Traveling around Burma (Myanmar) on a National Geographic photography expedition, I fell in love with the country. It was one of my most enjoyable photo trips anywhere, with very friendly people, good food, great sites, and not too many other tourists. Here are my favorite sites, both to visit and to photograph:
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Given that you’re likely going to fly into Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda is worth a stop before moving onto other parts of the country. We arrived in the afternoon and stayed until after dark.
And in Yangon, be sure to stay at the iconic Strand Hotel. Amazing!
Shwenandaw Monastery, Mandalay
Formerly part of the Royal Palace, this monastery has the perfect combination of carved wood, impressive architecture and colorful monks – some with iPads.
Sandamuni Pagoda, Mandalay
With hundreds of shrines, this was my favorite pagoda that we visited. Of course a pagoda without monks isn’t very interesting, so it’s worth waiting for a couple to come along.
Shwe Kyin Monastery, Mandalay
This was my favorite monastery in Burma. Of course there were the impossibly photogenic monks, but here there were also prayer ceremonies taking place, with hundreds of monks chanting and almost singing.
The Unfinished Mingun Pagoda
Part of the fun was getting here from Mandalay via ferry. There are other sites in the small town, including the second largest bell in the world and the very-white Hsinbyume Pagoda, but I enjoyed photographing the earthquake-damaged and never-finished Mingun Pagoda.
U Bien Bridge, Amarapura
This is the longest teak bridge in the world, stretching over a kilometer as it crosses Taungthaman Lake. Take a boat out on the lake at sunset. The photography is all about the silhouettes of those on the bridge. When I return to Burma, this will be my first destination.
The Temples of Bagan
Bagan was the reason I had wanted to travel to Burma in the first place. For years I had seen photos of hundreds of temples rising out of the morning mist. We spent time among the temples during the day, and also climbed pagodas to watch the sunset and sunrise. It was even more awe-inspiring in person. While I took a lot of photos as the light changed, I also put down my camera frequently to enjoy the view. I could easily spend a week in Bagan, bicycling around and exploring the temples.
Roadside Peanut Winnowing
If you’re driving through the countryside and see something interesting, stop! One of our best experiences was joining a group of peanut winnowers that we passed on the way to Mount Popa. We photographed and participated in the winnowing process for more than an hour.
Taung Kalat / Mount Popa
The entire area around Mount Popa is beautiful, but the highlight was Taungkalat (Taung Kalat), a volcanic plug with a monastery (of course) at the top. We climbed the 777 steps to the top and, although the monastery isn’t exciting, the view makes the climb well worthwhile.
Shwethalyaung Pagoda / Reclining Buddha, Bagan
National Geographic pre-arranged for us to photograph monks with candles at the Reclining Buddha in Bagan. Even though it was set up for us, it still magical being a part of it.
I loved Inle Lake – photographing the fishermen who row with their legs, visiting the villages around the lake and relaxing in the evenings at our hotel on the edge of the lake.
Ywama Monastery, Inle Lake
So it shouldn’t be a surprise at this point that I liked this monastery – the first place where we saw young monks in school. It was a fun place to photograph, and the teacher didn’t seem annoyed at all to have a few of us in there slightly disrupting lessons.
I never take my kids on photo trips. With the early mornings, late nights, hiking, climbing, shooting sessions and extended time on busses, these are trips meant for adults. Was Burma kid-friendly? Yes, as much as any developing nation is. The food was good and it was easy to get around. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with kids under 10 or 12 climbing the temples of Bagan, but otherwise all of our destinations were good for kids. I saw very few young western tourists there – less than 10 over the course of 10 days. As with anywhere, kids over six or so can appreciate the culture more than younger kids.
I ranked every photo expedition that I’ve done in this post. This trip to Myanmar ranked highly!
Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan are must-visit destinations. But there are other places I want to get to as well, like the Datdawtaung Cave and the golden rock of the Kyaiktiko Pagoda.
Have you been to Myanmar/Burma? What do you recommend as must-see sites?
Carmen B says
Another place I would highly recommend is Kakku, an impressive pagoda in the Pa’O territory near Inle Lake.
It can easily be visited as a day trip from there. Check out my blog post about it:
Eric Stoen says
Very cool – thanks Carmen! I’ll add it to my list for next time.
We actually just took our 2 (almost) 3 year old daughter to Myanmar. She loved it just as much as we. There is just so much to explore, we see temples she a play and climbing ground. She loves buddha statues and the idea that they have to eat too. Great pictures!
Eric Stoen says
That’s great to know Tikva! I’m glad that you found Myanmar to be kid-friendly.
Tony McGrath says
Thanks Eric, great post.
My wife and I have just returned to Australia after a 3 week visit to Myanmar and we loved every aspect of the country. We couldn’t recommend a visit more highly.
I agree that Bagan , Mandalay and Inle are standout destinations, but also would suggest Monywa to visit the Thanboddhay Pagoda and also Laykyan Sekkya, a massive standing and huge reclining Buddah.
Bago, not too far from Yangon, also has some very interesting and photogenic pagoda. Shwemawdaw, Mahazedi and Snake Pagoda as well as Naw Daw Gyi, a 76 metre reclining Buddah.
We also spent a couple of days at the coastal town of Ngapali which is a bit more resort like but still offered up some great photo opportunities and was a great place to recharge the batteries. The fishing village at the southern end of the beach was a great visit early in the morning to watch the fishermen return from their overnight expeditions.
Eric Stoen says
Great suggestions Tony! Did you travel around independently or did you have a guide/driver?
Riann Portnoy says
Thank you so much for the constant travel blogs you do! we are going to myanmar next year for the first time! we are planning 8 nights yangon/mandalay/bagan/inle lake! Did you take the airlines in the country between your destinations? that is our biggest worry as we arent sure how safe they may be.
Did you find there to be lots of mosquitos? we are going in september and just trying to prepare! thanks again for such a great blog!
Eric Stoen says
Hi Riann. Yes, we took several flights within the country. I believe that they were all on Yangon Airways? I don’t remember thinking that anything seemed unsafe.
We went in November and didn’t encounter many mosquitos. I had started malaria meds before the trip and stopped taking them because I wasn’t getting any bites. But you should still be prepared – it could be totally different now.
Oh wow Myanmar is on top of my list now.
I hope i can visit this beautiful country soon!
There is just so much to see, i had no idea.
Thanks for the tips!
The monks are the BEST subjects to photograph! My family and I loved Burma – 3 kids 10 and under! 🙂
Eric Stoen says
Awesome! Need to take my kids to Burma. Agree on the monks – it’s the color of their robes especially that adds so much to any scene you’re photographing.
Great blog here! Thanks for the info!
Looking forward to our stay 👍
Beth Leonard says
Hi Eric! Enjoyed seeing your photos of Myanmar, brought back many memories as I was born there and lived the first ten years of my life there (1950’s and 60’s). I loved it there and was so sad we had to leave when the military junta took over and all foreigners had to leave. I returned in 1972 for a brief visit as they only allowed a one week visa at the time. The people there are so friendly and warm and the food is so great. I’m glad the tourist industry has opened up and many many people are discovering what a little gem of a country it is! So much to see and discover!
Hi Eric! Thanks for this blog post. So excited about my trip to Myanmar next week. Can you please tell me the location of Shwe Kyin Monastery? I can’t seem to find that information on the internet. And what time to the prayer ceremony starts? Thanks 🙂
Eric Stoen says
I do not remember the exact location, but there’s a map here: https://www.afar.com/places/shwe-kyin-monastery-mandalay. I’m assuming that’s accurate?
I can’t answer the question on prayer times. I would say to arrive a little before sunset if you can’t find a specific time.