In just a few years, Myanmar has gone from having virtually no international tourists to welcoming several million annually. If you’re in search of the latest emerging destination, look no further. Development is brisk, but there’s still time to see this culturally rich nation in all of its pristine pagoda-laden glory. Though comprehensive democratic reform has yet to arrive, locals are hopeful that the country is on the brink of positive change. After years of censorship and isolation, curious nationals are encouraging foreigner visitors with open arms, minds, and hearts.
The number of indie travelers journeying here is growing, but the destination is not the domain of backpackers alone. Trafalgar has just started offering guided trips to this spiritual stalwart. As part of their Hidden Journeys collection, the 11-day Secrets of Myanmar tour gives you an insider’s view featuring authentic local experiences, and groups are small—you’ll travel with 26 or fewer guests. During my trip, I enjoyed a tasty dinner with a family in their home, visited children at a school run by monks, and had lunch with nuns in a nunnery. Our travel director was an English-speaking Burmese who gave us an in-depth window into what life is really like in this fast-changing country. No subject was off limits; we discussed a range of topics from dating rituals to voting habits, and I was privy to the sort of cultural insights and human connections that I could have only gained from spending several months in Myanmar, not 11 days.
Of course, the sites and attractions in this exotic land are showstoppers as well. Here's what you shouldn't miss during your time in Myanmar and some of my tips for making the most of your trip.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Buddhism is a way of life in Myanmar and there are literally tens of thousands of pagodas gracing the landscape. Capital city Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda is one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites. Adorned with 27 metric tons of detailed gold leaf, its massive size makes it visible from nearly anywhere in the city. Visit in the early morning to see locals worship before work or at dusk for a traditional oil lamp ceremony.
Take a ride on a motorized long-tail boat and you’ll see the ‘leg rowers,' graceful Intha fishermen who row standing up on one leg with the other leg wrapped around a single oar, leaving their hands free to manipulate their conical fishing nets. It’s an unforgettable feat of balance and grace. As you glide through the lush floating gardens where farmers grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers, you’ll have the perfect vantage point to glimpse the still-untouched rural lifestyle of this remote lake’s people. Animal lovers will want to spend some time at the Inthar Heritage House, a foundation that offers valuable career training to local youth and allows visitors to romp with kitties in their Burmese cat sanctuary.
The sacred city of Bagan is a packed with several thousand pagodas. If you have no fear of heights, a ride in a hot-air balloon provides a bird’s-eye perch to view the temples. When you start experiencing pagoda overload, lacquerware is a specialty product of the area—visit a workshop and watch the highly detailed, painstaking process before you purchase a decorative hand-made object with a shiny glaze.
Stroll the U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. Visit the imposing royal palace. If you see just one pagoda in Mandalay, make it the Kuthodaw Pagoda—it’s where you’ll find the Thravada Buddhist scriptures individually inscribed on 729 marble slabs, earning the nickname of the world’s largest book. Sip tea with locals at one of the city’s many teahouses. Purchase artisanal souvenirs such as hand-woven tapestries, marionettes, and gold leaf at one of the bustling markets.
Remember these six important tips
• Though credit cards are accepted in major hotels, U.S. dollars are the sure way to pay. Keep in mind that only bills in mint condition are accepted, so watch out for notes with even tiny imperfections.
• The Internet is no longer censored, but it is slow. You won’t be subject to a complete digital detox, but remember, patience is a virtue.
• Myanmar is a very safe country. Travelers will want to take normal precautions, but petty crime is virtually non-existent.
• Dress code is on the conservative side here—shoulders and knees must be covered when you enter temples, and female visitors might want to bring a scarf or shawl for quick cover-ups. Shoes need to be removed before entering temples, so get your tootsies in shape with a pre-trip pedi.
• You’ll need a visa. Citizens of 67 countries can apply for an online e-Visa. It costs $70 and takes about five business days to process.
• For a deeper understanding of this complicated nation, read one of Myanmar’s literary treasures before you depart. Aung San Suu Kyi’s Letters From Burma is a good place to start.
The Secrets of Myanmar tour by Trafalgar took me to these and many more unforgettable places. Top-notch hotels with spectacular swimming pools, activities, and most meals are also included in the tour. Their next Myanmar departure is in January 2016. From $3,507 per person; based on double occupancy. International airfare is not included in the package price.
This article was written by Allison Tibaldi, a native New Yorker who has lived in Rome, Tuscany, Melbourne, Toronto, and Los Angeles. She is fluent in Italian and Spanish and laughably adequate in French. When she's not traveling, she's scouring NYC for delectable eats. As a freelance travel writer, she focuses on family, culinary, and car-free travel. She's also a senior travel writer at offMetro.com.