You’ve seen the photos, Myanmar is the hot word on the traveller’s lips. A country that has only just opened its front door to the tourism masses and seen a few tentative visitors (in comparison to the tourism machine that is neighbouring Thailand), but is on the cusp of a tourism boom, so of course now is the time to go.
Are you thinking of visiting Myanmar (Burma)? Excellent choice, you’ll love it. Many budget backpackers who visit Southeast Asia give Myanmar a miss - often to their subsequent regret when they realise that Myanmar is the authentic Asia they were searching for when they bemoaned the crowds on Khao San Road. They skip it because it’s expensive in comparison to the rest of Southeast Asia, they want to travel longer, they don’t want to go home yet. I get it, really I do. Because the traveller I’m describing above was me on my 2013 six-month trip around Southeast Asia. And although it took until my third visit to Southeast Asia, when I did make it there I found that Myanmar itself isn’t expensive, the tourist tax is. It stings, but it’s still totally possible to travel Myanmar on a budget and I’ll go over the costs further down in this article.
This post: Let the journey begin has my true on the ground thoughts about Myanmar – and a good place to start if you’re thinking about travelling there.
Why should you travel to Myanmar? For most travellers, the allure of Myanmar is the intrepidness. To go where most people haven’t, to experience a culture still relatively untouched by globalisation - for an adventure that speaks to our inner lion-heart. It’s just as beautiful as the photographs hint at, the people as friendly and welcoming as you could ever hope for. The temples beckon, the spicy food’s inviting and the adventure awaits you. Go on, you’ll be in good hands.
Almost every traveller goes to the following four locations during a trip around Myanmar. You want to allow at least 10 days (though 14 is better) to see the following places. These are easily booked by bus from anywhere in the country and it really doesn’t matter what order you visit in. If you’re looking for a more luxurious trip, it’s easy to hire a long distance personal driver for about $80 - 99USD per day, though feel free to negotiate.
The capital and most likely your arrival city. Busy and buzzing, captivating, sprawling, hot, overwhelming and above all incredibly intriguing, you’ll want a couple of nights here to check out Shwedagon Paya, Bogyoke Aung San Market and the Yangon circular train.
We stayed at Zia hotel which is within walking distance of all these sights.
There are a handful of things to do in and around Mandalay and I recommend either renting a motorbike, or hiring a driver for the day. You’ll want to see U Bein bridge, the jade market, Sagaing, wood carving and puppet workshops, and Mandalay palace.
We stayed at the Royal Yadanabon Hotel – where they can arrange a driver and tour guide for you at the front desk – very handy.
If you eat anywhere in Mandalay make sure it’s Mingalabar restaurant and they had the best food we ate in all of Myanmar. I cannot recommend this restaurant enough, full of locals too.
Temples, temples, temples. You’ll find that while visiting temples one after another gets a little tiring, but the fun of Bagan is just driving the streets watching the bustle of everyday Burmese life and seeing the silhouette of temples pop up in the horizon. You can rent a decently powerful e-bike (electric motorbike) for the day for $12US - although they rent for as cheap as $5, be wary of a shortened battery life. Unfortunately, foreigners aren’t allowed to rent regular motorbikes in Bagan, possibly to prevent unnecessary injury (the e-bikes drive only get up to about 60km per hour)
The best food we had in Bagan was at 7 sisters Restaurant in New Bagan
Hire a boat for the day, explore the lake, and surrounding towns, temples, markets, silver and Burmese cigar craft shops, and stilt house towns. While I’ve listed a few things to see and do on the lake, it’s more about just being there, especially at dawn when the lake is quiet and still and the fishermen are out catching for the day. It’s pretty special.
Unless you’re willing to shell out the big bucks for a hotel on the lake edge, you’ll be staying at nearby Nyaungshwe town (about 10 km away from the lake). We stayed at Manaw Thukha Hostel which had free bicycle rental and big Burmese style hotel rooms. But heard good things from a fellow traveller about Song of Travel Hostel.
Off the beaten path, or, all the places I wished I had time to visit
If you’re like me, you like to research interesting and off beat towns in hopes of escaping the crowds on your trip. If I’d had a little more time, I’d have ticked off these destinations:
A laid back town with authentic hikes and just enough tourism infrastructure to be convenient. Organise a hill trek with a local guide and escape the tourist crowds in Mandalay. Get here by bus from Mandalay – five hours.
The tropical white sand crowd free beach you’ve always dreamed of. Sitting on the west coast in the Bay of Bengal, Ngapali beach mostly caters to the luxury crowd, but you’ll find a few budget range options here too. A twelve-hour bus from Yangon will get you here
Not much has changed in Mawlamyine since its colonial days – go for the stupas, the landscape, the slow pace and the culture. Bus takes six hours from Yangon.
Hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake:
A three day long but chilled out hike through the villages and fields that link the town of Kalaw to the famous Inle Lake, where do I sign up? Your tour company will transport all your luggage and will arrange homestays to sleep in along the way – easy! Kalaw can be buses to from any major city – all routes to Inle Lake stop here.
Hpa-an: a pretty town with a backpacker feel, karst stone mountains and caves to explore, Hpa-an is where you’ll want to go for a break from Yangon. A bus from Yangon takes six hours.
If you’re sticking to the tourist trail (Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan) you’ll find it pretty easy to get from A to B, to find English speakers and plenty of hotels to choose from. If you’re hoping to get off the beaten path, then pick up a copy of Lonely Planet’s Myanmar guidebook. Seriously, there is a lack of online bookable hotel rooms outside of those four places and unless you’re the type of person who can happily rock up to a destination without accommodation sorted, you’ll want to have a guidebook with maps and recommendations to help you out.
my much loved copies of Lonely Planet guidebooks
Guys, buy it. Bus timetables, maps, attractions, common language phrases restaurant recommendations, hotel locations… helped me out a million times on my trip…. Plus, I love collecting guidebooks to every place I’ve visited and storing them on my bookshelf.
English is everywhere on tourist trail, people love practicing their English with you and if you learn the odd Burmese word you’ll make people’s day. Off the beaten path and you’re looking at miming what you want to say for the most part, but you’ll be surprised at how little you need spoken words.
One of the safer countries in Southeast Asia as far as petty crime goes, so you won’t have to worry about pickpockets and theft. My biggest safety concerns were the lack of working seatbelts in almost every taxi we entered. You also might get stared at a bit, but don’t worry, the locals are just curious. Large parts of northern, eastern and southern Shan State, as well as areas in Kachin, Kayin and Rakhine States, remain off limits to travellers due to fighting between the Burmese military and various armed ethnic organisations. You will be unaffected by this on the tourist trail.
Getting a visa is simple. Within six weeks of your trip to Myanmar, visit the official government website (don’t pay extra for a travel agent to book it for you) and fill out the form, within three days we had a visa emailed through that we just needed to print off and present at the airport. You can’t get this visa too far in advance because it’s invalid after three months. You also don’t want to leave it too late either.
We booked almost all our intercity buses with our hotel receptionist, or otherwise with a local travel agency. You want to book about 24 hours in advance to ensure you can get a seat and if you’re tall, upgrade to the VIP bus (usually about $5 more but the leg room is 100% worth it). Usually they will include a taxi/van to pick you up and bring you to the bus station, then point you in the direction of your bus.
ATMs are everywhere in Myanmar now and we had no issue using any of them. However, you should always bring a secondary emergency credit card and tuck it away somewhere safe. We relied on using our credit card at ATMs half the time and the other half we exchanged USD$. You never want to be travelling on a single source of cash. A budget backpacker will need around $150-200USD per week plus an extra $500 in emergency funds (you might find yourself in a small town and the only available ATM is broken – it has happened to me a few times in other countries).
All your dollars need to be pristine notes (some of my notes were rejected and to this day I couldn’t say exactly why) so no folds or creases, no marks, no tears and they have to be the new edition (post 2006) keep them tucked away in a thick book like a guidebook, or use a pencil tin.
Cost of travel (as of 2017):
Myanmar accepts both USD and kyat. Basically big purchases were quoted in USD like tours and accommodation, everything else in the local currency of kyat.
500ml bottle of water 300kyat ($0.30)
local whiskey 350mls 1000k ($1)
a bowl of noodles from a street cart 2000k ($2)
a basic hotel room for two people $30 - 40 per night
a dorm bed $12 per night (although dormitories in Myanmar are rare outside of major cities)
An eight-hour bus trip $10 - 12
A day tour per person (varies) but around the $15 - 30USD mark.
When to go:
I always try to travel in the shoulder season, the prices are reasonable, the crowds fewer and hotels are easier to book. The weather isn’t perfect but you’ll still see mostly clear days. For Myanmar the shoulder season is October, November, March and April.
General vaccinations – don’t go overboard, make sure you’re up to date with your Hep B and tetanus shots – they’re routine for travellers. Don’t worry about antimalarial pills unless you’re going into the jungle. Just invest in some good insect repellent.
Don’t be dumb, get travel insurance. I’m very fortunate that I’ve never had to claim on my insurance, but I’ve heard good things about World Nomads and I’ve always gone with them. However, a little research never hurt anyone.
Tips and tricks:
Save money by eating at non touristy restaurants, if the menu is in Burmese with English translations then you’re likely in pretty good hands.
Try wearing a longyi – you’ll be surprised by the smiles and welcomes you’ll get from locals for appreciating their culture.
Don’t over plan your trip, book your accommodation a couple days before you reach each city, and book your buses the day before. Leave yourself room to stay longer in places you love and leave early in towns that didn’t meet your expectations.
When looking to eat out, Trip Advisor’s online recommendations almost never go amiss, but always try that hole-in-the-wall establishment that’s full of locals. Or ask your hotel receptionist (if they’re a local) what their favourite restaurant is.
Keep USD handy all the time. We found that on buses (such as the one to Bagan) we pulled over to the side of the road and a couple officials came on the bus and asked all the foreigners for $20 (tourist tax) It’s stupid and a little insulting, but you really don’t have much choice.
Walk whenever you can to get around. Taxis almost always charge a base rate of 5,000 ($5) kyat regardless of distance, so save the taxis for long distance rides. The most we were charged for was 10,000 kyat for a thirty minute drive to the airport.
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