How To Travel To Myanmar

Stunning temples, charming villages, fantastic feasts

Wildly diverse both geographically and culturally, Myanmar offers a chance to travel between stunning temples and charming villages, secluded beaches and bustling cities, all of which are significantly less touristy than other Southeast Asian destinations. Moreover, you'll witness a unique moment in this country's history, as it marches from its recent autocratic past into a developed, international future. And you'll eat well along the way, savoring a cuisine that gets little billing outside of the region: fragrant curries, tart salads and beautifully crisped fish.

Yangon will likely be your first port of call, as most international flights land there. Wander the downtown lanes near the sprawling Secretariat building to see colorful colonial architecture, stroll around posh Inya Lake and don't miss the Shwedagon Pagoda, the glittering golden temple complex that's Myanmar's most important religious site.

As you roam around, you'll notice that Myanmar's cuisine shares characteristics with specialties from China, India and Thailand, and features bold flavors that skew tart, spicy, savory and fermented. Start your day with a bowl of mohinga, a pungent fish curry and Myanmar's official dish; have lunch at Khine Khine Kyaw, where you can graze from a buffet of Burmese specialties, like tea leaf salad and grilled prawns; and spend an evening in Jinghpaw Myae, a basic canteen serving up Kachin food, which hails from the northernmost part of Myanmar and is known to be heavier than that of other nearby regions. Look for ginger-and-chile beef and banana-leaf-wrapped fish, and consider several orders of mashed potatoes, which are dense, addictively savory and topped with crispy shallots.

If you make only one additional stop outside of Yangon, it should be in Bagan, where thousands of domed stupas (temples) rise from a vast, scrubby plain. Book a sunrise hot-air balloon ride for a stunning aerial view of the landscape or climb one of the larger temples to witness dawn's rosy glow. Spend your day motorbiking among temples and pause in Old Bagan for lunch at Starbeam Bistro to sample Rakhine fish curry, rich with tamarind and chile, and stunning salads, including one that combines tomatoes, chicken, peanuts and cilantro under bright lime. Before you head to another temple for sunset, pause at Sunset Gardens for a beer on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River. Bagan's royal cuisine centers around small plates consisting of curries and pickled vegetables; check out Myo Myo Myanmar Rice Food in Nyaung-U for a taste.

Head next to Shan State and Inle Lake, ringed with hills, villages and houses on stilts. Spend a day boating around the lake, where you'll spy temples, floating gardens and fishermen. Back on dry land, Inle Lake is home to Aythaya and Red Mountain wineries; the latter is easily bikeable from the town of Nyaung Shwe and offers killer views of the sunset. Crisply grilled or fried whole fish are prevalent in restaurants along the lake, as are tart salads with crunchy peanuts and tofu made with chickpea flour. In Nyaung Shwe, head to Green Chilli and order a whole fish beneath a fragrant mess of herbs, onions and tomatoes; sautéed morning glory; and fried tofu. On the lake, stop into the Inthar Heritage House, run by an organization dedicated to preserving the culture and economy of the region. The traditional Shan menu includes dozens of salads, culled from the property's gardens. 

One note before you jet: Domestic flights and some hotels cannot be booked from outside of Myanmar, so work with a travel agent who can do this, or find an on-the-ground fixer who can make your arrangements for you. High-end hotels often have this service, or you can work with Myanmar tour companies like May Flower. Let your handlers make recommendations, or give them an exact itinerary and ask them to make the purchases. For domestic flights, we've had good experiences on Golden Myanmar.

Pack your passport—and an appetite—as we hit the world's hottest culinary destinations on and off the grid all month long. Now Boarding: your next trip to paradise.

Laura Shunk is a food and travel writer and an avid collector of airline miles who spent a year researching food culture in Asia. Follow her on Instagram at @laurashunk.