Places like Myanmar (Burma) are hard to find: long cut off from tourism, with English signs a rarity and traditional dress still the norm, even an average day here can feel like off-the-beaten-track travel. Whether you’re drifting past the leg-rowers of Inle Lake, delving into the ancient temples of dusty Bagan, or trekking into remote rural villages of Shan State, there’s a sense of life before the 21st century. This beguiling country is open up fast, however, and we’ve got more than a few reasons to visit Myanmar now – before the crowds arrive.
A peek behind closed doors
Unlike its Southeast Asian neighbours, Myanmar has been slow to board the train of modern tourism. Long closed to foreign visitors, it was only after the landmark elections of 2010 that the country began to open up. The benchmarks of tourism are scarce: few ATMs, little English signage, rare hostels, and a significant lack of hustlers pushing souvenir kitsch. Visitors to this secretive country can easily find themselves feeling like intrepid explorers of old. So if you’ve always wanted to travel to the last frontier, point your compass towards Myanmar.
Daily life in Myanmar can look as though it hasn’t changed for centuries. Roads are paved by hand, ox-carts rule in rural villages, fires from the kitchens of bamboo huts cast smoke signals on river banks, and both men and women proudly sport longyi (wrap-around skirts) and thanaka (bark sunscreen). Walking down the street, there are times when you won’t see any foreign brands at all, as strolls take you past Burmese shops, selling Burmese brands, advertising Burmese movies and music and books. Here, life before globalisation still exists. Go before the Starbucks arrive.
Waves of burgundy flow down the streets of Myanmar in the form of monks, young and old. As it’s common practice in Myanmar for young men to spend a period of time in a monastery (whether one month or one lifetime), you’ll see monks in every town, at every temple. Oftentimes it’s easy to strike up a conversation and learn about their experience. For Stray passengers, we’ll introduce you to a member of the order in Bagan, to better explain Burmese Buddhism and spirituality.
The sheer friendliness
Let’s be honest: starry-eyed travellers can rave so much about the friendliness of a country that the word loses all meaning. But let’s be honest still: Myanmar takes the cake on this one. Whether in the cities or deep in the countryside, strangers will smile at you with open, unabashed goodwill. Because English levels are high, many will engage travellers in curious conversation, though even the shy ones often accompany their smile with a wave. And trust us, you won’t be able to help smiling back. In the case of this traveller, after a trip in Burma she looked in the mirror and discovered a surprise souvenir: deeper smile lines!
Angkor Wat may be the most famous archaeological site in Southeast Asia, but Myanmar might just have the most stunning. Bagan, a dusty city set along the banks of the Irrawaddy, is home to more than 3,000 ancient temples that dot its dusty landscape. Exploring its hidden shrines and crumbling temples by bike is a quintessential Myanmar experience, especially if you head to the top of a pagoda for sunrise or sunset. If you have time, the ruins of Mrauk U by Sittwe are just as spectacular but largely deserted, leaving many explorers with the whole place to themselves. Take a friend, a bike, and an appetite for the unknown – you’ll find it here.