My Myanmar travel guide

I spent four weeks in Myanmar, the full 28 days that you are allowed to stay on one visa. I met many people who just had 10 days. Some people asked me “What on earth did you do for 4 weeks?” My question is “How can you only do 10 days?” I loved travelling in Myanmar. There is so much to see. In some of the places I’ve been to, I would have loved to stay another day or two. And then there are all the place I haven’t seen! I love the country. I love the people. I love the variety in activities. And… I love the travellers. Unlike Southern Thailand, where I expected to meet lots of people, I found it so easy to connect to others. Myanmar is filled with solo travellers. It’s a different kind of traveller too. There are no big parties, so people come to explore. The only place where I really explored by myself was Mrauk U, simply because it’s still a bit low key, there aren’t many tourists.

So if you are planning a trip here, go, and stay as long as you can. Don’t rush it. Travel here is still slow and time consuming. Just enjoy the ride. Here, I’ll try to put some practical information and some itinerary options together.

The route

There are so many ways to connect all of Myanmar’s places. I don’t think I’ve met a single traveller who’s done the same route I did. So start by making a list of places you want to visit and then connect the dots.

Yangon
A lot of people fly in and out of Yangon. It’s easy, although I’ve met some people who came from Thailand over land and said that was fine too. I think Yangon is the perfect introduction to the country. There are so many different people, people from all over the country, from different ethnicities and religions, that all live together here. There are some must see sights like the Shwedagon pagoda and you can eat your way around the city on the many markets and food stalls.

A place to stay: When I first arrived I stayed at the 4 Rivers Hostel. It’s a great place to meet people. They also arrange onward transportation and you can make a sign up list for other travellers to share a taxi. Breakfast is basic, but the rooms are comfortable. This hostel is very close to a night market that is held on Strand road, close to the river.
When I came back to Yangon I stayed at Scott @ 31st street. This area seems more touristy than the other hostel a few streets down. It’s slightly more expensive. There is a café downstairs that serves a basic breakfast in the morning. The rooms are small but comfortable. You are super close to the Sule pagoda and Mahabandoola park, which has a food market right next to it.

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Yangon’s Shwedagon pagoda

Mandalay
Many people don’t like Mandalay, but in my eyes it is a pretty modern city, with a lot of big houses. I also found the most modern shopping centers here. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the city, but I can certainly recommend visiting Sagaing, Inwa, the Mahagandhayon monastery and U bein bridge on a day trip. If you are active you can do it all by bike, but there are also a lot of taxi drivers who do the day trip, which makes it a bit more relaxed. It’s a popular thing to do, so you’ll see lots of tourists at the stops, but it’s still worth doing it. If you have another day, you can also take the ferry to Mingun and have a look around this small town with ruins and pagodas.

A place to stay: I stayed at the Ace Star BnB backpacker hostel. It’s an affordable, clean hostel with comfortable beds. They have a sign up sheet for the taxi day trip to U bein bridge etc. For 10.000K you can join in and you share the taxi with 2 or 3 other people from the hostel. There is a good breakfast on the rooftop in the morning.

 

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U Bein bridge at sunset

 

Bagan
Bagan is Myanmar’s star, something you absolutely cannot miss. From the town you can go to a gigantic plain filled with temples on an e-bike, an electric scooter. Don’t just tick off the big, famous temples, but take your time to cruise around and stop at anything you find interesting. If you need a change, you can visit Mt. Popa, a place of Nat worship that has excellent views, especially at sunset.

A place to stay: There are basically three places you can stay; Old Bagan, New Bagan or Nyaung-U. I stayed in Nyaung -U, buy it really doesn’t matter, because you can move around easily by e-bike. There is one big hostel in town, which is Ostello Bello (it can also be found in Mandalay and Inle lake). I must say this hostel is very pricy for a backpacker, but it’s the most social place in town. The rooms are big, clean and comfortable. The hostel organizes tours for sunrise, sunset and sometimes also during the day or to Mt Popa. There are also activities at night. Around the hostel are a lot of places to eat and next door you can rent an e-bike and then they will do your laundry for free.

Inle lake
When you’re in Inle, you just have to get out onto the lake. Get a boat and visit some of the handicraft workshops, the pagodas at Inthein, the cat monastery, the floating gardens, the fishermen and Phaung Daw Oo Paya (with a Buddha that is barely recognizable because of all the gold leaf applied). I recommend taking your own boat and explaining to your boatman what you want to see. I ended up with a girl who loved the shopping and therefore barely had time to visit the more cultural sights. I can also recommend getting up early and taking a boat out for sunrise. Seen from the lake, the sunrise is amazing and you can see early morning life on the lake.
If you want to see the surroundings of the lake from a different perspective, you can rent a bike an cycle around the lake. You have to take a ferry boat to cross the lake and then you can continue on the other side. There is a winery, the forest monastery with good views of the lake and there are hot springs and more monasteries along the way. The hot springs are expensive at 10USD for a modern pool. There is nothing natural about it.
Another monastery you can go to is Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung/Shwe Yan Pyay. It’s a super touristy, but very scenic teak wood monastery. There is another building next door that is just as, if not more, interesting and has small Buddha statues in niches all around the walls.

A place to stay: Although there are resorts around Inle lake, most people will stay in Nyaung Shwe. I stayed at Ostello Bello, which is a lot cheaper here than the other hostels of the same chain. I loved the big rooms and nice warm showers. It is centrally located and if you want you can sign up for a sunrise boat trip or a day boat trip. The hostel also organizes some activities at night and a walk around the 5-day market when it is in town.
I’ve also heard good things about Song of Travel. Although it is slightly further out of town, they offer free bicycles so you can get everywhere you want to go.

Kalaw
Kalaw is a very small town, which makes it a good break after a busy city. There is not a whole lot to see, but it is nice to walk around town, check out the view from the monastery, stroll over the market and walk around the countryside, perhaps to Shwe U Min Paya, a temple with two caves that are filled with statues of Buddha.

A place to stay: I didn’t book ahead, but found a room at the Golden Kalaw Inn. This place has rooms as well as a dorm. I shared a room with someone and it was only 1 dollar more expensive than the dorm because we shared the costs. I heard from others that the dorm is very spacious and comfortable as well. There is a roof terrace to hang out and they serve a decent breakfast in the morning.

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And on and on we go

Hsipaw
Northern Shan state has some fighting going on at the moment, so the area around Hsipaw can be unsafe. It is very hard to get information about it until you are in Hsipaw itself. They look at the situation every day and can give you advise. It is a popular place for trekkings and in January 2017, when I was there, it was only possible to do one or two-day treks due to the safety issues. I have heard stories from other people that went on a three-day trekking and heard the guns from the fights. During my two-day trekking, I didn’t notice anything at all.
If you don’t like trekking, there is a lot more to do around Hsipaw. There is a place called little Bagan, with some crumbly pagodas. Around that area you can also find monasteries and mrs. Popcorn, a popular place for a refreshment in the garden. I can highly recommend going to the Shan palace. At first it doesn’t look like much, but the story the caretaker tells is really interesting. There are also some hills from which you can watch the sunset. Or, you can walk to a waterfall and the hot springs, although the hot springs are more lukewarm. If you want a break, go see Mr. Shake, you have to wait for a long time, but the milkshakes are delicious.

A place to stay: I stayed at the popular Mr. Charles guest house. It is super cheap, 7USD for a dorm, and comfortable enough. Showers and toilets are clean and the breakfast is really good and diverse. There is luggage storage if you go on a trekking and you can organize the trekking at the guest house.

Pyin O Lwin
This sleepy town is a town most people just pass by. It’s a shame. It is one of the places where I could have stayed longer. When you are out exploring, you’ll notice there aren’t many tourists and you’ll see the same faces a lot. On the main street are a lot of tea houses and some restaurants. There are also some great bakeries with Indian sweets. If you walk around you’ll notice there are still a few colonial buildings around.
The main attraction are the National Kandawgyi gardens. It is not just a garden, but also has an aviary, a boardwalk with two monkeys, a butterfly museum and a watch tower. You can easily spend a few hours here.
A bit further out of town you can visit the gigantic Anisakan waterfall. The easiest way to get there is to take a motorbike taxi (about 3000K each way) and then walk down. If you’re lucky you will find a guide who can take you through the bush and can show you the different layers and views of the waterfall along the way. You can go for a swim here if you like.
In the other direction is the Pwe Kauk waterfall. I didn’t have time to visit this, but there is meant to be an old amusement park because the British liked to come here for recreation. You can combine this with going to Pyeik chin Miang, a cave with Buddha statues, close to the village Wet Wun.

A place to stay: Unfortunately Pyin O Lwin is more expensive than other places. I tried to find a cheap guest house while walking around the town, but the cheaper places did not have a license for tourists. I ended up in the Orchid Nann Myaing hotel, which has hotel rooms as well as dorms. It all looks a bit old, but the rooms are spacious and have ensuite bathrooms with hot water. There is internet and the bikes are free. A motorbike or shared tuktuk into town will costs you 1000-1500K.

Mrauk-U
It takes a long time to reach Mrauk-U. The bus ride from Yangon is about 22 hours, and from Bagan about 15 hours. I think this is why a lot of people don’t make it out here. You can fly into Sittwe as well and then take the bus or boat to Mrauk-U, which takes about 4-6 hours, depending on the transport.
The town itself has a nice market and a few places to eat. The main attraction is the bunker style temples that are scattered around the town. They are fascinating to explore and I found that often I was the only tourist in the temples. From the outside they look like military structures, but inside you can find beautifully preserved Buddha statues in dark hallways.
To get a break from the temples, you can join a tour to the Chin villages. It seems like all the tour guides visit the same villages. If you are travelling solo, Mr Fix It can arrange a shared trip. He is always actively looking for people, approaching tourists when they pass by the Lay Mro River guest house (or look for him there). I paid 25.000K and shared the boat with two others. I had already booked and was then approached by Htwe Kyi in a restaurant. He also seemed to have good English and he is originally from the Chin village and comes to Mrauk-U to work as a guide during the winter. You can email him at htwekyichin@gmail.com. After a two hour boat ride you visit 4 Chin villages. You cannot visit the Chin state itself, but these people moved to Rakhine state when the Japanese were causing trouble in the Chin state. Some of the older women still have tattoos on their faces. They will be put in front of you like a show pony and you can take photos. It feels like you’re in the zoo and is quite uncomfortable. However, ask anyone else in the village for a photo and they’ll be honoured and curious to see the result. The trip is worth it just to see the village life.

A place to stay: I think I found the cheapest guest house in town, at 7USD for a private room with your own bathroom. It’s at the Kyaw Soe guest house, which isn’t online. You can rock up or call them in advance at +959265715799. A lot of locals stay here. As a foreigner you get breakfast included. The bed is extremely comfortable. There is no wifi though and showers are cold.

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The beautiful faces of the Chin people.

What you need to know

Visa – you are not allowed to travel to Myanmar without applying for a visa or an evisa first. It is really easy. You just apply and within a few days you get the confirmation. Print it and bring it on your trip. You have to get to Myanmar within 90 days of receiving the confirmation. The visa itself is valid for 28 days. You can apply for the visa and find more information here.

Money – I came to Myanmar with some US dollars as an emergency budget. In the end it turned out I didn’t need them at all, although you might want to bring them anyway. If you do, make sure they stay in top condition. If your dollar bills look a bit shabby, they will not be accepted. ATM’s are everywhere, even in the smaller towns. When I arrived I tried one ATM that didn’t work, but all the ATM’s after that were perfectly fine. You might want to check with your bank that it is going to work, but I had a maestro card, very European, and that worked well. You can take out 300.000K at a time and they charge a 5000K withdrawal fee per transaction.
The funny thing about Myanmar is that they still take the US dollar to derive their prices from. At most hotels and hostels you can also pay with US dollars. Often the price is even given in dollars and then they calculate the amount of Kyats with the conversion rate of the day. If you do take dollars and need Kyats, there are a lot of money changers everywhere. You do need Kyats though, since most shops, street stalls etc. will only accept Kyats.

Transport – If you have the time you can travel around Myanmar cheaply by bus and train. The bus is often slightly faster than the train, but trains are dirt cheap. If you are planning on taking the train, keep in mind there are different classes with different comfort levels. There are also sleeper trains, for example between Yangon and Mandalay. Train travel is often slow, since the tracks are really old. The train is also incredibly shaky. However, it is probably the best way to see and meet the locals. For excellent information about trains, check out seat61.

Buses are actually pretty shaky as well. A lot of the roads in Myanmar are pretty broken up, too small for big vehicles, and in some areas windy. For some routes you can choose between day- or night buses. The night bus saves you time and sometimes hostel costs. However, the design of the schedules is terrible, with buses arriving in the middle of the night.
There are several different kind of buses. The most luxurious version is the VIP bus, which I haven’t tried. These buses only go on certain routes. I took mostly express buses, which are still comfortable enough, but don’t give you as much space as the VIP bus. In some of my buses the seats reclined, in others they didn’t. In all of the buses I got refreshments like fanta, water, energy drink and a whole pack of cookies. Buses stop for food and toilet stops, but have no toilet on board.
On some routes you can also take a shared taxi or minivan. I took this option from Pyin O Lwin to Mandalay. It is much quicker and you get dropped off right at your hotel.
You can book most buses at the hotels and guest houses, although it can be cheaper at travel agents. Often, yet not always, the trip includes a pick up from your hotel.

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On the Gok Teik viaduct.

A popular train ride for tourists is the track between Pyin O Lwin and Hsipaw. It is very scenic when it crosses the Gok Teik viaduct. If you are looking for a local experience, take the ordinary class (wooden benches though). The upper class is full of tourists. Throughout the train ride vendors will come through the train to offer snacks and refreshments. You could even start this journey in Mandalay. Mandalay to Hsipaw takes about 10 to 12 hours, whereas Pyin O Lwin to Hsipaw is only 6 hours. A shared taxi from Pyin O Lwin to Mandalay takes only two hours.

Toilets – Be prepared for the toilets! At hostels and guest houses you will find normal toilets. Sometimes even at the better restaurants. At most restaurants, bus stops and on trekkings, you’ll have to deal with a squat toilet. Bring a roll of toilet paper with you wherever you go, because the Burmese are not used to using it. On that note, bring some hand sanitizer, because you can’t always wash your hands either.

Language – Even though Myanmar was once colonised by the British, the majority of the population speaks no English. Those that do will know enough to sell you something. Only the exceptions can hold a full conversation. Mostly, people will take the time to help you out anyway if you need something. If you learn some Burmese, even if it’s just hello ‘Mingalabar’, people will appreciate it a lot. Myanmar is a country with many minorities, each with their own language, but most people will speak Burmese as well.

Haggling -Most of the time the Burmese will give you a fair price for a product. For more expensive things it is not uncommon to haggle though, especially when it comes to souvenirs.

Safety – Unfortunately Myanmar still has areas where fights are going on between minority groups and the national military. There is also a big opium trade in the north. Therefore some areas are off limits to tourists. Always check the current circumstances and see if there are any travel restrictions. Questionable areas at the moment are Hsipaw and Mrauk-U. These tourist destinations are close to the areas where the fighting is happening. Locals will know what you can and cannot do. In Hsipaw they might limit the trekking options. I visited both of these places and felt completely safe. Most Western governments are advising against travelling to these regions though.
As a girl travelling alone you always have to be a bit careful. I found Myanmar very safe though. I was never uncomfortable walking by myself.

Accommodation – Myanmar is one of the more expensive places to stay in South East Asia. In general you can find a place to stay for around 10 dollars if you are not too picky. However, sometimes it is nice to stay at the more expensive hostel that has a better social atmosphere. If you are travelling in a pair, you can often find a private room for two for the same price as two hostel beds. There aren’t many hostels, apart from some cities, but you can get a dorm in a guest house or even in hotels. In most places breakfast is included.

Activities – A popular thing to do is to go on a trekking. There are two popular destinations for this: Kalaw to Inle lake and around Hsipaw. For both you have the option for a two- or three-day trekking. During the trekking you’ll eat and sleep in small villages. It shows you a side of the country you wouldn’t get otherwise. It’s also a good way to sample some of the local food, which you might not order in a restaurant.

img_6521Balloons over Bagan is another activity that is on a lot of people’s itinerary. It would of course be cool, but it also costs about 400 USD and mostly needs to be booked in advance. If you don’t have the budget for this, just make sure you get out there for sunrise, on top of some temple, and see all the balloons pass by.

Food – Not the least important of all things, you’ll need to eat. Myanmar does do street food, although there are also many affordable restaurants, both local ones and ones with western meals. Make sure you try the tea leaf salad. They bury the tea leaves until they are fermented and then make a salad with it. It’s way better than it sounds! Another really tasty thing is the avocado salad and mint salad. Other than that there is a great variety of Myanmar curries and you can find Nepalese or Indian food. In the Shan state, try the Shan noodle soup! The Burmese also have a lot of sweets, like a peanuts/nougat bar and cookies with coconut.

I was in Myanmar in December 2016 – January 2017. I hope this information can help you make decisions on where to go and help you plan your trip. 

 

 

 

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