If you’re looking for a country relatively-untouched by tourism, with stunning landscapes, fascinating culture, and welcoming people, then Myanmar could be the place for you.
In the past couple of years, as the country’s leadership has moved towards a more democratic state, Myanmar has been opening up to tourism. It’s never been easier to get in and travel around… yet, the commercialisation seen in the neighbouring countries is yet to gain a stronghold.
The logistics of travel can still be slightly tricky (but nothing to stress about) but because they’re constantly changing, I’m only going to address them in general terms here. Instead I would like to mainly use this travel guide to give you some ideas on what to see and do while you’re in Myanmar.
Thankfully Myanmar now has a smattering of ATMs in the bigger cities and tourist spots which means you don’t have to worry so much about running out of cash. In theory they accept Visa and MasterCard but Visa seems to be more likely to work. If you’re hoping to rely on ATMs, take both types in case. Also be warned there’s a fee of about $6 for each withdrawal. They dispense kyat.
Two currencies are used by tourists in Myanmar – US dollars and the local kyat (pronounced chat). You’ll mainly use US dollars for hotels, trains, boats, tours and some souvenirs. Kyat will be used for daily transactions like food, drinks and buses. A lot of places will accept both but you won’t get a favourable exchange rate for the one they don’t prefer.
The biggest issue you will have is with the quality of your US notes. They need to be in pristine condition with no marks, dirt, tears, folds, etc. The people in Myanmar will have absolutely no qualms just rejecting them and insisting you pay with clean ones! Also, try to collect smaller notes as you go along because often people won’t have change for large notes and, once again, they’ll just reject them.
Transport is easy, in a sense. Just don’t expect it to be convenient or comfortable.
The first option are flights, but I’d only really recommend this if you’re in a hurry. It will obviously cost a lot more, you’ll have to book in advance and you won’t get to see any of the interesting life that land transportation takes you past.
Trains are another option in many places. They should also be your last option. The trains are overpriced, slow and extremely uncomfortable. Even if you’re used to old trains swaying from side to side, you’ll be shocked by how these ones feel like they’re jumping off the track. My bag came flying off the shelf on one trip and, on an overnight journey, I somehow had to sleep while gripping on to a railing to stop myself from being thrown into the aisle in the middle of the night. Still, it’s an experience worth having on a short journey and the one benefit is that they normally take you right into the centre of a city.
Buses are the easiest way to get around and once you get outside some of the larger cities, perhaps the only way. They’re quite cheap – it normally averages out at about $1 or $1.50 an hour – and are quite direct. The problems with the actual journey are the seats aren’t particularly large or comfortable, the airconditioning is normally either too hot or too cold, and there’s often annoying loud local music playing. The other thing you’ll need to cope with is that often there aren’t many departures, so your whole day might revolve around waiting for a particular bus… and often they have a habit of arriving at 4 or 5 or 6 in the morning. Annoying.
The other modes of transport worth mentioning are:
- Motorbike taxis: which are good for short distances between nearby towns or to outlying suburbs
- Pickup trucks: which are good for trips between 1 and 2 hours between towns (although you will be squeezed in with a bunch of locals)
- Shared taxis: which are more expensive but a good way to get between places if you don’t want to wait hours for a bus
- Boats: which can be an expensive but extremely comfortable and picturesque way to get between major cities on the Irrawaddy River (the most popular route being between Bagan and Mandalay and vice versa).
The amount of accommodation in Myanmar is not keeping pace with the burgeoning tourist numbers which means there’s a chronic shortage in many places. It also means prices are quickly going up because owners have realised they can get away with it. My range for single rooms in February 2013 was $7 – $25.
If you don’t book in advance you will generally be able to find something in the ‘affordable guesthouse’ range but it might not be your first choice. The hardest places to find accommodation are Bagan and Inle Lake.
Most hotels and guesthouses aren’t very reliable with email bookings so the best thing is to call ahead and try to make a reservation. Most places you stay will let you use their phone for a small fee to ring and make bookings. This is advisable if you don’t feel like wandering the streets when you arrive somewhere at 5 in the morning. The nicer and more expensive places will take advance bookings from websites.
This will be one of the highlights of your trip to Myanmar. The heritage has not been lost and muddied by modernisation. You’ll find a unique culture that the people are very proud of and want to share with you. In preparation, check out some of these tips for experiencing local Myanmar culture.
Where to go?
The big four:
There’s a good chance you’ll fly into Yangon – the largest city in Myanmar but no longer the capital. It’s a dirty and busy mess of an urban centre with hectic streets and lots of activity. At least, those were my first impressions of Yangon.
There’s enough to see and do here to pass a few days but it’s worth getting out to see the rest of the country quite quickly. The highlight here is, of course, the incredible Shwedagon Pagoda. If you have time, try to also take the Circle Line train, which is a loop of about three hours and gives you a great insight into local life in Yangon.
Bagan has been one of the main reasons for tourists to come to Myanmar for years. The ancient temple city has had very little development within its borders and is hard to place in time. There are more than four thousand structures here and you’ll need to rent a bicycle or get some other mode of transportation to explore it. Although you can see the highlights in one day, most people choose to spend a bit longer and see the big structures and discover some of the smaller ones for themselves. Read more about visiting Bagan here.
The name alone evokes romantic images of Myanmar but, like most big cities, much of Mandalay is just urban sprawl. The big sights like the Royal Palace make it worthwhile, though, and there are lots of beautiful pagodas around Mandalay Hill – not to mention the climb up the hill itself. As I’ll mention soon, some of the best things are in the surrounding areas.
This is the smallest of the ‘big four’ and for that reason feels the most touristy but Inle Lake is not to be missed. Most of the action happens on the water where the communities live in wooden houses on islands or suspended above the lake. You’ll probably stay along the coastline and explore the lake by boat one day. You can also hire bicycles and ride around some of it yourself – including the local market on the northeastern part of the lake. As you can read, be prepared for the effects of tourism at Inle Lake, though.
Off the track:
- Bago: A couple of hours east of Yangon is the small city of Bago. On first appearances it doesn’t appear to have much to offer but the deeper you delve, the more you’ll find. It’s a wonderful snapshot of Myanmar with its mix of religion, food, culture and progress. Make sure you hire a guide who can show you all the different aspects. Check out this story for a guide who can take you to more than just the sights of Bago.
- Twante: This is an easy day or half-day trip from Yangon. Just catch the ferry across to Dala and then choose either a taxi, pickup truck or motorbike to take you to Twante. The town is known for its pottery stores and has a very nice pagoda… but half the enjoyment is in the journey itself. Try to use a motorbike or taxi for at least one direction and stop at some of the sights along the road, especially the snake temple. Read more about a day trip to Twante here.
- Chaung Tha: Myanmar is not traditionally known for its beaches but it actually has a few nice ones. The easiest to get to is Chaung Tha, about six hours by direct bus. It’s relatively quiet and has some nice islands you can swim out to. There’s plenty of accommodation at different price ranges. You can see photos of Chaung Tha here.
- Pyay: This isn’t really that close to Yangon but, being halfway between there and Bagan, you’ll either be coming or going if you decide to stop. The town is quite uninspiring – the reason to stop is for the ancient Pyu city of Sri Kestra. Although its not as impressive as Bagan, it’s likely to be Myanmar’s first site on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The ancient Pyu city of Sri Kestra is interesting for history’s sake.
- Mount Popa: The monastery on the top of a volcanic plug at Mount Popa is quite a sight from a distance and quite a climb from the bottom. Hundreds of monkeys guard the stairs, making it even more of a gauntlet. It’s a unique sight to visit, though, and is no more than a half day trip from Bagan to the Mount Popa Monastery.
- Inwa and Amarapura: These old capitals of Burma – along with a few other sites – can all be easily done as a day trip from Mandalay and it’s something I would highly recommend. All the local guides and motorbike drivers have an easy set itinerary so you won’t even have to make any decisions. The island and ancient Burmese capital of Inwa is intriguing and sunset at the U Bein teak bridge is gorgeous.
- Pyin Oo Lwin: Although not worth a trip on its own, Pyin Oo Lwin is a little slice of old British colonial days that is worth a few hours if you are passing through (or overnight if you feel like a rest). The old Tudor mansions of Pyin Oo Lwin seem a bit out of place but that’s the point.
- Hsipaw: If you have time to travel up to Hsipaw (about six hours from Mandalay) and then spend a few days on a hike, this will be one of the highlights of a trip to Myanmar. From this sleepy little town you can launch treks in the surrounding areas with local guides. The treks through the villages of Shan State will bring you closer to the rural parts of the country as anywhere else and you’ll have the opportunity to eat and sleep in the villagers’ houses.
SOUTH OF YANGON
Unfortunately I didn’t make it down here myself because my visa ran out, but The Golden Rock is one of the iconic images of Myanmar and a great photo opportunity. I’ve been told the town of Mawlamyine and the surrounding towns are also a good slice of Myanmar life.
The key to enjoying Myanmar is to embrace the local people, because they seem to want to show you how wonderful their country can be. The tourist areas are popular for good reasons but there are plenty of places you can get off ‘the beaten path’ and feel like you are really exploring. Moreso than any country in SE Asia, tourism is not the main industry and, although that brings some challenges, it also provides the greatest rewards.
Myanmar is a safe country, it’s a welcoming country, and it’s a beautiful country. You will love your trip there and the more you give, the more you’ll get back.
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