Originally published in Yahoo! Travel
Myanmar has opened up, the junta has relaxed its grip, and now Western tourists are flooding in — as they should! It's one of the few countries where you can still traipse through 1,000-year-old cities ... alone. It's a fascinating country that, up until recently, has had very little contact with the outside world.
But it's not exactly a, "Well, if we miss something, we can see it next time" kind of place; if you don't plan your trip correctly ahead of time, you will seriously miss out.
Thank goodness we had help from Jacada Travel, who booked us the perfect itinerary.
Day One: Yangon
Do not check into your hotel after leaving the airport! Instead go to Insein Township, which boasts one of the city's best fresh markets. After a short visit, board the local "circle train," which will not only give you a look into the life of rural Burma — as well as the scope and scale of Yangon — but will allow you to ease your entry into this intriguing place. The slowly traveling train gives you an opportunity to mingle with locals, who are (if they speak English) always happy to answer questions and are just as curious about you as you are about them. That evening, visit Shwedagon Pagoda, the most revered Buddhist temple in Myanmar.
Day Two: Bagan
In Bagan, begin with the Nyaung-U market and stop for a cup of tea in a local teahouse before setting off to explore the more than 3,000 temples scattered throughout the old city. Do not miss these sites: Ananda Temple, one of the most revered temples in Bagan; Myinkaba Village; Gubyaukgyi Temple; Manuha Temple; and Nan Paya Temple. At some point, take a horse-drawn cart through the ruins and make sure to find an elevated temple from which to watch the sunset.
Day Three: Day Trip to Mount Popa
Wake up very early and take a balloon ride over Bagan for the sunrise — the best way to start a day ever. Then take a car 45 minutes away to Mount Popa and walk the almost 900 stairs to the top with local pilgrims. Be forewarned: The view is insane and breathtaking, but you will be dodging monkeys — and monkey scat — the entire way ... in bare feet. It's gross but worth it. Trust me. The view over the Myingyan Plain from the top of the volcanic peak is breathtaking. On the way back, stop by the Shwe Hlaing Village for a late lunch.
Day Four: Mandalay
Fly to Mandalay, and on the way into the city stop by Ava, the capital from the 14th to the 18th century. Here you can visit the old wooden Bagaya Monastery and the remains of the Royal Palace and Fort. Check out the Jade Market before stopping for sunset at Amarapura, a former capital whose name means ‘City of Immortality' and which is the site of the U Bein Bridge, a 200-year-old teak bridge.
Day Five: Heho/Kalaw
Kalaw is a charming little town and former British hill station. From the airport, the scenic drive takes you into the heart of the Shan State, passing pine forests, rolling hills, and the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp in Magwe village — a must-do experience where you can feed, bathe, and swim with former timber elephants, a truly life-changing experience. Make sure to book in advance, as the camp only allows up to 25 visitors a day.
Day Six: Trek from Kalaw to Kone-Hla and Htee Thein to Inle Lake
After breakfast visit Kalaw's small but beautiful morning market before driving to the starting point of the trek. Set off on foot here for the first part of the trip to Kone-Hla village. The route offers fabulous views and passes through fields where farmers will be harvesting, planting, or tending to their crops. After lunch, travel for two and a half hours through Pack Tu Pouk village to Htee Thein, your overnight stop. The route is filled with the panoramic views of the Shan Mountain Range and surrounded by unspoiled natural beauty.
Day Seven: Trek From Htee Thein to Kyauk Su, Nguet, Than Daung, and Inle Lake
Set off after breakfast this morning for a four-hour journey to Inle Lake. The scenery varies and passes through beautiful farmland and over rolling hills. If you get stuck in 100-degree heat and high humidity, do what I did: Offer a local $20 for a ride to Inle Lake. (I'm a wimp. What can I say? I was dying!) At Inle Lake take a boat to the Than Daung village, where you can meet the infamous The Pa-O, Danu, Taung Yoe, and Inthar Tribes. Also, there are the Padaung women who wear up to 24 brass coils around their elongated necks.
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Day Eight: Inle Lake – Yangon
Today visit the lake's morning market. The market rotates its location around the lake's villages in a five-day rhythm and is visited by lake inhabitants and surrounding hill tribes, who come to sell and trade their wares. From the middle of the lake, continue down a small canal leading to the Pa-oh village of In Dein.
Day Nine: Yangon and the Nunnery
While in Myanmar, you will see thousands of nuns dressed in pink robes with shaved heads, ranging from very old to the very, very young. These nuns live in convents that are privately supported — they get no money from the state — and perform a very important function: They educate and save girls from human trafficking. One of our favorite convents is the Thadama Myintzu Nunnery, run by the nun Daw Aye Theingi, in Than Lynn, a 30-minute drive from the center of Yangon. Go, see, learn … and donate.