The cultural heartbeat of Myanmar runs through Mandalay, the last royal capital of ancient Burmese kings. As Myanmar’s second-largest city, Mandalay boasts some of the country’s most storied landmarks, including Mandalay Hill and the Mahamuni Pagoda, believed to be one of three likenesses of the Buddha made during his lifetime. It’s also a vital hub for commerce and agriculture, creating a fascinating mix of cultures from around the region.
What to do there? Take a boat ride underneath the iconic Amarupura Bridge, or walk the palace grounds of Burma’s last king. The surrounding countryside is also worth exploring: Some of the country’s best waterfalls are just an hour’s drive by motorbike outside the city. Myanmar’s top dance academy and comedy groups are based in Mandalay as well, and river tours to old British colonial outposts can be booked through tour companies.
Mandalay also serves as a useful base for trips into upper Myanmar and throughout the dry zone. Bagan, Inle Lake, Nay Pyi Taw and Sagaing are all reachable within a few hours’ drive.
The ancient temples and pagodas of the Bagan dynasty form what is arguably the most globally-recognised landscape in Myanmar, and for good reason: they have been dazzling visitors since Marco Polo came through in 1277. Back then he wrote it was a “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes”, and despite centuries of turmoil much remains the same in old Bagan.
Explore 800-year-old ruins and shop in temple markets for antique crafts and original artwork. Most accomodations offer e-bike rentals at affordable rates, offering intrepid travellers complete autonomy as they rove around the 42 square kilometre plains. A US$25 archaeological zone fee is charged upon arrival at Nyaung U airport, but the view of sunrise from Sulamani Pagoda is truly priceless.
Heho serves as the main air gateway to Inle Lake, a majestic mountain getaway in Shan state. After a short 45-minute ride into Nyaungshwe, travellers can hire boatmen to drive them into the lake, where villagers live on the water in stilted communities. Native silversmiths and cigar factories produce rare Myanmar goods and picturesque fisherman use a traditional leg-rowing technique to glide across the placid waters.
Hotels are available overlooking the lake, and the nearby Myanmar First Estate vineyard offers a unique day-trip from the area. Shan state’s capital city Taunggyi is also in the local area, a vibrant up-and-coming city that hosts Myanmar’s wild Tazaungdaing Fire Balloon Festival each November.
Ngapali Beach is named after the Italian city of Napoli, but the Myanmar version is a much more exotic tropical destination than its European namesake. Just a few kilometres from Thandwe – which once served as a capital to the Arakan empire – Ngapali Beach is Myanmar’s top beach and has been ranked as one of Asia’s best travel destinations.
Palm trees droop lazily across white sand beaches overlooking the Indian Ocean, and local villagers offer horse rides to the adventurous. Enjoy fresh seafood and swimming in crystal clear waters – Ngapali is Myanmar’s best kept secret, but it’s up to you if you get in on the fun before everyone else.
Nay Pyi Taw
Myanmar’s capital city, Nay Pyi Taw is FMI Air’s top destination for business professionals. A growing number of golf courses, five star hotels and attractions such as the National Zoo, however, are slowly transforming Myanmar’s most modern city into a tourism destination. Take pictures in front of parliament and enjoy top-class amenities, or take a day trip to nearby Taungoo, where you can play with elephants and look out over breathtaking Shan mountains.
Yangon is the door to Myanmar, with most international flights arriving at Yangon International Airport. Visit the downtown colonial district for a chance to see Southeast Asia’s largest collection of colonial architecture, and don’t miss the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most important Budhdist monument.
Take a ride on the local circle train to get a peek at everyday city life, or enjoy cocktails at a rooftop bar with Myanmar’s growing class of artists and filmmakers – you can do it all in Yangon.
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