Planning a trip through Myanmar for the first time is not easy at all. Myanmar is a large country with many beautiful locations. Unfortunately, these places are sometimes far apart and you often have to travel a long time from one destination to another. If you only have limited time, the you sometimes have to make a choice which destinations and activities you prefer and which you will keep in mind for a second Myanmar trip.
We made a 2-week trip through Myanmar. Unfortunately, we had not enough time to explore the entire country. So we limited ourselves to visiting Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake, Yangon and some lesser known spots in between.
To make it easier for you to plan a Myanmar trip, I would like to share my 5 top activities that made me fall a little more in love with this fantastic country every time. To make it more exciting, I start with fifth place to finish with first place.
Also read this complete Myanmar guide with tips and tricks to prepare you for one of the most amazing trips of your life!
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5. Schwedagon pagoda in Yangon
A terrible night in Yangon
After a twelve-hour bus ride we finally arrived at our last destination: rainy Yangon. I was super happy to finaly take a shower in our hotel room, cosy up and get a good night rest. Except the little gecko that lived in our hotel room thought otherwise. He wasn’t too happy with us sharing his crib, so he screamed all night long. We tried to catch him several times, but he was so clever to hide behind the airco system. I heard his screaming loud and clear even with earplugs in. Also After this terrible night with almost no sleep you can problably imagine my mood the next morning: not that happy. Btw: this is a serious understatement.
How the Schwedagon pagoda affected my mood
That day we were planning to discover Yangon. It rained all day so we couldn’t go for much sightseeing. We took the circle line train and enjoyed the views from the window.
It was late afternoon when we arrived at the Schwedagon pagoda. It hadn’t stopped raining for a moment and we were tired, wet and I was super moody.
When we entered the domain this immense golden pagoda overwhelmed us. It was just mesmerising! We walked around the pagoda and took place in a little shrine with a beautiful view over all that gold. We became so quiet. I think we sat there for at least an hour because we were so impressed. All our stress disappeared in just one moment.
It became dark and the lighting made the whole environment even more magical. It was simply divine to stay for a while to just relax, admire the pagoda and observe the Buddhist rituals.
All de-stressed we came back to the hotel. And surprise surprise: we were offered a new room. This time without a roommate! What a visit to the Schwedagon pagoda can do… so this should definitely be on your itinerary for your Myanmar trip.
Best hotels in Yangon
Other attractions in Yangon
4. E-bike ride through Bagan
Ever since I know we would be traveling in Myanmar I wanted to visit Bagan. It was my number one destination on paper. I had seen all the beautiful pictures of the orange sunrises and sunsets with the hot air balloons and I wanted to take a picture just like that.
Searching for the best sunrise spot in Bagan
When I knew we were traveling to Myanmar, I was the most excited to explore Bagan. I had already seen the beautiful photos of deep orange – red sunrises and sunsets with the hot air balloons. And of course I wanted to experience that as well.
We stayed in a hotel a little outside town and decided to rent an e-bike there to go see a fantastic sunrise. We woke up at 4 AM , took the e-bike and looked for a good spot to watch the sunrise and shoot some beautiful pictures. It was very dark and off course we got lost on the way searching for the pagoda.
A very helpful local showed us the way to a pagoda where we could get the best view over Bagan, according to him. It was a little pagoda and we were fine with it because we didn’t have to share our spot with another 50 tourists. But this local wasn’t so helpfull afterall. Read the whole story in Is Myanmar a safe country for traveling?
We travelled Myanmar in July. This is right in the middle of rain season. So we were not that lucky to catch a gorgeous, orange sunrise or breath-taking sunset. We decided to go back to the hotel for breakfast. I remember being very disappointed. When we drove back on our e-bike there was already daylight and we could finally see the surroundings. At that moment I don’t know if it was the tiredness or the disappointment but Bagan didn’t feel as magical as I had expected. Also the battery of our e-bike died on the way to the hotel. So we had to walk all the way back.
Cruising through Bagan
That afternoon we decided to give Bagan another chance with our e-bike and I am so glad we did that. We had great weather and drove through the ancient pagodas, stopped to visit and climb a few of them and had a refreshing drink in a beautiful garden at the water. It turned out to be a fantastic day and I started to like Bagan.
Extra tip: plan a half day trip to Mount Popa
Another fun experience is a half-day trip to mount Popa. This mountain is actually an old volcano. Now it is a famous pilgrimage site with a temple on top.
To reach the temple you have to climb the steep stairs barefoot, because it is a sacred place. The disadvantage is that you literally walk through monkey shit. On top of that you have to watch out not to get jumped by those little bastards. The temple itself is not that spectacular, but the view is breath taking.
If you want to plan a visit here, definitely check out this useful information about Bagan.
Best hotels in Bagan
Other attractions in Bagan
3. Boat trip on Inle Lake
Explore Inle Lake by boat
The tirth place goes to a boat trip on Inle Lake. This is the best way to explore Inle Lake and therefor can’t be excluded from your first trip to Myanmar. You can arrange a boat trip via the most hotels or you can go to the harbour of Nyaung Shwe and arrange one yourself. The advantage here is that you can discuss which places you want to visit and do not have to follow the prepared route.
The best time to take a boat is just before sunrise to see the fishermen work their magic when the sun comes up. Again it was raining so hard, so we had to wait till 10 AM to start our boat trip. Don’t forget to take a sweater, raincoat and umbrella if it’s rain season. It can be really cold and wet.
When you do the fixed tour, you will see the fishermen carry out their special technique. They peddle with their leg to be able to fish with their hands. It is so special and both fascinating to see them balancing on one leg in a tiny boat. If I had to do it, my boat would definitely flip over.
You will sail between the floating gardens and be amazed how these are constructed. In between you will visit a lot of workshops where you can see how local products are being made, such as the silk weaving workshop, the silversmith workshop and the cigar workshop. Off course in every of these shops you can buy a lovely souvenir. My boyfriend even bought my engagement ring there without me knowing. But the good thing is that you are not being pressured to buy anything.
On top of this you can also bring a visit to the Kayan women, better known as the long neck ladies. These women are originally for the Kayah state in Myanmar but fled to the Thai border area during the military regime. A few of them still live on Inle Lake. But I think this is more a tourist trap to take a few pictures in exchange for a little gift.
You will also visit the Hpaung Daw U pagoda and the jumping cat monastery. The days that these cats did tricks such as jumping hoops are over, but the monks in this monastery take great care of these cats. And I think this is a very good initiative because there are a lot of stray animals in Myanmar.
The mysterious pagodas of Indein
You MUST ask you boat driver at the start of the boat trip to take you to Indein. You have to pay a little bit extra because it’s further, but I promise you will not regret this! Arriving there you have to pay a little Photo fee. (I am sorry that I haven’t mentioned this before but at a lot of tourist attractions you have to pay a little amount of money to be able to take pictures).
You have to walk through a long gallery with different stalls where you can buy the most beautiful souvenirs. So don’t spend all your money in the workshops you will visit earlier. At the end of the gallery, believe me, you will be blown away by what you see. It’s a village with a variety of ancient pagodas. This place is too crazy for words. It left me speechless! and It honestly impressed me more than Bagan.
Extra tip: visit Maing Thauk
If you want to get more insight on how these people live on the lake, don’t forget to visit Maing Thauk. Walk across this long wooden bridge and take a canoe to discover the life on the lake. This little extra trip if you have some spare time is totally worth it.
The best hotel in Inle Lake
Other attractions in Inle Lake
2. Explore Mandalay and surroundings
Explore Mandalay city
Actually this activity is sort of a tie with the boat trip on Inle Lake. But I placed Mandalay a bit higher because of the magical atmosphere. I can’t explain why exactly, it’s just a feeling. Mandalay is the cultural and religious centre of Myanmar. It has more than 700 pagodas in and around the city. For that reason alone, this fascinating city should not be missed on your first Myanmar trip.
Let me tell you a bit about the best things to do in Mandalay. First explore the centre of Mandaly. Climb the many stairs of Mandalay hill in the late afternoon and enjoy a beautiful sunset. Many students and monks are happy to lead you around here in exchange for a short conversation to practise their English. This atmosphere of friendly smiles and words and genuine interest in other people made me so happy. I think that this is the moment when I fell in love with Mandalay and the inhabitants. Now I regret only staying there for 2 days.
When the sun goes down, take a motorbike taxi and head back to town. Enjoy a delicious local street barbeque at ‘Shan Ma Ma’. This is honestly the best traditional Myanmar food I have ever eaten on this trip.
Discover the beauty of the surroundings of Mandalay
We didn’t really have the time to explore the city of Mandalay further. The hotel advised us to take a taxi to explore the surroundings of Mandalay and we didn’t regret this for a moment. The places we visited were all stunning.
We started off with a couple of workshops such as a leaf gold-, woodcarve- and weaving workshop.
Afterwards we stopped at the Mahagandayon monastery to see the student monks’ lunch. It’s quite an experience to see the monks line up with their rice pots to get supper. Honestly at that time there were so many tourist that I felt a little ashamed to take pictures. If I were in their place I would not feel comfortable with it when eating. They didn’t seem to mind, but still I felt a little guilty.
The next stops where some of the most colourful and beautiful pagodas I have ever seen. First there was the The U min thonze pagoda. It was just mesmerising with its entire Buddha collection.
Then there was a gorgeous bright colored pagoda on top of Sagiang Hill.
Last but not least we were blown away by the Pathodawgyi. It was so impressive.
Last but not least we visited the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world: the amazing U bein brigde. Here we also had no luck with spotting a beautiful sunset. Instead it started pouring rain, which also was kind of magical.
We had a short but really great stay in Mandalay, but we feel we definitely need to go back to explore more of Mandalay.
Best hotels in Mandalay
Other attractions in Mandalay
1. Hiking kalaw –Inle Lake
Myanmar is known for its gorgeous nature. Of course we wanted to explore that as well. So we decided to do a trekking. There are many possibilities for hiking, but we chose the trail from Kalaw to Inle Lake.
This is apparently one of the most popular and beautiful hikes. We booked a guide with Uncle Sam because it had great references in the lonely planet. There are many tourists in Kalaw who want to do the same route. So I was a little worried that the group would be very big. But Uncle Sam stands for quality and not quantity. We all got divided in little groups of maximum 4 persons with a guide. We hit the road with another Belgian couple and our fantastic guide Tin Tun.
The hike itself was amazing even though we had to take an alternative route because of the rain. We passed alongside rice terraces, fields, rocks, and jungle. There is so much variety in the landscape.
We ate and slept with local families and had the chance to experience the real Myanmar country life.
For me it was an experience I am never going to forget. I loved the diversification of hiking in an incredible area and interacting with local people. There is a saying that the people of Myanmar are the most friendly of Asia and on this trail I must say I really felt the love!
Best hotels in Kalaw
Other attractions in Kalaw
Don’t forget to watch our short compilation video about our first Myanmar trip.
Which activities would you like to do on your Myanmar trip? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading