It doesn't matter if you've never been in South East Asia before, or if you've seen almost every single country in the continent; Myanmar has such much to offer it's hard to not fall in love with the country. Although having had a decent increase in tourism for the last couple of years, it still remains a highlight in South East Asia that's relatively unexplored.
Visiting Myanmar is a rich experience, giving you the opportunity to get in touch with an incredibly friendly population, taste some incredible food and explore some villages and places that have hardly seen any tourists at all.
This guide is written for those who are willing to explore Myanmar on their own, without a tour or a guide. It contains several of the best places to visit, tips on where to stay, a day-by-day itinerary and of course some pictures I took while I was there.
How to get a visa for Myanmar
Myanmar has only opened it’s doors for mass tourism just a few years ago, making it a lot easier to get a visa than it used to be. Currently there are two ways of getting a tourist visa for Myanmar: applying for a visa through one of Burma’s embassies or applying for an eVisa online. It’s not possible anymore to obtain a visa on arrival for Myanmar anymore. In most cases you’ll want to apply for an eVisa.
Myanmar introduced an eVisa system on the 1st of September 2014, and this is the easiest and fastest option. These eVisas are valid for both entering the country over land and through air. It’s important to check if your country is eligible to apply for a tourist eVisa, do so here.
An eVisa is valid for 90 days after the issue date and let’s you stay in the country up to 28 days. Your passport should be valid for at least six months after your departure from Myanmar. The processing time for an eVisa application takes up to three days, although I got my visa within a day. The cost of a single entry eVisa is $50 dollars. They also offer a 24 hour express service in case you’re in a hurry. As soon as your application is processed you will receive an email with the eVisa and a letter of approval, which you should print. Airlines do actually ask for these printed documents before you check-in, so it’s important to do this.
Applying for an eVisa can be done through the official website of the Myanmar government, which can be found here.
If you’re a bit more flexible and don’t mind waiting on location you can also apply for a Myanmar visa through one of their embassies. For many travellers on a trip around South East Asia, the embassy in Bangkok has been a viable option. And priced between $25 and $40 dollars, it’s a little cheaper as well.
Current state of affairs and safety in Myanmar
Is Myanmar safe at the moment? Well, I guess it depends a lot on where you go. The southwest coastline and the most northerns states are a definite no go. I visited Myanmar in February of 2018 and had no problem with safety at all. In fact, if I hadn’t seen the headlines that have been on newspaper and news websites over the past months, I would hardly notice a crisis or genocide going on there at all. When asking locals about the situation, they either didn’t want to talk about it out of fear, pretended they didn’t know about it or genuinely had no clue of what was happening to the Rohingya.
There's an ethical consideration which I think you should make before deciding to go to Myanmar. I’ve read and heard stories of travellers not going because they do not want to support a government which approves or looks away from the mass killings of it’s own population. To me, this isn’t an issue of government. Myanmar is a military state and has been for a long time. The power in this country is with the leaders of it’s army, not with the government.
For me, I ultimately decided to go to Myanmar because I felt like there are stil la lot of locals there whose incomes are dependant of tourist. Some of these people have invested their life savings into building guesthouses or restaurants in hope of a better future for themselves and their children. And although it is true a lot of the property and businesses pay percentages to the military leaders or are owned by them, the people you will most likely be in touch with is the population of Myanmar. And this is where the majority of your money will end up.
Make your decision consciously and do thing about these things and about what impact your visit will have. Now, that’s out of the way.
Getting around in Myanmar
Although less developed in terms of its transportation network than say for example, India or Vietnam, getting around Myanmar shouldn’t be much a problem. The distances between your destinations can be quite big, so it does pay off to plan your trip a little and take an overnight bus every now and then to save some time. Thanks to the British, Myanmar posses a network of railways connecting their three major destinations: Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan. The problem is however that the construction dates back to the start of the 20th century and the train rides are notoriously bumpy and uncomfortable. They are however one of the cheapest options of getting around in Myanmar.
In the largest cities, Uber and Grab have firmly taken a place in the local cab markets, so make sure to install these apps on your phone before heading out, as it’s a great and cheap way to get around in the Burmese cities.
Best time to visit Myanmar
Generally speaking, Myanmar has three seasons: cool, hot and rainy. The rainy season, or monsoon season, lasts from June to October and has up to 450mm of rainfall per month. Peak rainfall months are June, July and August. Keep in mind that there’s usually more rainfall in the south than in the northern plains. Myanmar’s hot ‘season’ is in the months of April and May, when average temperatures in the country can go as high as 40 degrees celsius. The cool season ranges from November up until March and is therefore the best time to visit Myanmar, as it is generally dry and not too hot in the country.
The largest city of Myanmar, Yangon, serves as the starting point of your trip around Myanmar. It’s the economical hub of the country and one of the most developed cities in the country. You’ll be surprised about how modern the city is, especially when looking at their architecture and their cars. Flying into this city can be easily done through Bangkok and other big Asian airport hubs.
Yangon offers a few interesting points of interest, but walking around in the city centre itself is rewarding enough and makes a great way to spend the day. You’ll allow yourself to get used to the country, the people, the culture and the food. Make a stop at the Bogyoke Aung San market, which is one of the most well known markets and best places to visit in Yangon. The street food is great here and make sure to drink some tea with the locals outside, a common tradition in Myanmar!
Yangon is also home to one of the largest and most impressive pagoda’s in all of Asia, the Shwedagon Pagoda. This 99 meter high gilded stupa was built nearly 2500 years ago and dominates the Yangon skyline. It’s the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar. Monks from all over the country make their way to Yangon to make offerings and meditate at Shwedagon. It won’t be hard spending a few hours here, as the atmosphere is calm and relaxing, and just walking around and observing is an experience by itself. Shwedagon Pagoda openings hours are between 4AM and 10PM and the entrance fee surmounts to $8 dollars.
Another great way to experience the city is to take the 3-hour Circle Train. This train will take you through several of Yangon’s neighbourhoods, both rich and poor, and will only set you back 200 Kyat (about $0,15 dollars). It’s a great way to see the city for those on a budget.
So where to stay in Yangon? Well for us backpackers out there, Yangon is home to some high-quality, low price hostels with friendly staff. Little Yangon Hostel is great stay, centrally located in downtown Yangon and breakfast included. In case they’re full, the Backpacker Hostel Yangon is quite similar.
Your next destination is the town of Hpa-An, in south east Myanmar. The bus should only take around 6 hours and cost you no less than $6 dollars. This town isn’t on the list of most people touring around Myanmar and it’s hard to understand why, considering it’s natural beauty. The surrounding area of Hpa-An is a mix of karst mountains and caves, with rivers and rice paddies running through the landscape. You can’t miss this one on your trip around Myanmar.
(If you are crossing the border into Myanmar from Thailand, you will likely cross the border at Myawaddy, making Hpa-An your first destination in Myanmar. From there you can go to Bago and Yangon and follow the rest of the itinerary described here)
Hpa-An isn’t a particularly big town but it has a lot of offer. One notable mention and one of the top places to visit in Hpa-an is the bat cave. Around 6PM every day, literally millions of bats exit the cave to go out hunting for the night. Falcons circle above the bats and in their turn, and plan their attack. It’s an extraordinary sight.
Another great way to spend your time in Hpa-An is to book a tour with one of the guesthouses. These tours take up to a day and are a great way to see the many of the highlights, including several impressive caves and religious sites. They’re a great way to get in touch with other travellers as well.
Choosing where to stay in Hpa-An isn’t difficult, as there aren’t many places to stay. Hpa-An has no hostels, but there are two quality guesthouses: Soe Brothers I and Soe Brothers II. They offer similar quality but are best booked in advance because of high demand and low supply. Many other backpackers choose to stay here so it’s easy to meet like-minded travellers.
Notice: There used to be a hostel called Little Hpa-An hostel in Hpa-An. That one is closed since August 2017, according to reviews on Hostelworld, so avoid booking there. It has already been removed on booking.com but might still be available on other sites.
Kalaw to Inle Lake trek
One of my most memorable experiences of my time in Myanmar was doing this trek, from Kalaw to Inle Lake. During this trek, which can be done in 2 days or 3 days, you’ll venture into the Burmese hillside with a small group of people. You’ll be walking through some really authentic villages with very friendly locals. The whole experience feels very authentic and you’ll feel close to the local life. On the first night we stayed a barn the local major had made available for trekkers and on the second night we slept in an actual monastery.
Getting to Kalaw however, can be a bit of a stretch. I chose to take a bus from Hpa-An to Bago, and from there take a bus straight to Kalaw. Unfortunately, for some reason I hadn’t booked my bus from Bago to Kalaw yet, which meant I had to stay one night in Bago as the buses weren’t connecting. Try and avoid this if you can as there’s not much to see and do in Bago except for a few pagodas (which can be found all over Myanmar) and a lot of dust. It might be a long journey, going all the way from Hpa-An, but you will save time and money by not stopping in Bago.
Trekking is basically the only reason people visit Kalaw, and you’ll find many guesthouses and trekking agencies who can take care of your every need. The trek isn’t very hard and coming from somebody who did two treks in Nepal, the elevation gains/losses aren’t challenging. You will effectively walk about 4-5 hours a day. This will give you plenty of time to enjoy the stunning views and take a break every now and get to know your fellow trekkers.
So how do you find a trekking guide? Well, I think I got a bit lucky, hearing other stories from travellers. I arrived at Kalaw at 4AM in the morning with a bus from Bago, booked a room for a few hours and started the trek around 7.30AM the same day. My guesthouse, the Golden Lily Guest House, will never be my top recommendation, but their trekking services are absolutely amazing. Our guide, Salai, was very friendly and full of stories. And the food… some of the best I had in Myanmar. I payed less than $30 dollars for a trekking tour of 3 days and 2 nights.
You can book a stay at the guest house here. You can book your trek in advance by contacting them or by booking it as soon as you get there. You’ll finish your trek with a boat ride over Inle Lake, after which they will drop you off at your next destination: Nyuang Shwe, the main village near Inle Lake.
Inle Lake and Nyuang Shwe
Although Inle Lake has become increasingly popular amongst backpackers and those with a bigger budget alike, it’s still a nice destination to visit if you know where to go. Nyuang Shwe is situated on the north side of Inle Lake and makes a great base to spend a few days in.
A quick and easy way to see a few highlights in a single day, is by taking one of the many boat rides along Inle Lake and it’s surrounding fishing villages. They will pick you up and show you around several points of interest, such as tobacco and slik factories, smithing workshops and other craftsmen. You’ll also be sure to see the Intha fishermen, who are famous for rowing their boats with one leg. The day ends with a great sunset over the lake. All in all it’s a nice experience, although many travellers have argued that it has become a bit of tourist trap and feels a little artificial. My advice is to only do this one if you’re short on time.
Although you wouldn’t necessarily think of wine when in Myanmar, there’s actually a vineyard close to Ine Lake that’s worth visiting. The Red Mountain Estate Vineyard & Winery, founded by a French winemaker, do tastings and sell their wines. Their wine isn’t the best you’ll ever have in your life, but the sunset from this place is very nice and you’ll have a great view over Inle Lake and the hills around it.
And lastly, if you’re not too tired yet of seeing temples and monastery, you can check out the Shwe Yan Pyay monastery just 3km north of Nyuang Shwe.
So where to stay in Nyuang Shwe? There’s quite a few options for you. Cheap and top quality hostels include the Ostello Bello, which has a great rooftop, and the more quite Song of Travel. If you feel like spending a little money you can also stay on a little hut on the lake, at the Paramount Inle Resort (only reachable by boat!).
Next up is one of the most famous places in all of Asia: Bagan. The temples of Bagan have made it to almost every list of top places to see in Asia, and rightfully so. There’s so much to explore in Bagan, going here for just one or two days just doesn’t do to place fully justice. Dating back to the 9th century, are more than 3000 temples stretched over just 30 square kilometers. And although many of the temples suffered damage during the 2015 earthquake, resulting in the government closing several temples, a lot of them can still be entered. If watching a sunrise on one of the thousands of temples, with 20-30 hot air ballons flying over your head isn’t yet on your bucketlist, make sure to add it as soon as possible.
There’s so much to see and do in Bagan, that I’ve summed it all up in a single guide for visiting Bagan. It includes information on which temples are worth visiting, where to watch the best sunrise, how to get around, etc. Check it out here.
After getting indulged in the ancient temples and pagodas it’s time to hit a city again, and it’s one of the biggest of Myanmar: Mandalay. It’s one of the holiest areas in all of Myanmar, with over 200,000 monks living in the surrounding area of the city. Mandalay itself doesn’t have a particularly great atmosphere, as it’s busy city and quiet dirty, but there are a few highlights around the city that are worth visiting.
First up is the famous U-Bein bridge, the oldest longest teakwood bridge in the world, stretching 1,2 kilometres over the Taungthaman Lake. Built around 1850, it counts over a 1,000 pillars. It’s a great trip for the broke backpacker, as there is no entrance fee. Some great photos can be taken at U Being, although due to it’s popularity amongst tourists it’s hard to get a ‘clean’ shot of the bridge at any other time than early in the morning. Most people visit the bridge around sunset, when the light gets soft and the sky turns into great earthy hues of red and orange.
Another place worth visiting, which is in walking distance of U Bein, is the Mahagandayon monastery. With more than 1,500 monks, this is the largest monastery in all of Myanmar. It’s completely accessible to foreigners, there’s no entrance fee and you don’t need a guide (although it adds a lot if you do hire one). It’s allowed to make photos of monks, although I would suggest to apply common sense and don’t ‘steal’ any photographs, but ask first before you shoot.
Your last destination in Myanmar brings you back into the nature, and this time it’s time to get off the beaten track a little. A six hour drive north of Mandalay are the tranquillising hills of the Shan State, a region which borders to Laos, Thailand and China. Although a visit to the areas closest to the border can bring a bit of safety concerns with them, the town of Hsipaw is safe for tourists and a definite must-see in during your travels in Myanmar.
Upon arriving in Hsipaw you might think what the fuss is all about, but the beauty lies in the hills and just like in Kalaw, you can do a great trek here into small hill villages and tribes. There are over 145 ethnic groups living in Myanmar and this trek will make you realise that fact more than anything. When I did the 2 day trek from Hsipaw we crossed three different villages, home to three different ethnic groups, all with different languages. Luckily our guide spoke all of them. Other than the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, you will hardly find any other tourists here. Me and my group ended up sleeping in the village in which our guide Sai grew up and where his family lived. He showed us the house he was born and introduced us to his family, where we stayed for dinner and during the night.
Where to stay in Hsipaw and book your trek? Well in Hsipaw there’s only one real option; Mr. Charles Guesthouse. They have both hotel rooms and hostel like dormitories for a decent price. They also have a travel agency on the premises which is where you can book your trek. They have treks departing almost on a daily basis during high and shoulder season.
Budget for spending two to three weeks in Myanmar
What are the cost of a two to three week itinerary for Myanmar? Well, let’s have a look at the daily expenses, excluding your flight into the country:
Visa: $50 dollar in total for an eVisa.
Accommodation: $5-$15 dollar per night. Prices for accommodation in Myanmar can vary greatly. Some hostels in Yangon and Bagan charge about $5 including breakfast, whilst some guesthouses charge you more than $15 for a private room easily. This excludes any luxurious stays though. Try and stay in places which include breakfast.
Food: $10 dollar per day. Food is not as cheap in Myanmar as in countries such as Thailand or Vietnam. There’s not as much street food vendors either, so you end up paying about $5 dollar a meal in any of the Western restaurants.
Transport: about $50 per week. Getting around in Myanmar isn’t exactly cheap. Bustickets come in different comfort levels, ranging from basic to VIP status (including aroma diffusers) and varying greatly in costs. I don’t like saving too much money on bustickets, as a good night sleep (or no sleep at all) can influence your day quiet a lot. Domestic flights not included.
Cabs, rickshaws, etc.: about $8 dollar per day. Same as with buses, short distance transport isn’t exactly cheap in Myanmar
Entry fees: about $50 dollar for all sites included in this itinerary.
- Pocket money: about $10 per day. This may sound a lot but one thing I’ve learned from travelling is that you always spend more money than you realise. Especially on snacks, souvenirs, fruit and other things you kind of buy while ‘on-the-go’.
Total budget (2 weeks): between $700 and $800 dollars.
Total budget (3 weeks): between $900 and $1100 dollars.
Well that’s it for now. I will try and keep this guide updated with the latest information. If you have info or suggestions that help keep this itinerary up to date, shoot me an email or leave a comment bellow!