Exploring Myanmar is simply one adventure after another. (Photo: Will Hatton)
By Will Hatton
I’ve been traveling around Asia for over three years, but it wasn’t until recently that I traveled to Myanmar, also known as Burma. And I will say it right now: It’s an insane, beautiful, challenging, and hilarious country, and it simply blew my mind. Whenever I meet backpackers, I always say to them, “You have to go to Myanmar. It’s a life-changing experience.” Many people skip Myanmar for the easier, well-known backpacker route, which begins in Thailand and then goes through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But in my opinion, Myanmar offers more than all of the other countries of Southeast Asia thrown together. Here’s why.
1. The people are so, so kind.
For true hospitality, travel to Myanmar. Out of all of the Asians I’ve met, the people in Myanmar are the kindest, most friendly people. They’re willing to go above and beyond to be friends with you, help you out, and make sure you are having a great time in their country. They always seem to be happy, smiling, and keen to practice their English over a glass of tea.
They can be quite shy people, as they are extremely polite, but once you get to know them, they open up. Kids, however, tend to be the exception to the rule. They will run up to you to practice their English, and unlike the rest of Asia, they never hassled me for money. The people of Myanmar left a lasting impression on me. I felt as though I could truly trust them, and I made some incredible connections with locals I met along the way.
Related: The Perfect Trip To Myanmar
Burmese children playing around. (Photo: Will Hatton)
2. The temple ruins are amazing.
When most people think of lost cities, they immediately think of Angor Wat in Cambodia, or maybe Hampi in India. But the ruins of Bagan in central Myanmar are without a doubt the most stunning, least-touristy ruins I have ever seen. I spent an incredible few days there, exploring the area by bike, watching the sun set over Bagan’s temple-studded plains, and making friends with the local kids out to practice their English. For the true adventurer, you can head even deeper into the country’s largely unexplored regions and visit the stunning temple ruins at Mrauk Au. They are so remote that you will probably have them all to yourself.
One of Bagan’s many temples. (Photo: Will Hatton)
3. There is room to truly explore.
Myanmar is an absolutely massive country, and there are many hidden gems that only locals know about. It is extremely easy to get off the beaten track, and to have temples, ruins, mountains, and caves all to yourself. When I was backpacking in Myanmar, I felt like I had stepped back 100 years into the past, like a proper explorer.
The people I met in remote communities in the Shan highlands had often not seen another westerner for months or even years. And while I was exploring the south of the country, I came across a huge field of painted Buddha statues. Some were cracked and covered by the jungle; others looked freshly painted. Who built them, painted them, and maintained them? I have absolutely no idea. And that is why I love Myanmar.
Related: The Jungles of Myanmar
The mysterious field of Buddhas in the jungle. (Photo: Will Hatton)
4. The hiking is incredible.
Trekking in Myanmar is a relatively new activity, but tour agencies are already stepping up to cater toward adventurous backpackers. Most backpackers opt for a two-day trek around the stilt villages of Inle Lake, but for an even more remote experience, head deep into the Shan highlands, or south to Hp-Pan.
Here, you can summit jungle-clad limestone peaks — many of which are topped by small monasteries — and soak in some spectacular views. Trekking in Myanmar is a really amazing experience. I met colorful freshwater crabs, hiked through mist-draped forests, and shared tea with novice monks who spoke no English, but always seemed happy to see me.
Wander through these fields, and you never know what you will find. (Photo: Will Hatton)
5. There are monks. Lots of monks.
Speaking of monks, it’s pretty hard to travel in Myanmar without meeting a few amazing ones. I had some very heady discussions with monks I met in temples, on buses, in the street, and even while riding my bicycle. The monks are a friendly bunch, and they’d often ask me all kinds of questions, from what life is like outside Myanmar to spirituality to football (yes, football!).
A monk told me that monks make up one percent of Myanmar’s entire population, and they certainly do seem to be everywhere. One experience in particular stands out. While I was trekking, I met a shy monk who was working on repairing a temple wall. We chatted for a while, and I spent an hour or so helping him. Then, he offered me tea and we talked even more. Because of that experience, I came away with a much richer understanding of what Buddhism is all about.
6. The food is delicious.
“Really? The food’s okay?” you may ask. Yes, food is better than okay. The cuisine in Myanmar is some of the best in Asia. Sure, there may not be many Burmese restaurants outside of Myanmar, but that’s largely because the country has been shut off from the rest of the world for so long. The food is an eclectic mix of Thai, Chinese, and Indian cuisine, and basically includes all the best bits from each.
A couple dishes to look out for:
*Gyin Thohk: tasty ginger salad with sesame seeds.
*Kat Kyi Hnyat: the Burmese answer to Pad Thai. It’s a gorgeous coastal dish that consists of rice noodles, seafood, meats, raw bean sprouts, and fried eggs.
*Danbauk: a tasty Indian-inspired curry served with mango pickle, fresh mint, and green chili.
*Shan Tofu: awesome homemade tofu from the Shan highlands.
7. The beer is cheap. And good.
I have made it a personal mission to sample as many local beers throughout the world as I possibly can. And so far, Myanmar Beer is without a doubt my favorite brand. For just 50 cents, you can have a cool, refreshing, tap-drawn beer in an iced glass. For five bucks, you can get well and truly merry. Mandalay Beer makes a tasty alternative if you get sick of Myanmar Beer, but I can almost guarantee you won’t.
7. The beaches!
Most backpackers are not yet aware that Myanmar has some of the most beautiful beaches and islands in the world. Until recently, these palm-fringed, white-sand playgrounds were off limits unless you had a super-yacht handy, but this is changing fast. Every week, more and more restrictions are being lifted.
Now is the perfect time to travel to Myanmar and hunt for your dream island. Think coral blue waters, coconut cocktails, and perfect sandy beaches. There are over 800 empty islands in Myanmar’s Mergui archipelago, which means that now is a great time to head out on a kayak or boat and discover paradise in the ocean.
Paradise, found! (Photo: Will Hatton)
9. It has really cool caves.
When I’m traveling, I’m always looking for adventurous ways to keep myself busy, whether it’s living in a cave with a Bedouin or mountain biking through the jungles of Laos. In Myanmar, there are a ton of activities for the adventurous traveler, but one of the best has got to be exploring some of its huge caves.
Many of these are not covered by any guidebook; it’s simply a case of asking around and seeing if there are any cool caves nearby. One of the biggest caves that I visited was in the south of the country, and was filled with huge Buddha images and statues as well as some beautiful rock formations. I walked through it for over an hour before I emerged on the other side to find a hidden lake framed by a backdrop of limestone mountains. To this day, that is still one of the most beautiful things I have ever discovered while backpacking.
A giant cave in Myanmar. (Photo: Will Hatton)
10. It’s changing fast.
Myanmar has become THE place to go. I was lucky enough to first visit in 2012, when I met perhaps a dozen backpackers in my entire time there. But these days, more and more backpackers are tagging the country on to the classic Thailand/Laos/Vietnam/Cambodia route, and rightly so!
However, as the country continues to open up and as investments and travelers alike continue to pour in, it is only a matter of time before some of Myanmar’s most enchanting attractions become diluted. Luckily, the country is so big that there is still plenty of room, and plenty of wild places left for backpackers to explore. So do not hesitate. Visit this incredible land now, meet the wonderful people, have a beer (or three) and explore until your heart’s content.