When you leave the cities of Burma, the country opens up into an expanse of rice paddies, villages, mountains, and temples as far as the eye can see. To see the most temples in the least amount of time, head to Bagan in the center of the country — it’s only a short flight from Yangon.
This ancient former capital includes temples a short walk away from one another studded across the countryside. A short walk up to the top of one affords a panorama of stupas more than 800 years old. Simply explore at your leisure as none of them have entry fees or guards. Don’t miss Apeyadana Temple with its paintings of Mahayana or the Dhamayangyi Temple, a massive temple with some of the finest brickwork in the area. For a great souvenir, pick up hand-carved teak artwork in a variety of mosaic and Buddhist patterns — the prices are much cheaper here than in Yangon.
While Bagan can be seen in about two days, travelers should allow three or more days to explore Mandalay and Inle Lake. Mandalay is a major economic and military hub and feels less desperate and gritty than Yangon. The Mandalay Palace and Kuthodaw Pagoda, the latter featuring the “worlds largest book,” told through more than 700 inscribed stupas, offer a glimpse into Myanmar’s history and are equally impressive.
Disembarking at Heho airport to drive up to Inle Lake, the first thing you realize is that time will move even slower here than other places around Myanmar. Leave the car behind and get in a dugout canoe. The putt-putt of the 3hp motor becomes a backdrop for a skim along the shallow lake, passing bamboo villages and fisherman rowing with their feet.
Days should be spent enjoying shan noodles for breakfast and taking a boat to the many surrounding villages. There is no evidence of political oppression here, just a tireless work ethic that includes the villages’ dedication to fishing, farming and crafting everything from silver bracelets to small cigars.
Flying back from Inle Lake to Yangon before leaving, I reflected on what being in Myanmar had revealed. It is a place that saw massive protests against Aung San Suu Kyi’s imprisonment but bore no widespread signs of trouble — indeed there was little mentioned on the local news, only on the BBC. It is a place of immeasurable treasures but of a defeated people, many of whom live on a dollar a day outside of the city.
Myanmar is not a destination for tourists seeking luxury or a relaxing time sitting by the pool. The committed and curious traveler will enjoy this area of Southeast Asia the most, and upon their return home will have many stories to tell that contrast a typical vacationer’s tales.