It's 4am and my overnight bus that was expected to arrive at 6 has just deposited me and 3 other weary-looking backpackers in a town called Nyuang U, on the outskirts of the Bagan Archeological Zone in central Myanmar.
The night is pitch black here, essentially in the middle of a desert. Not knowing what to do, we pile into a taxi and decide to try our luck at the only youth hostel in town. We're hopeful, but after years of backpacking Europe and other parts of Asia my realistic expectation is that I’ll be spending the next 3 hours listening to podcasts leaning up against a locked door. But this is Myanmar, a country that consistently surprises, and we arrive to find the hostel not just open but bustling with travelers just arrived from other parts of the country, freshly brewed coffee and excitement for the sunrise to come. Within an hour I’ve hired an e-bike (basically an electric vespa) and am whipping along the sandy paths with the pre-dawn wind in my hair, chasing a string of tail-lights ahead of me.
We arrive at a temple that I’m told is between 400 and 800 years old (apparently no one knows exactly when they were each build) and scramble up a staircase that appears to have been made for a child. Coming out onto the roof of the stupa, I watch the red sun rise over a plain of a thousand gold and burnt-brown temples. There is no one else around. Welcome to Myanmar.
The country formerly known as Burma is undergoing the most dramatic period of change in its recent history. Emerging from nearly 50 years of military rule in 2010, the home of Aung Sang Suu Kyi is enjoying a moment in the sun. In 2015 Myanmar held the first fully free and fair elections since 1960 and the National League for Democracy, led by Daw Suu (as the locals call her, "Daw" meaning "Auntie" in Burmese) swept the board, collecting over 77% of the vote. Now with the swearing-in of the new President earlier this year, this fragile democracy is beginning to take shape.
The upshot of all of this is that having been historically passed over on the traditional Thailand-Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam backpacking route, Myanmar is now beginning to be noticed by independent travelers, and it's only a matter of time before the backpackers start pouring in to this beautiful country.
Here are my picks from an all-too-short trip around Myanmar.
Despite tourism being in its infancy in Myanmar, there is a relatively well-established route that most travelers stick to, usually flying into Yangon and out of Mandalay (or vice-versa) and heading to Bagan and Inle Lake in between, with side trips or stopovers in Hsipaw and Kalaw for trekking, Ngapali beach for sunbathing or Sittwe and Mrauk-U for ancient ruins.
Bagan is a must-do. Covering over 26 square miles, this archeological zone contains over 2,500 ancient Buddhist monuments. The majority of tourists to this region still travel on tour buses or by taxi and so are limited to the major temples on the main roads. But the real draw-card here is the ability to play Indiana Jones and go exploring. Hire an e-bike from one of the local shops for 4,000 kyat (about A$5) for the day and get off the beaten track. Ride 5 minutes off the main road down one of the many sandy tracks that criss-cross the region and you will find yourself all alone, with the only possible disturbance the occasional horse and cart.
Bagan's other claim to tourist fame is its incredible balloon flights at sunrise each morning. These are now offered by several companies, but the original is Balloons over Bagan, these sell out well in advance, so it's worth booking early to secure your spot.
Also spelt "Innlay" by locals, this truly is a lake of dreams. Inle provides the life force for the communities that live on it and around it edges, being a source of fish, fresh water, lotus stems for cloth making, farming of vegetables and plants in the floating gardens and much more.
Make the effort to get up before dawn and watch the rising sun transform the lake from the sheet of faded blue to a lake of gold. Take a boat out onto the lake and watch the local fishermen peel their nets from water so still that it blends into the sky.
While many of the boat trips offered by local operators are becoming very touristy (including many gift shop stop-offs) you cannot miss out on a day on the lake. Most will have a default itinerary and you can opt in or out of any activities you want. The key is to ask around for a recommended provider and just be clear up front with what you do and don't want to see.
White sand, turquoise water, $2 cocktails - what more could you ask for? While no where near as over-run as its Thai neighbors, this beach resort is the closest you'll come to a typical summer holiday destination in Myanmar. Sure, there's no night life but that's not really why you'd come. Hire a boat for the day for 30,000 kyat (about $35), grab a snorkel and explore the islands and coral reefs offshore. Or just find a prime patch of sand (or sun lounger), and sink into your holiday reading.
In the last few years a number of luxury resorts have sprung up on Ngapali and the beaches to the north, but all are still priced at a fraction of what you would expect to pay for an equivalent experience in Australia (or elsewhere in Asia!).
The standard jumping-off spot for a trip to Myanmar, due to its international airport and largely closed land borders, its likely that most travellers will pass through Yangon at some point in their trip.
From the crumbling colonial mansions to the stark socialist monuments and the thousands of temporary lean-to stalls filling up every last inch of space, Yangon is a sensual and historical assault. Take a good pair of trainers, a map and an empty stomach and set out exploring. I loosely followed the walking trail in the lonely planet and completely loved it. I got lost in the tiny stalls that line the inner city streets selling everything from hot bowls of mohinga noodles to old books and even goldfish.
But of course no trip to Yangon would be complete without a visit to the ancient and revered Schwedagon Pagoda. Go at sunset, it's what everyone says to do and of course its completely packed, but the wonderful chaos is really a bonus. The overwhelming majority of tourists are still domestic travellers from the regions come to see the city, so its the best possible time to meet some real Burmese people.
The preferred method of transport for locals and backpackers are the intercity overnight "VIP" buses. Far surpassing the quality and comfort of any bus I have ever travelled on is Australia, these busses with their spacious and deep-reclining seats actually offer a better night's sleep than many European backpacker hostels. Fully air-conditioned (sometimes excessively so) and spotlessly clean, you can expect to pay between 10,000 and 20,000 kyat (about $11 to $22) for a ticket, depending on the bus company and the length of your journey.
There are a number of airlines that offer quick internal flights between the major destinations in Myanmar. Between most destinations these typically take about an hour and cost about US$100 for a ticket.
The major challenge to internal travel in Myanmar is that many services need to be booked with local travel agents when you arrive, and some will only sell, for example, plane tickets departing from the location they are in. For those on a tight timeline or who like to be prepared in advance, Go Myanmar can arrange some internal bookings and it otherwise a fantastic resource for things to see and do when you get there.
When to go
The tourist season generally runs from about October/November through until early April. In mid-April the Burmese celebrate Thingyan, the water festival. These typically marks the end of the summer and while it can be an incredible experience to visit at this time and join in the celebrations, nearly all transport shuts down and much accommodation is booked solidly well in advance.
Where to stay
While Myanmar is beginning to cater for a wide range of travellers, you will still find your options limited at both the top and bottom ends of the market.
Typically there will be one youth hostel in each city, and at peak times these can book out so it pays to be organised. I stayed at Ostello Bello in Bagan and it was one of the best hostels I have visited, with an amazing courtyard, great atmosphere for meeting people and showers and day-beds on the rooftop courtyard for those who have just arrived or are about to depart on the ubiquitous night buses and don't have access to their rooms.
The majority of accommodation then is in local, family-run guesthouses. The Golden House Hotel in Nyuang Shwe (for Inle Lake) was delightful. For less than the price of a burger and beer in Melbourne, I had a simple but gorgeous private room, with ensuite, tv, minibar, air-conditioning, delicious cooked breakfast each day and free bike hire. But the absolute highlight was the fresh juice I was offered every afternoon when I returned home, my favourite being one made entirely of crushed strawberries!
At the luxury resort end of the market, the Merciel Retreat and Resort in Ngapali Beach was an absolute steal. Costing less than most pigeon-hole Airbnb rooms in Sydney, I had an enormous suite, with balcony overlooking the pool and the sea and full breakfast. While it is located a little way north of the main beach, it has a beautiful pool and small private beach and the resort provides bikes for those keen to ride the roughly 8km into the centre of town.
For me, the thing that made my time in Myanmar so enjoyable was the incredible joy and generosity of its people. From meeting a monk on the street who invited me to come and visit his monastery across the road from Shwedegon Pagoda, to being taught how to apply Thanakha, a traditional make-up and sunscreen made from tree bark by a group of teenage girls from Arakan, I was touched and humbled by how enthusiastically the people of Myanmar let me into their lives.
In a predominately Buddhist country, one of the most noticeable differences is the number of monks and nuns, especially children, you see walking the streets. While incredibly photogenic, an understanding of this nation's intense spirituality is essential to understanding its people and way of life. A visit to a monastery is an absolute must-do on any trip to Myanmar.
Myanmar will overwhelm you with the incredible joy and generosity of its people. The simple human connections like a monk on the street who invited me to come and visit his monastery and talk with him to practice English, like being taught how to apply Thanakha, a traditional make-up and sun protectant made from tree bark by a group of teenage girls from Arakan, I was touched and humbled by how enthusiastically the people of Myanmar let me into their lives.
This is a country at the cross roads of modernisation, there are experiences you will have in Myanmar that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. But with the advent of democracy and its newly-opened borders, it won't last. Go now.