Meandering Through Myanmar

By Ariana Crisafulli 2019-06-04 16:38:34

In my backpacker days, Myanmar had been high on my bucket list of destinations. Wandering throughout Southeast Asia, I encountered other travelers who claimed that it was a haven where few backpackers had yet to trod their Birkenstock-clad feet. After the likes of Thailand and Indonesia, I was ready for more of an off-the-beaten-path adventure and figured that Myanmar was just the place to find it. 

I started that adventure by attempting to cross the border from Thailand to Myanmar on foot and soon discovered that my visa was only valid via a winged entry into either Yangon or Mandalay. I was summarily turned away at the border. So when my partner, Adam, and I decided to visit Myanmar in April, I was thrilled to finally get a second chance. 

I had originally idealized Myanmar as the no man’s land of backpackers in Southeast Asia, but the truth is that inroads have begun to sprout up all along the backpacker trail. This is not to say that there are not plenty of obscure adventures to be had in Myanmar – with more time to explore, or with the assistance of a travel company that will curate your holiday, you can visit the less-traveled areas of the country. However, with the 10 days we had to explore Myanmar, choosing the path less traveled was impractical. Instead we favored a trip to Mandalay, Inle Lake, and Bagan where we weren’t so surprised to find other curious travelers and families seeing the sights. For me particularly, Myanmar was three years coming, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled to be there.



Adam and I are backpackers at heart, and true to that spirit, we flew into Mandalay without much of a plan. As we sat eating breakfast on our first morning in Mandalay, we consulted the mighty Trip Advisor. We discovered that Mandalay has the longest teak wood bridge in the world, a 144 square block palace at its center, and a number of stunning Buddhist temples. We spent our first day in Myanmar driving around the Mandalay Palace, up to Sutaungpyei Pagoda on top of Mandalay Hill, and then watching the sun go down over U Bein Bridge. 

It was a full day without respite. That evening we were making our exit on an overnight bus to Inle Lake, but we would be back to Mandalay at the end of our trip to catch our return flight to Shanghai. We discovered to our intense delight that our last day in Myanmar was also the first day of the Myanmar New Year, and we would be in Mandalay on that day. 

The new year celebration, called Thingyan, made its way from India to Myanmar in the 11th century and was originally reserved only for royalty. During Thingyan, the royals ritually washed their hair and bodies, or sprinkled water on one another to symbolize the cleansing and renewal of body, mind, and spirit for the new year. Thingyan is also known as ‘the water festival’, and for good reason. What was once a light sprinkling of water for the royalty is now a full-scale water fight/party that the whole country participates in. In Mandalay, shop fronts set up kiddie pools and put hoses in the hands of children to douse passersby on foot or motorbike. Surrounding the Mandalay Palace were stands crowded with locals, each with a hose for spraying down festival goers in trucks or on foot. The city rang with blaring mainstream music and people danced in the street, no doubt grateful for the respite from the oppressive heat that a good soaking provided. Anywhere Adam and I walked, locals seemed overjoyed to drench the foreigners with hoses, water guns, bowls of water, or even ice-cold water bottles fresh from the fridge. 


Inle Lake

Our tuk tuk driver had more energy than any person had any right to at 5am. As we approached our modest guest house, he urged us to depart with our bags and begin our lake tour within the hour. After a sleepless overnight bus ride, Adam and I were knackered and feared a long day of foul moods ahead if we didn’t get some shut eye soon. Fortunately, our accommodations proprietor let us get to bed as soon as we arrived. After a much-deserved nap, we spent our first day riding bicycles throughout the villages along the lake and then watching the sun go down over the rice paddies with an ice-cold Myanmar beer. 

After a full night of sleep, we went bright eyed and bushy tailed to our Inle Lake tour on the second day. Our guide first navigated us through an open expanse of lake where traditional ‘Intha’ fishermen balanced on the nose of their longboats, one-legged as they expertly maneuvered their conical fishing nets. The other leg was wrapped around an oar which they used to paddle and steer the boat. It’s a skill unique to the Intha fishermen of Inle Lake, and one that takes plenty of agility, strength, and balance.

I was content with a leisurely cruise along the water and a glimpse of the famed Intha fishermen; little did I know that Inle Lake had far more treasures than I had imagined. One of our stops was a craft market boasting hand-woven silk and lotus fabrics. From raw material to woven and dyed product, some of these garments can take weeks to complete. At the silver market, we learned how raw silver is mined and then expertly crafted into stunning pieces of jewelry. We sampled hand-made cigars flavored with clove, anis, mint, and cinnamon, we visited pagodas and monasteries, and we even met long-necked women. 

These women are of an ethnic Myanmar minority, known as Kayan or Padaung, depending on who you ask. As part of their cultural tradition, they coil brass rings around their neck, pushing the collar bone down until it appears that their necks are elongated. Although beauty is often the reason given for donning these rings, our guide informed us that they serve other purposes as well. In times past, when the men went off hunting, the coils were thought to protect the women who remained in the village. The coils are also thought to give the women resemblance to dragons – an important figure in Padaung folklore.



I’m of the opinion that the best should always be saved for last. In that spirit, our final destination in Myanmar was Bagan. Located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, this historic city was once a major cultural, spiritual, and economic hub of the Pagan Empire. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, the Pagan Empire flourished. At its height throughout the 11th and 13th centuries, the ruling class and the wealthy of Bagan built around 10,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas. Today there are over 2,000 of those structures still standing. 

Visiting the temples is easy. All you have to do is rent a motorbike and go, or simply use your own two feet. You can hardly go a block without running into one (or five). But if you want the best view, go for a hot air balloon ride.

Adam and I were lucky enough to catch the last hot air balloon ride of the season with Balloons Over Bagan. Before takeoff, we watched in utter fascination as the crew checked the balloon and began lighting the fire to gain elevation. All the while, other balloons around us were already making their ascent, and by the time our balloon left the ground, some were so high in the air they looked like little specks that I could pluck right out of the sky. 



I have to admit that I have a fear of flying, and as we began to rise, so did my panic. Being carried up into the air by a balloon was unreal – something that only seemed possible in a Pixar movie. But as we coasted along and the basket continued to stubbornly refuse the law of gravity, my fear dissolved, and a new emotion asserted itself - awe. For an hour we were gently carried along by the wind over thousands of temples and the Irrawaddy River as the sun climbed over the horizon. I was absolutely smitten. 


For Families

Although Adam and I traveled sans-family, don’t take it to mean that these locations are not family friendly. Myanmar was easy to get around, safe, and dynamic. Even in 10 days and three locations, we found sufficient time to lounge by the pool as well as see the sights. While Myanmar offers the quiet time and relaxation that are prerequisites for any holiday, the real value for families is the bond that comes with shared learning experiences. 


Good to know

• Myanmar requires an e-visa. 

Visit to apply. 

Applications cost 343 RMB.

• For tours, visit the Memories Group website: