By Claire Volkman | Featured on Vogue.com
There are a million and one reasons to visit Thailand, and you’ve no doubt read them all: beautiful beaches, mouthwatering cuisine, staggering landscapes, and ancient culture. However, the word is out and millions of visitors—from backpackers to families—are flocking to Thailand’s cities, beaches, and villages. If you’re looking for a Southeast Asian destination, then, that is still relatively uncharted, head to Myanmar. Boasting epic and varied landscapes, quiet beaches, small villages home to indigenous tribes, a culinary experience that’s unlike any other, and a chance to get truly off the grid, the former Burma is one of the area’s last undiscovered gems. From hiking the hills outside of Heho, to biking in and around Bagan, you’ll immediately understand why so many people want to keep this incredibly beautiful (and emotionally captivating) country a secret.
It may not hold the international notoriety that Thai cuisine does, but Burmese food is not to be dismissed. Healthy, delicious, and largely reliant on fresh produce, locally farmed livestock, and freshly-caught fish, the fare in Burma defines farm-to-fork. Thanks to Myanmar’s location, and the fact it was closed off from the Western world for decades, its cuisine is heavily influenced by its neighbors such as Thailand, India, and China. The local people truly live off the land and try to make use of everything in their dishes, and not waste food, which you’ll note as you nosh on Shan noodles—a traditional rice noodle dish found in the Shan State that’s a bountiful blend of chicken, black bean or fish sauce, fresh vegetables, and peanuts. Another example is the laphet thoke, or fermented tea leaf salad. Residents toss the pickled leaves with fresh vegetables, peanuts, and other ingredients, for a tangy and delicious bite. Curries are also a mainstay in the cuisine, and the Burmese variety is a true marriage of Indian spices and Thai flavors.
Relatively Untouched Archeological Sites
Few places in the world offer the sheer volume of historic archeological sights that Myanmar does, and no place showcases the amount better than Bagan, a former capital of Myanmar that’s dotted with more than 2,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and stupas —all ranging in sizes, colors, and grandeur. Most of the larger temples surround the Tharabar Gate (the only surviving portion of Bagan’s ancient city wall), while the smaller ones can be found speckled throughout the picturesque plains. One of the most fantastic is the Shwesandaw Pagoda, which was built by King Anawrahta in 1057. The pagoda’s bright white exterior isn’t the only defining part of this mystical temple—the bell-shaped structure boasts five terraces that once bore the faces of terra-cotta statues of the elephant-headed Hindu God, Ganesh. Arguably the best way to see the temples rising above the jungled canopy of Bagan is by taking a hot air balloon ride. Albeit a little touristy, the sky-high vantage point provides the most breathtaking 360-degree views of the magnificent structures. The capital city of Yangon is home to probably the most highly decorated (and visited) stupa in the world—the 361-foot-high Shwedagon Pagoda. Covered with hundreds of gold plates, more than 4,000 glimmering diamonds (with the largest topping off at 72 carats), its allure lies in both the flashy exterior and the rich, 2,500-year-old history. Sunset may be the most crowded time to visit, but it’s also one of the most beautiful.
Thailand saw more than 30 million tourists in 2015 (according to Reuters). Myanmar saw less than five million. The sheer number of people visiting a country makes a dramatic impact on how people see and experience it, and a shift in the political climate in Myanmar, as well as the borders opening to North American tourists means the number of visitors there is quickly going to catch up to its more heavily-traversed neighbors. But at the moment, you can still wander through the streets of Yangon, bike through the thousands of temples in Bagan, and visit the villages outside of Mandalay and Meiktila without as much as running into another English-speaking tourist. Fewer travelers also means fewer large group tours, so you’re free to explore the biggest sights—such as the Schwedagon Pagoda, Inle Lake, and Mount Popa —in peace.
While the repelling, kayaking, and hiking throughout Thailand is certainly amazing, the adventures offered in Myanmar come with a few additional perks. For one, most of the terrain is still largely uncharted, with few tour groups traversing the country’s jungle-clad limestone peaks. Two, there’s a seemingly endless variety of things to see by kayak, such as the stilt villages that punctuate the grassy coast of Inle Lake; by bike, such as the thousands of temples hidden all throughout Bagan, with only a fraction of them seen from the main road; or by foot – we suggest trekking through the small villages that make up the sprawling Shan Plateau, such as Htee Thein. Even more undiscovered are the southern parts of the country, which include Hp-Pan and Hpa-An, where you’ll find spectacular views as you walk, bike, or trek your way through. For a chance to explore the country by boat, by foot, and by bicycle, opt for the tour around Myanmar that’s offered by World Expeditions, an adventure-focused travel company. The tour pairs you with local guides who will bike, kayak, and hike with you through some of the country’s most enchanting landscapes.
Thanks to the staggering number of tourists in Thailand, hotels (even the midrange ones) can set you back upwards of $80-150 a night. In addition, the price of food, tour guides, and even bus tickets has increased over the past five years. If you’re trying to vacation on a true backpacker’s budget, head to Myanmar instead, where the same two to three-star hotels and hostels will cost nearly half of what they do in Bangkok or Chiang Mai. A traditional meal will cost you just one or two pounds, while a beer to swill it down with will set you back just 70p. A three-star hotel in Bangkok generally costs more than $110, while a hotel of the same caliber will cost just $60-70 in Yangon.
The Rivers and Their Villages
Part of what makes Southeast Asia so special lies in the fact that much of it is still relatively unchartered, and this is especially true for Myanmar. Thanks to its location along the Irrawaddy River, you can board a river cruise with luxury outfitter Avalon Waterways and sail through the truly untouched riverside villages that have formed along the banks. Most of the cruises start in Mandalay and sail either to Bagan or to Katha. Mornings on the river might begin with the sound of devotional chanting from the riverside monasteries, and you’ll certainly pass by hundreds of fishing canoes, local ferries transporting passengers to and fro, and perhaps even a frolicking, friendly dolphin. Although it’s the Irrawaddy River is famous in the region, it isn’t the only one you can sail on. The Chindwin River, which flows down from the Burma-Assam border areas, explores extremely isolated villages. For a truly authentic experience, ride in one of the local boats, which are guaranteed to be filled with locals getting to and from their villages. The boats ride low, thanks to the river’s swirling whirlpools, so don’t fret if it looks (and feels) as though you’re sinking. You’re not!
The People Are Kind
You can’t walk down the street in any of Myanmar’s cities or villages without encountering one thing—a smile. Unlike other cities that are largely reliant on the tourism trade, the hospitality, kindness, and care offered by the Burmese people is completely genuine. A visit is also made easier by the fact that many of the locals speak excellent English and are more than happy to practice their language skills over a long chat.
More than just lush forest canopies flanked by the Himalayan mountains, vast fields speckled with golden temples, fishing boats floating down rivers, and red-coat-cloaked monks navigating through fog-laden valleys, Myanmar’s landscape is also home to several other remarkable sights. Take the bridge of Amarapura, which was built with over 1,000 posts and is thought to be the oldest teak bridge in the world. Or the nation’s largest lake, Inle, which is ringed with stilt villages and fishermen who row using their legs. During the month of November, the country hosts a slew of celebrations, including the Tazaungmone Festival, where the sky above local villages are dotted with cow-shaped balloons. Or the Taunggyi Hot Air Balloon Festival, where you’ll find hot air balloons in all shapes and sizes floating around the unpolluted sky. The most unusual (and frankly perplexing) highlight of Myanmar is the holy rock, or the sacred gold leaf-decorated boulder that sits on the edge of a cliff at the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo, seemingly defying gravity. Every year, you’ll find hundreds of monks making the trek to pray at the site. Beyond just mountains and village, though, Myanmar is also home to 1,200 miles of coastline along the Bay of Bengal. The beaches lack the crowds and debauchery of Thailand, and feature beautiful white sand, thatched cabanas, and crystal-blue water.