Many visitors are drawn to Kipling's Burma to see the dazzling Shwedagon Pagoda or the incredible temples of Bagan. However, beyond the main destinations lie a wealth of cultural and natural destinations that ensure Myanmar can compete with the diversity on offer in any of the other Southeast Asian countries. Visit minority people or trek through the Shan highlands around Kalaw or Hsipaw. Gaze in wonder at the incredible religious shrines of Mt Kyaiktiyo or Mt Popa. Experience Bagan without the tourists at the ancient temple city of Mrauk U in the far west of the country. Explore the colonial vestiges of the British empire with a visit to the pretty hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin. Or simply relax on the idyllic coastline of the Indian Ocean at the leading beach resort of Ngapali. Myanmar is more than just a cultural curiousity, it is one of the most diverse destinations in the incredibly diverse region that is Southeast Asia.
A magical watery world of floating gardens, stilted villages and crumbling stupas, Inle Lake is one of Myanmar's most alluring attractions. Mountains tumble down towards the lakeshore, blurring the distinction between heaven and earth. For many visitors, Inle is heaven on earth, a place to while away the days canoeing, cycling and walking through the lush countryside. The Intha people are famous for their leg rowing and there is even a monastery where meditating monks have taught the cats to jump. Popular stops include the floating gardens of Kela and the crumbling stupas of Indein, accessible via an Apocalypse Now style boat trip up a river tributary of the lake.
Kalaw is taking off as a trekking destination thanks to its elevated position at 1320m on the rolling, pine-clad hills of the Shan Plateau. Located to the west of beautiful Inle Lake, longer treks are possible linking the two (about 45km), on mountains dotted with Palaung, Pa-O, Intha and Shan villages. There is a large population of Nepalese in this hilltop town, which may explain the slightly Himalayan feel to the place.
Like Bagan to the east, the Rakhine kings of Mrauk U were expressive in their dedication to their faith, and this ancient capital is home to more than one hundred temples. Accessible via a pretty 65km boat ride northeast from Sittwe, Mrauk U is smaller than Bagan but more alive. Mrauk U served as the Rakhine capital from 1430 to 1784, a prosperous time when the kings hired Japanese samurais as bodyguards and the naval fleet of 10,000 boats plundered neighbouring countries around the Bay of Bengal. The main sites of Mrauk U are located near the Shittaung (Shrine of the 80,000 Images), the most intricate of the surviving temples. Built in 1535, the pagoda has a maze-like floor plan. An outer chamber, accessible via the far left door at the entry hall to the east side, passes 1000 sculptures; the inner chamber coils to a dead end, passing a ‘Buddha footprint’ on the way.
The gravity-defying golden rock of Kyaiktiyo is one of the most enigmatic sights in Myanmar. Perched on the very edge of a cliff on Mt Kyaikto, this giant, gold-leafed boulder marks the spot of a Buddha hair donated by a hermit in the 11th century. The site has a mystical and magical aura, a place of miracles, not least of which is how the boulder has managed to stick around all these years. The golden rock draws Burmese pilgrims in their thousands during the cooler months from October to March.
The Mt Olympus of Myanmar, Mt Popa is the stupa-studded centre of nat worship in the country. This 1520m-high monastery-topped hill is visible from Bagan on a clear day and offers breathtaking views of the plain. The Mahagiri shrine, at the foot of the mountain, features a display of the 37 nat. Festivals include the full moon of Nayon (May/June) and Nadaw (November/December).
The top beach destination in Myanmar, some say it was given its name by a homesick Italian. Ngapali boasts 3km of palm-fringed sands on the beautiful Bay of Bengal. The turquoise waters deliver a bounty from the sea and this town serves up some of the country's best seafood. It is a good place to wind down after an adventurous trip exploring the far flung sights of the country.
Pyin Oo Lwin
Set in the foothills of northern Shan state, this former British hilltown was known as Maymyo during the British era. It is easy to while away some time biking along shady avenues or sipping tea with the friendly locals. Local transport includes cute pony-led miniature wagons, straight out of the Wells Fargo days of the American West. Modelled on the famous Kew Gardens of London, the National Kandawgyi Gardens is a 176-hectare little Eden, with an inviting pool facing a small lake.