We get asked a lot, “What is your favorite place you’ve traveled?” My standard answer for the past 10 years has always been Turkey, and a shout out for my love Paris. If I had a dollar for every time I said that, I would be headed back to the Istanbul all-expenses paid. That all changed last year. Luci and I went to Burma. Burma changed my favorite place answer and more importantly, it changed me.
Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, is located in between India and Thailand. Burma has a rich history, one of beauty and conflict. If you can get beyond the challenges and meet the people and storied history, you are in for a powerful journey.
Our trip to the region took us to two strikingly different areas within the country: Bagan and Mt. Popa. Both are not to be missed, and candidly, they are the tip of the iceberg of Burmese beauty and mystery.
Before You Go
Be aware that the Myanmar government limits where foreigners are able to travel. It is critical that you understand in advance where you are allowed to travel. Going to and from Bagan, Myanmar, will not take you anywhere near prohibited areas. No need to worry. Myanmar has made giant leaps forward in welcoming tourists. Don’t forget to arrange your visa: https://evisa.moip.gov.mm/. It is helpful to learn a few basic phrases in Burmese. English is not widely spoken beyond the tourist areas.
There are two major international airports in the country: Yangon, the capital, and Mandalay. If your focus is Bagan, Mandalay is the best choice. We elected to connect via Bangkok, Thailand. Connection options include many of the major hubs in Asia.
The currency of Myanmar is the Myanmar Kyat. While we did find ATMs in Bagan, they were not plentiful. We would recommend not going thin on cash, as credit cards are not widely accepted. The exchange rate is favorable to Westerners, making Burma perfect for the budget focused traveler. We often joke that Myanmar makes Thailand look expensive. We found the food, accommodation, and transportation to be very affordable. Luci got a two-hour massage for $12.
We landed at the Mandalay Airport and we had arranged in advance a car service to take us the four-hour drive to Bagan. If you arrive after 4 p.m., we might recommend that you overnight in Mandalay and then take the drive into Bagan. Half of the drive will be on a modern freeway. The remainder of the drive will be winding through small Burmese towns and fields. There are few road signs and the roads can be rough. We loved the drive and were glad we didn’t elect to rent a car.
Bagan is steeped in spiritual and political history. It once was the capital city of the Pagan Kingdom. It was a thriving center of commerce and religious practice from the 9th to the 13th centuries. At its height, it was home to over 10,000 Buddhist temples and monasteries. Later, a number of Hindu temples were added to the mix. Today, you can visit over 2,000 different structures that dot the valley. It truly rivals Angkor Wat. Most, if not all, of the temples are open to visitors. A number of earthquakes have rocked the area over the centuries. Some of the temples are in disrepair and some of the larger temples are under reconstruction. In August 2016 a major earthquake hit the area and over 400 temples were destroyed. For obvious reasons, do not delay your visit to the area.
We highly recommend renting an electric scooter. They are simple to drive and very affordable. We paid $3 (US currency) a day! They brought them right to our B and B. The temples are spread out and the valley is vast. There is no way to do it on foot. We recommend the first day of your visit to hire a guide that can give you an introduction and overview of the history and religious importance of the temples.
Sunrise and Sunset
The Bagan Valley is one of the most photogenic locations we have ever visited. This is especially true during the “golden hour” at dawn and dusk. During the right season, you can board a hot air balloon. We unfortunately, we didn’t time our visit to allow this. Bummer. The views from the balloons must be amazing! Next trip!
Know that most temples are still active religious centers. You will be expected to show reverence and respect. This begins with the attire. It is important to be modest in your clothing choices. You will be asked to remove you shoes in most temples. This can be very hot on the feet and a nightmare for germaphobes (Luci). In the major temples, you will be asked to keep your voices low.
Good news, bad news. Major hotel chains have not landed in Bagan. This is great news. Bad news is the good places fill up quickly. Most have a mom and pop B and B feel. Make your bookings early. We recommend the Tripadvisor.com to get the latest intel on the best places to rest your head. We stayed at the Bluebird. It was beyond our expectations. The service rivaled a five star hotel and the food was excellent.
There are a number of restaurants along the Irrawaddy River. Dinner at sunset overlooking the river is magical. While there a host of different options for every taste, western options are limited. Most of the fruits and veggies are locally sourced. The local specialty is actually peanuts. They are sooo good! Bring us back some?
A wonderful side trip from Bagan is going to Mt. Popa. The Mt. Popa National Park is densely forested former volcano. It is nothing short of beautiful. There are a number of resorts overlooking the famous Buddhist monastery that is perched on a volcanic outcropping. Words cannot describe just how beautiful it is.
Getting to Mt. Popa is simple. Just hire a car and take the 1 hour 30 drive. There is are interesting little town right at the base of the volcano that has an incredible selection of fruit. The exotic fresh fruit is yummy!
Needless to say, Bagan is one of the special places on the planet. In time, we worry that it will become over commercialized as Angkor has. Visit soon to see it in its pristine beauty.