The national pastime of chinlone (see p40) aside, participation in sport has been at low levels during the decades of military rule in Myanmar. With access to satellite TV, how- ever, the country has seen a dramatic surge in the number of people watching and playing soccer. Among the elite, golf has also grown in popularity: Yangon has many international- standard courses, and there are numerous others farther afield. Swimming and cycling are likely to be the outdoor pursuits most often enjoyed by foreign visitors, although with enough of a budget, scuba diving in the Andaman Sea is another possibility.
The Burmese are mad about soccer. This passionate, country- wide following for the sport is a relatively new phenomenon. Only about a decade ago, there were just a handful of semi- professional sides. Now, between 12 and 14 fully pro- fessional teams play in the Myanmar National League, inaugurated in 2009, whose three top sides are Mandalay’s Yadanabon FC, Yangon United FC, and Kanbawza FC of Taunggyi. Fixtures are adver- tised on the teams’ websites, and tickets (inexpensive by international standards) may be purchased at the gates.
If anything, support for European leagues, particularly the English Premiership, is even more enthusiastic than for domestic competitions, and foreign matches are routinely screened in bars. Manchester United enjoys the widest fan base across Myanmar.
A legacy of Burma’s colonial heritage (and Scottish connec- tions), golf enjoys a strong following among the country’s upper classes, explaining why Yangon boasts one of the most impressive courses in Southeast Asia. Designed by Gary Player, the Pun Hlaing Golf Club, 8 miles (13 km) west of down- town across the river, is set amid a man icured tropical land scape, and kept in tournament condi- tion year round. The same is true of the Royal Mingalardon, another prestigious course nearby. Yangon is also home to the City Golf Resort. For a more historic feel, visit the grand Yangon Golf Club, founded in 1909 and Myanmar’s oldest functioning golf club. Another vintage course is the one at Pyin U Lwin, the former British summer capital of Upper Burma. The Yay Dagon Taung Golf Resort in Mandalay, a halfhour drive from the town center, is the region’s finest, with the Shwe Man Taung Golf Resort at the foot of Mandalay Hill a close second. A quality 18hole course has been built at Bagan, and there is a ninehole course at Thandwe/Ngapali.
Kalaw is Myanmar’s prime trekking destination (see p173), thanks to its proximity to Inle Lake and several minority villages. Ever Smile and A1 Information and Trekking Service are among many Kalaw operators who organ ize day hikes and over night stays. Less frequented alterna tives, from where it is also possi ble to trek into ethnic minority areas, include Hsipaw, farther north, and Kengtung, to the east. In Hsipaw, local guest houses such as Lily The Home or guides such as Than Htike can make all the necessary arrange ments; in Kengtung the Princess Hotel can organize guides and treks.
In the far north, treks into the spectacular terrain around Hkakabo Razi, the country’s highest mountain (19,294 ft/ 5,881 m), begin at Putao in Kachin State, where Putao Trekking House is the recom- mended operator. In the far west of Myanmar, routes up the highest peak in Chin State, Nat Ma Taung, also known as Mount Victoria (10,016 ft/3,053 m), start on the massif’s eastern side.
Bicycles are widely available for rent at Inle Lake; at Bagan, where cycling offers a healthy alterna tive to the horse carts; and at Ngapali for leisurely tours of the fields and groves behind the beach. Most of the cycles are Chinese made, gearless, and usually in dubious states of repair. Test drive a few and check that the brakes work and that the steering column is sound. However, some com- pa nies have started renting out moun tain bikes, which are more expensive but also sturdier and more comfort able.
In Yangon, Bike World Explores Myanmar is a Burmese Australian outfit who run pop- ular weekly guided city rides (6:30am on Sundays), as well as custom tours to most parts of the country. They run mountain- biking expeditions up Mount Victoria from Nyaung U and can arrange permits for the ascent.
Many midrange and all fivestar hotels in Myanmar have swim- ming pools, although few open their doors to nonresidents. One exception is the Sedona in Yangon, which has a huge, curviform pool with an island bar that is busy with expatriate families after school hours, but peaceful during the day.
While swimming in the country’s rivers is not recom- mended, the waters of the Andaman Sea are blissfully warm, and safe, in Myanmar’s top three resorts: Chaungtha , Ngwe Saung , and Ngapali . The last has the clearest water.
Diving and Snorkeling
One of the world’s last great tropical marine wildernesses, the Myeik Archipelago in the far south is among Southeast Asia’s least explored diving destina- tions. The government main- tains strict control over access to this ecologically fragile area, which offers no accredited diving schools or accommoda- tions. Anyone wishing to dive here must join an expensive liveaboard diving tour, mostly based out of Phuket or Ranong in Thailand. To keep costs down, clients may arrange for the boat to pick them up in Kawthaung, Myanmar’s southernmost town, two or three days into the tour, and drop them off in the same place. Recommended Thailand- based diving companies include Nautica Diving and AIDC. Permits to enter the Myeik Marine Reserve must be arranged in advance through the Myanmar Travels and Tours office in Yangon .
Good diving is also available in the relatively unexplored waters off Ngapali (see p106), with most hotels offering trips to coral reefs, islets, wrecks, and caves. Contact diving specialists at Ngapali Water Sports Center at their office in the village, or via their website. A cheaper option would be to jump on a local fishing boat for a snorkeling tour in the crystal- clear waters just to the north of the resort; these leave every morning and afternoon from various sites on the beachfront.