Avoid being overwhelmed on your first visit to this changing but traditional country — check out these temple tips and insider insights from Gill Charlton.

Following the recent lifting of Western sanctions, Myanmar has become a must-visit tourist destination. It has wondrous sights: 1000 temples scattered across the countryside in Bagan; the leg-rowers and floating gardens of Inle Lake; and majestic rivers - the Ayeyarwady and the Chindwin - navigable into the furthest reaches of the country.

But the big draw is the chance to see a country where the 21st century has barely intruded. This is changing but there is still a strong sense of the old Orient here. It's a place where Buddhism is still a way of life.

Although Myanmar now claims an elected civilian government, this is hardly a country free from oppression. The difference is that the country's people are hopeful that the changes they have witnessed over the past few years cannot be reversed: the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi; access to the internet including sites critical of the Government; and the arrival of planeloads of Western tourists with dollars to enrich their communities.

Chronic temple fatigue is a big danger for the first-time visitor. Plan your itinerary to go beyond the main tourist areas. Spend time in the traditional teak villages, tea houses and small-town markets, getting to know some of the most endearing people you will meet anywhere in the world.


But where to start? Here is my list of the top 10 things to do and see.

1. Shwedagon Pagoda

This gilded 95m stupa topped with 1000 diamonds in Yangon is the most important Buddhist shrine in the country. Surrounding the main stupa is a wide marble platform filled with shrines and pavilions where visiting monks, nuns and pilgrims from all over Burma pray, chant, eat and snooze beneath exquisitely carved eaves.

There are four entrances at the cardinal points. Most tourists use the south entrance, which has lifts and stairs. I prefer the more authentic eastern stairway. It is worth getting there just after dawn, as the pagoda is awash with tourists later in the day. After making a circuit - always in a clockwise direction - sit quietly and watch the Burmese pour water over the shrine associated with their birth day of the week.

Don't wear shorts and vest tops; it's as disrespectful as going to church in your underwear. Shoes and socks must be removed before climbing the stairways. The ticket booths are up on the main platform.

2. Colonial Yangon walk

Yangon's waterfront area is considered one of the finest remaining examples of a British colonial city in Asia, laid out on an easy-to-navigate grid. Some of the former shipping offices and merchants' homes have been given over to the birds and the trees; others have found new uses.

The finest are on the wide avenues leading to the waterfront between Sule Pagoda Rd and Bo Aung Gyaw Rd, notably between Maha Bandoola Park and Pansodan St. This area includes the former High Court with its clock tower, the Port Authority and the Central Telegraph Office. The massive red-brick Secretariat, from where the British ruled the country, is a few blocks east on Maha Bandoola Rd.

Finish on Strand Rd, which runs along the waterfront past the British Embassy, a former shipping office, to the Strand Hotel, built in 1901 by the owners of Raffles in Singapore. The handsome hotel lobby has welcome air-conditioning and still serves a decent cup of tea.

3. Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung

This is my favourite monastery around Inle Lake. The teak Ordination Hall is around 200 years old and has unusual oval windows and a magnificent carved wood ceiling. It is often full of young monks keen to engage the few visitors willing to hang around after taking the obligatory monk-in-oval-window photograph. But most visitors miss the real highlight of this monastery, which is in a whitewashed building around to the right. Its interior is covered with thousands of Buddha images, each in its own niche, leading to rooms decorated with coloured glass mosaics illustrating Buddhist stories. The light is poor in some areas, so visit mid-morning and bring a torch.


4. Inle Lake boat trip

This is one of the highlights of Myanmar, not least to see the famous leg-rowers, who use one leg to sweep an oar through the water. Essentially canoes with outboard motors, the boats seat up to five people (life jackets are provided). A day trip involves about four hours on the water plus stops and is priced on distance travelled. I would head first for Indein (for its market, temple and hilltop lake views), then shop for silk and have a late lunch in Inpawkhon, before touring Nampan village and the floating vegetable gardens.

Finish at the monastery, best known for its hoop-jumping Burmese cats: Nga Phe Kyaung has a wonderful collection of larger-than-life Buddha images, best photographed in the late afternoon when the sun illuminates their faces.

5. Shwenandaw Monastery

This is the only surviving structure from Mandalay's Royal Palace. King Mindon used the building as his personal apartment and died here in 1878. His son, worried that his ghost still resided there, dismantled the structure and transported it to a nearby monastery. There has been a fair bit of make-do-and-mend since, but enough of the original wood-carving survives to show the skill of the royal artisans.

Arrive early for the best light as the sun slants in to light up the gilded interior. The entrance fee is high as it's a combination ticket for Mandalay's Archaeological Zone, which includes the Royal Palace and Mandalay Hill.

Nagayon - one of Myanmar's many temples. Photo / 123RF
Nagayon - one of Myanmar's many temples. Photo / 123RF

6. Mandalay-Bagan ferry

The Malikha Line offers a comfortable express shuttle service on the Ayeyarwady River from Mandalay to Bagan. I prefer it to the hassle of flying out of Mandalay Airport, which is at least an hour from the city. It's easy to while away 10 hours on the river. There's always something to catch the eye: a cluster of glittering pagodas climbing away up a hill, a lone fisherman in a worryingly small canoe, and the rips and eddies of the water itself.

The boats, which carry up to 150 passengers, are air-conditioned, although most passengers prefer to sit on deck. There's a bar and the kitchen produces fried rice and noodles. I would advise bringing your own snacks and having a jacket handy, as it can be cool on the water.

7. Chindwin River expedition

Communities on the remote Chindwin River have had little contact with the outside world in the past 50 years, so expect an excitable welcome in riverside villages.

I particularly liked sleepy Mawlaik with its abandoned colonial mansions and the fine old wooden tea houses and monasteries in Minkin.

Tourists can now use local boats to travel upstream from Monywa but they are slow, overcrowded and ride very low in the water on a river full of whirlpools.

To explore the Chindwin in more luxury, with lecturers and organised excursions, join the 50-passenger Orcaella, which offers an 11-night cruise from Mandalay up to Homalin and back down to Bagan in the early autumn. Bring audio books as gifts for the teachers who value them as a way of learning to pronounce English words.

8. Myinkaba Kubyauk-gyi

The name translates as Great Variegated Temple. The murals date to the early 12th century and were sensitively restored with UN money in the 1990s to some of their original brilliance. There are vivid red guardian figures and a fine cast of demonic beasts, grotesques and erotic couples. The star is a magnificent tiger that seems to be about to leap off the wall.

Unfortunately, the lighting is very dim. The only electric light is attached to a wand used by the unofficial guide. If it's quiet, he will let visitors borrow it for a small tip.

To see the fine detail of the murals, you need to bring your own powerful torch. No photographs are allowed.

9. Balloons over Bagan

At dawn each winter morning, a small flotilla of balloons floats above the temple plain in Bagan as the sun rises.

Hot air balloons sail over Bagan. Photo / 123RF
Hot air balloons sail over Bagan. Photo / 123RF

Passengers are collected from hotels in vintage teak coaches before dawn and taken to the site to watch the balloons being inflated. There are four people to a basket.

The company is run by an Australian, Brett Melzer, and his Myanmar wife, Omar, who pioneered flights here 14 years ago using balloons made in Britain.

If there's any wind the balloons don't fly, and full refunds are given promptly.

The flight lasts an hour before landing in a field for a light breakfast with fizz. Wear warm clothing in December and January.

10. Lintha village walk

Around the headland from the hotel strip on Ngapali beach is the fishing village of Lintha. A British woman opened a school here a few years ago that teaches English to a high standard. You can visit and talk to the pupils.

Along the main street is a library that welcomes book donations. In this friendly place, a child may take you home to meet his or her family.

It's heart-warming to see a village like this find its place in the modern world.

Visit just after dawn to see the fishermen unload the sardine catch, which the women lay out on the sand.