Myanmar is Opening to Tourists

Myanmar (Burma) is one of those places. Ones of those places that make you think twice about going there. Not that you really know much about Myanmar but you know what you’ve heard isn’t good politically. However, if you’ve traveled much in the region, intrepid travelers will tell you it’s one of their favorite spots in Southeast Asia.

Reclining Buddha at Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, Myanmar

The largest city in Myanmar and formerly the capital, Yangon (Rangoon), is a great Asian city. It still has some colonial charm that its larger neighbors have lost along the way. Likely it’s due to the fact that the military government was so strict for so many years but visiting now is a treat.

Buddha Building and the Shwedagon Paya at night in Yangon, Myanmar

Also noticeably missing from Yangon are the motorbikes that infest many other large Asian cities. In Yangon, people still walk and ride bicycles like my grandmother used to tell me all the Chinese and Vietnamese did before they got motorbikes. Yangon is a very pleasant place to be. It also has some of the friendliest and smiliest people I have ever met.

Buddha Building and the Shwedagon Paya in the day in Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon is a cool city in that there are stupas and pagodas all over the city. They are clearly the centerpieces of a drive around town and none is more amazing than the famous Shwedagon Paya (Pagoda).

Shwedagon Paya at night in Yangon, Myanmar

The glorious gilded spire of the Shwedagon Paya is the city’s defining image to the world. It is massive at nearly 100 meters tall. The complex has the central zedi and 82 other buildings around it. They are all fabulous to look at day or night.

Shwedagon Paya in the day in Yangon, Myanmar

The top of the central spire is covered with over 5000 diamonds and over 2000 other stones. It is also said that it is covered in over 53 metric tons of gold leaf to give it that amazing glow.

Amazing glow of the Shwedagon Paya at night in Yangon, Myanmar

You can enter the complex from any of four directions. There are lifts if you like or you can enter as the locals do through the grand staircases. You must take your shoes and socks off before entering into the Shwedagon Paya; there are no exceptions on that. It is kind of gross I agree, but at the same time it is their custom and you must adhere to it or miss out on one of the world’s great religious symbols.

As you walk around the spire and admire all the adorning buildings full of Buddhas, it is mesmerizing. They are fascinating to me and so bright that you can’t stop looking. Each entryway gives a new take on Buddha and his disciples. I wish I knew more about Buddhism to explain all the reasons behind it but I know enough to know that it’s really a treat to walk around and see it.

Buddha in the Shwedagon Paya at night in Yangon, Myanmar

You won’t be alone on the Shwedagon Paya. There are Buddhist pilgrims from all over who come to pray here. There will also be a ton of monks. There really isn’t much in the way of hassles surprisingly except for a few guys offering souvenir photos. However, when you turn them down, they will happily snap a photo of you with your camera.

A side building on Buddha at the Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, Myanmar

Burma and Yangon have long avoided the tourist infestation that the rest of Southeast Asia has experienced in the past decade or so. Fear not though, it’s coming and it is has already started. There is a ton of foreign investment going on in Myanmar. The Japanese and Chinese are heavily invested in Burma. With the visa restrictions growing easier and cheaper by the day, the backpackers are coming too.

Young Buddhist Monks

They are searching for the forbidden land of Burma, the untouristed Shangri-La of Southeast Asia. They may have found it for now but having been there just 3 years ago, it’s already more expensive than it was then and there are more and more white people popping up around town.

Expats at the bar in the Strand Hotel in Yangon, Myanmar

I met some travelers at the Shwedagon Pagoda the other night, they invited me to a bar with them afterwards and I accepted. We went to a place called the Strand Hotel on a Friday night and it was packed. Every expat in Yangon was there (Granted there aren’t many bars in Yangon at all). Not a local to be seen.

The main street from the Traders Hotel in Yangon, Myanmar

And today I had lunch at the Traders Hotel, which is the nicest hotel in Yangon and I saw my first old white person tour group; in full safari gear ready to tackle the town in style. So believe you me…they are coming! Get to Myanmar while you can!

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  1. Great article Lee, looks like an amazing place. I don’t know anyone who’s been to Burma but I will definitely keep it in mind next time I’m in SE Asia. Who knows when that’ll be though…sad

  2. The Shwedagon Paya looks incredible. It’s good that you go to see it both in the day and at night. It looks different but still equally cool.

    • Yes exactly, you must see it both at night and day…it’s incredibly hot during the day and your feet will burn keep in mind and night is much more chill and less touristed

  3. Very nice article Lee. I love the way you describe things.

  4. I have always wanted to see the Shwedagon. Your pictures make it look so amazing. I can’t imagine the feeling walking around it and feeling the Buddhist vibes.

  5. Burma is next, you’re right…going to be like Laos or Cambodia and cater to young gap year tourists who just want to get wasted.

  6. I work with someone from Burma and she speaks highly of her country. And yes I would love to get there myself. It is sort of bitter-sweet though, when things change and get easier to travel to…the tourists come flooding in. Nice for the locals I guess because it gives them tourist dollars (touchy debate) but a little bitter because if you are somewhere you think is off the beaten path trying to get that authentic experience and then you see a group of people from your hometown getting off a bus dressed in khaki shorts, flowered shirts, and cameras around their neck…it does sort of kill the mood…lol.

    • Ya it’s always a debate but one that the people I think will eventually benefit from from the tourist dollars…I hope so at least as they have been oppressed for years. But of course all travelers want to authentic experience but who are we to tell them not to open up. Hey, I always say, if you want a real traveling experience, go to West and Central Africa…that’ll really open up your eyes!

  7. Whenever I hear Myanmar (Burma), I only think of J. Peterman and Seinfeld. Thanks for giving me a more intelligent point of reference.

  8. Was there in 1986; thank you for the memories, Burma is a special place, and I hope it doesn’t get too Westernized, but fear it will.

  9. this place seems to be on the tongues of so many as of late. STUNNING photos! i want to do an undercover operation to get my hands on some of those 5000 diamonds and 2000 other stones 😉

  10. I went to Burma a year ago. Of all the SE Asian countries I’ve been to over the years, it was hands-down my favorite. If you didn’t make it to Bagan and Inle Lake, then you have much, much more to see there! Both are fascinating places.

  11. Sounds like an amazing place to be now! I will be there within the next couple of weeks so it’s great to read your post and get some perspective.

  12. We LOVE all of SE Asia, but Burma is special, magical, mystical. It’s been almost 15 years since we were there, but I recall it fondly, despite it’s “troubles.” Cruising down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay and arriving in Bagan at sunset with the sinking sun glinting off the thousands of stupas is the stuff of dreams.

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