Are you already planning on your New Year’s resolution for 2020? For many people, New Year’s resolutions include starting a healthier lifestyle and doing more exercise, hence this month’s column is all about active holidays in Myanmar. Till not so long ago, visiting Myanmar was thought as going to see temples which is no longer the case. It’s definitely possible to have a fantastic 2 weeks holiday in Myanmar without visiting any temple, pagoda or monastery (although I would argue that you should certainly include the Shwedagon pagoda in a trip to Myanmar).
Active holidays in Myanmar include various options including trekking, biking, water based activities, and some unique sports. The list below is just a fraction of what’s possible and I hope it inspires you for the next holiday in Myanmar.
Trekking – Shan State, Kayah, Chin and Rakhine state
Hiking, trekking, tramping or simply going for a walk; basically the same word for using your legs to transport yourself from A to B while enjoying the landscape, villages, people, and fields along the way. Considering Myanmar’s climate, it’s best to go for trekking in the mountains where the temperature is a bit cooler. A very popular route among backpackers is the 2 or 3 days trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake. It is an easy walk with beautiful scenery which can be a bit crowded in the overnight village. Quieter alternatives are trekking in Hsipaw and Kyaukme area in Northern Shan state with stunning scenery, friendly and welcoming Shan and Palaung villages and, as an extra bonus, the spectacular train ride over Gokteik viaduct. Just make sure you always go with a licensed guide and don’t wander into restricted areas. In southern Shan state, the Pindaya area offers fantastic views with colorful patterns of different crops scattered across.
There, you can choose for a day walk or continue for up to a 5 – 6 days trekking close to the Ywa Ngan coffee plantations. Trekking can even be focused on your interests: People into orchids can do special orchids walks in Ywa Ngan, while people looking for tribes could do a trekking along the 3 lakes (Inle, Samkar and Pekon) to visit PaO and Lisu tribes and if you are interested in the work of a forest ranger you can walk with the rangers in Minzontoung to see the Burmese star tortoises. A bit further south the Loikaw area invites for some good day walks through Kayak villages including the famous long neck women. In for some more off the beaten track areas? Consider Chin state with tattoo faced ladies or the Rakhine Mountains (I once did an overnight trekking arriving 2 days later in Thandwe in search for beautiful hornbills).
When organizing a trekking trip, always make sure you have a good local guide who knows the area and local conditions as the weather can quickly turn around, road (or path) conditions can change and in case you twist an ankle or run out of drinking water it’s always good to have a local person with you to communicate with and arrange a safe return. Check the trekking package conditions; are you supposed to bring a clean sheet, is food included, will luggage be transported separately, how to get to starting and ending point etc. And as always in nature, keep the area clean and leave nothing than your footprints behind.
Growing up in the Netherlands, I always assumed that everybody knows how to use a bike (how else are you supposed to go to school, office, get your groceries etc.?). I now know that some people consider it a sport yet I personally still think it’s simply a good way to move forward and it’s excellent to do some sightseeing and stop wherever you want. So before even continuing about the topic “biking”, make sure you tell your guide / travel company that you want to do biking for fun and as part of the sightseeing and NOT consider participating in a biking race. Bikes are popular for day trips and excellent to discover more of the temples of Bagan (as an active alternative to the popular electric bikes) and to go around in Mandalay. Other fun day trips with a guide are in Dala (across the river from Yangon) getting to Inle Lake (from Aung Ban or Thaung Lay Lone) or biking around Inle Lake.
Several companies organize multiple day trips on a bike (and transport your luggage separately to the next point) and these companies do know the routes to avoid biking on a busy road. It’s possible to bike all round Myanmar, from Yangon to Kaw Thaung or even onwards to Singapore (ask Jochen from Uncharted Horizons about his trip!). Most people have little time so doing Mandalay to Bagan by bike, Nyaung Shwe to Samkar Lake or a 2 days trip from Bagan to Salay and return by boat all makes sense and is a very different way to get to know Myanmar countryside. Always check what kind of bike you will get (a good mountain bike versus a simple Chinese made bike makes a lot of difference in comfort but also in budget), make sure you know how brakes and gears work and clarify there is no “backtracking” involved in the trip as biking back the same way always kills the fun of the trip.
Water based activities
As Myanmar has a long coastline, several lakes and rivers, there are possibilities for water based activities and I do hope more entrepreneurs will look into this opportunity to create more activities to do in the future. Kayaking can be done in Hpa An area (it’s pedaling through the paddy fields and very much focused on enjoying the scenery rather than a sport) and on Inle Lake. Some rafting operations have started in Kalaw and in Northern Kachin state and there are professional diving operations in Ngapali, Ngwe Saung and Myeik Archipelago. While Myanmar coral reefs aren’t like the Great Barrier Reef, it’s still fun going on a snorkel trip while visiting Ngapali or Ngwe Saung or the southern island.
Local sports to try
In search for more activities during your holiday? Try to participate with some of the local sports like Chin Lone, kicking a bamboo ball with the legs or head, it has professional competitions held in Mandalay once a year or the more casual games with friends in a circle played in every village around Myanmar towards the end of the day. Lethwei boxing is a form of Burmese boxing getting more popular thanks to the Myanmar champion Aung La; the Kayah or Kayin version of this sport is very interesting as well or try to participate in the practice for the festive boat races held for example in Bagan, Inle Lake or Mrauk U.
Having friends or family coming over to Myanmar or planning a long weekend with the family? Get away from the classic temples sightseeing and consider an active holiday instead!
Edwin Briels is MD of Khiri Travel Myanmar and has been working for over 15 years in travel in Myanmar and will share his experiences travelling in Myanmar in a monthly column.