I had wanted to go to Myanmar for a very long time, but kept putting it off because of other trips I took. As Myanmar was becoming quite touristy, I decided a little over a year ago (Nov 2016) that now was really the time to visit this unique destination. As we travelled through the country, some places were indeed crowded with tourists, but surprisingly we also managed to find a few others that were still quite unspoilt. I’ll tell you about the three places you must visit in Myanmar to get a similar experience. But: do it quick! Myanmar is receiving more and more tourists every year.
1. Rakhine State: Mrauk-U and Ngapali beach
Rakhine State was by far my favourite place in Myanmar. For several reasons: the infrastructure is bad and complex, so travelling from A to B makes a good old-fashioned adventure; there are relatively few tourists (reason one may have something to do with that); and the places to visit are gorgeous.
We first travelled to Ngapali, a beautiful beach that you can reach with a questionable Birmese flight or a long bus ride over terrible roads – we chose the latter. There are some tourists, yes, but it felt really quiet and the town isn’t that developed at all. We stayed in simple wooden cabins and were offered free brownies after lunch by the restaurant owner who had just started his business and was looking to have his sweets tested by foreigners. Local life still felt pure there, and not spoilt by a insane tourist-based economy that you find in many other beach towns. Also: the most beautiful sunsets.
Next, we were off to Mrauk-U, my absolute favourite destination in Myanmar. Most tourists travel to Bagan to see pagodas, but honestly, Mrauk-U has much more to offer. It only receives a few thousand tourists a year (compared to 250.000 in Bagan) and the temples are located in the towns. Life continues there and the pagodas just happen to be located in the same place – whereas in Bagan, everything was about the tourists visiting the pagodas, and the whole local economy was based on this. It felt more like Thailand than Myanmar. But Mrauk-U… you can just rent a bike and visit the pagodas at your own pace, watch the sun set with only a few other people, and have a (delicious) set lunch at a local ‘restaurant’ with questionable hygiene. Read more about this fantastic destination and my travel tips here.
Travelling to Mrauk-U was another hassle, but it did make us visit towns we would otherwise never set foot in. As buses and boats often leave at 5am, we spent the night in a few transit towns in Rakhine State. There, we were the only tourists, had people stare at us wherever we went and even had dinner with some locals who were simply just too curious. We had a great time, as local life was just so interesting and different to us.
All in all, you should not miss Rakhine State. With Ngapali and Mrauk-U as relatively undiscovered gems, the state has a lot to offer. It’s difficult to access, but this completes its beauty. As you travel through the state, you feel as if you travelled back in time and are really off the beaten track. Life there is so different from what most of us know, you won’t be able to stop looking around.
Note: check your government’s travel advice before you go. Only when we were far into Rakhine, we realised that the Dutch government actually advised against travelling there (oops). We also visited the state before the latest spark of terrible violence against the Rohingya muslims last year, so make sure you check the latest advice.
2. Hiking in Hsipaw
I have to admit, the hike itself wasn’t spectacular, but I liked it nonetheless. We set out with just two others and a guide, and spent the night with locals in their houses. There was nothing: no cellphone signal, no electricity at night, no toilet inside the house. I saw the most beautiful sky of stars at night. Don’t hike around Hsipaw for the flora and fauna (although we did have some nice views), but just for the experience. Hsipaw itself wasn’t also very touristy – plastic chairs with bright lights at restaurants – which we liked. Also for Hsipaw: check the travel advice! After we left, we heard they temporarily didn’t let tourists in because of regional violence.
3. Take a train ride on the Goteik Viaduct
OK, this one is actually quite known and you will have to share this experience with other tourists. But: we really enjoyed the train ride, as it felt quite relaxed and not a tourist attraction at all. The majority of the people on the train were still locals. The train itself was very slow, but with the windows open and riding past trees and bushes (with occasionally a leave through the window), it was very enjoyable. Much better than the buses we took elsewhere! 🙂
What are your tips for Myanmar?
Let me know in the comments!