Uncovering Myanmar's hidden soul: A guide for first-time visitors

Rose Jacobs gets swept away by Myanmar's untouched beauty.

From the moment I left the airport, every split second was breathtaking.

The mango trees lining the dry desert roads, the dead chickens strung to the sides of motorbikes, the 13th century ruins of pagodas, millions of watermelons lined up for sale in the 42 degree heat.

Needless to say, there's plenty to awaken the senses in Myanmar.

Getting there

Most air passengers will enter Myanmar either via Mandalay in the south or further north in the country’s capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon).

Either way, prepare yourself for the very tight scrutiny from customs as to the purpose of your visit and any photographic equipment you may be carrying.

This is a country with a history of strict military rule and it has only been a matter of years since they’ve opened their doors to the outside world.

In saying that, you will most certainly be greeted with a warm smile and the visa process is worth it. You can apply for your visitor’s visa via the Myanmar Embassy website and safe to allow at least four weeks for processing.

Where to stay

Considering the geography of Myanmar is mostly centred around the magical flowing Irrawaddy River, you must take this into account.

In fact, you’d be mad to choose a hotel of any form that isn’t actually afloat the river itself.

There are a number of cruises available that will blow your mind but perhaps the best option is one that has a small number of passengers and promises to escort you to the tiny townships along the way that have maintained their history and their smiles - not to mention their fascination with visiting western tourists!

My personal top tip is Avalon Waterways, which beautifully decks their ships in Myanmar’s colonial style and encourages you to embrace the local culture at every turn.

Avalon is the only major cruise company in Myanmar that can navigate the upper Irrawaddy from Mandalay to Bhamo, considered untouched by the modern world.

Cruising is hands down the best option over hotels as it saves packing and transiting. There’s also something so incredible about waking up to the sunrise over the Irrawaddy.

What to do


This is a Buddhist country. The locals see beauty in everything - the detail, the personal connection, the family, the kindness of strangers.

For me as a visitor, this is the most extraordinary feature a country can possess and every activity you choose to do will be wrapped in this warmth.

The city of Mandalay itself boasts more than 14,000 pagodas (giant golden temples in the shape of meringues), which are a must-do for any visitor.

Whatever your religious beliefs, take the time to remove your shoes, cover your shoulders and rest your knees on the carpets surrounding the giant Buddha statues (some painted with six inches of gold leaf!).


If you’re a fan of homewares or shopping in any form then Myanmar is a shopper’s paradise! Local artisans work morning til night perfecting their crafts of tapestry, pottery, wood carving, puppetry and gold and silver making.

The markets are overflowing with colour and pattern. Trinkets and souvenirs consist of delicately beaded necklaces and carefully crafted teapots that you would normally expect to see in an exclusive boutique.

The price tags will also put places like Bali and Thailand to shame. So much so that you’ll be trying to offer them more rather than barter them down.

U Bein Bridge

If you’re after an experience completely unlike any other you will find in the world, then you need to set aside an evening to visit the U Bein Bridge in Mandalay.

This is a 1.2km jetty made of reclaimed teakwood from the old Royal Palace in Inwa. Thousands of people flock here every evening to celebrate the setting sun over the lily pads, with street markets dotted along the shore selling cold beers.

Hire a Sampan (small wooden long boat) and be rowed through the waters past fellow visitors sharing a glass of wine and a picnic under the setting sun. This is something that took me completely by surprise and will forever be one of my favourite travel moments in life.

Meet the locals

You cannot leave Myanmar without taking into account the delightful local children. The best way to meet the beautiful young people of Myanmar is to visit one of the schools along the river where you can give donations in the form of nutritious food, sporting equipment, school books and pencils or a cash donation for the school to build vegetable gardens and infrastructure.

Water festival

The monsoon season begins here in June. Therefore, the Myanmarnese celebrate their New Year’s Water Festival in mid-April to mark the change in season.

This is no ordinary celebration! To mark the end of the dry season and the approaching monsoon, thousands of locals take to the streets for four days and nights in what can only be described as the world’s biggest water fight.

Stages line the streets of the cities decked out with super soaker hoses and loud music. Locals drive their cars, ride their bikes and walk on foot past these stages to stop and get soaked as a form of blessing for a good season ahead.

You will see small babies, old men and women and everyone in between celebrating with laughter and water well into the night.

As a visitor, you will definitely be invited into the action and won't get more than five metres up the road without a bucket of water being tipped over your head!

I suggest you embrace it by doing the following things; buy a waterproof mobile phone pouch for $1 from a roadside stall; wear something that won’t become see-through when wet; learn how to say "Mingalar Ba" and "Jayzuba", meaning Hello and Thank you; and most importantly get your hands on a really good super soaker water pistol and get right in amongst it.

The Myanmarnese Buddhists have a saying. In order to live a full and happy life, you should eat half as much, walk twice as much and laugh triple. The best thing about that saying is that you can actually see it everywhere you go in this warm and unspoilt land.

Rose was a guest of Avalon Waterways in Myanmar.

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