Colonial charm and Southeast Asian mystery come together in Myanmar, finds Brett Atkinson.

The kinetic change of fascinating Yangon, the staggering spectacles of Inle Lake and Bagan, and the warmth and gentle grace of the Burmese people all make Myanmar the next essential Southeast Asian destination for savvy travellers.

Yangon

Formerly the British imperial capital of Rangoon, Yangon is emerging from Myanmar's decades of isolation with energy and verve amid poignant echoes of the past.

Neighbouring Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City have largely replaced their heritage buildings with modern architecture, but the ghosts of British colonial times linger in Yangon's grandiose former post offices, libraries and law courts.

Irrawaddy River breezes cool lanes lined with sleepy tenements and produce markets, and a few faded bastions of grandeur are now being stripped of their cloak of tropical ennui and repurposed as restaurants and bars.

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A reminder of colonial times is a gin and tonic in the Writers' Bar at the stately Strand Hotel, where previous guests include Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and Mick Jagger.

Also essential is a visit to Shwedagon Paya. Visible from across the city, the pagoda's main zedi (temple mound) soars to 100m and is overlaid with 27 tonnes of gold and thousands of precious stones. At sunset the main pagoda's halo of wooden temples is silhouetted in the tropical dusk, and families, groups of monks and dating couples - most with selfie-ready smartphones - make Shwedagon the most popular place in town.

Must do: Discover Burmese street food - melding Indian, Chinese and Thai influences - on a walking tour with Yangon Food Tours.

Stay: The Loft Yangon is near Yangon's Bogyoke Aung San Market, and features New York-style studios.

Inle Lake

Cradled by the Shan mountains near Myanmar's eastern borders with Thailand and Laos, Inle Lake is a cool-climate respite from the heat and humidity of the lowlands. Covering more than 100sq km, the silvery expanse of the lake is best negotiated on a speedy long-tail boat.

Rising at dawn is recommended to best explore the lake, zipping through morning mist past flocks of elegant egrets and herons, and getting an early start at markets selling local crafts and robust Shan breakfast noodles.

On the lake's marshy fringes, canals weave through villages of teak stilt houses like rustic Asian versions of Venice.

Floating gardens crammed with Asia's plumpest vegetables are testament to the ingenuity of the Intha people, and Intha fishermen are also renowned for their unique technique of leg rowing. Equipped with large, conical fishing nets, they propel their flat-bottomed fishing boats smoothly around the lake by wrapping their lower leg deftly around their paddles.

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Non-waterborne activities include cycling from the bustling lakeside town of Nyaung Shwe to the Red Mountain Estate Winery.

Must do: Visit Inthar Heritage House for stylish textiles and homewares, excellent Shan food, and its successful programme to reintroduce Burmese cats to the country.

Stay: Villa Inle Resort and Spa has private bungalows with lake views. Transfers from Nyaung Shwe are by boat through sleepy backwaters.

Bagan

The monumental legacy of a building spree ordered by kings from the 11th to the 13th century, Bagan's 3000 Buddhist temples are scattered across 26sq km of the Irrawaddy River valley in central Myanmar.

The most leisurely way to arrive in Bagan is by river from the former Burmese royal capital of Mandalay. Itineraries on Belmond's Road to Mandalay boat include extremely knowledgeable local guides adept at uncovering the layers of religion and culture concealed amid Bagan's history.

Options for independent travellers to explore the acres of grand religious structures and smaller, more poignant, brick stupas include horse and carts with drivers or an electric bike. Sunset viewing from the steps of larger temples is popular as tropical days transition through gold and saffron into still Bagan evenings. Every day from October to March, up to 20 hot-air balloons rise in dawn to survey the spectacle from above. Only when cruising past the soaring profiles of temples like Shwesandaw Paya is Bagan's massive scale revealed.

Must do: Experience ballooning with Balloons Over Bagan.

Stay: Opened in 2013, stylish Bagan Lodge is in a quiet rural area near the airport.

Ngapali Beach

This sleepy Bay of Bengal resort on Myanmar's western shores is a thoroughly laid-back reminder of what the rest of Southeast Asia was like a few decades ago. Bookended by rocky headlands, only a few intrepid visitors have so far discovered Ngapali's spectacular charms.

The beachside ambience is positively hassle-free, and options for lazy days include snorkelling and fishing off nearby islands, or negotiating rickety bikes along quiet roads to local villages featuring craft shops and open-air art galleries.

As the tropical sun disappears beneath the horizon, most travellers are perfectly happy to observe from Ngapali's beachfront restaurants, either tucking into simply grilled seafood or spicy local Rakhine dishes influenced by nearby Bangladesh.

A recently expanded airport promises to bring greater numbers of visitors. For now Ngapali is the perfect spot to chill out after busy and bumpy travels exploring the rest of the country.

Must do: Settle into a Ngapali sunset with chilled Myanmar beer and barbecued lobster.

Stay: Bayview Beach Resort has spacious and stylish bungalows and a superb location right on Ngapali's best beach.

TOP TIP
Be respectful: Like many countries around the world, Myanmar takes its religion seriously. In mainly Buddhist Myanmar, New Zealander Philip Blackwood has been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for insulting religion.

News reports have stated that according to Myanmar law, anyone who attempts to insult, destroy or damage any religion can be punished by a maximum of two years in jail, with another two-year penalty for those who try to insult religion through the written word.

Blackwood, 32, and two locals were charged in December over an online ad for a tapas bar which featured a picture of Buddha wearing DJ headphones. Blackwood says he will appeal against his conviction.

New Zealanders wishing to avoid trouble travelling overseas should observe local customs and look at sites such as safetravel.govt.nz.

Professor Peter Lineham, professor of history at Massey University's Albany campus, recommends religioustolerance.org and gdrc.org for "culturally sensitive tourism".

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Yangon can be reached on regular flights from Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.

Getting around: Domestic airlines shuttle between Yangon, Mandalay, Nyaung Shwe (for Bagan), Heho (for Inle Lake) and Thandwe (for Ngapali Beach). Booking domestic flights in advance is recommended from December to March. Diethelm Travel is a reliable Yangon-based travel agency.

Belmond offers river cruises on the Road to Mandalay incorporating the highlights of Mandalay, Bagan and other destinations in Myanmar. World Journeys is a Belmond representative in New Zealand.

Brett Atkinson explored Myanmar with the support of Belmond and Balloons Above Bagan.