Myanmar - is unlike any other destination in Southeast Asia
Get there as soon as you can. The world is rushing to this destination, as it was once off limits and now can be visited freely. Unlike some of the highly commercialised destinations in Thailand or Vietnam, Myanmar is still fresh and unspoiled by mass tourism. Its shimmering golden temples, tranquil villages and cool pine forests are just waiting to be explored.
Locals stroll slowly down dirt paths in sandals and longyi (sarong-like skirts), women smear yellow paste on their cheeks to protect them from the sun, wrinkled and smiling grandmothers sell fresh fruit in streetside stalls, families get around by horse and cart. It’s easy to fall in love with the slow and simple pace of life here.
Imagine a vast plain, dotted with thousands of intricately carved ancient pagodas crumbling in the sunshine, as the Ayeyarwady River drifts slowly by. Bagan is a must-see in Myanmar, and you can rent a bike for the day to explore as many temples as you desire.
The former capital of the majestic Konbaung Dynasty, Mandalay was built around the amazing Mandalay Royal Palace. It boasts plenty of great restaurants, lots of shopping and intriguing historical attractions.
Pyin U Lwin
This peaceful, former British hill station has a cooler and more refreshing climate thanks to its higher elevation. It is quiet and laid back, and the colonial Tudor houses will remind you of England.
Also known as Rangoon, Yangon is a thriving city that is the economic heart of the country and is known for its colonial architecture and beautiful gleaming pagodas.
This quiet and dreamy lake is quickly becoming one of the most popular destinations in Myanmar - and for good reason. It’s an unforgettable experience to drift around the lake on a wooden boat, visiting small villages and wooden huts on stilts and talking to the locals about their handicrafts. Watch the fishermen cast their nets into the lake while balancing elegantly on one leg in their boats, and paddling with the other.
How to get there
Flights to Myanmar are available from several nearby airports, including Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Doha, Hanoi and Seoul. If you are entering Myanmar from one of the land borders in Thailand, you will need to get a Myanmar visa in advance - which can be obtained at the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok, or online.
Best time to visit
The ideal time to plan a trip to Myanmar is during the cool season, from November to February. Temperatures will be less sweltering hot at this time of year. If you can stand the heat, visiting during May and June will mean fewer crowds.
Be prepared to be disconnected from the internet sometimes, as wi-fi access is quite poor, and electricity is sometimes spotty in the more remote locations, such as Bagan and Inle Lake.
When visiting temples or pagodas, avoid revealing clothing and cover your legs and shoulders as a sign of respect for these places of worship.
The tourist trade in Myanmar is still quite new, so your journey may not always go smoothly or logically. Don’t let travel delays make you stressed, just take a deep breath and relax, and you will get where you are going eventually.
Capture the beauty
We speak with Californian photographer David Heath, who has travelled to Myanmar countless times, capturing exquisite images along the way.
What was it about Myanmar that captivated you from the first visit?
As an adventure traveller, I was captivated by Myanmar on my first visit due to its exotic, remote culture and pristine landscapes. I keep returning because of my love for the Burmese people.
What is the most unexpected thing about visiting this country?
The unexpected thing I find about Myanmar is that the Burmese people exemplify pure joy. They are humorous, resilient, gracious, friendly and they have a very generous nature.
Who is the most memorable person that you have met in Myanmar?
This is my guide, Win, who is like a brother to me. I have become a part of his family. In addition, I have had the privilege of meeting many amazing people from all walks of life throughout the country.
What has been the biggest change in Myanmar between your first and last visits?
I have been to Myanmar 16 times over the past 7 years and I have seen many changes, but the biggest changes are the influx of tourists and the signs of modernity storming the country. You can also feel the effects of the transition from a military to a civilian government.
How would you describe the Myanmar people and their way of life?
The main thing that I have noticed about the Burmese people is their joy of being and their simple, uncomplicated way of life. Throughout the country’s historic tapestry, a thread of consistency is prominent—the intrinsic pride and dignity of the Burmese people. They are primarily a Buddhist culture and they are very peaceful. I find them to be intoxicatingly genuine and colourful with a very artistic culture.
If you had to choose the most magical moment of your travels to Myanmar, what would it be?
Although I have had many incredible moments in this country I would have to say the most magical moment was having the honour of Aung San Suu Kyi, (the current State Counsellor and Leader of the National League for Democracy) endorse my book—Burma: An Enchanted Spirit—with her words, “Truly an enchanting book—the pictures reflect the beauty and diversity of Burma faithfully.” This was truly a very gratifying and humbling moment.
As a photographer, which is your favourite image in your book Burma: An Enchanted Spirit?
My favourite image I call Smile, which depicts several young novice monks having fun on their lunch break in a bamboo hut at their monastery. These young novices are quick to laugh and have fun, so it was easy for them to show their innocent love of their Buddhist life.
What tips do you have for budding travel photographers?
I have many tips for fellow travel photographers but I would say that the most important are as follows. First, make sure you have a professional guide who understands photography and the importance of shooting in the early morning and late afternoon when lighting is optimal. Second, travel with an open mind and bring a positive attitude, try to honestly connect with the people and their essence, and treat everyone with respect. Third, be sure to bring extra supplies (extra batteries, plenty of memory cards and other necessary backup), Myanmar is a photographer’s paradise and you may find yourself shooting far more than normal. Fourth, research the country, its history and cultural protocol to understand what is accepted and not accepted (for example, you cannot take pictures of the military). Finally, bring new, crisp bills for exchange because the country does not except money that is dirty, damaged or written upon.
Following the success of Burma: An Enchanted Spirit, where will you turn your lens next?
I am currently working on a second book on Myanmar, going deeper into the country to show many more iconic landmarks that are off the beaten path. I have many plans for trips to various countries and plan to eventually publish another book.
© David Heath; Joerg Hackemann, Sean Pavone, ml_blues527/123RF