What The Guidebooks Don’t Tell You About Travelling in Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Our trip to Myanmar in March was an interesting one. It was not a country I immediately fell in love with, nor do I love it wholly and completely like I do most other countries in south east Asia. The reasons for this will become clear throughout this article, but I wouldn’t want any of them to deter you from travelling there. Being prepared and planning your trip well will reward you with a unique experience that you’re sure to want to repeat, and learning from our mistakes and understanding the country a bit before you travel will certainly temper your expectations.

This is an incredible country. The people are certainly amongst the most friendly I have ever met, they really go out of their way to welcome you or help you when you are lost and in need of advice. The cities are full of life, cafes and street food are abundant and the temples are the best I’ve seen in the world. The food is a unique blend of its neighbours flavours, plenty of Indian, Chinese and Thai tastes fused into some delightful dishes, most notably the curries. The natural scenery is raw and lush with wonderful trekking and picturesque lakes, not to mention the beaches, which have been likened to that of Mauritius or the Maldives.

However, this is also country that has a tumultuous past, like many others in the region, but far more recent. Military rule has seen the country cut off from the rest of the world for many years now, and though some tourists had ventured inside, it’s nothing compared to the amount of tourists that flock to neighbouring Thailand or India each year. Things are changing rapidly here now, and you’ll hear frequently on the tourist trail that you should visit this amazing country before it gets overrun with visitors, which to a certain extent is true, but believe me, it’s not quite that simple.

Getting around

It’s worth remembering that in a country more developed for tourism, it is far easier to travel around and get “off the beaten track”. If you take Thailand, for example, this is a country that has had a regular tourist market since the ’60s, and as such even the smallest villages in the mountains won’t flinch much at the sight of a tourist. You can move around the country easily and quickly using their minivan transport, pay the same price as the locals and get treated like one of the them for the most part. Of course there are scams all over the place in Bangkok and other tourist hubs, but that’s true of any country with tourism. In Myanmar you will not be afforded the same luxury. If, like us, you try to travel like a local and take the minivans you’ll be given strange looks, charged triple and told quite transparently that it’s the tourist price. You can hardly blame them, it’s an opportunity. Of course as westerners we can afford to pay more in theory, but the debate as to whether we should is a long one. All things considered, if you want to enjoy the treasures of Myanmar without too much trouble or fuss, it’s advisable to stick to the main areas, for ease of travel and because many parts of the country are cut off for military purposes anyway. You must also be prepared to pay more than the locals around you, and more than you would for a similar journey in Thailand.

For holiday makers, private transport is handy in this country as the buses can be pretty hit and miss in quality, and take forever. Having budget available for flights is a huge bonus here too, its around 12 hours by bus between 3 of the main highlights of the country (Yangon, Inle Lake and Bagan) which is average for a backpacker, hell for a holiday maker. Of course backpackers live on a budget and flights are usually out of the question, but if you’re going on holiday, the bad roads and long journeys are best avoided. You can get private tours which will avoid the hassle of negotiating or planning the journeys but of course this comes at a hefty price. It’s possible to do using public transport if you plan in advance which parts can be flown, which ones can be done using the nicer buses.

Where to visit

As mentioned before, the Burmese aren’t used to tourists diverting from the main hotspots or getting anything other than the tourist buses crammed full of backpackers, but they know very well about overcharging if the occasion arises. Arriving in a place like Meiktila (between Bagan and Inle Lake), a place where tourists seldom go despite it’s rustic charm, giant temple boat on a gorgeous lake, we were met with much amusement and would surely have slept on the street had I not carried with me a phrasebook I could point requests out from, no one speaks English here. We bundled into a pony and trap and slept in the dirtiest room I’ve ever seen, but the food was incredible as were the children who stared at use with confused eyes. That part of the trip made for an excellent story and great memories but this kind of travel in Myanmar isn’t for the fainthearted, luckily my partner was willing to scrub the dead flies from the floor of our room so I could enjoy a restful night’s sleep!

The Cities: Yangon and Mandalay

Yangon is a delightful city with an incredible temple complex, the Shwedagon Pagoda, beautiful lakes and wonderful food. We enjoyed spending time here drinking at the cafes, experimenting with the unusual deserts, exploring the temples, relaxing around Kandawgyi Lake and wandering around the old city behind the Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda. This blog has some great ideas for lesser know activities around Yangon.

We stayed at Myint Myat Guest house which was the cheapest cleanest double room we could find, and it was perfect for us. Very comfortable and the staff were incredibly helpful in booking buses at a fair price. The area of town was quieter than being in the heart of downtown and the vibe was nice, with plenty of cafes around and easy access to everywhere we visited by taxi.

The view from our hotel
The view from our hotel
One of the old colonial houses in Yangon
One of the old colonial houses in Yangon

We decided not to visit Mandalay as every person we met had not been impressed with it, and we’d enjoyed Yangon so much and felt satisfied with the city element of the country. It’s used by many as a hub for day trips to some beautiful colonial towns including Sagging, Ava and Amarapura, or as a stop off before visiting Pyin Oo Lwin to the East, another delightful colonial town, or Hsipaw for trekking, a great alternative to Kalaw if you want somewhere even more chilled out, and beautiful. It’s certainly worth a visit if you do plan to visit any of these places, but as with any holiday, make sure you have variation in your itinerary as too many colonial buildings or temples can get repetitive. On a 2 week holiday, it’s not possible to do everything, heading up to Mandalay and the surrounding towns would have required an extra week that sadly we didn’t have. In theory I would have liked to experience the most terrifying train journey in the world across the Goke Hteit Viaduct, in practise I probably would have freaked out anyway.

Basil Strahm on Flikr
Basil Strahm on Flikr

Inle Lake and Kalaw

This area is a popular part of Myanmar to visit and is well known for the 3 day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake that many backpackers do. It’s a great way to see the countryside and minority villages, however we decided not to do the trek for a few reasons. When we visited in March it was the end of the dry season so the scenery would have been less green and lush, more dry and brown. It’s also worth noting the trek wouldn’t be particularly fun in the wet season either, I definitely advise doing it between October and January. Here is a great account of what the trek is like. 

We therefore arrived from Yangon after a gruelling 12 hour bus journey to Inle Lake, or rather Nyaungshwe which is the town most people stay in. It’s a well developed one road town with plenty of tourist restaurants, hotels and travel agencies on it. They all offer tours of the lake, which we weren’t convinced about after researching it online. The tours of the lake take you to various different boats selling all sorts of stuff you don’t want, that’s pushed on you aggressively. Not my idea of a nice day out. There are some agencies that offer trips to the south of the lake which take considerably longer but are infinitely more worth it if you don’t want herded around with hundreds of other tourists on boats all day. We opted for hiring bikes and exploring by ourselves, easily done if you download an offline map first (I recommend maps.me) We explored the countryside by ourselves and even negotiated a boat to take us across the stretch of river necessary to complete our loop. We stopped of at a vineyard for a wine tasting, after a day of blissful solitude we finally found all the tourists there in there hundreds sipping wine at sunset. I suddenly felt like I was back in Argentina! The lake was stunning and it’s worth a look, but definitely worth either hiring your own bike or paying extra to experience the less touristy side of it.

We stayed at Manaw Thukha hotel which was very luxurious considering we were meant to be backpackers! Gorgeous rooms with good air conditioning and the breakfast wasn’t too bad either. It’s on the main street of town but at the far end away from the hustle and bustle. Near to the best restaurant in town, ironically a dim sum house.

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Cycling across the legendary bridge on our self guided bike ride.

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The next day we took the slow train to Kalaw, thankful we were trekking this journey in the 35 degree heat. The train ride was unbelievably cheap (around £2 for “first class”) and stunning, taking us through the undulating hills and past several villages and farms. We arrived in Kalaw and found a cheap hostel with a very friendly host, probably the best business woman I’ve ever met. She throughly explained all the tours we could do in the area either for free or some guided overnight ones (it’s not mandatory to do the 3 day trek to Inle there are many other options!), this is a great place to spend a few days and worth doing some trekking in if you don’t mind the heat. The food here is excellent too, but the market is not for the squeamish. They haven’t quite solved the problem of raw meat and flies, so expect to see plenty of raw meat that looks completely black because there are just that many flies on it. It’ll make you think twice about eating meat in this country at all….

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Bagan

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This is the highlight of many people’s trip to Myanmar, and it certainly was ours. You can’t imagine the impact over 2000 temples makes on a skyline, particularly at sunrise and sunset. The colours are magnificent and the experience truly magical. We also loved it here because it’s possible to be independent and get lost in the plains whilst always feeling totally safe. You can hire an e-bike (a less powerful moped) and drive around the dirt tracks and discover your own favourite temples amongst their more famous counterparts. Hot air ballooning at sunrise is a hugely popular activity here, you must book in advance though and be willing to fork out $350 for the privilege.

Even if you don’t want to get up for sunrise, I really recommend that you do. Visiting the most famous temples straight afterwards will be far less crowded and much cooler too. The heat here is stifling and siestas are a must. I recommend heading to Old Bagan after sunrise for a quiet breakfast whilst the monks visit town asking for alms, then visit Ananda Temple and Dhammayangyi Temple before the crowds and spend the rest of the time getting lost amongst other smaller temples.

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Sunrise from Shwesandaw Pagoda, get there at 5.30am for a good spot!

Mawlminye and Hpa An

If you decide to venture south of Yangon you’ll most likely pick Hpa An or Mawlamyine. We decided on the latter, simply because when we turned up at the bus station in Yangon, the next bus was going there. We were looking for somewhere with a more local feel that would serve as a good spot to stop between Yangon and crossing the border to Thailand. It’s certainly more local, there’s a great vibe around the river front at night where you can eat with what seems like the whole town, but the stand out meal for me here was the Biriyani at Mi Cho. Wow. Some of the best I’ve ever had! This area is great for exploring caves, lush countryside and of course, more temples and it’s definitely worth a couple of days to relax here should you find yourself travelling south.

Mawlamyine market by James Antrobus on Flikr
Mawlamyine market by James Antrobus on Flikr
Sadden Cave, Hpa An by James Antrobus on Flikr
Sadden Cave, Hpa An by James Antrobus on Flikr

There is also the curious golden rock, Mount Kyaiktiyo, that can be visited en route South from Yangon. This granite boulder perched on the edge of a cliff has been adorned with gold leaf and a stupa placed on top. We didn’t go here, but it’s worth a look if you have time and like that sort of thing!

Mount Kyaiktiyo By Dany13 on Flikr

The Beaches

Ngapali Beach by Stefan Fussan, Flikr
Ngapali Beach by Stefan Fussan, Flikr

We were very keen to visit the beaches in Myanmar having heard such great things about them from a hot air balloon pilot we made friends with in Bagan. Unfortunately our trip wasn’t long enough to commit the time to getting to the beaches accessible by road and the flights to Ngapali Beach, the best of the best only accessible by air, weren’t cheap last minute. To include the beaches on an itinerary you need at least 3 weeks in Myanmar, we only had 2. The easiest one to access is Chaung Tha, frequented by Burmese tourists and foreigners alike. It’s still very extreme in accommodation options, very expensive hotels or cheap but extremely rustic bungalows. If you want to venture to the beaches in the south you will be rewarded with a truly rustic experience, tents on the beach style.

Scams

Yes, the Burmese are some of the friendliest we’ve come across, but unfortunately there’s always people ready to take advantage of this. On two occasions older men made friends with my boyfriend and I, welcoming us to their country, explaining some interesting information about the history then offering to show us around the vicinity as their guest. It felt rude not to oblige so we did, but of course we were asked for money afterwards. It was disappointing to be tricked and guilted into giving them money when they could have just been upfront at the beginning, and it tainted the lovely experience. It’s not much money, but it’s more about the principle. It’s something to be aware of, and not necessarily a reason to say no if you’re approached, just be aware it usually costs you a tip!

I hope you enjoy your trip to Myanmar, and that my honest and candid tips help you feel more prepared.

Read more about Bagan and other temples in Asia here.

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