In November 2016, I spent 14 days travelling around Myanmar with two friends. I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit a country in the midst of change, and the trip provided some unforgettable experiences. As always, I have put together some notes to share with those who visit in the future.
For context, we were backpacking, and mostly trying to stick to a limited budget, though we were not overly strict about this. We occasionally enjoyed an ensuite room, and we had a couple of ‘treats’ at the end of the trip. Two weeks was long enough to visit the major cities/sights, but longer would have allowed us to get off the beaten track more (e.g. taking a slower, less touristy boat down the Ayeryarwady River). We used the 2014 Lonely Planet and Rough Guide for reference.
Here are my notes from Myanmar, written in December 2016…
Firstly, the country feels very safe, and you’ll rarely (if ever) be hassled. If you’re stopped in the street, it will likely be by someone who wants to practice their English. Myanmar remains a relatively poor country, so be realistic about, for example, the quality of accommodation or sanitation. You’ll get used to the regular blackouts, and many of the places you’ll visit, especially in the cities, will have back-up generators. Drink bottled water, check the seals and be sensible about things like ice and salad – certainly at the beginning of your trip while you’re adjusting.
Like many places, the taxi drivers are most likely to put their prices up for tourists, so have an idea of how much a trip should cost, and always ask for a price before you get in.
There are plenty of Western/expat restaurant options in the major cities, some of which are worth a visit, but if you eat and drink with the locals you will find it an inexpensive place to travel (indicative budget below).
Service will likely be included in larger restaurants. Elsewhere tipping is not expected, but it’s nice to round up. Have some smaller notes in your pocket for anyone who helps with bags or opens up a locked temple for you.
For the non-linguists, just learning the words for ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’ will get you a big smile from your hosts as you travel.
Unless you’re immediately taking an internal flight elsewhere, you will likely start in the capital, Yangon. The airport is about an hour’s drive from downtown (where the cheapest hotels are) due to the heavy traffic in the city. The stand inside the terminal will organise a taxi for you for K10,000, you may be able to negotiate down to K8-9,000 if you head outside.
Although it’s handy to carry a few dollars, everywhere we visited was happy to accept the local currency, the Kyat (‘chat’). There’s a cash machine in the airport that will dispense a very large wad, or there are exchange counters at the exit to swap pristine dollars. This is important – take brand new notes. You’ll get a better rate for swapping $50s and $100s, but the difference is negligible.
People in Yangon – and across Myanmar – eat and drink on the street, so you’ll be blown away by the number of vendors on every corner. Even if your stomach isn’t immediately up to the food, do pull up a little plastic chair and have a cup of sweet tea, made with condensed milk. A kissing noise will catch the attention of the person serving.
Three-in-one sachets of coffee, sugar and creamer – for about K200, or 15 pence – are ubiquitous and, after a while, a little addictive. You’ll find an espresso fix somewhere in most cities though.
If someone offers to buy you a cup of tea, they will expect to pay. Look away when they do so.
Be prepared to weave between traffic to cross roads – otherwise you’ll be stuck on one side for the rest of your trip. Mopeds are banned in Yangon, which makes things slightly easier. Beware regular holes in pavements – you’ll need to keep your wits about you, otherwise you’ll end up with your foot in a sewer.
The Circle Line train is an interesting way to see the city, and you’ll share it with locals transporting sacks of fresh produce. It leaves irregularly, and if you’re using it to travel to a particular place, check to see whether it’s going clockwise or anti-clockwise.
The walking tour in the Lonely Planet is a good introduction to some of the colonial architecture downtown. It also takes you past a number a number of traditional tea houses.
There are a few high end hotels in Yangon, which are good for a quick bit of luxury. We visited the Governor’s Mansion for a gin on our final night, and I nipped into the recently refurbished Strand Hotel for a cup of tea to escape the heat while I waited for my flight home. Compared to UK prices, these places are not hugely expensive, but compared to the rest of your trip they will look extravagant.
In contrast, a ferry across the river from Yangon will quickly expose you to a very different, more rural side of Myanmar life. This area was hit by bad flooding in 2015.
If you want to experience Myanmar’s trains, there’s a sleeper service north to Mandalay. There are also a range of buses, most of which take about 10+ hours and stop a few times en route, including at a massive food emporium just over a third of the way into the journey. Note, some of the buses continue to Pyin Oo Lwin, so if you’re planning to visit you may want to factor this into your planning.
In Mandalay, many people hop in a taxi to visit the teak U-Bein bridge at sunset. We arrived after dark and didn’t have an opportunity to do this, unfortunately, but other people’s photographs looked nice!
If you’re pressed for time, a day is enough in Mandalay. It’s a little less hectic that Yangon, but you do have mopeds to contend with when crossing the roads. Pay a visit to the gold bashing district. We walked out of a guide book recommended restaurant, because it was full of tourists, and followed our instincts to the place that had the largest number of locals (it was called the White House, the food was exceptional, and the owner and his staff seemed to love having us there).
As well as an enormous number of smaller bars, Mandalay also has several ‘beer stations’ that seat lots of people. We found they had a decent atmosphere and were a good way to end an evening. Large or small, if you stick to the local beers and spirits (which are excellent) you’ll find the bars very cheap. Cheap enough to make you question your bill.
Pyin Oo Lwin
This is a hill station outside of Mandalay. The picturesque but slow train journey there takes up to five hours – and if you have time, it continues onwards through the countryside to Hsipaw and Lashio. It was dark when we did the return journey to Mandalay, so we didn’t mind cheating and taking an hour long taxi back down instead.
Pyin Oo Lwin has a much more relaxed atmosphere, and will give you some respite from the heat of Mandalay and Yangon. The well maintained botanical gardens are worth a visit.
Every morning a number of boats leave Mandalay heading downriver towards Bagan. On the quicker ‘tourist’ boats, the journey takes about 10 hours – and some food is normally included. It’s a wonderful experience, even if the landscape does get a tad repetitive. Slower, cheaper options are available if you’re really keen to settle into river life.
Bagan may well be the highlight of your trip – it certainly was ours. You’ll want to spend at least two nights here, and if you have time to spare it could make a good place to stay longer.
We hired bikes both days to travel between the hundreds of temples and pagodas that spread across Bagan’s plains. Sunset and sunrise are the main events. Tourists are only allowed to climb five of the temples, so naturally at sunset they do get a little busy (when we were there, we shared the experience with maybe 40 other people, but everyone was quiet and respectful). The following morning we got up at 4.30am, rode into the darkness chasing twilight and waited in the middle of a field for sunrise. We were completely alone among the temples and it was one of my most enjoyable travel experiences to date.
You’re currently free to roam along the many dusty roads between the temples, and it remains to be seen how they will manage increased visitor numbers over the years ahead. Do take time to visit some of the smaller temples – you will likely get to experience them on your own. If they are locked, the key holder will no doubt be nearby.
There are plenty of food options in Bagan. We were concerned that the places on ‘restaurant row’ would be a little too touristy. They were, but they were also very tasty.
Nyaungshwe (for Lake Inle)
We were pushed for time at this stage of our trip, so we cheated and took an internal flight from Bagan to Heho, and a taxi to Nyaungshwe (these cost K25,000 from the airport, but as little as K15,000 in the other direction, so it’s worth trying to negotiate).
Boats on the lake cost K20,000 for half a day irrespective of how many passengers they carry (up to, perhaps, eight or nine people). Marvel at the floating gardens and the villages built on stilts over the water. Your boat owner will likely top up their income with commission from the various traders on the lake, so be patient when they take you to cigar shops and silversmiths. If there’s a pagoda or site that you particularly want to see, specify this up front.
If you time your excursion to return at sunset, the various Lake Inle fisherman – with unbelievable balance – will probably pose for photos. Offer them a few notes as a thank you.
Another hill town created by Brits fleeing the heat. Kalaw is a quiet spot that feels almost Himalayan. Definitely visit for a day or two. There are a number of trails nearby that you can undertake alone or with a guide. Many people also choose to do the three day hike from Kalaw back to Inle. Companies in the small town centre can arrange for your bags to go ahead of you!
Basic room in a cheap hotel or hostel: $25 / 2 = $12
Lunch, snacks and coffees: $6
Dinner and drinks: $9
Misc taxis and transport: $3
Total: $30 per day (not including transport between cities)