Prior to my trip, i'd heard mixed reviews about Yangon, but me personally, I thought it was great. There's plenty to see, even if you just have a day or two. I'd recommend Shwedagon Pagoda early morning to beat the heat, then walk around Kandawgyi Park, followed by the City Hall, where you also have Independence Monument. In the afternoon, Swe Taw Myat Pagoda is definitely worth seeing. You can reach Htauk Kyant War Memorial Cemetery via a short drive outside the city, but this was closed during my trip.
The highlight of Myanmar for many people is Bagan, and it's easy to see why. Located in the Mandalay region, this ancient city deserves its UNESCO status as the 2,229 temples are a spectacular site. Majority of the pagodas were built between 11-13th century when the kingdom was at its height of power. Whether you've got one day or one week, I'd definitely recommend renting an electric bike to explore the complex, as these are available for as little as $20 USD a day. The temples are spread, so there's no particular order I'd recommend. There's also various vantage points across Bagan where you can see the vast number of pagodas spread across the horizon. There's two options to get to Bagan... a 10 hour bus from Yangon, or there's a once weekly flight on a Friday.
In the centre of the country you'll find the city of Mandalay, which is referred to as the "administrative division". Often overlooked by tourists, but in my opinion, it's definitely worth a visit. I'd start your sightseeing day at the pilgrimage site of Mahamuni Buddha Temple where you'll see visitors offer gold leaves to the buddha. Up next is Mandalay Hill where you can admire panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, followed by Shwenandaw Monastery. You can finish the day at the iconic U-Bein Bridge where you can walk the 1.2km wooden bridge for those sunset shots. Note: Mandalay Palace is currently "off limits" as it's being used by the military.
Mingun Whilst in Mandalay, definitely make sure you allocate an extra half day to squeeze in a visit to Mingun, which is an hour away by car. There's three sights that are all within close proximity of each other. First stop is Pahtodawgyi Stupa, which was set to be the largest pagoda in the world, but it was never finished. It's essentially carved into the side of a mountain rock and resembles something you'd see in an Indiana Jones movie. Second stop is The Mingun Bell, which in short, is just a very large bell, but does have significant importance to Myanmar. The final stop is Hsinbyume Pagoda, which in my view is the most beautiful pagoda I've ever seen. It's an "all white" structure with elegant curves in the design, as well as offering a great view from the top.
Always regarded as a "must visit" on any Myanmar itinerary is Inle Lake, and it didn't disappoint. The picturesque lake is located south of Mandalay in the Shan Hills, and still adheres to many local traditions. The lake is 22km long, 10km wide, and sits within a valley where you'll see entire floating villages and gardens. There's entire communities built upon stilts with houses, restaurants, temples, local businesses and of course the fishermen. This really is a unique experience! The floating gardens growing their own vegetables is hugely impressive, as is the simple way of life. You can hop on a wooden boat and take your time passing by the villages, as well as stopping by one of the lotus weaving centres.
Whilst you're basing yourself in the Inle region, there's a stunning pagoda complex in Shan State, that's referred to as "Kakku". It's an area of one square kilometre that contains over 2,500 stupas and is very unique compared to others you will have previously seen. Most of the stupas date back to the 16th century and represent the Buddha's footsteps. Surprisingly, this complex is still relatively unknown to tourists, so you can walk around in complete peace.
Local Train Ride
Myanmar is a country that still heavily relies upon train travel as a low-cost means of transport for locals. Although this can also be a great experience for tourists. More specifically, there's the Yangon Circular Railway, which is a commuter rail circling 46 kilometres covering a 39 station loop. Unfortunately for me, it wasn't operating during my trip. My back-up plan... I hopped onto a train anyway, and spent a couple of hours mingling with the locals. This was such a great experience to photograph! The food vendors walking from carriage to carriage, tobacco sellers, and even shoeshiners. You also get the chance to see the outer countryside areas along the way.
I stayed in some great accommodation options during my trip, but the one that stood out is definitely The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate in Bagan. It's locally run, has spacious rooms, a great pool area to relax, and speedy WiFi. It's also great value at $65 a night, considering it was $150 pre-Covid. As for the location, it's a perfect base for exploring the tempmles of Bagan. There's an electric bike company opposite the hotel, along with a great vegetarian restaurant called Khaing Shwe Wha.
Overall, the food in Myanmar was great, with a solid selection of both local and international cuisine in all the major cities. I'm going to recommend Omnivore Restaurant in Yangon as my top pick. Although popular with locals, it does cater more for international visitors. Fresh salads, as well as the triple cooked fries covered in cheese... yummy! There's definitely cheaper alternatives in Yangon, but the quality of food and service definitely makes it worthwhile.
You can definitely travel round the country without a guide, but I do feel you benefit from a greater overall experience with some local knowledge. Depending on the region you're visiting, here's a shout out to a couple of people I can vouch for regarding their tour guide service...
Yannaing (photo 1) +95 9428 349050 for Inle Lake Region and Phyo (photo 2) +95 9256 109117 for Mandalay Region