So, this title is a little misleading… Burma (Myanmar) is a surprisingly huge country – it would be frankly impossible to see it all in 10 days, but there’s no harm in trying.
Capture the spirit of this magical country by combining the most popular sites (popular for a reason), with lesser-known gems. Throw yourself into a trip, take in the sights, sounds and smells, and most importantly, have fun!
1. Take at least one guided tour
The internet has a wealth of information, but when you find yourself searching for a long-closed restaurant, peering through locked museum doors, or missing out on an exciting new opening, you realise that guidance from complete stranger isn’t infallible, and sometimes downright wrong.
As well as historical and cultural knowledge, expert local guides also know where to grab the best lunch, can help you with simple phrases and logistical tips, and give you the freedom to look up and take it all in.
2. Visit a market
To get an insight into local life, and pick up a souvenir or two, it’s well worth visiting some local markets. In Sagaing, just outside Mandalay, the local pottery villages set up sprawling stalls. Enormous pots may push your baggage allowance somewhat, and are a little unwieldy while travelling, but small trinkets make great gifts (or keepsakes if you can’t bring yourself to give them away…)
The communities on Inle Lake conduct their entire lives upon the water, and unique early morning markets see longtail boats jostle for space, each piled high with goods. Unfortunately, in recent years they have become overcrowded and a little touristed, but it’s still fun to see, and nearby markets set up on stilted walkways can provide a more authentic experience. Confusingly, they operate on different days, in different villages – ask your local guide to be sure.
Insein Township has a bustling food market lined with great pails of colourful fruit and vegetables. As the local grocery shop, you can take in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
3. Hop on the train
See how Yangonians live from the circle train. It travels from Yangon, and stops at various suburbs, before arriving back where it started. The trains themselves are not much to write home about, but as the (rickety) locomotive meanders, take to a window seat to see sleepy villages with kids playing; farmers in green paddy fields; and groups jostle to sell fruit, veg and other wares.
4. Make time for Monywa
Make time in your 10 days in Burma for the three-hour drive from Mandalay to Monywa. We don’t want to gush too much, but this little-visited town is one of our favourites. Where to begin? Firstly, there’s Laykun Setkyar. If you’re not sure you’re getting close, look to the horizon – this enormous gilded statue of Buddha will let you know you’re on the right track.
Then there are the Po Win Taung caves with their incredible murals, Shwe Ba Taung, with elaborate architecture carved into excavated caves (affectionately known – by us – as Burma’s Petra), and a garden of Buddhas lined up under concrete parasols. Last but certainly not least, the extravagant Thanboddhay Pagoda filled with thousands of Buddhas. We promise you won’t be disappointed.
5. Try local food
Unlike some of its more famous neighbours, Burma isn’t known for its cuisine. Like thalis in India, many meals in Burma are served with a variety of side dishes containing salads, dips, soups or curries. Unlike India though, Burmese curries are very mild.
For something a little different (or perhaps more familiar) stop in at the beautiful colonial Strand Hotel in Yangon for a Burmese high tea. There is a Western version, but we wholeheartedly recommend the local one; tuck into deep-fried sticky rice balls with brown bean paste, deep-fried banana with vanilla ice cream, ginger infused chocolate bon bons, sago and coconut milk palm sugar, and semolina cake. Anyone else feeling hungry?
6. Make pitstops at villages
Break up long journeys with village pitstops. It’s an opportunity to learn about how residents live, learn about local industries and traditions, and get a bite to eat.
7. Take a longtail boat on Inle Lake
Weave through Inle Lake’s network of canals on a longtail boat to see how the Intha people live – spotting floating gardens, stilted houses and the odd whitewashed stupa along the way. If you’re lucky, you might even see fisherman standing on one leg as they scoop the water with conical nets. The “sunken” stupas of Sagar also await at the southern end of the lake.
8. Take in the plains of Bagan
No trip to Burma would be complete without visiting the plains of Bagan. This archaeological site has more than 2,000 ancient pagodas, and is particularly beautiful at sunrise, or from a hot air balloon.
9. Visit the Shwedagon Pagoda
This gleaming gilded pagoda really is the jewel in Yangon’s crown, and the most important pagoda in all of Burma. It dates back more than 2,000 years, and was recalled by Rudyard Kipling as “a beautiful winking wonder”.
10. Explore Mandalay’s former capitals
Take a day to appreciate Burma’s history by visiting three of Mandalay’s former capitals. See Sagaing’s whitewashed pagodas, take a horse and cart through Ava’s dusty roads (stopping at vestiges of the capital along the way), and visit Amarapura with its craft workshop, and the famous teak U Bein Bridge.