There are certain places in the world with magical qualities that have the power to enthral visitors with their simple charm and beauty. These locations often possess an essence that is difficult to name or even describe, but they are surrounded by a sublime aura that enchants and captivates all who enter its influence.
In Myanmar, this kind of magical allure can be found in a number of places, from royal capitals of ancient kingdoms and hilly cities along the sea, to tropical archipelagos and mountain lakes where ago-old traditions are still followed by local inhabitants. These are the kinds of places that often compel travellers to stay for a few extra hours or days. Why search for paradise when it already exists before your eyes?
Inle is no ordinary mountain lake. Nearly 20 rustic villages rise on wooden stilts out of its glassy waters, which also reflect the green hills of Shan State that line its shores.
It should come as no surprise that boats are the favoured means of transportation. Locals can be seen using a unique leg-rowing technique as they tend floating gardens, catch fish or transport goods to one of the floating markets in the area. Visitors can look forward to a day out on the serene water, travelling to villages where thoroughfares consist of canals rather than roads, and to old wooden monasteries that sit like islands of sanctity in the middle of the lake.
The nearby town of Nyaungshwe also hosts its share of charming monasteries and serves as a departure point for fascinating treks to ethnic villages. Another interesting destination is Kekku, an enchanted forest of thousands of small, closely packed pagodas that lies just over the ridge of hills to the east of Inle Lake.
A visit to Inwa near Mandalay involves crossing the Myitnge River by ferry and then travelling by open-sided horse-cart down narrow country lanes shaded by stately toddy palm trees.
Inwa once served as the seat of power for a succession of powerful Myanmar kings, and as you explore the ancient capital at a horse’s pace you will see glimpses of their legacy in the form of crumbling palace walls among the villages, forests and cultivated fields that now occupy the area. More strikingly, a 27-metre-high tower remains standing from a palace built by King Bagyidaw, providing views of the surrounding countryside and Sagaing beyond.
Your leisurely journey by horse-cart will also take you to several unique monasteries that hearken back to the days when mighty kings ruled Myanmar. Built in 1834, the astonishingly well-preserved Bagaya Kyaung is supported by 267 huge teak posts, while the impressive Maha Aungmaye Bonzan monastery stands as a tribute to a royal abbot from the 19th century.
If there is any place in Myanmar that beckons to adventurous souls, Putao in the far north of the country is it. All the elements necessary for a world-class adventure destination were put in place by Mother Nature long ago, including rugged mountains, dense forests, steep ravines and wild rivers.
The Putao region is in fact home to the easternmost reaches of the Himalayas, including the highest peak in Southeast Asia, 5889-metre Hkakabo Razi. Also roaring through the region are the Nam Lang and Mayhka rivers, which originate on the Tibetan plateau and form the headwaters of the Ayeyarwady River.
This bounty of nature is available for exploring by a variety of means, including walking, rafting, or riding elephants or mountain bikes. Treks can vary in length from a few hours to many days and pass through pristine, orchid-laden forests and rarely visited villages, while multi-day rafting trips follow untamed rivers through spectacular mountain scenery.
British poet Rudyard Kipling started his famous poem “Mandalay” with the words, “By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,” and in subsequent verses invoked the magical draw of the town on his poetic soul.
Visitors to tropical, leafy Mawlamyine, the third largest city in Myanmar and an important centre of Mon culture, can experience their own special moments “lookin’ lazy at the sea”. Buddhist monasteries and shrines line the top of the ridge on the city’s eastern fringe, providing a perfect platform for watching the colours of the sunset light up the waters of the Thanlwin River and cast their glow on the spires of the city’s beautiful churches.
A highlight of any visit to Mawlamyine, which also served as home to writer George Orwell in the 1920s, is an evening walk or bicycle ride down the riverfront Strand Road, a lively and picturesque avenue made even more attractive by a small collection of mosques built by immigrants from India during the colonial era.
Crystal-clear waters and hundreds of uninhabited islands await those who venture to southernmost Myanmar to explore the rarely visited Myeik Archipelago.
A trip to Myeik affords plenty of opportunity to get up close and personal with nature, both in the water and on dry land. Longer distances between the mainland and the islands can be covered by boat, but once out in the Andaman Sea it is better to use more intimate means to get a closer look at the surroundings.
Snorkelling is the simplest way to catch a glimpse of coral reefs, vibrantly coloured fish and more exotic sea life like dolphins, turtles and rays, while scuba diving can provide an even deeper view of life beneath the waves. Kayaks can take paddlers into hidden island coves and shallow waters near the shore, from where it is easy to disembark and explore the islands and their abundant plant and animal on foot.
Beautiful white-sand Ngapali Beach is the type of place where you will want to hide your wristwatch away and succumb to the natural flow of time as you float in the warm water of the Bay of Bengal.
Ngapali manages to host several international-standard hotels while at the same time maintaining its quiet charm. Beachfront hotels are hidden away in the trees, barely noticeable to beachgoers as they relax in their lounge chairs between the lapping waves and swaying palms.
The beauty of the scenery might inspire you to do nothing more than relax in your own lounge chair under your own shady palm tree. More active options include bicycling to the nearby villages of Myabyin and Kyaukkyi, where you can watch fishermen haul their netted catch to shore.
Peaceful evenings can be spent watching the sun go down and the stars come out over the Bay of Bengal as you feast on delicious seafood caught fresh from the ocean.