As we avoid crowds and promote physical distancing to help combat the looming pandemic, we can’t help but day-dream of adventures to come. The hashtags #stayhome so we can #traveltomorrow are trending reminders to follow government instructions, and to save the next trips for another day.
I have picked my 5 favourite destinations in Myanmar to visit once it’s OK again to travel. Enjoy them individually, or combine them for a fuller discovery of rural Myanmar.
Northern Shan state
Daily direct flights to Lashio make the area easy to reach, and overnight buses help save a few pennies. The food is healthy and tasty and the mountainous region is always a bit cooler than Yangon. What else to do in Hsipaw apart from tasting delicious Shan food? Enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of Hsipaw town and visit the old place where Inge Sargent, the famous princess and author of the book “My life as a Shan princess” lived. Go for guided day walks to Shan and Palaung villages around Hsipaw or Kyaukme or stay overnight in a traditional village. Peddle your way around on a bicycle to, ride a boat on the Dokthawaddy River or hop on the train for a fun rickety ride over the Gokteik Viaduct. There are plenty of charming lodges and guesthouses in Hsipaw like Mr Charles Riverside bungalows or Tai House. And yes, the area is safe to visit, as long as you hire a professional local guide and keep within permitted trekking zones in the countryside.
The dry zone (Bagan combined with Yandabo, Salay or Yenangyaung)
After more than 20 visits to Bagan, I still discover “new” places (though some are over 1000 years old). Easy to reach by plane, bus or even train, Bagan offers fantastic hotels with pools to hide from the heat, all at great value. Build in some extra days to swim and relax! Rent an e-bike to discover some of the temples on your own or support a local tourist guide to really go deeper into the history, cultural significance and the reason this area is the newest Unesco World Heritage Site. Combine the trip with a night or two on the riverside in nearby towns with a lot of rural charm like Yenanyaung (stay at Lei Thar Gone guesthouse for a pool and fantastic views over the Ayeyarwaddy), Yandabo (pamper yourself at Yandabo Home) or Salay (the friendly Salay Riverview Inn). Discovering one of these towns is great fun and shows you a very different Myanmar.
Mon & Kayin state
An easy 6h drive on a smooth road, the Mon state offers a lot of culture, diverse landscapes and tasty home-cooked Mon food. Certainly visit the stunning Seindon monastery; built by a former Mandalay Palace princess who became a nun in Mawlamyine. About 1.5 hour by boat from Mawlamyine you find the stunning monasteries and temples constructed over 100 years ago by the famous trader U Na Auk; possibly the most beautiful temple complex I have ever seen in Myanmar.
Kayin state offers staggering landscapes with lime stone mountains and mysterious caves. Don’t forget to visit the newly discovered water cave by boat and go for a beautiful sunset from the nearby cave. Hpa An town now offers a lot of good food including some of the best Thai food in Myanmar, try it at the lively night market at the Hpa An riverside. Many new hotels have sprung up recently including the Zwekapin Valley Resort & Spa with an excellent pool, My Hpa-An Residence which gives you the feeling of being in a cottage at a rubber tree plantation and the boutique style Keinnara Hpa An.
Southern Shan state
A perfect to combination with the Northern Shan state, thanks to the road from Nawnghkio to Pindaya. Southern Shan state is famous for towns like Kalaw, Pindaya, Nyaung Shwe and of course Inle Lake. Lesser known and with excellent accommodation is Samkar Lake just south of Inle Lake. No need to feel bored in this part of Myanmar as you can do walks, bike rides or boat rides and visit the famous Pindaya caves (or the lesser known Shwe Oo Min caves in Kalaw). Restaurants offer a lot of variation in this part of Myanmar with the Danu influences in Pindaya (and a lot of fresh vegetables), Nepalese in Kalaw (including excellent chapati and dhal) and Shan or Pa O around Inle Lake. If you need a more international fix, Nyaung Shwe’s more diverse and tourist-friendly restaurant scene is your answer. A classic day on the lake with a boat is a must-do, but our secret is to combine it with an organized tour that includes biking, kayaking or even a romantic floating lunch. Some of my favourite hotels in Kalaw and Pindaya are certainly the Pindaya Farm House and the Kalaw Heritage Resort. For hotels with a relaxing pool choose Thanakha Inle, Sanctum Inle Resort, Villa Inle Boutique and Spa, the Inle Princess or the more modern Sofitel Inle Lake.
A few days on the beach is always a relaxing treat, and some sunshine is great for the soul! After a cultural or active trip exploring another part of Myanmar, fly over to Thandwe for a quiet respite. Pre-book a stay on Ngapali beach, the more remote Maung Shwe Lay Bay (45 minutes boat ride away, speak to the boutique hotel Lalay Lodge for accommodation or lunch), or go further out to the long stretch of Chaukkalat beach. Though there are many hotels along in the area, definitely book in advance. If you have your own car, you could also decide to stop at any of the other beaches like Gwa (we recommend Arakan Nature Lodge) or Kanthaya, along the scenic road along the coast of southern Rakhine state. Attention: many hotels only re-open on the 1st October this year, do check in advance if your favorite hotel is open.
It’s hard to predict when travelling will be OK again but I do know for sure that this too shall pass.
Tell us which destination you’re dreaming of while staying at home.
Edwin Briels is MD of Khiri Travel Myanmar and has been working over 15 years in travel in Myanmar and will share his experiences travelling in Myanmar in a monthly column.