As Burma has only very recently opened its doors to international tourism, many of its most bewitching and beautiful locations remain virtually unknown to the outside world. Some of these places are so unusual, so striking, that they have an almost surreal quality – dream landscapes unlike any other in the world.
The following are just six of Burma’s unbelievable sights – but with so much of the country unknown and unexplored, it’s only a matter of time before we discover more.
1. Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda
Just outside Hpa An, in southern Burma, is Kyuak Ka Lat Pagoda. Here, at the centre of a man-made lake, a pagoda perches improbably atop a bizarre, top-heavy, limestone pinnacle. Narrower by far at its base than at its peak, visitors can only marvel that it doesn’t topple into the water below.
Hpa An is worth a visit for more than just Kyauk Ka Lat – it’s also home to Kaw Gun Cave, a grotto filled with thousands of Buddha statues in the side of Mount Zwe Kabin. Hpa An is easily combined with a visit to Golden Rock, which is just a relatively short distance away.
2. Golden Rock
To look at it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Golden Rock was just moments away from tumbling down the mountain and into oblivion. This vast, 7.6-metre-tall, gold-covered monolith teeters on a precipice at the top of Kyaiktiyo Hill, making an impossibly tiny point of contact with the mountain beneath. But don’t be fooled – this rock isn’t going anywhere soon. It has stood on this spot since before records began, and is thought by Buddhists to be balanced on a single hair from the head of the Buddha.
The Golden Rock is a popular pilgrimage site, but tourists are welcome to visit too. It’s around five hours by road from Yangon, so we recommend spending the night at one of the guesthouses on the mountain itself. This also allows you the chance to see the rock at sunrise and sunset – when it glows with a surreal light.
3. Laykyun Setkyar
Standing watch over a small town about 140 kilometres northwest of Mandalay is the imposing Laykyun Setkyar: the Giant Buddha of Monywa. This mammoth, gold-emblazoned sentinel took 12 years to build and towers over the landscape at a cool 129 metres (plinth included), with 31 floors inside to symbolise the 31 planes of existence in Buddhist thought. What’s inside? Not much, by all accounts – but you can climb the stairs for pretty great panoramic views from the top.
Records disagree as to whether the Laykyun Setkyar is the second- or third-tallest statue in the world, but whichever is true – it’s pretty tall. Monywa is a well worth a visit – slot it in between Mandalay and Bagan to see the Buddha for yourself.
4. Mingun Pahtodawgyi
Burma is packed with pagodas. Hundreds upon thousands of them, in all different shapes and sizes, from the tiny to the vast, but none is quite like Mingun Pahtodawgyi. Construction on this stupa (if you can call it such) was started by an eccentric Burmese monarch, King Bodawpaya, in 1790 – but the story goes that the king abandoned the project when it was prophesied that he would die upon its completion. Despite his best efforts, King Bodawpaya did die – and today his great pagoda stands at just one-third of its planned height, criss-crossed by vast cracks wrought by and earthquake. It sits on the banks of the Irrawaddy just 10 km from Mandalay, so makes an easy day trip from the city.
5. Mount Popa
Make your way to the Pegu Mountain Range in central Burma, about 50 kilometres southeast of Bagan, and you’ll find yourself gazing on a rather unusual sight. Taung Kalat is a sheer-sided, rocky column soaring 737 metres from the valley floor. This rock formation – made by magma hardening in a volcanic vent – would be striking enough on its own, but what makes it particularly surreal is the temple complex at its summit. Anyone who makes it to the top of the 777 steps cannot fail to be impressed by the effort it must have taken to build this monastery.
Taung Kalat is usually referred to as Mount Popa – although technically this is the name of the volcano that created it. It’s an hour’s drive from Bagan, so can easily be incorporated into most Burma itineraries. Watch out for the naughty monkeys at the top!
And finally – though it needs no introduction, Bagan simply can’t be missed off any list of surreal sights in Burma. Anyone who’s seen misty, dreamlike photos of this landscape at dawn – or soared over it in a hot air balloon – can attest to the fact that this is one of the most enchanting landscapes in the world. And with over 2,500 temples and stupas, this is still only a tiny fraction of what once existed here at the height of the Pagan Empire.
And the best thing about all of these places? You’ll have them virtually to yourself – until the rest of the world finds out.
Alastair Donnelly is Director at InsideAsia Tours.