For a long time, travel in Myanmar was dominated by visits to the “Grand Four” of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake, with Ngapali Beach tagged onto the end.
It has been exciting working in Myanmar tourism as more of the country opens up to foreign travelers. This is the case of places such as Loikaw in Kayah State, Chin State and more recently Mogok and Nagaland.
However recently the space in which travel agents are able to operate in is shrinking. The area around Putao, much of Northern Shan State and Mrauk U are no longer places that Sampan Travel would confidently take guests to.
This has led travelers and tour operators to be more imaginative in how they go about creating innovative itineraries. It is not about avoiding the “Grand Four + 1” but about thinking more creatively about what to do when there.
Here then are five alternative ways to explore Myanmar’s “must-sees.”
Most museums in Myanmar are dire. Accept this, put aside all expectations, and then head to the Drug Elimination Museum. The Museum sets out to tell the story of how drugs ruin lives and how the Myanmar authorities have risen to the challenge to eradicate the evil and purge the country.
Putting aside the truth or otherwise of these claims, the clumsy narrative and blundering pictorials make for a part-horrific, part-humorous ride through Myanmar drug wars and junta-propaganda.
Salay is only a short distance south of Bagan on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River. The small town was part of the Bagan Empire at its height and so there are some small Bagan-era stupas to see. What most people are there to visit however is the ornate Yoke-Sone monastery, now a museum for Buddhist art.
Salay is also famous for the best plumbs in Myanmar, be sure to pick up a pot of jam and juice somewhere in the town. Step into Salay House for lunch: hotel, restaurant, and museum of curiosities. Flags from Burma under British-rule hang down from the ceiling, there is a large portrait of King Edward VII on the wall, and in every other corner is placed other trinkets and knick-knacks from the colonial days.
For a while now Sampan Travel has avoided the Mahaganayon Monastery in Amarapura. Even in 2015 it was a zoo for trigger-happy tourists jostling for the best spot to take a photograph of the stoical monks. This culminated in a brawl between two tourists earlier this year.
A much more tranquil former-capital to visit is Sagaing. The Pagoda at the top of Sagaing Hill can itself become a frenzy with pilgrims and tourists alike. But use this as your starting point, take a glance at the view, then begin to make your way down its winding paths and stairways, past little monasteries, and giggling nuns, eventually down to the dusty tracks along the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy.
It is said that the prince of Samkar lost his princedom to the prince of Nyaung Shwe through a foolhardy bet. The remains of this princedom can be seen at the pagoda fields of Samkar.
More people are now visiting Inle’s southern sister, either in an attempt to avoid the crowds at Inle or as a stopover when travelling to or from Kayah State. We recommend staying in the lovely Inle Sanctuary hotel at Phayar Thaung village, and further to the north stopping off at Tharkaung, an ancient pagoda field with zedi larger than those at Indein. Rarely visited by tourists, at Tharkaung you will likely share the fields with no others but boys from the village who, between casting curious glances at you and your party, will concentrate their time on trying to knock avocados out of the trees.
Travelling south from the resorts of Ngapali Beach, along unadulterated coastline you will eventually come to the township of Gwa. Arakan Nature Lodge opened its doors a couple of years ago and it will surely be only the first in a new string of hotels welcoming discerning travelers away from the clamour of Thandwe.
Climb up to the small pagoda looking over the beach, take a boat out to Gwa Island or simply sit back on the sand, looking out over the sea and watch the Sebastian-coloured crabs scuttling into the waves.
Bertie Alexander Lawson is the Managing Director of Sampan Travel, a Yangon-based tour operator creating tailor-made journeys through Myanmar.