The Classic Myanmar Trip
Compared to some of its neighbours Myanmar is one of Southeast Asia's least discovered destinations, which is a huge oversight. What it does mean, however, is that the beautiful temples, ancient pagodas and golden sandy beaches are all much quieter and untouched by tourism than their counterparts. Get there before the crowds do on this 18-day adventure.
Itinerary at a Glance:
- Cruise down the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Bagan on a luxurious teak river cruiser
- Discover rural life and hidden monasteries in the hills surrounding Inle Lake
- Soak up some sun on Ngapali Beach
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Day 1: International Flight
Your adventure begins this afternoon as you head to the airport to board an overnight international flight to Bangkok.
The flight is around 11 and a half hours long, so make sure your iPad is loaded with the latest boxsets.
Day 2: Arrive and Explore
When you land in Bangkok this morning, transfer across to the onward flight to Mandalay (your bags are checked through automatically), which takes around two hours.
Once you have cleared customs and collected your luggage your driver will be waiting to meet you at arrivals. You will then be privately transferred to your hotel in the city, which is around a 50-minute drive from the airport.
You will have the rest of the day to relax, exploring the lively café culture and silk shops in the city or relaxing by the hotel's pool.
Day 3: Mandalay
It's an early morning start today to capture an authentic slice of Mandalay life. You'll be collected and taken to Mahamuni Pagoda, Mandalay's most important religious site.
The temple's massive Buddha image is coated with gold leaf applied by the local pilgrims - in fact, so much gold leaf has been applied over the years that the image now appears 'lumpy' in texture. Watch as monks and devotees gather to wash the statue's face and clean his teeth, a bizarre yet beautiful ceremony which happens every morning at sunrise.
Continue to an urban neighbourhood to witness the daily and engrossing alms collection of the monks - where they collect offerings from the locals - and then head to the city's main market. Covering several city blocks the market is a hive of activity in the early morning hours and is the perfect spot to enjoy breakfast in. Sip a hot cup of coffee or try the local tea, a strong brew mixed with sweetened condensed milk, then sample some of Myanmar's best breakfast treats.
Day 4: To the Irrawaddy River
Today, you'll be collected from your hotel and taken to the dock to embark on your elegant riverboat at midday, before you set sail on your two-night cruise.
Enjoy a welcome cocktail in the saloon bar as the ship begins to travel downstream towards Bagan. After a leisurely lunch on board, you will arrive at the Mingun Pagoda Complex, and disembark to explore with your guide.
The boat will moor at a sandbank midstream for the evening, and guests will be treated to a dance and drama performance by the Mandalay Arts School on the sun deck after dinner.
Day 5: Downstream Dreams
Your journey continues downstream early this morning, so get up to enjoy sunrise as you cruise for around two hours to reach Sagaing.
After breakfast, you can go ashore to visit the city of Sagaing, which is dotted with Buddhist monasteries. Returning to the boat, enjoy a leisurely morning on board, taking in the scenes of river life. Later in the afternoon, you'll dock at the village of Yandabo, which is where the first Anglo-Burmese War peace treaty was signed in February 1826 and today the villagers specialise in clay pot making.
This evening, the ship will moor near to the village of Shwe Nann Tint.
Day 6: To Bagan
Your journey reaches its final destination this morning, with breakfast served on board. If time and river levels permit, you will visit a traditional village along the riverbank prior to your arrival in the ancient city of Bagan.
Once docked, disembark from the boat for the last time and meet your driver who will drive you to your hotel in the city. Spend the afternoon getting an introduction to Bagan's rich culture, history and intrinsic spirituality on a guided tour.
Start with a visit to Shwezigon, one of Myanmar's holiest sites, which is best known for its gilded stupa-shaped pagoda. Next, visit nearby Wetkyi-In Gubyaukgyi to admire the beautiful mural paintings found inside and the incredible plaster carvings found on the exterior.
After this introduction to Bagan's famed pagodas, take a closer look at its culture with a visit to a selection of traditional workshops. Witness skilled artisans making lacquerware and wood crafts, using techniques handed down from generation to generation. Then make a final stop in a local village for a glimpse of what life is like for Bagan's residents.
Day 7: Bagan Explore
After breakfast at the hotel, drive through the planes to the extinct volcano Mount Popa with your guide. Mount Popa is a place of great importance to the Burmese who believe it is the house of 37 Nats, Burmese ancient animist spirits.
The shrine is located on a volcanic plug, Taung Kalat, and with your guide you will walk up the almost 900 stairs to the top. Along the way you'll learn about nats and nat worship as you climb past many shrines and see local pilgrims. Your hard work is rewarded as the view over the Myingyan Plain from the top of the volcanic peak is hugely impressive.
After returning to the base of the shrine, begin the drive back to Bagan. After around 20-30 minutes you'll stop in Shwe Hlaing Village, which is known for its toddy palm production. With the villagers guiding you, you'll watch the traditional production of palm toddy-from the collecting of the liquid to the creating of the drinks and sugars. Then, enjoy a traditional Burmese lunch under the shade of the trees as you continue chatting to the locals.
Day 8: Bagan Balloons
Float above Bagan's temples and the mighty Irrawaddy River during an unforgettable hot air balloon ride early this morning.
Travel to the launch site in darkness and climb aboard with a steaming hot coffee. Then, take-off just in time to watch the sun rise over the plains, slowly illuminating the thousands of pagodas appearing below and the glistening waters of the Irrawaddy River in the distance.
The knowledgeable pilot will point out famous sites and share interesting stories about the temples and Myanmar culture as the balloon drifts over Bagan for just under an hour. Once back to ground, raise a glass of fizz to celebrate the flight and enjoy a light breakfast while the balloon is packed up.
The rest of the afternoon is yours to spend exploring the town and reflecting on the morning's memorable flight.
Day 9: To Inle
Today your journey continues as you head to the tranquil shores of Inle Lake.
You'll be collected from your hotel early this morning and taken to Bagan airport, where you catch a short domestic flight to Heho. Once landed there you'll be met by a driver and can enjoy the hour-long scenic drive to your hotel.
The afternoon is yours to relax and enjoy your peaceful surroundings; perhaps with a gentle stroll or a dip in the pool. Tuck into a hearty dinner of fresh fish straight from the lake and then get some sleep after your early start this morning.
Day 10: Inle Experience
Embark on a full day tour of Inle Lake and its surrounding areas today. After breakfast, start by visiting the lakes morning market.
The market rotates its location around the lake's villages in a five-day rotation and is visited by lake inhabitants and surrounding hill tribes who come to sell and trade their produces.
From the middle of the lake, continue down a small canal leading to the Pa-oh village of In Dein. Explore the area on foot, strolling around the village, visiting a local school, and wandering through the beautiful Alaung Sitthou area. Here you can climb the covered stairway to the top of a hill which is covered with picturesque ancient stupas and has magnificent views of the lake below. After enjoying your visit to In Dein, return to your boat and continue along the lake for additional sightseeing before returning to your hotel in the late afternoon.
Day 11: Inle Trek
Get back to nature and a little active with this guided trek around Inle Lake today. The hills surrounding the lake are full of spectacular trails and rural villages which make for ideal exploration grounds.
Start by heading into the hills, using a series of trails to gain elevation as you pass through crop fields and stop to learn about the local agricultural culture. Spot farmers harvesting or tending to crops, and take in the sweeping views of valleys and distant hills. In addition to beautiful scenery, hiking around Inle Lake also showcases the cultural diversity of the Shan State area as you'll pass through villages inhabited by different ethnic groups and discover how these people have maintained their own distinctive culture, traditions and, quite often, their own dialects.
Lunch will be served in one of the villages, either in a local house or monastery and makes a great opportunity to really interact with the locals. Afterwards, continue trekking and enjoying the views as you make your way back to your hotel.
Days 12-14: Relax at the Beach
With lots of culture under your belt on the trip so far, this morning you will head to Ngapali Beach for some well-earned R&R.
You'll be met at your hotel and transferred to Heho airport in time for a flight to Thandwe, where you will be met by a driver carrying a board bearing your name, and transferred to your hotel. This journey should take approximately 20 minutes, depending on local traffic conditions.
Ngapali Beach is a quintessential white sandy beach with a lush palm tree backdrop, which - for now - remains a completely idyllic beach retreat. The warm, clear waters are perfect for snorkelling and so we suggest you spend this afternoon doing just that, along with a good dose of sunbathing and sinking your toes into the sand, of course.
With fresh seafood and cocktails on tap to keep you refuelled, you'll be able to enjoy the sunshine and the peaceful sound of waves lapping the shore as you sit and get stuck into a good book. There are a number of watersports you might like to try too.
Day 15: Cooking Up a Storm
As essential to a good holiday as the weather and the location, good food will never be overlooked in our eyes.
So today get to grips with the delicious fusion cuisine found in the Rakhine region, this part of Myanmar. Rakhine is considered to have the most exciting cuisine in Myanmar and is known for its spicy combination of fresh seafood and local vegetables, influenced by neighbouring Bangladesh and India.
A chef will meet you at your hotel and start by taking you to a local market. Shopping list in hand, you'll visit small stalls filled with fresh fruit, spices, and all manner of seafood, picking the best ingredients with the help of the chef.
With ingredients bought you'll then head to a local restaurant for the cookery class. Along with the chef, prepare the ingredients using traditional techniques, and then use them to cook up several popular Rakhine dishes which you can enjoy for your lunch before heading back to the beach.
Day 16: To Yangon
Head away from the beach today as you make your way to Yangon, the last stop on your Myanmar tour.
You'll be taken to the airport to catch a very short flight (less than an hour), landing in Yangon, where you'll find a driver waiting to take you to your hotel in the centre of town.
Once you've had time to drop your bags and freshen up, your private guide will meet you at the hotel for an afternoon walking tour. Your guide will introduce you to some of the buildings on the Yangon City Heritage List, a collection of 188 man-made structures mainly consisting of religious landmarks and colonial-era buildings. Highlights include the City Hall, the old railway station, the former Minister's office, St Mary's Cathedral and the Buddhist landmarks of Sule Paya and Botataung Pagoda.
Walking through the streets you'll also be able to soak up the lifestyle of the locals, taking in the buzz at the busy bus and boat stations and hidden street markets before stopping for a cup of tea or coffee at Lat Ywae Sin tea shop, a favourite with the locals due to its home roasted coffee and delicious semolina cake.
Day 17: Yangon Explore
This morning you will be met at your hotel and transferred to Insein Township, where one of the city's best fresh markets is located.
After a short visit you'll board the local 'circle train' which runs from Yangon's main railway station in a circle around various neighbourhoods. Riding on the slowly travelling train gives you a unique opportunity to observe the lively and colourful life of the rural Burmese people, which you'll experience first hand during a lunch stop near one of the stations.
Back in town by the late afternoon, you will be accompanied on a tour of the city to Shwedagon Pagoda, the most revered Buddhist temple in Myanmar. Although the origins of the pagoda are unclear, local legend states that the original structure was built 2,500 years ago. Your guide will show you around the huge complex, pointing out the eight-sided central stupa, which is 325ft tall, gilded with gold leaf and surrounded by 64 smaller stupas.
Day 18: Home Time
Sadly the time to head home has arrived.
Enjoy one final holiday breakfast before being collected and taken to Yangon airport where you'll board the first leg of your journey home, the two-hour flight to Bangkok. Transfer across to your flight (again, with your bags checked through automatically) to London, most likely leaving late morning and arriving 12.5 hours later in the evening UK time.
Frances is our expert for this itinerary and, as a seasoned traveller, has the inside track on the most memorable adventures.