Escape to lesser known destination during Myanmar’s busiest tourism months
Although Myanmar is a year-round destination, most guests choose to visit during the cool, dry season which starts in November and ends in March. During this period, Myanmar not only receives tourists from around the world but it is also a popular time of year for local residents to travel and explore their own country. So, it comes as no surprise that the main tourist destinations of Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Yangon are noticeably busier in these months.
To avoid the crowds at this time, you may want to include some lesser-known destinations. Stepping off the tourist trail gives you a better chance to connect with the local culture and to appreciate the beauty of the country. Here are a few of our favorite places to escape from the tourist crowds.
Lesser known destination: Mrauk U
Ancient temples? Check. Beautiful, lush highlands? Check. Untouched traditional culture? Check. Tourist crowds? No! If this sounds like what you are looking for then hop on a plane and head to Mrauk U, Myanmar’s best kept secret! While Bagan receives around 300,000 tourists a year, Mrauk U receives less than 10,000. So even at its busiest, Mrauk U feels empty.
The once-thriving capital of the Rakhine Kingdom, Mrauk U features dozens of impressive archaeological monuments. The imposing grey-stone temples are in remarkable condition, reflecting the power and prosperity of the region during the 15th-18th centuries. Surrounded by miles of rice paddies and rolling green hills, the town also is a place of immense natural beauty perfectly suited for soft-adventure.
It takes a bit of effort to reach but the journey is well worth it! First fly to Sittwe then travel by car or boat to Mrauk U, a trip of around 4-5 hours. This is one of the most scenic journeys in all of Myanmar and you are highly unlikely to see any other tourists along the way.
If you are lucky, you will arrive in Mrauk U in time to see sunset. Sitting atop a quiet hillside with views over the fields and grey stone monuments as the sun dips lower in the sky is certain to be a highlight of your Myanmar holiday.
The next day, spend a full day exploring the monuments. The best way to do this is by bike, which you can easily hire in town. But if you are feeling tired, Tuk Tuks are also available. All the monuments are incredible but be sure to include a visit to Kothaung and Shitthathaung, Mrauk U’s most impressive sites.
Once you have had your fill of temples, you can travel along the Lay Mro River to rural villages untouched by time. You can meet with the elderly women of the Chin ethnic group, who have intricate tattoos on their face. Visit around the villages and learn more about their ancient traditions and unique culture.
Perhaps nowhere else in Myanmar has so much diversity packed in to such a small area. And with few tourists, it is the perfect place to escape during a high-season holiday.
Lesser known destination: Mount Popa
Bagan is a highlight for many visitors to Myanmar so it should come as no surprise that it is also one of the busiest destinations. Once getting your fill of Buddhist monuments, you may want to get away off the beaten track and escape the crowds- Mt Popa is the perfect destination for this!
The mountain is an extinct volcano that last exploded more than 3-million years ago. The volcanic plug, named Taung Kalat, is the mythological home of Myanmar’s nat spirits so many locals come to Mt Popa on pilgrimage. You will get to experience a unique aspect of Myanmar culture at Mt Popa and mingle with the local visitors.
Sound good? If so, here are some tips for planning your Mt Popa excursion.
Most visitors opt for a day return trip from Bagan. But it is well-worth staying the night if you have the time so that you can explore the beautiful natural surroundings and charming farming villages.
If going on a day trip, depart from Bagan early to make the most of your day out! Drive past the edge of the temple plains and into the countryside. You will be surrounded by farmland where sesame, garlic and chilis are being grown. Soaring toddy palm trees line the street, providing a bit of shade in the arid dry zone. You will then turn off the flat road and start traveling up and down gentle hills, catching glimpses of Mt Popa in the distance.
Head straight to the base of Taung Kalat where you will be greeted by cheeky macaque monkeys. Leave your shoes in the car as you must be barefoot to walk up the 777-stairs to the top of the shrine. Pass by dozens of small stalls selling traditional medicines, offerings and souvenirs. The stairs become increasingly steep as you climb higher, and it is likely that a few monkeys will have followed you hoping for a morsel of food! Once you reach the top, you will realize that it was all worthwhile! The stairs open out on to a tiled platform with sweeping views in all directions. Wander around the shrines, snap photos with locals and enjoy the fresh air.
By this point you have worked up an appetite so stop for lunch before returning to Bagan. There are several small tea shops and local restaurants to choose from. Or splash-out and head to Popa Mountain Resort, a resort on the slopes of the volcano. The restaurant offers spectacular views over Taung Kalat and the plains.
On the return trip to Bagan, take a break at one of the toddy farms you passed by in the morning. Watch as the skilled climbers scale the skinny tree trunks to collect the fruit’s sap. Then see how it is processed into molasses and strong alcohol. You can even try some if you wish!
If you can stay the night, you will be able to discover the natural beauty of Mount Popa. Light treks can be around the extinct volcano and to the crater rim. The forest-covered volcano is filled with exotic flora and a diverse population of bird species. The villages on Popa are also interesting. Taking a stroll through the quiet lanes between the houses, you will see blossoming fruit trees and small cottage industries, giving you a better sense of what life is like in the countryside.
As you can see, even in the busiest months of the year it is still possible to find tourist-free places. Mrauk U takes a bit of time and effort to reach whereas Mount Popa is an easy excursion from Bagan- and both destinations deliver an off-the-beaten track experiences perfect for intrepid travelers. So, don’t worry about the crowds- come and enjoy the cool months of Myanmar!