7/8 week itinerary for the highlights of South East Asia

South East Asia has to be the premier world traveling region.  A big call?  For sure, but consider what genuinely world class offerings it can provide:


  • World class beaches and coastal areas – think of THAT beach in Ko Phi Phi and HaLong Bay, one of the Natural Wonders of the World
  • World class food – think Thai, Vietnamese, Malay and the genuine fusion into the mix with the large established Indian and Chinese communities
  • World class ancient sites and history – think of the temples of the “8th Wonder of the World” of Angkor Wat, and the breathtaking site of the pagodas stretching across the plain in Bagan
  • World class cities and party locations – think of Singapore as the city of the future and the Full Moon Parties on Ko Pha-Ngan


And all this in a place that is super safe, outrageously friendly, easy and cheap to travel in.  A must for any keen traveler and the below itinerary will give you the highlights – enjoy!

A couple of days in the parallel world of Yangon

Really is a parallel world in Yangon, which certainly makes it worth the visit.  You’ll want to check out the key attraction of Schwedagon Paya, but for me the highlight of Yangon was just wandering through the bustling streets with magnificent former colonial buildings being used as markets (or nothing at all) and seeing subtle ways that the Burmese way of life is so different to the rest of the world

Main tips is to make sure you get to one of the main 4 markets: Bogyoke Aung San Market, Theingyi Zei, San Pya Fish Market or Coconut and Banana Market; and to consider Yangon as part of a 2 week trip for the highlights of the country – 2 weeks itinerary for the highlights of Burma here

2 weeks itinerary for the highlights of Burma

Travelling in Burma (Myanmar) is a bit like being in a parallel world – like the rest of the world went one direction and Burma just took the other turn on the highway.  Whilst that may be starting to change a little bit as the country opens up more, you can be sure that there will be continued political swings that keep Burma as one of the countries firmly in the “unusual” bucket for travelers.  This, plus its series of genuinely world class attractions, makes it a superb travel destination for a 2 week trip

Burma for most people is all about the 4 key highlights of Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake.  All are definitely worth seeing and will form the core of any trip you make there.  Bagan, with its world-renowned temples spread in their thousands across the plain, and Inle Lake, with its stunning mirror effect and serene villages on stilts, are arguably the highlights, with Mandalay and Yangon as interesting cities that you need to fly into, but well worth the visit.  I’ve included them below in a 2 week itinerary that won’t be rushed whilst also making sure you get the most out of your time here

I’ve written below some further travel tips for travelling around Burma, but my 2 biggest tips are:


  • #1 Is it safe?  You will naturally have seen in the news Burma very often flaring up with the latest crisis and the story of the country is truly a sad one considering the repression in particular of the ethic minorities and continued belligerence of the military junta.  But, from a tourist point of view, such changes have not in the slightest stopped the country as it opens up more and more to overseas visitors.  Whilst it may sound like a country to avoid based on headlines, thousands more come to the country each year than the year before and flare ups occur only in the remote areas foreigners are not allowed in, and still with no tourists ever having come to harm because of the troubles.  There are far more countries in the world with far more dangers that receive far more tourists on a regular basis


  • #2 A feeling of real Burma.  Consider wandering off the beaten track just a little to see the real country that has been surprisingly untouched by the tourism wave of the 4 main sites.  One of the best adventures I’ve experienced was the 6 day trip down the Irrawaddy River by ferry in Northern Burma from Myitkyina (or you can start in Bhamo / Katha to reduce the time) to Mandalay.  Breathtaking mountainous jungle vistas, the chance to see the real local villages along the mighty Irrawaddy River, and the old echoes of the former colonial past.  A truly great travel experience and I’ve included the details in the travel entry – Exploring Northern Burma by train and ferry from Myitkyina, via Bhamo and Katha to Mandalay

Boating around the serene Inle Lake

Inle Lake is a super relaxed part of Burma where you fill your days either zipping around in the lake boats to the floating markets, gardens and temples, or simply laze around in this serene location watching the perfect mirrored effect on the water. A must if you’re visiting Burma, and I would recommend it as part of this 2 weeks itinerary for the highlights of Burma
I won’t go into too many tips as all you really want to do is get a place on the water and rent a boat for one or two days to head off and explore, but the two places I really enjoyed were the leaning pagodas of Inthein in the south west and the Jumping Cat Monastery for its sheer randomness

Exploring Northern Burma by train and ferry from Myitkyina, via Bhamo and Katha to Mandalay

One of the most adventurous and “off the beaten track” trips I’ve done was the journey back from Myitkyina back to Mandalay via trains, buses and ferries.  As we become more globalised and routes open to mass tourism, there are fewer and fewer places in the world that offer what Northern Burma does – a genuine feeling of adventure as you pass through towns and transit routes still largely untouched by the oncoming wave.  When you include the breathtaking views of the mountains, the chance to see the real local villages along the mighty Irrawaddy River, and the old echoes of the former colonial past, this is a truly great travel experience and one that can easily be combined with a 2 weeks itinerary for the highlights of Burma.
I’ve listed more detailed tips below, but three key ones:


  1. Is it dangerous?  The north, like many other parts of Burma, has seen continued trouble in the the form of various low-level uprisings and separatist movements in the three states you’ll be passing through (Kachin, Shan and Sagaing).  But tourists are already not allowed in any of the spots where trouble is flaring up.  Could you be unlucky and find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Yes, but bear in mind that the route you are travelling is a key transit routes for this part of the country that has various options should the situation change, and that tourists are not targeted.  In short, there are far more places in the world you could get in trouble than Northern Burma
  2. Can my route change?  Yes, it can.  The ferry ride from Bhamo and Katha to Mandalay is one that seems to be consistently fine, but the bus / ferry route from Myitkyina to Bhamo seems often to be closed off.  Obviously you need to check into this before you set off (I asked locals even in Yangon who were able to answer me very quickly), but even if you get stuck when you arrive you have options of the train from Myitkyina to Katha and exclude Bhamo, or just simply to fly
  3. Enjoy while you can!  Whilst my adventure was all the way back in 2006, this part of Burma is still largely untouched by the growing tourism wave that has hit the 4 key tourist destinations in the rest of the country (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake). Enjoy it while you can!

Mandalay’s surrounding sites

Mandalay itself isn’t that attractive as its basically a classically rapidly sprawling Asian city, with all of the noise, concrete and mess that tends to go with this.  Also, surprisingly, the Mandalay Palace which you’d think would be the central attraction is also a bit dull.  But, the areas around Mandalay make it very much worth checking out
I’ve listed below some more general tips,  but in particular be sure to check out:
  • Mandalay Hill – when walking around Mandalay, it can feel a bit like one sprawling road after another and the sides of the Palace are LONG  so take a while to look around.  Instead, if near the Palace, head up Mandalay Hill for great views over the whole city and Palace, and some smaller temples and pagodas on the way up the nice covered stairway
  • Mingun Paya – take a short boat ride up river to this rather unusual site.  It’s unusual in the sense that 1. It was, at the time, supposed to be the world’s largest stupa.  Only “supposed to be”, because the King who sanctioned its construction died with only 1/3rd completed. 2. Now it is basically the world’s largest pile of bricks.  3. It has large crack down its side from an earthquake in 1838.  4. Right next to it is the Mingun Bell which at 90 tonnes has been at various times in history the world’s largest bell.  Not enough for you?  Its a nice boat trip
  • U-Bein Bridge -the world’s longest teak bridge and a route used regularly by the nearby locals and monks.  The cool thing is that the water level varied dramatically through the year so, in wet season you see various buildings largely underwater, whereas in dry season you see the buildings from a strangely high bridge
  • The Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery within the former royal capital of Inwa.  The monastery itself is a stunning yellow, but its also fun to get a horse cart / cycle around the overall site

Cycling around the Temples of Bagan

4000 Buddhist temples scattered across a wide plain in central Burma that is pushed up on 2 sides by the Irrawaddy River and described by Marco Polo as “one of the finest sites in the world”, Bagan rightly claims its title as the highlight of a trip to Burma, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the top temple sites in the world


But, as with giant temple complexes of such fame, my key tip is not to get dragged into the mass tourism of the place and, instead, try and give yourself an experience that feels more wonder and adventure rather than latest site to tick off on the tourist trail.  To do this, give yourself at least a day to head off on a bike and simply get lost amongst the wonder of it all.  Your guide / hotel can give you the directions for where will have the fewest  fellow tourists at the time of year (usually the Central and South Plains).  This will allow you to enjoy Bagan for what it was like before Burma started to really open up and make you still dumfounded that even with so much variety in so concentrated a place, some temples the size of cathedrals simply have numbers rather than a name.  Getting that feeling of wonder by having some of these temples largely to yourself is what makes this such a memorable experience