Myanmar is located in Southeast Asia and it is more recognizable by its former name, Burma. The name officially changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1991; however, they are often interchangeable. The locals are also known as Burmese and the official language is Burmese. The country is just over 260,000 square miles in size and an estimated 50 million people call it home.
Myanmar opened up its arms and gave us a big bear hug when we visited in 2014 (and in 2018). Needless to say, it remains at the top of our list of favorite countries we’ve ever visited since. The country has struggled over the years with religious conflict. However, it has managed to shield tourists from any possible danger and has remained safe and welcoming for foreigners.
Foreigners often stick to the typical touristy destinations in Myanmar, such as Bagan, Inle Lake, or Yangon. Which are amazing! And if you just have one week in Myanmar, you’ll probably want to stick to the highlight – more on those at the end of this post. But this amazing country has so much more to offer the adventurous traveler!
So read on to learn about the quirky and off-the-beaten-track adventures that helped make our experience wonderful!
- Myanmar Travel Basics
- 1. Go on a Religious Pilgrimage to the “Golden Rock”
- 2. Climb to the top of Mount Popa
- 3. Tour the Hundreds of Pagodas in Mrauk U
- 4. Visit with the Tattooed Women of the Chin Villages
- 5. Go Spearfishing in Ngapali Beach
- 6. Witness Buddha Getting His Teeth Brushed in Mandalay
- Other Not-So-Off-The-Beaten-Path Myanmar Destinations That You Must Visit Anyway
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Myanmar Travel Basics
Things to Know Before you Go
- Myanmar is still in the process of building up its tourist infrastructure. Public transportation is rough and accommodations a bit limited in a few still off-the-beaten-path locations. Patience is key.
- You’ll need to secure a visa before traveling to Myanmar. There is no visa waiver or visa-on-arrival option. Luckily Myanmar’s e-visa process is fairly simple and straightforward.
- The official currency of Myanmar is the Kyat but the pronunciation is different. The Kyat pronunciation is more like ‘chee-at.’ At the time of writing (January 2018), the exchange rate was 1351.35 Myanmar Kyat to $1 USD.
- Learn a few phrases! “Hello” is “min-ga-la-ba” and “thanks” is “chay-tzoo-beh”.
- Not only is the country safe, but you’ll find the people willing to help without expecting anything in return. They are just genuinely happy and helpful as a culture. We found that most did not request a “tip” for being helpful compared to other countries we become accustomed to.
- Shaking hands is rare in Myanmar. Contact between males and females is even more limited here than in other Southeast Asian countries. Exercise restraint in your public displays of affection.
- Men and women alike tend to dress conservatively. Both wear longyis which are essentially ankle-length skirts. You’ll probably feel more comfortable if you cover your shoulders and your knees as well. Better yet, buy a longyi, it’s super comfortable and the locals love it!
6 Off-The-Beaten-Path Adventures in Myanmar
1. Go on a Religious Pilgrimage to the “Golden Rock”
Kyaiktiyo Pagoda or as it is affectionately known, the “Golden Rock”, is quite literally just a rock covered in gold leaf. It is perched high on a hill in Kinpun in southern Myanmar.
What makes this particular rock so special is the fact that it is very precariously balanced. It could potentially go careening down the hill at any moment. The devout believe that a single hair of Buddha is keeping it balanced. Furthermore, that particular hair is also what makes this rock the most sacred site in all of Myanmar.
The rock is apparently so unstable you can rock it back and forth. Well, you can if you are a man. Women aren’t allowed to get too close. Men are able to adhere gold flecks on the sacred rock for good luck.
Most people arrive at Kyaiktiyo Pagoda by catching a ride in the back of one of the crowded pickup trucks. These ply the route up and down the steep mountain road. But the truly devout (or those preferring the scenic route) opt to climb from the base of the mountain by foot.
The religious pilgrimage is around 7 miles one-way. It is well maintained and fairly easy to find, although you’ll be climbing uphill most of the time. Along the way, you’ll pass plenty of tea shops selling refreshments and snacks. Relatively few foreigners pass this way. You can expect a few stares, plenty of cheerful waves, and helpfully pointed in the right direction if you’re ever unsure of the path.
When you emerge near the top of the mountain, you’ll see the impressive Golden Rock in the distance. Surrounding the temple you’ll find a handful of hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops.
We recommend timing your hike so you arrive in the afternoon. Then, spend the night in one of the hotels. As the sun goes down, the rock is lit up and has a spectacular golden glow. Many of the locals spend the evening in prayer around the pagoda. It makes for a magical atmosphere after the sunset.
Then get up early the next morning to catch the sunrise (though the mountain gets fog in the morning). You can catch a pickup truck ride back down to Kinpun.
Note: If you’re not planning to spend the night at the top, make sure you start your hike early. You’ll need to arrive at the top by 4 pm at the latest. This gives you enough time to see the pagoda and catch the last truck down at 6 pm.
2. Climb to the top of Mount Popa
Bagan is an area of Myanmar that is most certainly on the typical tourist track. It has thousands of ancient pagodas surrounded by lush countryside. Most tourists rent a bicycle to cruise around the area. Others take a hot air balloon ride to get epic views from up high.
But what most tourists don’t do while in Bagan is take the one-hour-and-a-half-long taxi ride to a pagoda called Mount Popa which is high on a cliff. In true Myanmar tradition, you need to leave your shoes near the bottom of the 777 steps and approach the pagoda with bare feet.
In most cases, it’s no problem to visit a pagoda barefooted. However, this particular set of stairs is also home to dozens of monkeys that use the staircase as their personal toilet. There are a few locals working hard to clear the poo with wet mops. However, it actually just turns the poo into a sloppy, slippery mess.
And on your ascent to the pagoda, these mean monkeys will probably try to steal your things and jump on your head. This results in a hilarious scene of poor Burmese people swatting at pesky monkeys while sliding around in poo water. (Read the hilarious reviews on TripAdvisor, you won’t be disappointed).
Because Mount Popa doesn’t get very many visitors and it is outside of the touristy areas of Myanmar, the locals who visit the pagoda do not get a chance to see many foreigners up close. If one of them is brave enough to request a photo with you, you’ll likely find yourself with a line of people waiting for the chance to stand next to you for a picture or have you hold their baby.
Many don’t have cameras. Luckily, a clever man runs a small business at the top and takes and prints photos for a small charge. Your presence will make his day as his business will be booming!
3. Tour the Hundreds of Pagodas in Mrauk U
Pronounced “mrau-ooo”, this town located in northern Rakhine State is the second-most-famous archaeological site in Myanmar. But unlike Bagan, it is difficult to get to. You’ll find far fewer tourists that opt to make the trek. They only see about 5,000 foreigners annually as opposed to the 230,000 overseas and 130,000 domestic tourists that visited Bagan in 2014.
The pagodas are also quite different from those you will find in Bagan. They have very thick walls built from stone and not brick to protect them from fierce winds. They are also smaller in size and constructed more recently than those in Bagan. While wandering around the incredible pagodas, you’ll also encounter some small villages, rice paddies, and grazing animals which is also in contrast to the landscape of Bagan.
You’ll want to spend hours exploring these amazingly beautiful pagodas and will love staying in the quaint nearby town. It’s such a different experience from the bustling bigger cities. Give yourself time in this region to soak it all in!
4. Visit with the Tattooed Women of the Chin Villages
Only a few thousand tourists visit the Chin Villages each year. Sadly, there are only a few face-tattooed women in the tribes. It is truly a special experience if you are adventurous enough to make the trek to see the face-tattooed tribal women in the Chin State.
Many years ago it was a tradition in the Chin Village to tattoo intricate designs on the faces of the women in the tribe. One of the women we talked to received her tattoo when she was 9 years old. It took about 3 days. Different people give different meanings to tattoos. Some say the Chin Villagers started doing it because men from neighboring tribes would invade their village and take their women. Others say they did it because they thought it was a sign of beauty and womanhood.
They stopped doing the tattoos long ago and no longer find them beautiful. As such, only a handful of tattooed women remain in the village and soon there will be none.
You’ll need to find a tour guide who will take you to Chin Village in the town of Mrauk U (prices can range from $50-100/person for the day). Generally, the tours start early in the morning and take you to a variety of places in the area. You may get to visit small schools where children of varying ages are piled into dilapidated buildings and then on to the small villages to talk to the tattooed women.
The villages cater to tourists in different ways. You may arrive to find people doing chores or going about their day. If you get the opportunity to talk with a few of the women, you can ask them about their tattoos. They are happy to tell you their stories. Some will have goods for sale or request donations. If you feel so inclined, bring medicine or soap or give a cash donation, they really appreciate it.
5. Go Spearfishing in Ngapali Beach
Due to the political challenges still facing this country, some of the beautiful coastlines are still closed to tourism. Ngapali Beach is probably the most touristy of the coastal towns. It remains off the beaten path as it’s not exactly easy to get to. If you decide to make the trek, you’ll find lovely, reasonably priced hotels, delicious seafood, and sandy beaches perfect for lounging.
If you tire of taking it easy and are looking for an adventure, hire a guide to take you on a full-day spearfishing trip! The boat leaves early in the morning. Start your day with a fishing pole that is actually just a piece of wire attached to a water bottle.
From there, you will go to a shallower location and be provided with snorkel gear and a bamboo spear. Attached to the bamboo spear is a rubber band that you hold between your fingers to create a slingshot effect. It’s pretty difficult to actually spear anything but you’ll have an entertaining time trying!
If you end up catching anything, you can find several restaurants on the beach willing to fry it up for you!
As a bonus, if you happen to visit during the Thadingyut Festival of Lights, you’ll find the pagodas lit up with hundreds of candles and the locals celebrating with homemade fireworks!
6. Witness Buddha Getting His Teeth Brushed in Mandalay
The Mahamuni Buddha Temple (aka Mahamuni Pagoda) in Mandalay is famous in Myanmar for a few reasons. First, it houses the Mahamuni Buddha image. It is the most highly revered Buddha image in the country that is believed to be 2,000 years old. The body of this image has been distorted by the gold leaf that has been lovingly applied by devout males (again, females are forbidden).
The gold leaf is so thick that the body of Buddha now resembles more of a misshapen blob. But the face has remained untouched.
This brings me to the second reason that this particular temple is so famous. Every morning at around 4 am, dozens of devout Buddhists gather at the front door. They wait to get inside the temple to watch as a monk lovingly washes Buddha’s face and brushes his teeth. This is a tradition for locals. However, tourists certainly won’t be turned away (and you’ll likely see a few other foreigners as well).
Once inside, you’ll buy a tray of offerings and sit on the floor behind the tray. You’ll want to either be cross-legged or sit with your feet respectfully pointed to the back of the room. Watch what the locals do with their offering trays and follow suit.
With the help of others, the monk will begin the ceremony by getting various ornate platters blessed by Buddha. From there, he climbs onto a platform where he has easy access to reach Buddha’s face. He uses cooked rice to scrub Buddha’s teeth (well, lips). Then, he uses a cloth to slowly and methodically wash Buddha’s face over and over again.
Once the statue is clean, the dirty bathwater from the cleansing goes around the temple. The devote can sprinkle it over their heads or onto their tongue. You can partake in this strange tradition or simply pass the bowl on to the next person. Be sure to explore the rest of the temple before heading back to your hotel for a much-deserved nap!
While visiting strange temples in Mandalay, be sure to take a trip out to (aka Snake Pagoda) where snakes are considered holy and treated like kings.
Other Not-So-Off-The-Beaten-Path Myanmar Destinations That You Must Visit Anyway
The 26 square mile area that was once the capital of a powerful ancient kingdom filled with over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries, is now one of Myanmar’s top destinations for tourists to visit. Construction of the beautiful temples of Bagan took place between the 11th and 13th centuries. Due to various natural disasters, only about 2,200 temples and pagodas have survived to this day.
Thousands of foreigners flock to this stunningly beautiful area to explore Bagan’s beautiful temples by bicycle from the ground or hot air balloon from the air (or both). While you’re unlikely to find any pagodas all to yourself, you will have the opportunity to view this archaeological wonder that you’ve no doubt seen countless photos of first-hand!
In western Shan State, about 340 kilometers west of Bagan is Inle Lake. The approximately 70,000 local Intha people rely on this lake for their livelihood and have created floating villages for their homes and floating gardens for their sustenance. The lake is recognizable by the photos of men rowing boats with their feet rather than their hands.
The people have capitalized on the increase in tourism. They offer boat rides to see various sites around the lake, including a ride through the villages and the gardens. And the men rowing the boats with their feet will put on quite a show and then request a tip. So the experience doesn’t feel as authentic as some of the others listed above but it remains a fascinating place to visit regardless.
Myanmar’s largest city’s shining jewel is the Shwedagon Pagoda which in and of itself is worth a visit.
Beyond that, this city is bursting with life and energy! Restaurants, bars, and shops fill the streets and ex-pats flock there as it is an incredibly livable city. Spend at least 4 days here wandering the streets, checking out the local markets, and imbibing with the locals at outdoor restaurants!
We hope you get to enjoy some of these off-the-beaten-track adventures in Myanmar!
Want more help planning your trip to Myanmar? Check out our favorite travel guides and books!