote villages. I took a four-hour taxi ride from Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin (which cost me £4), an innocent little place which felt like it had barely stepped into the 21st century. Horse-and-cart is a regular form of transport and the locals would often stop to stare at me, as if they’d never seen a Western girl in their lives. I also tried one of the most incredible Burmese curries here, which made me fall in love with the country even more.