Bagan’s beguiling temples are one of Burma's many highlights

Buzzing with amazing new hotels, vast temple ruins and stunning ethnic cuisine, Burma is South East Asia’s newest hotspot. With political reform finally on top of the agenda, now is the perfect time to go, before development really begins to take hold. Joe Minihane uncovers Burma’s most breathtaking sights.


Burma’s commercial capital and its largest city is a faded colonial gem. The towering golden temples of Sule and Shwedagon Paya are must-sees, but take a walk down Mahabandoola Road and the streets which run south to the Yangon River and you’ll see some of the most stunning architecture in South East Asia. The colourful, dilapidated villas, built by the British, will leave you open-mouthed.

Across one block on Anawrahta Road, the imposing Secretariat building – once the seat of the British Empire in Burma and now left to ruin behind barbed wire – is even more impressive, its high spires and overgrown courtyards easily spotted through tall fences. With land prices rising and developers moving in, there are fears these 19th-century treasures could soon be lost forever.

Burma uncovered - Collage 1Stunning temples and colonial gems abound in untouched Burma
iStockphoto / Thinkstock

Yangon’s transport system leaves a lot to be desired with decades-old sanctions ensuring cars are decrepit and roads pockmarked with potholes. Trains are little better, but the Yangon Circular Train, which departs the beautiful colonial train station six times daily, is the best way to see a cross section to Burmese city life. Be prepared for wooden seats, glassless windows and breakdowns, but also the chance to experience Yangon like a local. Once you’re done, head to Bogyoke Market and its myriad tea shops for beautiful broth and a Mandalay beer.

Mandalay: bike rides, culture and life-changing food

The northern city of Mandalay is decidedly more rural than Yangon, the lush countryside easily accessible from its dusty streets. While the rebuilt Mandalay Palace, slap bang in the centre of town, is hit-and-miss, a visit to Shwenandaw Kyoung, in the east of the city, is essential. The only surviving original building from the palace, its intricate wood carvings and Buddhist statues are Mandalay’s finest relics.

Grasshopper Tours (4/3 Mya Sandar Lane; tel: 02 01226), a Thai bike company, has recently opened an office in town, offering day-long trips into the hills and plains that surround Mandalay. Best of all, the bikes are top-notch, unlike some of the ageing models you’ll find on offer in most hire places throughout Burma.

After a day’s ride in the searing heat, Peacock Lodge (5 61st Street; tel: 02 61429), a small, family-run hotel, offers a huge Burmese feast, with locally caught fish and mangoes fresh from the garden. If the basic rooms here aren’t cosy enough to rest your bones, then the gorgeous boutique Hotel by the Red Canal (417 corner of 63rd and 22nd Road; tel: 02 68543), tucked down a dirt road a few blocks west, offers an opulent alternative.

Bagan’s beguiling temples 

The temples of Bagan are as, if not more, impressive in their scale and ambition than Siem Reap in nearby Cambodia. Getting to this western outpost can involve a seriously bumpy bus ride from Mandalay, with the option of flying using Burma’s domestic airlines which have a reputation for unreliability and haphazard safety checks. If you have time, the 11-hour boat ride down the Ayeyarwady River from Mandalay on the Malikha 2 cruise ship is the way to arrive, the temples rising as you speed downstream.

Burma uncovered - Collage 2Inle Lake, Burma’s most beautiful natural wonder
Digital Vision / Thinkstock and WTG / Joe Minihane

Once you’ve docked, clamber up the perilously steep steps of Shewsandaw Paya for 360-degree sunset views, with the river gleaming in the distance. Balloon rides, run by Eastern Safaris, are an even better bet if you want to embrace the full majesty of this medieval marvel. $320 isn’t cheap for a 45-minute ride, but you can be sure you’ll never have another experience like it.

Inle Lake: cruises, train rides and stunning mountain treks

Arguably Burma’s most beautiful natural wonder, Inle Lake is an essential stop on even the shortest visit. Lake trips by canoe are easy to come by in the lakeside town of Nyaungshwe, but to get a real sense of the place, hire bikes and cycle down the west side of the lake. Stop at the steaming hot springs for a quick soak, before riding further south following the boat hire signs in the next village. Here you can pay a local to ship you and your rickety ride to the other side of Inle, via vast stilt houses and floating gardens.

Golden Island Cottages (tel: 081 209 551), a co-operative run by Pa-O ethnic locals, is a great luxury treat situated on stilts on the lake. But for a more local feel, Nyaungshwe’s Mingalar Inn (Phaung Daw Pyan Road; tel: 081 209 198) has cosy four-poster beds, its delightful staff serving fresh lemonade every evening after you return from a day’s sightseeing. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the grilled fish at the Nyaungshwe night market.

Burma uncovered - TrainExperience Burma like a local
WTG / Joe Minihane

A three-hour train ride via endless switchbacks and small rural villages, the hill station at Kalaw is a steamy world away from Inle Lake. The Eastern Paradise Hotel (15 Thirimingalar Street, tel: 081 50087) arranges great treks, through narrow valleys and ethnic Shan villages to a mountain-top Nepalese café with mind-blowing views. The Nepalese influence is strong, thanks to migrants who helped the British build the railways here in colonial times.


Getting there: Eva Airways flies from London to Bangkok for £719 return; Air Asia flies from Bangkok to Yangon from £33.45 one way and from Bangkok to Mandalay from £44.38.

When to go: December to February is mostly dry, without the searing temperatures of early spring. Avoid July and August, when heavy rains hit the entire country.

Safety: Certain states in Burma, including large areas of the north towards the Chinese border, are not open to tourists. Check before travelling.

Money: ATMs now accept foreign Visa and Mastercard in major towns and resorts. Remember if you want to change money, you will need unmarked post-2006 US dollar bills. You can pay using US currency for hotels and tours.

Ethical travel: Burma is changing, but the country is still suffering from widespread corruption. Spread your money widely and travel independently where possible. Try to avoid unsafe airlines and government-backed hotels. All hotels mentioned in this article are independent, but train services are government-run.

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.