Myanmar – A country of mind-blogging diversity and colour
- Population: 56m
- Capital: Yangon (Rangoon)
- Currency: Kyat
- Language: Burmese, English
- Religion: Buddhism
Myanmar, or Burma, is a country of incredible diversity, with a tailor-made holiday typically combining a unique blend of cultural wonders, relaxing on undeveloped beaches, trekking little visited Himalayan foothills and exploring wonderful cities, where every turn reveals yet another mesmeric highlight (or four). To say that your visit to Myanmar will be a holiday like no other would be an understatement to say the very least.
Where to travel in Myanmar?
Most visitors travels in Myanmar will begin in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, the capital of the country until 1995 when the administrative capital was moved to Naypyidaw. (It is also possible to arrive in Myanmar from Thailand, crossing from Thailand at the Thachileik – Masai border. This route would take you through through the Shan hills and via Kentung).
Whilst there are a number of different ways to order the following itinerary, most first time visitors are likely to make a bee-line for the incredible temples of Bagan en route to Mandalay which deserves at least 2 full days of your time. From here a side-trip to the fascinating Hill Stations of Maymyo and Hsipaw are recommended, especially if you have time for the dramatic train ride over the Gokteik Viaduct. From here they are likely to turn south, either driving or flying to Inle Lake before flying west to the pristine beaches of Ngapali or Ngwe Saung near the charming town of Pathein.
Those with more time have a number of options. You may opt for more extensive travels in central regions, perhaps trekking in Kalaw or visiting the iconic Golden Rock at Kyaikitiyo. Further west, facing onto the Bay of Bengal, there are also places of immense interest such as Sittwe and Mrauk-U. The truly adventurous may also consider the long journey to the National Parks of Putao in the country’s far north, bordering China, or Muse on the eastern border.
Yangon: An Introduction
Although, since 2006, it’s no longer officially the country’s capital city, Yangon – named Rangoon by British during Colonial years – is Myanmar’s largest & most internationally famous metropolis. Although tranquil & relatively undeveloped compared to other large Asian cities, Yangon possesses one of the most exotic urban landscapes on the continent. Its many lush, leafy parks are interspersed with narrow rivers, large clean lakes, decaying Neo-Classic British Colonial streets, dusty concrete downtown blocks & traditional wooden architecture. Mopeds and motorbikes have been banned from the city centre which has helped ease the congestion associated with so many Asian city centres.
The city’s skyline is devoid, on the whole, of skyscrapers, defined instead by the astonishing gilded stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda. This 2,000 year old temple is one of the most significant religious sites in Myanmar & is a truly magical place, intimately, informally spiritual with none of the haughty chill that can deter secular folk from Western churches. You will need to remove your shoes & cover up, at least further than your elbows & knees, although you can borrow longyi – traditional Burmese wraps – from the ticket booth.
Unquestionably worth an extra day or two if your time allows, the Shwedagon is by no means the only attraction, here. The two Anglican cathedrals left behind by the British have stunning interiors, the parks & zoological gardens offer many lovely rambling walks, & the market shopping is great fun, especially for souvenirs. Yangon’s main sights & colonial old city are contained within a fairly small area which is easily explored on foot, providing you pace yourself & don’t stuff yourself with too many noodles en route.
Mandalay: An Introduction
Right in the heart of Myanmar, only 150 years old, Mandalay is a leafy but surprisingly modern metropolis. Studded with glinting glass structures built by its large Chinese immigrant population, & sprinkled with lavish Buddhist stupas, Mandalay is a case study in Myanmar cultural contradiction.
The city is ethnically & ethically diverse, as famous for its millionaires as for its large population of monks. The Chinese make up nearly 40% of Mandalay’s population, with the rest a blend of Burmese, Karin, a few Nepalese & the Shan, whose heritage reaches back into Thailand & Laos.
Mandalay, or ‘City of Jems’ was Myanmar’s royal capital, from its founding in 1857 to 1885, when the British took control. Its most imposing attraction is the Royal Palace citadel, which occupies a perfect square & sits, surrounded by broad standoffish moat, at the foot of Mandalay Hill.
The Hill, with its glittering abundance of monasteries & pagodas, has received Buddhist pilgrims for centuries. It’s definitely worth a visit, whether you feel up to puffing your way up the slope on foot, or prefer a bouncy pick-up ride up the narrow hillside track.
Mandalay is not all religion & power, however. There’s a relatively lively nightlife, with a sprinkling of bars & restaurants serving a broad variety of cuisine. For an authentic taste of Mandalay, get your lips around some gorgeous Muslim Chinese Noodles (pronounced pan-thei-kao-sweh). Served with a generous blend of spices, chilli and chicken, they’re delicious, & add a certain kick to your visit!
Bagan: An Introduction
If you’ve written ‘mind-blowing temples’ anywhere near the top of your Myanmar ‘to see’ list, you need to visit Bagan, an ancient city 50 miles south-west of Mandalay. Catch it at the right time of day & you’ll witness thousands of delicate spires rising through the tendrils of mist that hang low in the valley & turn the view utterly mystical.
There are areas where the junta’s city planning has been haphazard; their damaging ‘restoration’ attempts scuppered the city’s bid for UNESCO Heritage status. Nonetheless, Bagan (its formal name, rather splendidly, means ‘City of the Enemy Crusher’) has been important in one way or another for two millennia, & was Myanmar’s capital during the 9th century. Some of its stupas & temples are many hundreds of years old.
Bagan is one of the most significant ancient religious cities in South-East Asia, matched only really by Angkor Wat, in Cambodia. And whereas Angkor has that delightful ‘buried in the jungle’ adventure quality to it, the view across Bagan’s 2500 + temples and pagoda’s is completely unobstructed. Some can even sit on their hotel balcony & gaze out, stunned into contemplative silence by that valley of gleaming spires.
Many hotels are located close to the old city walls or in Bagan New Town just a few miles away; the government having forcibly evicted the many thousands of residents from inside city walls. The nearby New Bagan has a lively market and the tea shop culture
Kalaw: An Introdution
Around 80 miles south of Mandalay, & 3 days hike from Inle Lake, Kalaw is a beautiful little mountain village, once a British hill station & now home to descendants of the Shan people & local tribes. Its lively market is all about the locals – no trinkets for you, here – just herbs, spices & food, some of which you may well end up eating later, for dinner.
This is excellent trekking country, with trails leading up into the mountains, passing through remote villages, fields & forest, past traditional longhouses (each of which are home to many families), tea plantations & monasteries. To top it off, you’ll get stunning views across Inle valley as a bonus reward for any huffing & puffing. Since it’s 1300 metres up, Kalaw is atually nice & cool, so you shouldn’t get too sticky.
Inle Lake: An Introduction
Just over 100 miles south-east of hustling Mandalay, Inle’s tranquil, other-worldly beauty captivates even the most jaded traveller. Despite being densely populated by at least 8 different tribes, the 14 mile long lake is a deeply relaxing place to stay. It’s certainly one of the more popular areas amongst foreign visitors, but this means that hospitality here is well-established. Having ventured into some of Myanmar’s less luxurious areas, you will probably welcome the chance to enjoy a traditional Burmese massage or five, & flush the trail-dust from your pores in the hot springs that lie beneath the nearby mountains.
Once you have your breath back, you can explore Inle in a traditional longtail boat, visiting craft workshops, stilted villages, markets, temple boats & even floating vegetable patches, created by the Shan tribe to grow their marrows & tomatoes on the lake. Energetic types can hike at In Dein or up into the mountains to visit the little hill station of Kalaw, alongside traditional longhouses & tea plantations.
In October, Inle plays host to two lovely festivals. Hpaung Daw U, the Five Buddha festival, sees five deeply revered & richly gilded Buddha images towed from village to village on a barge, & some fiercely competitive boat races in which local boatmen – whose rowing style is unique to Inle – show off their expertise. Shortly afterwards, the Myanmar-wide & beautiful Thadingyut Festival of Lights marks the end of Buddhist Lent. Houses are decorated with lamps & lanterns, & everyone comes out to celebrate in their fancy clothes.
Putao: An Introduction
Putao, far to Burma’s north, is bordered by both China and India, and lies beneath Mount Hkakabo Razi, Burma’s highest peak. Although the mountain’s name means ‘snow-capped all year round’, the town itself is surrounded by a green, sub-tropically rural landscape. This spreads up towards the Himalayan foothills & starts to climb, growing into a tangle of evergreen rainforest, then frosty alpine woodland, before giving way to the snowy, glacial peaks above.
Much of the region, which is only accessible by air, is protected by National Park status, & its diverse environments makes it a top spot for treks, with trails leading up the mountain slopes, along riverbeds & out to isolated settlements.
Explore the valleys by bike, foot or even raft – there are expeditions to suit every fitness level – while the very fittest (providing they have six weeks to spare for the trek) can head up 5,889 metre high Hkakabo Razi. 1,040 metre high Ziyadam is closer, taking only five days and still giving you superb views of the region, plus a visit to a pristine jungle-clad frontier village on the Indian border.
The Putao region is home to several long-established tribes; the Hkamti Shan were the first settlers here, but now share the area with the Lisu & Nung Rawang, who both have their own language & writing system. The T’rung or Taron tribe – whose average height is 4 feet – still live in the mountain foothills, albeit in rapidly dwindling numbers.
The site of British Fort Hertz from 1914 to 1942, the town of Putao is now one of the most unspoilt areas on the planet, only visited by around 500 people and inhabited by a mixture of regional tribes, including Kachin, Lisu, Hkamti-Shan and Rawang. Putao’s busy market guarantees an insight into their culture, as will treks and bike rides to nearby schools, monasteries, villages and remote homesteads.
Biodiversity within the National Park is exceptional, with hundreds of species waiting to be studied, making it a fantastic eco-tourism destination – only very recently made accessible to the public. Paddle your raft down the rivers here and you’re likely to spot kingfishers and hornbills, relaxed in their untouched habitat; you’ll also encounter the local people and witness a way of life that’s remained virtually unaltered for centuries. The area is also remarkable for its large population of wild orchids, many of which are very rare.
Travel here during the dry season, which runs from November until the end of March, and bring lightweight, quick-drying layers, including a thick jumper of some sort, as temperatures range between 4-10, with a considerable drop in the evenings.
Hsipaw: An Introduction
The more adventurous traveller will find it hard not to fall in love with this dusty Shan town; many are already head-over-heels before they roll into town thanks to the picturesque two and a half hour drive from Maymyo. The town itself is slowly becoming popular with the intrepid travellers looking to escape ‘the trail’ and break out into the Shan’s wonderful back garden. There are a handful of basic but surprisingly good eateries on the main street and the accommodation is acceptable for most.
In the mornings, as the mist lifts, young monks walk the streets calling for alms as shop keepers set up for the day. Hsipaw (pron: see-paw) also boasts one of the bests markets in all Myanmar, with tribal minorities from across the region attending on a regular basis. Certainly no tourist market, the focus is on local produce and a diverse, at time mysterious, range of essential products sourced from across Myanmar as well as China. The market starts as early as 3am and closes equally early.
The real highlights lie just a few minutes out of town, when into the open and walking close to the banks of the Dutawaddy River, passing amongst fields rich in crops and local fruits. Several monasteries hug the outskirts of town; and you may be lucky enough to be serenaded by the hypnotic pali prayer chants, broadcast from the nuns monastery at the north end of town, as they sail across the rice paddies and straight into your soul.
As if this is not enough, further highlights include river cruises, remote Shan monastery and village visits, trekking and even cycling through the almost unworldly picturesque countryside that surrounds Hsipaw. Hamlets litter the countryside, and as the friendly Shan people tend to their daily tasks a wave and smile is always returned two-fold.
Upon return many favour a sunset contemplation atop Five Buddha Hill.
Ngapali Beach: An Introduction
Just thinking about Ngapali Beach is enough to make you relax. The tension in your shoulders, that preoccupation with your ‘to-do’ list… they loosen & crumble away as you realise that this is that tropical beach – the quiet one, that none of your friends have been to; that still has fishermen pottering about on it, & vast stretches of pure, soft, white, empty sand. An uninterrupted 2 km stretch of heaven.
Ngapali isn’t untouched by tourism, but its margin of rustling palm trees is punctuated by little more than a few high-end, bungalow-style resorts. The facilities available seem like ‘just enough’, & never ‘too far gone’. There’s great snorkelling, a reasonable golf course, boat trips to uninhabited islands & several nearby villages where you can observe traditional artisans in action – clay pottery in Kinmaw, & hand weaving in ancient Thandwe, Ngapali’s closest town. There’s a lovely variety of restaurants, too, both in the hotels along the shoreline & along the road inland. They all serve excellent, ultra-fresh seafood.
Thandwe is a small town but definitely worth a ramble; it has 3 modest stupas which all offer fantastic views across the community. Its thriving market is held in what used to be a British jail, & sells all manner of regional produce, clothes, fabric, & even some locally-produced souvenirs.
Kyaiktiyo: The Golden Rock
A remarkable example of Buddhist devotion, the Golden Rock is quite literally a huge granite boulder, covered in gold leaf layers which have been continuously added to by pilgrims over the centuries. Balanced, rather nerve-shreddingly, on the jutting tip of a rocky outcrop, the Rock’s apparent anti-gravity is attributed, to a strand of Buddha’s hair. As if that arrangement wasn’t precarious enough, a small pagoda has been built on top of The Rock, and viewing platforms have been built around it and underneath it ensuring that every angle is covered. One of the most important Buddhist sites in Burma. The Rock and its pagoda have survived several significant earthquakes, and visitors steam to the Kyaikhtiyo in pilgrimage between the full moons of October and May, with the traffic reaching its peak in December with 24th December to 5th January a period best to avoid due to the severe shortage of accommodation and transportation.
Women are not permitted to touch The Rock, & everyone must remove their shoes for the final approach.
Reaching the rock is no easy task. From the base camp at Kinpun you have two options. Most will board a truck for the hour drive most of the way up the 3615ft mountain, with the final mile stretch being covered by foot. It is a very steep climb and porters are available to help with any luggage (we advise you leave the bulk of it at the base camp). The alterative for those that want to earn their stripes at The Rock, is an arduous climb up from the base camp. Selective Asia’s Nick claims to have ‘knocked it off’ in 2 hrs 50 mins but he clearly enjoys his own suffering and the pictures of him at the top are not pretty. Most walk up in 4 to 5 hours although we advise that you don’t join the most devout pilgrims in attempting the walk barefoot!
There are several guesthouses at the summit and some near the disembarkation point. There are also a number of restaurants and various shops selling anything and everything that a pilgrim would require, ranging from gold leaf to noodles.
Hill Station Train
Each day a train departs Mandalay and travels a mountainous route via Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin) and Hsipaw before arriving 12 long hours later in Lashio at the northern tip of the Shan State. Undoubtedly loved for its on-board cultural exchanges and the dense jungle panoramas, rather than its on-board comfort and facilities (the Orient Express this is not!), the line was built by the British and is considered something of a masterpiece by today’s train officiado’s.
The highlight for many, aside from the stops in Maymyo and Hsipaw is the infamous Gokteik Viaduct, spanning a deep gorge of around 300 metres. The viaduct was constructed in just nine months and at the time was the 2nd longest bridge in the world. Renovated in 1951 after being bombed during WW2 and again in the 90’s, it is again in desperate need of repair and the train currently takes 20 minutes to cross in an attempt to minimise pressure and further any damage. With open air on either side, for many it is nothing short of terrifying!
Whilst the train appeals to many it is worth remembering that it takes half the time to drive to the various stops and given that 1st class seats are made of coconut shell hair, the levels of comfort are questionable at best. In reality for many it is a rather arduous journey. It’s also worth noting that when travelling by car you descend to the bottom of the Gokteik Valley, with commanding views of the viaduct on the way down.
Total journey times from Mandalay:
Maymyo – 4 hrs
Hsipaw – 8 hrs
Lashio – 12 hrs
Maymyo: An Introduction
The former British Colonial hill station of Maymyo, also known as Pyin Oo Lwin, sits at an altitude of 3510 feet, offering a respite from the intense heat of the lowlands during summer months. The town became a permanent military post in 1896, and acted as the summer capital during British rule. Visitors today can travel from Mandalay and back again in the same day, although we recommend stopping longer and even considering travelling further north to Hsipaw.
The town is a popular destination for locals, especially young couples eloping without their parents consent, and during festivals. There is a thriving market and horse drawn carriages jostle for space with mopeds and the lorries that trundle through town bound for China. Along with Mandalay’s rich owning summer houses here, there are several elite boarding schools on the outskirts of town, benefitting from the more study-friendly climate.
The surrounding region is rich in orchids, with seasonal fruits including oranges, strawberries and pineapples. In the winter months its gets chilly, dropping as low as – 2 deg, and there are several popular festivals between October and December. You may be surprised to discover a large Ghurkha community remains, having been stationed here with the British.
Highlights include the Kandawgyi Lake in the centre of town, surrounded by the Kandawgyi National Botanical Gardens & Pyin Oo Lwin Nursery, with its wide variety of plants, trees and indigenous orchids. Also on the list are the original Colonial houses still dotted around the city, the impressive Pwe Kauk Waterfalls, and the intriguing large Buddhist shrine-cave of Peik Chin Myaung. If time permits we’d also suggest stopping at the Aung Htu Kan Tha Pagoda, constructed in 1997 to house a 17-tonne marble Buddha that fell off a lorry bound for China. When the Buddha couldn’t be lifted back on to the truck, it was felt that he had decided to stay and so locals bought the land and the temple was built over the Buddha!
Kengtung: An Introduction
A Shan trading town near the Chinese border in Burma’s far east, Kengtung town sits amongst a large rural population of traditional tribes, including the Akha, La Mone & Lahu, all of whom inhabit the surrounding Kengtung province. Some of the more remote tribespeople have never met a Westerner before, which makes for some intriguing trekking opportunities.
The gently rolling Kengtung landscape is excellent for both trekking & cycling, but it’s illegal to trek without a guide in the east of Shan State – partly because the Thai & China borders are so close – so do avoid wandering off alone! You can in fact cross into Burma from Thailand at Thachileik which borders Mai Sai, close to Chiang Rai.
The town holds an interesting selection of temples, each influenced by different neighbouring countries & cultures. Its early morning markets offer a lovely opportunity to see the colourfully dressed tribespeople head into town to sell their produce & barter for essentials – this is no tourist market, & it’s unlikely you’ll find any souvenirs here, but witnessing an age-old way of life in action more than compensates for that.
Near the town centre, Naung Tung Lake is flanked by colonial architecture & cafes, & makes a perfect place to relax, watch the sun go down, & perhaps share some tea with the friendly locals.
Mrauk U: An Introduction
Nestled just below the border with Bangladesh on Burma’s far west coast in the state of Rakhine, the ancient capital of Mrauk U is another of Burma’s key cultural highlights. Located in a predominantly agricultural region, this unassuming town was once the Mrauk U Empire’s splendid capital, a thriving nexus of exotic trade routes from Portugal, Spain, Holland, the Middle East, India, Burma & beyond. Founded around 1430, the kingdom prospered for over 350 years before its demise in the late 18th Century.
An important religious centre for many centuries; temples, some beautiful & some bizarre, are littered throughout the town and further afield into the surrounding countryside amongst working rice paddies and small villages. The key site is the temple of Shitthaung, within who’s walls is hidden a maze of interior corridors, decorated with reportedly 80,000 Buddha images in disorientating spirals around a central chamber (thus the name of the ‘Shrine of 80,000 images’). Close-by, the stocky Htukkanthein Temple appears more of a fortress than its intended role as a place of worship. Other important sites include the ancient library of Pitakataik and the circular Anndawthein Temple. In total over 200 temples and places of archaeological interest have been discovered thus far, with much of the surrounding area still to be excavated.
Whilst it is unfair to compare the site to Bagan, with Mrauk U lacking the scale and much of the ‘wow factor’ of its older brother, Mrauk U is still very much a destination to be considered by those wishing to get to grips with Burma’s less-visited highlights. The journey here is not a hard one but it is long, with most staying a night in Sittwe between the flight from Yangon and the 4 – 7 hour cruise up the Kaladan River.
In the town you’ll find a market, a selection of local restaurants serving regional specialities, and the ruins of the royal palace. The palace complex contains an interesting archaeology museum full of artefacts rescued from the crumbling temples, and a model of the town, which provides a helpful overview of the area (Google Streetmap hasn’t quite got round to it, yet). Other places within reach include several Chin Village’s (still located within Rakhine State) where you can learn more about the unique Chin culture without taking on the complexities of travel to the state, which is often severely restricted.
Sittwe: An Introduction
On Myanmar’s north-western coast in the state of Rakhine, gazing out over the Bay of Bengal, Sittwe is a long-established harbour city that grew from a small fishing village into a crucial maritime stronghold during the 19th century.
The reality of life in Sittwe today is very hard, and since the town’s 19th Century heyday when the British moved the capital from Mrauk U, things have slipped somewhat. Today the state of Rakhine is amongst the poorest in Burma and this is no more evident than on the streets of Sittwe. Illegal immigrants flood over the Bangladeshi border, stopping en route to their goal of working in Yangon or oversees. Water shortages, unemployment and poor sanitation are common problems throughout the city.
Signs of a military past are still visible and you can find Colonial remnants too – the Maka Kuthala Kyaungdawgyi museum is a grand ex-Colonial mansion that today houses not only the museum but also a monastery. Founded by a monk, Bhaddanta Wannita, his collection of Buddhist artefacts is now open to the public. There is also the Shwezedi Kyaung Monastery housed in a dramatically decayed Colonial-era building.
Other highlights include the Payagyi Temple, and the Lokanada Paya that looms over the town – the fact that it was built with forced labour under the junta sours the experience somewhat. The smaller streets that run between Set Yone Su St and Strand Rd are also of interest; brimming with typical Rakhine culture and trade and where you’re just as likely see a pig run across the road as you are a dog!
For early risers, a local custom is a visit to the fish market, and at the other end of the day attention turns to ‘The Point’ where locals gather to catch up with the day’s events as the sun sets over the Bay of Bengal.
Mawlamyine: An Introduction
Six or so hours drive south-east of Yangon, on the Andaman coast, Mawlamyine – formerly Moulmein, which you may recognise if you know your 20th century English literature – is Myanmar’s third largest city, and the capital of the Mon State. Situated on the Salween river delta as it meets the Andaman sea, the city is flanked by lush countryside and pagoda-dotted hills, and is famous for its excellent cuisine, but is usually considered to be off the trail for most tourists in Myanmar.
Formerly a busy teak port, not to mention the first administrative capital of British Myanmar, the city features many faded Colonial buildings amidst its gleaming Buddhist stupas and monasteries – some say it has a stronger sense of post-Colonial decay than rapidly modernizing Yangon and Mandalay. But the city thrives in its own way, with fascinatingly diverse ethnicities including Mon (the majority), Myanmese, Kayin, Chinese, Tamil, Indian and others making up its population of 350,000 or so. The Mon State Cultural museum offers much insight into the state’s history and people.
There are many Buddhist monuments worth visiting, here, including the enormous and brightly painted reclining Buddha at Win Sein monastery, but there was also a Christian influence in earlier times – the Judson Baptist Church, Myanmar’s first Baptist church, can be found on the corner of Dawei Jetty Road and Upper Main Road. The infamous “death railway”, built by Japan (using POWs) to carry troops and supplies into Myanmar during WWII, passes close to the city – one of the POW cemeteries, paradoxically beautiful, is also near.
As well as being a lovely destination in its own right, Mawlamyine makes a convenient stopping point if you’re travelling even further south, to the beautiful Myeik region and its excellent diving.
Myeik: An Introduction
Stretched down the Andaman coast to the very southern tip of Myanmar, the Myeik – or Mergui – region is defined by its archipelago of over 800 islands, mostly covered in lush vegetation & often fringed with soft white margins of sand, strewn with broken, sun-bleached branches & smelling of salt – definitely not Ambre Solaire.
Off-limits to foreigners until 1997, the area remains unexplored by modern Western travellers. Although a scattering of holiday facilities are now available, ‘low-impact’ tourism is very much key here.
The archipelago shelters the Moken sea-tribe, a nomadic group of around 3,000 who live in hand-made wooden boats & stilt-houses just off the coast. Expert free divers, they make a living by searching for mother-of-pearl & oysters. They catch their own fish & barter with what they don’t eat themselves.
The city of Myeik itself is several hundred years old, a historic seaport which thrives by trading fish, lobsters, rubber, coconuts, farmed pearls & edible bird’s nests. The peninsula is largely protected by National Park status, with diverse ecosystems spanning from mangrove swamps to coral reefs. The diving (& snorkelling) here is excellent, with expansive seagrass beds harbouring an abundance of marine life, including whale sharks & rays.
Ayeyarwady: An Introduction
Flowing south through Myanmar and into the Andaman Sea, the Ayeyarwady (also spelled ‘Irrawaddy’) is Myanmar’s biggest river, and a significant waterway. Crucial for transport and trade, it’s also home to diverse species, including the Irrawaddy Dolphin to which it gave its name, along with Saltwater Crocodile, and a number of sea turtle species.
The Ayeyarwady provides a picturesque conduit between Yangon (via a tributary), and the historic cities of Pyay, Bagan, Mandalay and Bhamo – daily ‘express’ ferries make the trip between Mandalay and Bagan in 10.5 hours. Alternatively, you can stay on board a luxurious riverboat and cruise the Ayeyarwady in comfort, taking this opportunity to observe Burmese life both on the river and the lush banks beyond.
Flowing from Myitkyina, in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State, towards the Yangon coast, the Ayeyarwady fans out across the mangrove forests and rice paddies of the fertile Ayeyarwady Delta, before flowing into the Andaman Sea. Here, the Meinmahla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary protects nearly 140 sq km of mangrove habitat, and creatures ranging from Irrawaddy Dolphin, estuarine crocodiles, Sambhur Deer, Jungle Cat and Fishing Cat, to White-Bellied Sea Eagle, Vernal Hanging Parrot and several kingfisher species.
Also ripe for exploration, the Chindwin River – Ayeyarwady’s largest tributary – also flows from the Kachin region, but swings out west through the 22,000 sq km Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve. Around 50 tigers live here, alongside elephants and various bear, monkey and bird species. It joins the Ayeyarwady just south of Monywa, where the astonishing Mohnyin Thambuddhei Paya, a Buddhist pagoda dating from the 14th century, is said to house over 500,000 images of Buddha. The nearby Laykyun Setkyar Buddha is the world’s second tallest statue, at 116 metres high.
Ngwe Saung: An Introduction
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first; what is a picturesque, genuinely interesting journey through the Ayerwaddy River delta region en route to Ngwe Saung Beach, does unquestionably become a tad tedious on the return. Now on to the good stuff…
Seven miles of uninterrupted sand line the Bay of Bengal, with minimal development – meaning there’s more space than is probably good for any of us – a laid back vibe, seafront sunsets and an abundance of fresh-as-you like seafood.
Burma’s ‘other beach’, Ngwe Saung Beach was off limits for several years after Cyclone Nargis. Although the cyclone missed the beach itself, the delta region bore the brunt of the cyclone and was considered un-navigable for a long period. Due to a combination of this and the long journey time from Yangon, resort development has been minimal, with a delightfully low number of resorts and guesthouses lining the palm fringed sand, mostly congregated to the northern end. Whilst Ngapali can undoubtedly lay claim to the most picture-postcard perfect beach, with its white sands and crystal clear waters, Ngwe Saung plays a pretty solid second fiddle!
Ngwe Saung is also a more suitable choice for those looking for more than just beach, the nearby fishing villages are well worth a visit, perhaps by bicycle, and the varied range of local dining opportunities are far greater. You can take a sunrise horse ride along the sands and there’s good snorkelling to be enjoyed at the southern end of the beach. Likewise, Ngwe Saung is also more agreeable for those seeking more budget-end resorts, although the more discerning top end clientele are also well catered for.