While Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake are the most popular tourist destinations in Myanmar, there are many other places to visit throughout the country for travellers with more time or with an inclination to get off the beaten track.
Mount Kyaiktiyo in southern Myanmar is home to Golden Rock Pagoda, one of the most revered, and most unusual, Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the country. The focal point of the pagoda compound is a huge boulder covered in gold leaf that balances as if by magic on the edge of a high cliff, from which visitors can enjoy spectacular views of the valley below. The peak can be reached on trucks that ferry passengers along the winding road to the top, or by a 7-mile-long hiking trail that passes through a landscape of deep forest and hidden shrines that are shrouded in mystery and legend.
Not far from Mount Kyaiktiyo is Mawlamyine, a riverfront town with a pagoda-dotted ridge that provides numerous vantage points from which visitors can watch the sunset over the water. Mawlamyine is also well-known as the location of Kyaikthanlan Pagoda, thought to have inspired British writer Rudyard Kipling to write his famous poem “Mandalay”. Those who wish to explore more can travel south from the town to the seaside Yele Pagada, whose lower causeway is submerged during high tide, or to the town of Thanbyuzayat, which during World War II served as the western terminus of the infamous Death Railway built by the Japanese and immortalised in the film Bridge on the River Kwai. The town hosts a war cemetery containing the graves of 3771 Allied POWs who died while building the railway. Also accessible from Mawlamyine is the town of Hpa-An, surrounded by a landscape of soaring karst formation and mystical caverns. The tallest is Mount Zwegabin, which requires a two-hour hike to reach the pagoda complex at the top. The reward is a breathtaking view in all direction across the countryside.
Myanmar’s western Rakhine State also has its share of worthy sights, including the pagodas at the ancient Rakhine capital of Mrauk Oo. This area is more remote and much less visited than Bagan, requiring a 65-mile boat ride up the Kaladan River from the port city of Sittwe. However, its seclusion adds to the mystique, with old temples nestled among the hills and surrounded by thriving village life that seems as if it has not changed in hundreds of years. Along the coast of Rakhine State is the seaside paradise of Ngapali Beach, its white sand lapped by the crystal-clear water of the Bay of Bengal. It’s hard to imagine a more tranquil and idyllic retreat for holidaymakers who want to get away from it all for a few days.
The true extent of Myanmar’s diversity can be seen by comparing the northernmost and southernmost reaches of the country. In the far north is Putao in Kachin State, not far from the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains and the only place in Myanmar where snow-capped peaks can be not only seen but also explored by intrepid trekkers. These adventurous trips can range from easy one-day walks through Kachin, Lisu, Rawang and Hkamti Shan villages on the flatlands around Putao, to weeks-long expeditions into the mountain wilderness.
Southernmost Myanmar could not be more different. Here lies the Myeik Archipelago, a collection of more than 800 islands in the Andaman Sea, most of which are completely uninhabited. Trips to the area typically involve overnight cruises on live-aboard boats, with plenty of time set aside for swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving, fishing, kayaking and exploring the islands. The region remains almost completely untouched by outsiders, and visitors are much more likely to see boats piloted by local fishermen, such as the ethnic Salon sea gypsies, than other tourist vessels. It is a pristine paradise that must be seen to be believed.