Be bowled over by Bagan
Covering an area of 67sq km (26sq miles), the astonishing archaeological site of the ancient city of Bagan is dotted with the remains of some 2,000 temples, pagodas and stupas, mostly dating from the 11th century. The most atmospheric way to explore is by hot-air balloon, but you can also roam the site by bicycle, on foot or by horse and cart.
Catch a puppet show
Mandalay preserves many of Myanmar’s ancient arts, including traditional dance and Burmese marionette theatre, with stunningly colourful wooden puppets. Also keep an eye out for anyeint (comedy) in Mandalay; the most famous comedians in the country are the Moustache Brothers, who were repeatedly arrested for satirising the government at the height of the regime’s power.
Climb into the hills of Shan State
The parts of Shan State open to foreigners provide some of the country’s best hiking opportunities and, unusually for Myanmar, offer the chance to stay in local homes or monasteries. Walk through stunning valleys to remote ethnic minority villages close to the northern town of Hsipaw, or take the three-day trek between Kalaw and Inle Lake.
Count the Buddhas at Pindaya caves
The journey to the town of Pindaya from either Kalaw or Nyaungshwe passes through some of the lushest farmland in Myanmar, but the main attraction here is below the ground. The Shwe Oo Min caves are packed with thousands of Buddha images, installed here over three centuries.
Cruise the Irrawaddy River
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Irrawaddy River, which winds its way along pretty much the entire length of the country. A trip on the river offers a fascinating back window onto rural life in Myanmar, with rustic local ferries and long-distance tourist boats that cruise the river between Mandalay and Bagan.
Enjoy the slow pace of life in Hpa-an
Snoozing beside the Thanlwin River, the small town of Hpa-an, in the southeast of the country, is the leaping off point for visits to Buddhist monasteries and karst mountains topped by sacred pagodas. It's a tough climb to the summit of Mt Zwegabin, but the views from the top are stupendous.
Explore Mandalay’s lost cities
The hills around Mandalay are studded with the remains of former royal capitals. Sublime Sagaing is a jumble of hillside pagodas, while the highlight at Inwa is a famous 19th century teak monastery. Teak was also used to build the stunningly photogenic U Bein Bridge in Amarapura. Alternatively take a river trip to Mingun to see the world's largest intact hung bell.
Feel the mystery of Mandalay
Founded in 1857, the former royal city of Mandalay isn’t as old as you might have thought, but the old town inside the city walls is rich in palaces, stupas, temples and pagodas. Take a walk up Mandalay Hill at sunset and help young monks to practice their English, or marvel at the gold-leaf-encrusted Buddha image inside Mahumuni Pagoda.
Gaze at golden Yangon
Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is a captivating collection of temples, markets, food stalls and fading colonial architecture. Highlights include the golden Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most spectacular Buddhist monuments in the world, the gem and handicraft stalls of Bogyoke Aung San Market, and the fascinating colonial district around Sule Paya.
Join the crowds at a Burmese festival
Myanmar has an extensive calendar of Buddhist festivals, many timed to coincide with the full moon. Most feature music and dance, colourful processions and festival food. Highlights include the Amanda Pagoda Festival in January/February, the Pindaya Cave Festival in March, Maha Thingyan (New Year) in March and the Thihoshin Pagoda Festival, Pakkoku, in June/July.
Kick back in Hsipaw
The sleepy town of Hsipaw, northeast of Mandalay, is Myanmar’s most popular backpacker hangout, but things here are very low-key. Trains rumble here from the British-era hill station of Pwin Oo Lwin, and the town has a lively market, golden pagodas and hikes to waterfalls, hot springs and ancient ruins in the surrounding hills.
Marvel at Mrauk U
The collection of temples in the former capital of Rakhine – once a powerful independent empire with territory stretching as far west as Bangladesh – are as mesmerising as the temples of Bagan, and still form the centre of a thriving community. This area has seen violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims; check the security situation before you travel.
Meditate with monks
Yangon’s Mahasi Sasana Yeik Tha Meditation Centre is a famous destination for travellers seeking to learn more about Theravada Buddhism. Those able to commit to at least six weeks (requiring a special visa) can learn the rituals and philosophy of Burmese Buddhism and participate fully in the daily routines of monastery life.
Ponder the physics of the balancing boulder
The temple town of Kyaiktiyo is famed across Asia for its balancing boulder, which forms the centrepiece of the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda. Pilgrims trek or ride packed trucks to the pagoda to gaze at the tiny stupa crowning a boulder which climbs precariously to the edge of rocky outcrop, held in place, locals believe, by the power of prayer.
Roam through Myanmar’s national parks
Myanmar offers rich opportunities for ecotourism, with national parks teeming with wildlife, including elephants, tigers, leopards and bears. The best parks include the Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park (northwest of Monywa); Hlawga National Park (near Yangon); Popa Mountain Park (central Myanmar); Lampi Island (Myeik Archipelago); and Shwesettaw Wildlife Sanctuary (located in Minbu).
Row out onto Inle Lake
Beautiful Inle Lake was one of the first places in Myanmar to be opened to tourism, and it still ranks high on the list of must-sees. As well as floating villages, floating plantations and floating markets, the lake is famous for its leg-rowers and its ancient stupas. The most popular place to stay is Nyaungshwe on the lakeshore.
Stroll the sand Ngapali Beach
Idyllic Ngapali in the far west of Myanmar is the most famous stretch of sand in the country, but it’s hard to get here from Yangon other than by flying. Closer to the capital, Chaung Tha near Pathein is a popular escape for locals, while Ngwe Saung has a growing collection of upmarket beach resorts.
Tour the temples of Bago
One of the easiest trips from Yangon, Bago has its own collection of Buddhist buildings and monuments, including the impressive golden Shwemawdaw Pagoda – technically, the tallest stupa in the country – as well as the Shwethalyaung Buddha, which is considered one of the most beautiful reclining Buddhas in Asia.
Trek to hill tribe villages from Keng Tung
Hidden away in the dense jungles of Shan stage, Keng Tung is where Burmese culture melts into the tribal traditions of northern Thailand. This peaceful town is dotted with Thai-style pagodas, and local guides offer trips into the hills to visit the fascinating villages of Lisu, Lahu-Si and Akha people.
Wander around Shwedagon Pagoda
Rising above the rooftops of Yangon like a golden candlestick, the mighty Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the wonders of the Buddhist world. The stupa rises 112m (367ft) into the air, covered in sheets of real gold and crowned with a symbolic umbrella coated in thousands of carats of diamonds and rubies. Joining the crowds that circle the sacred stupa is one of Myanmar’s most sublime experiences.
Watch traditional sports
Myanmar’s national game, chinlone, is played with a woven cane ball. Teams of six players aim to keep the ball in the air for as long as possible, using any part of the body except the hands. Look out for impromptu matches in public places. Another sport to watch for its Burmese boxing, the local version of muay thai.