Myanmar is changing so fast that up-to-date information about the country is hard to find. For instance, most of the guidebooks still say ATMs are scarce (they aren’t), and that the bus from Yangon to Bagan takes 8 to 9 hours (the road has been repaved and it now only takes 6). So this is all the useful information I could think of, all accurate from my trip in February / March 2015. I hope it is helpful for anyone planning to go, and if you have any specific questions then please do shoot me an email / tweet / comment and I’ll do my best to help.
Before you go:
- You need to apply for your Visa. UK citizens can get this in full by either sending forms and your passport to the Myanmar embassy or going to it yourself, or getting an eVisa which gives you an acceptance letter which you print out and get your passport stamped on arrival. Both are valid for 90 days once issued, and are for a 28 day tourist stay in the country. I opted for the latter, which was very easy, arriving just a few hours after I had submitted my application. The only issue is you can’t use the machines at Heathrow to check in (they ask you for your Visa code which you don’t have) and I’m not sure if you can check-in online with them either, and the queue is longer when you land. If you are arriving late at night I’d consider getting a full one. Apply for your eVisa here, and full visa here.
- Do you want to do a balloon ride over Bagan? If so, then book a few months in advance. I recommend going with Oriental balloons. Also, if you have the money, it’s worth considering doing one over Inle Lake – I didn’t but apparently it is spectacular.
- Do you want to trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake? This takes two or three nights so you need to leave time in your itinerary, and bring decent trainers / boots and thermals with you. You don’t need to pre-book the trek, they are very easy to organise in Kalaw.
- Book at least your first few nights accommodation, if not more.
- Get pristine dollars out. See ‘Money’ below.
What to pack:
- All guesthouses supply towels so there’s no need to bring a travel one (mine got dumped a few weeks in).
- Flip-flops and one pair of hiking boots or trainers are all you really need footwear wise, unless you plan on going to a few upmarket restaurants or staying in swish hotels, in which case a pair of smart shoes would probably be a good idea.
- Bring a fleece. It gets cold at night in Kalaw, and the air-con on buses can be fierce. Thick socks are a good call too!If you plan to trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake then bring thermals as well. Most people complained of being cold.
- Myanmar is very conservative, so you need to cover your shoulders and legs: loose trousers and shirts or t-shirts are perfect, for both men and women. You need to be fully covered to go into temples so if you’re wearing anything less then make sure you have a sarong or scarf in your bag (men, you can’t wear shorts into temples).
- Bring plenty of bug spray. I swear by Incognito, a natural alternative to Deet, but still occasionally used the stronger stuff!
- The internet is dire all over the country and I couldn’t really upload photos. If you’re worried about losing your holiday memories bring a USB stick to keep separate to your camera or laptop. Computers in guesthouses are very rare so a laptop or iPad is very useful for researching and booking accommodation. Just be warned you will end up screaming at it! If you need good internet for a day, then take your laptop to the pool at the Amazing Hotel in Bagan – it has fiberoptic installed, and was the only decent speed WiFi I found. Make sure you’ve also downloaded all the books to your kindle and movies / TV shows to your computer or iPad that you might want to watch / read before departing. It will be pretty much impossible to do once you are there. I also swear by Podcasts for long bus rides. All the Radiotopia ones are brilliant. A VPN can help speed things up, but you’ll still struggle (I use Express VPN, which has been fantastic. I now use it for keeping up-to-date with Question Time *cough* Made in Chelsea *cough*).
- Guidebook wise I took the Lonely Planet which was on the whole very good, having been recently updated (2014). I didn’t always agree with the author’s taste in food however, and the map of Pyin oo Lwin is quite frankly, wrong. My mum had the DK Eyewitness guidewhich she said was very good for giving her an overview of where I was!
There is no obvious route around Myanmar, and no one set itinerary which everyone follows. Assuming you want to visit the four main places – Yangon, Bagan, Kalaw and Inle Lake, and Mandalay you have two options, mainly dependant on if you want to fly in and out of Yangon, or fly into Yangon and out of Mandalay (or the other way around).
If flying in and out of Yangon it makes sense to do a circle. I would suggest Yangon – Kalaw and Inle Lake – Mandalay – Bagan – Yangon, as that way you can get the boat from Mandalay to Bagan which is very popular and a lot of people seemed to really enjoy (you can go Bagan to Mandalay but it is much slower). Having said that the boat doesn’t run in the peak dry season so do check!
If flying into Yangon and out of Mandalay then I would suggest Yangon – Bagan – Kalaw and Inle Lake – Mandalay (which is roughly what I did).
You can obviously then add side-trips into this if you have longer or want to explore more. Mawlaymine from Yangon would be a fantastic as I really loved that city, as would Pyin Oo Lwin, or even Hipsaw if you have time, north from Mandalay (do check with a local about the political situation in Hipsaw before booking your tickets though – fighting can break out sporadically).
A reasonably paced 15 night itinerary could look like:
Yangon: 3 nights
Overnight bus to Bagan
Bagan: 2 nights
Kalaw: 2 nights
Inle lake: 3 nights
Mandalay: 2 nights
Pyin oo Lwin: 2 nights
Fly from Mandalay
If you don’t want to travel as much, or have less time then you could cut out one of big four. I would suggest Mandalay. I really liked the city but there isn’t that much to see in it, and the only big draw is the U-Bein bridge just outside it.
- Basically dollars are used for all large sums – most guesthouses quote their price and expect you to pay in dollars – and kyat is used as change. I’d suggest bringing in with you enough dollars for your whole trip, as you can’t get them out of cash machines and lose out twice by exchanging into them from kyat. Credit / debit cards are only really accepted at the fanciest of hotels and restaurants.
- They aren’t joking when they say bring pristine dollars. Even ones that had been lightly folded got rejected. Keep yours flat in a plastic wallet and you should be ok. If you do exchange into them in the country then double check every single one is perfect before accepting it.
- There are now cash machines in all the main cities, towns and tourist hubs, accepting both Visa and Mastercard, so you can get kyat out easily. There’re also cash machines at Yangon and Mandalay airports. You’re charged 5000kyat for each withdrawal, and as the country felt so safe, I took huge chunks out at a time and then divided it between a couple of places.
- Double / triple check the zeros on the ends of the kyat you are spending. It can get very confusing working in such large numbers!
Myanmar is definitely not the cheapest country in South East Asia, and I only spent less there than I did in Thailand because there wasn’t as much to spend my money on. Accommodation is definitely not as good value as Indonesia or Malaysia (both of which I found much cheaper overall), and while local street food is cheap, Western food isn’t.
I did however spend the majority of my time in the big four hubs, which are much more expensive than everywhere else in the country. In Mawlaymine and Hpa-an for instance, I only spent about £20 a day!
I should also say that £50 a day is my budget so I wasn’t trying to spend much less than that. You definitely could if you wanted / needed to, and obviously travelling in a couple or group, or pairing up with someone you meet, would significantly decrease it.
So here is how much I spent and how I spent it, and my thoughts on how you could cut it down if you wanted to. It includes everything from when I landed, to when my plane took flight from Mandalay.
Total for 28 days: £1424.01
I stayed mainly in guesthouses in a double room (paying full price – single discounts are limited) with air con, en-suite and hot water. I had two “treat nights” in boutique hotels, and spent three nights in Pyin Oo Lwin sharing a very nice room with Bella. You could pretty much halve this if travelling as a couple. See below for more on accommodation.
I didn’t drink alcohol (a vineyard aside!) so this would go up considerably if you do. I ate a lot of street and local food, and made quite a few attempts at finding decent Western food. This also includes a serious iced-coffee addiction (the next best thing to the proper stuff!) which turned out to be quite expensive. I often spent far more on cold drinks a day than I did on food! See below for more on food.
This includes one flight (Heho, near Inle Lake, to Mandalay) and one long private taxi ride (Bagan to Kalaw). You could definitely cut this down if you exclusively take buses and trains, and don’t fly or take long distance taxis. This also includes local transport such as tuk-tuks, taxis and motorbike taxis, so this would be lower per person if travelling in a couple. See below for more on transport.
Attractions: £145. 46
The entrance fees to the Bagan and Inle Lake ‘zones’ are quite high and make up a good chunk of this. You often have to pay to enter temples as well and these can add up. It includes my cookery class, but not my hot air balloon ride as it was a Christmas present and as it was so expensive would dramatically skewer my budget!
Everything else: £94.98
Laundry, souvenirs, things I needed and a few other things I can’t remember!
It’s not always easy! While there is a lot more infrastructure for tourists than even a year ago, its still very much in development and certain routes are tricky. There are five main transport options:
Boat: Only really viable Mandalay to Bagan, but if you go south then look into the boat from Mawlaymine to Hpa-an which is apparently lovely, and I’m very annoyed at myself for not taking.
Train: I would advise against doing any sizeable distance by train. It takes much longer than bus, and is supremely uncomfortable. Many people say they want to do it for the local experience but most people I spoke to had either been locked in a cabin away from everyone, or had found the experience so harrowing that they had barely spoken to anyone anyway! If you do want to take one, then I recommend the ride from Kalaw to Inle Lake. It’s beautiful, and only takes a few hours.
Airplane: I was surprised by how many people were taking internal flights. They are pretty cheap (compared to Europe at least), and given the time it takes to get between places otherwise, completely understandable. They are however, obviously, not great for the environment and many of the companies have links to the government. I took one with Air KBZ which I was told is the nicest of the local airlines, and has the best safety record but I didn’t verify this (it might not be true). If you are short of time then they are definitely worth it. Be warned thought that they occasionally leave early if everyone is checked in. Don’t fall asleep!
Bus: The main way most people get around (or backpackers at the very least), as they are much faster than trains. They vary massively in quality, from the plushest I’ve ever been on (seat-back TVs), to the worse journey ever. VIP buses run on some routes, and if you can get one of these then do. Look out for ones that are 2-1 in formation (only 3 seats in a row) as these are the good ones! Always bring a fleece and warm socks, the air-con is fierce. Bottles of water are provided on VIP buses but its always good to have your own. They stop every 3 hours or so for toilet breaks, and there is normally a cafe or something similar to pick up snacks. Always make a note of where your bus is when you disembark, and find some way of identifying it from the others, even if the buses around it change (which they do).
Taxi: If travelling in a couple or group, it’s definitely worth asking how much a taxi from place to place is. They can be pricey, but will go guesthouse to guesthouse so make sure you add in your taxis either end to and from the bus / train station when working out if it is worth it. You can also then ask to stop off along the way at some sights and generally have a more pleasant day.
There are VIP overnight buses from Yangon to both Kalaw and Bagan, and these are so quick and comfortable that there’s little point flying I think (also most guesthouses in Bagan expect you to arrive very early in the morning and will have your room ready, and don’t seem to charge extra for it). The really horrible route is across from Bagan to Kalaw or Inle Lake. I didn’t meet anyone who had done it who had had a pleasant trip! I ended up taking a private taxi across which was obviously very expensive but I think in the end worth it (I tried to find someone to share it with but failed). There are no VIP buses (that I’m aware of) running from Inle Lake up to Mandalay either, and the road is very windy, so that is a leg worth considering flying too.
For what’s it’s worth I would go between the five main sights like this:
Yangon – overnight VIP bus – Bagan – fly / taxi – Kalaw – train / walk – Inle Lake – fly / taxi – Mandalay.
Yangon – overnight VIP bus – Kalaw – train / walk – Inle Lake – fly / taxi – Mandalay – boat – Bagan – overnight VIP bus – Yangon.
Within cities or towns you can either take taxis (the only option in Yangon), tuk-tuks, or motorbike taxis. The last is obviously a personal decision. In Mandalay you will be offered a helmet to wear, in smaller towns you won’t. As a solo traveller they were fantastic, and I love riding them! Most of the drivers have been riding motorbikes around their towns for years, and are very experienced, and I on the whole felt safe. I always looked out for someone I liked the look of (essentially – did they have a nice face? Ok, maybe not a failsafe method), and then asked them to go slowly and carefully.
Where to Stay:
- I stayed mainly in guesthouses, opting for a private room (more often than not a double – single rooms are scarce), with air-con, a private en-suite and hot water. In Yangon / Bagan / Inle Lake / Mandalay this was between $30 and $45 a night. The price drops dramatically outside of these areas where you can get the above for about $20 / night. These were normally clean and comfortable enough, but often very bland.
- As I was travelling solo I looked for places that had communal areas or gardens that I could sit in and meet people. I also looked for anything where people said the staff were friendly, and that it was clean! Apart from Kalaw and Pyin oo Lwin, which are quite cool at night, air-con was an essential for me. I mainly used Lonely Planet, cross referenced with Trip Advisor.
- There are a few hostels around which have dorm rooms if you’re travelling solo and you want to keep the costs down. They’re by no means everywhere yet though (I imagine this will change over the next year or so).
- I had a couple of “treat nights” at boutique hotels, and stayed with Bella somewhere quite nice in Pyin oo Lwin. These were on the whole very good value, and if you have the cash then it’s worth investigating what you can get for a little more.
- There isn’t all that much accommodation available, and the popular places such as those rating highly on TripAdvisor or in the Lonely Planet, do get booked up. If you want your first choice of accommodation then it’s best to book at least a week ahead. You can sometimes do this via email, but you can only book by phone at some of the cheaper places. This always felt like a bit of a risk, as I was never hundred percent sure they understood but my reservation was always there, just usually under a rather odd spelling of my name!
Places to stay I highly recommend:
Where to Eat:
I have to admit I got a bit fed up with Myanmar food by the end! It can be very oily and very sour, and is often served cold (including curries). Shan noodles and fried shan tofu, often from the street, were my saviours, and I also enjoyed the myriad of deep-fried street food as well.
The local restaurants will often have a range of curries (which unless you go at midday, will be cold), displayed in steel trays which you pick and point to, to be served with rice, a peppery broth that is drunk with most meals, and a wide assortment of condiments, most of which will be some sort of shrimp paste.
Variety is hard to come by, so if you do find somewhere different then take advantage of it! Western food is often not that great, and sometimes very over-priced. Indian and Nepalese food, especially in Kalaw, was fantastic, as was the Thai food in Mandalay. I found the Chinese food everywhere very sweet, and covered in MSG.
Coffee lovers, steel yourselves: it’s not going to be easy. 3 in 1 packets are used pretty much everywhere, and are, in my opinion, disgusting (you can even get 4 in 1: coffee, creamer, sugar and TEA). Proper espresso based drinks are pretty much non-existent, (and my beloved flat whites had never even been heard of *sob*). I developed an alternative addiction to iced coffees which were quite sweet and sickly so gave me a sugar high in lieu of a caffeine one. If I was to go again I would take my own coffee and dripper. Seriously.
I really recommend doing a Burmese cookery class, I very much enjoyed my Flavours of Myanmar one.
Tipping isn’t that common, I never left more than the loose change and only properly tipped full-day guides.
Meeting and chatting to the people of Myanmar was just the biggest source of joy during my trip. I had some fantastic conversations, although interaction is probably a more accurate description, as I spoke no Burmese, and most locals speak very little English! Here are some, I hope not too condescending, tips.
- People often stare at you to begin with, but as soon as you smile at them their face will crack open into a wide smile, and they will eagerly say hello.
- English is limited in most places, and I often had to resort to sign language. Don’t be afraid of making a fool of yourself. My attempts were often laughed at, but, I hope, appreciated!
- Monks often have the best English, and I found them very relaxed compared to other parts of South East Asia, but I still always took my cues from them, never reaching out to touch or give them something first. They are often keen to practise their English, and will show you around and answer your questions about Myanmar culture. I found one particularly helpful monk in Hpa-an.
- I found joining in activities a great way of engaging with people; from the morning dance class at Inya Lake, to the games being played on the street: if I looked curiously at them, they would often invite me to sit down, and I would then try to figure out how to play, and make a few attempts. I was almost always offered a mug of green tea to drink while I did, and however dirty the mug was I always drank it!
- Wear something a little unusual. I have a big red necklace that looks like its made of chillies, and I swear 75% of my conversations are started from someone asking me about it!
- Cover up. I found men, and especially women, were much keener to talk to me when I was covered ankle to elbow. I also found wearing a longyi a great way of showing that I was keen to engage with the culture, and women often complimented me on it.
I personally found Myanmar a fantastic place to travel solo around. It’s so safe, and I felt very comfortable there. The men are very un-intimidating, and I always found people willing to help me if I needed it (I got lost quite a bit). I also think I had a far better experience on my own than I would have if I’d been in a couple or group. The people of Myanmar are still not very used to tourists and I think a little wary of big Western groups. As a solo female I think I was very easy to approach, and, from talking to other tourists, had far more interaction with locals than most. I also found that when I did a tour, or teamed up with other people for the day, I was approached far less.
That being said, I didn’t meet many other travellers like myself. This is perhaps down to the places I chose to stay, but I mainly met and spent time with couples on holiday – either in the their 30s or post-retirement. The backpacker scene is still young, and you do need to actively hunt it out if you are keen to meet and team up with others. It does also get frustrating having to constantly pay double a night for accommodation, and sometimes trips won’t run unless at least two people have signed up for them (although this is true all over SE Asia. Grrrr), or are priced per vehicle (tuk-tuk or boat) so are far more expensive unless you find others to join with you.
While the government might be singing a different tune, it’s still the same choir in power, so I tried very hard to avoid giving them any more of my money than I had to, and made sure that I did my best to benefit the local economy while I was there. Here are some tips:
- Try to spread your money around as much as possible. Avoid eating at your guesthouse or hotel if you can, and always buy your bottled water from different places (ok, so travelling fully responsibly would mean filtering your own water, but I’ve never found a system that works and doesn’t taste gross at the end! There are however little (drinkable) water fountains around the cities, so if you can fill your bottles up at them).
- Always stay at guesthouses and hotels that are locally owned so the profits stay in the local economy.
- Try to avoid always doing the obvious thing at each location, and branch away from the tourist track. Ask if there are other, alternative things you can do in an area, and if you do them try to spend a little money there.
- Ask your guides how eco-friendly and sustainable their tours are. The more people who ask these questions the more they will realise this is something people care about.
- My personal rule was to never take a photo of someone I haven’t had some sort of engagement and aquisence from them first (although it didn’t always work). People on the whole were very happy to have their photo taken, and always enjoyed seeing it on my screen afterwards!
- Ask questions, and show you are aware and care about their past. While most guidebooks advise not mentioning politics, I think you can as long as you tread carefully, and if they look uncomfortable or start giving you very wooly answers, stop. Don’t be deliberately provocative, and definitely don’t get aggressive.
So there you are, that is literally everything useful I can think to tell you! If you want to read more about my time in Mynamar, then perhaps start with my postcard and initial impressions!
This is my first post like this, so what do you think? Is it useful? Is there anything else I should have covered?