Day 1: Bagan – Sunset Welcomes to Beautiful Bagan
As the sun flickers across the sky, Bagan swirls into a canvas of sandstone silhouettes. The temples rise at random angles to flicker through soft tones before only their enigmatic shapes are in focus. Lines of color mark the horizon as the sunset reflects in the Irrawaddy River. The odd swirl of dust acts like a painter's trick to guide the eye with its brief impressions. Sunset in Bagan is Myanmar's most iconic scene, a time of visual beauty matched with a meditative serenity. Your flight lands in the late afternoon, and you'll be guided out to a four-story temple on the Central Plains, a quiet spot to admire the show, far from other tourists. At dusk, be taken to your luxury hotel in Old Bagan, where the silhouetted icons are visible from your terrace.
Day 2: Bagan – The Icons of Old Bagan
Some 2,300 temples and pagodas stretch across this World Heritage site in clustered groups across the landscape. During your time here, spend a day in each of the important archaeological zones, beginning with the monuments in the historic walled city of Old Bagan. They're exceptionally diverse, as kings would construct their own iconic memoir within the confines of the city, which makes today's tour an expert introduction to their flamboyance in design. Start at the Bupaya Stupa as cheerful locals come to worship and drink tea from the color-laden market stalls. Next, the slender spire of Gawdawpalin Paya as it’s decorated stucco work of pearls and garlands. Continue to the sculpted shrine of Mimalaung Kyaung, the temple which can withstand fire.
Nathlaung Kyaung is one of the city's oldest temples, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and filled with sculptures that reveal a faded glory. Dominating the skyline is Thatbyinnyu Paya, a glorious temple that acts as a transition point between the area's old and new styles. The sublime double-cube structure remains untouched by damage, with four entrances that lead you into geometric floral murals and elaborate corner stupas. As you tour the monuments, you will find that interiors and exteriors don't always match up. Unremarkable temple facades hide dazzling Buddha images and baffling murals. Spectacular architectural designs are just that, without the interior glamor of their neighbors.
An expert guide ensures that you discover the temples that most enchant. Like the exoticism of Mahabodhi Paya, an Indian-style pyramid is filled with seated Buddhas. Next, you will find the Ananda Temple, a stunning landmark of terraces and miniature stupas, and a quirky Buddha with a very cheesy grin. The day moves at a relaxed pace as you explore the monuments within easy distance of each other. Lunch is included with a view over the river, and the guide can lead you out to a quiet temple for a second magical Bagan sunset.
Day 3: Bagan – Hot Air Balloon Flight and the Enchantment of the Central Plains
Bagan baffles from the air. As dawn breaks the temples start their journey out of silhouette, thousands of them come alive as you ride in a hot air balloon. They all seem to dance as so many shapes move among the soft layer of morning mist. This is Bagan at its most enchanting and enigmatic as the temples cascade beyond the horizon, and the aerial views are uninterrupted. Along with a series of bulbous icons that stand like the unruly bullies from the past, you will also appreciate the slender spires that provide surreal impressions of the time of King Kyansittha, King Alaungsithu, or King Narapatisithu. Bagan was erected in the great building boom from 1050 to 1280, and perhaps only Angkor Wat can rival the site for its religious architectural showcase. Unlike those temples in Cambodia, Bagan has retained its prevailing impression of magic and mystery.
After touching down, enjoy a relaxed brunch at the hotel before an afternoon in the Central Plains. Travel by horse-drawn carriage to clip-clop past sandstone clusters that rarely feature on any tourist radar. Dust swirls between the temples and there isn't a road in sight, which means you are often alone among these phantoms of the past. Step into a four-terraced temple to find a monk in prayer, or an artist painting with sand, or children playing hide and seek beneath the black-and-white strip paintings of Lawkahteikpan Temple. Enter Sulamani Paya to discover the flamboyance of King Narapatisithu, follow a labyrinth of dirt tracks to the bizarre terrace of Pyathada Paya and find one of the world's only pentagonal Buddhist structures – Dhammayazika Pagoda. And throughout it all, wonder aloud about how such excess and architectural splendor could be left in such an exquisite and untouched state.
Day 4: Bagan – The Living Temples of Nyaung U and Wet Kyi Inn
Some of Bagan's monuments are museum pieces, memorable for their archaeological importance but many continue to play an active role in modern life and attract great numbers of Burmese pilgrims which add to the emotional atmosphere. Today's guided tour takes you to the villages of Nyaung U and Wet Kyi Inn, where the ancient temples line up along the Irrawaddy River. Listen to the chants in the 11th-century white passages of Shwezigon Pagoda, discover the monastic murals of Kyansittha Umin, then find vibrant market stalls in the courtyard of Htilominlo Paya, where traders shout beneath temple carvings that depict strange beasts that spew out lotus flowers from fang-filled mouths. Perhaps King Kyansittha's Alotawpyi-gu-hpaya is the greatest example of time-warped design alive with local use as here you sense spirituality with every footstep, the ambiance enshrouded in incense and echoed voices.
Day 5: Yangon – Gold Shimmers and Pilgrims Pray at Shwedagon Pagoda
After a relaxed morning, fly directly to Yangon, known to a lot of the world as the old colonial city of Rangoon. Your hotel is in the heart of the old neighborhood as crumbling colonial architecture fills every vista. Explore at leisure and enjoy high tea before this evening's mystical encounter. Shwedagon Pagoda is currently Myanmar's most important Buddhist monument, and its golden facade entices locals from hundreds of miles around. As the sun sets, it reflects off of the gilded structure to shimmer through a beautiful kaleidoscope of color that somehow sparkles more once dusk falls. Monks surround the pagoda; their rhythmic chants tumble across rooms of exquisite Buddha images. Large groups of pilgrims appear lost in a trance as barefooted nuns wander silently around the pagoda, and there's a feeling of togetherness that lingers long in the memory. While Shwedagon is undoubtedly a photogenic wonder, it's the atmosphere that most visitors take away.
Day 6: Yangon – Day Trip to the Towering Monuments of Bago
Lost-world kingdoms dot the Myanmar landscape, odes to centuries of prosperity and decline. The Mon Kingdom had its base in Bago, where evidence of religious fervor has survived countless sackings by the armies of Bagan and Ayutthaya. Shwemawdaw Pagoda entices you into the city with its monumental spire etched in over 1.5 tons of gold leaf. Cracks and ruined staircases roll around the pagoda, sprouting incense sticks and bizarre carving. The nearby Shwethalyaung is home to a 55-meter reclining Buddha, whose backside is painted with the story of Buddhist conversion. An eery old monastery overlooks Myanmar's first ordination hall where whitewashed staircases take you to the striking shrines of Mahazedi. Enter the Snake Monastery to encounter the five-meter Burmese python reincarnation of a Buddhist abbot. She's very serene, and certainly quiet enough for pilgrims to tuck banknotes into her folds. All of these remarkable sites are visited on an easy day trip from Yangon, which you return to in time to enjoy an atmospheric evening amongst the food markets of the old city.
Day 7: Sittwe to Mrauk U – Immersed in Local Life Along the Delta
Fly to Sittwe, a town that wraps itself around the jungle folds of the Bay of Bengal. A place of trade and color, thousands of locals daily converge on fish markets and palm-covered stalls. After you land, there will be time to get a feel for the town and your local guide will ensure that the colors don't become too overwhelming. Then it's onwards along the Kaladan River as a private boat takes you up the river and past the enchantment of local life; women wash clothes, men fish from narrow wooden boats, children splash with insatiable enthusiasm. Arrive in Mrauk U, and you've made it to a lost world that few other foreigners have discovered. Myanmar is only just opening to the world, and Mrauk U is only just opening to Myanmar, having been off limits even when Bagan could be visited. It makes for a seductive final few days as temples and stupas hide on the jungle-clad mountain slopes.
Day 8: Mrauk U – Spectacular Northern Temples of the Ancient City
Mrauk U's fortified temples are unusual in the extreme, half fortresses with thick windowless walls that somehow capture a religious mystique. These were both places to pray and places to fight from, refuges for embattled populations and icons of medieval Arakan's turbulent kingdom. Many were built to celebrate conquests, like Shittuang Paya, where crumbling stupas lead to a huge fortified terrace. Or Htukkanthein Paya, which resembles a high-security prison from afar, yet hides a dazzling chamber of 179 seated Buddha images, guarded by 64 sculpted figurines, each modeling one of the kingdom's acceptable medieval haircuts. Eight Buddhas sit serenely beneath the vaulted ceiling of Lemyethna Paya, while you'll still find young monks along a necklace of miniature stupas surrounding Ratanapon Temple. Somewhere in between, on this day of discovery, there are three-headed elephants, mythological dancing sculptures, and eroded lines. Mrauk U is a bizarre lost world, one that will baffle your eyes.
Day 9: Mrauk U – Exploring the Temple-Studded Forests and Hills
After yesterday in the northern temples, travel into the stupa-studded hills of the east, where the kingdom's less imposing structures are hidden amongst the trees. Like Bagan's Central Plains, it's an area of atmospheric mystique and elegant sandstone, where outlandish structures reflect the tastes of ancient kings. Explore the talismanic allure of Phra Ouk and Mong Khong Shwetu, then wander into Kothaung Paya, a kind of Buddhist bomb shelter that stored 90,000 Buddha images. Vividly painted ogres guard the entrance to Sakya Manaung Paya, while locals believe that Pizidaung Temple houses Buddha's testicle. And these are just the start of the surreal narratives; each of the dozens of temples contains a strange tale amongst the trees, one that's expertly chronicled by your local guide.
Day 10: Mrauk U to Sittwe – Departure
Depart from Mrauk U on a private boat down the Kaladan River to Sittwe, where a domestic flight returns you to Yangon. You'll be greeted at the airport by a representative who assists to transfer you to your international flight. Late departures can enjoy day access at a nearby luxury hotel.