Myanmar – Country Guide

Fisherman pose at sunset on Inle Lake, Myanmar

Myanmar (aka Burma) is a country that has only recently opened itself up to tourists and that is part of its magic. The people who inhabit this country are genuinely excited to meet travellers from other parts of the world. You will find them incredibly warm and friendly. This devout Buddhist country has some amazing cultural highlights too and is great for trekking.

Getting there:

It is a requirement for tourists to obtain a visa in advance of entering Myanmar. The e-visa process is a quick and efficient way of doing this. There are 3 international airports that this e-visa allows you to fly into – Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw. The latter is the ‘new’ capital and isn’t really a tourist destination.

You can also enter by land via Thailand at specified border sites but that situation can often change without much warning. Keep an eye on the e-visa website and be aware you might need to go to the embassy in Bangkok to arrange a visa in person.

Getting around:

The long distance busses in Myanmar are very comfortable and at a good affordable price are my recommenced way to explore the country. Be aware that the road system is limited to a few routes, what looks simple on a map might require a long detour. Mini vans operate here to, though not to the extent of neighbouring Thailand.  ‘Local busses’ are not recommended as they are cramped with virtually no leg room and go through some pretty rough terrain. There are also limited rail services though these can be slow and unreliable. In cities themselves Taxi’s are often the cheapest and simplest way to get around. In Yangon these take the form of old cars where in Mandalay they tend to be motorbikes. Negotiate taxi costs first before you begin the journey.

Currency:

Myanmar uses Kyat. This currency can only be acquired within the country and can not be exchanged outside of it. Make sure you exchange your cash before you leave! You can find ATM’s in the cities but don’t expect to see any outside of them. Always take the opportunity to get enough cash to last you for at least few days when you can!

You should also carry US Dollars with you. Both to exchange and also because you can use it to pay in many hostels and hotels. The notes must be crisp and without marks – they are very strict on this!

Food:

Burmese food featuring multiple dishes in a restaurant in Bagan, Myanmar
Food in a restaurant in Bagan

Be prepared for some interesting meals in Myanmar.  Some restaurants will provide you with a host of dishes and charge you for what you eat from. Some will ask you to pick perhaps 2 or 3 options from an array of choices. And others will have the more traditional menu! As you can see from the above pictures the meals here often involve rice with vegetables and forms of curry and soup.

If you are in Shan State you must try the noodles, they are delicious!

Shan Noodles, Hsipaw, Myanmar
Shan Noodles

If you want a break from noodles and curry then Western food can be found in the cities. Of course it does cost a lot more!

Note for vegetarians – as a vege myself I carried a note around in Burmese to show people asking for vege food and it was not a problem, they are very accommodating I was always able to get something. 

Accommodation:

Whilst Myanmar is more expensive than the likes of Thailand or Vietnam it is still cheaper when compared to Western Europe or North America.  There are a few hostels around and a whole range of budget guesthouses and hotels which are generally the same price (or sometimes even cheaper). Whilst Yangon has plenty of hostel options, Bagan (Ostello Bello) and Inle Lake (Song Of Travel) have only one each that I know of.

General tips:

Check the season before you go.  It can be extremely hot in dry season (March to May) – I’ve seen it as high as 47C in Bagan in April. Rainy season is particularly wet from July to September. Myanmar’s has limited infrastructure so this can cause havoc to travel plans.

Coinciding with the dry Season Thingyan is a fun festival to celebrate Burmese New Year. But we warned, travellers are not exempt from the enthusiastic water throwing and you will get soaked! Repeatedly! For 3 days! Transport also cease in that time so unless you can strike an expensive deal with a local you won’t be able to move around, and even the days before and afterwards are all booked up as people travel to see relatives and so forth.

It is common to be asked for your photo when visiting shrines and temples as many local people will not have met a foreigner before.

Take note though that there are multiple ethnicity’s in the country. It is incorrect to call everyone here ‘Burmese’. Take a look at this wikipedia page to get an idea of the ethnic groupings in the country. If travelling around the places I have listed below you will mainly encounter Bamar, Shan, Karen and Indians. But even saying that there are various groupings of Karen people!

There are restricted areas as conflict can flare up so be aware that you may be denied or need a permit should you wish to visit them.

If hiking make sure you go with a guide who knows the areas well – landmines are a problem in ‘restricted zones’.

Be mindful of power cuts. They can be a regular occurrence. I’ve experienced them in Hispaw and Nyaungshwe.

Suggested itinerary:

Yangon

Old colonial buildings in Yangon, Myanmar
Old colonial buildings in Yangon

Also known as Rangoon, the former capital of Burma, Yangon is the countries largest city and a good starting place to explore the country. It’s 2 main highlights are the giant Shwedagon Pagoda and it’s downtown area which is full of old British colonial buildings. Take a couple of nights here so you can explore the city. In the heat some of the distances can be tough to walk so taxis are recommended. Read my city guide here.

Bagan

The plains of Bagan, Myanmar. View of temples spread out across the landscape.
The plains of Bagan

The central plains of Myanmar are home to this spectacular historical site which features over 2000 Buddhist temples, the legacy it has having been the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan between the 9th and 13th centuries. The popular method to get around in Bagan is by ebike, and you can be easily rent one from stands near any accommodation. If that’s not for you then you can hire a taxi/van to take you around for a day or two.

I visited Bagan during Thingyan and loved it!

Trek from Kalaw To Inle Lake

Trekking between Kalaw and Inle Lake, Myanmar
Trekking between Kalaw and Inle Lake

This 3 day trek is a highlight of any trip to Myanmar. Along the way you will eat and sleep in local villages and get a real feel for local life.  The walk can be a bit demanding in the heat so take plenty of water and re-hydration salts with you as well as snacks to keep you going.

Arriving in Kalaw you will find a few different operators who run this trek so make sure you meet your guide and know all the details before you book to go. Don’t be afraid to go elsewhere if you don’t feel comfortable with your guide! Listen out to other travellers whilst in Myanmar to get good tips about to go with.  Don’t worry about having to trek with your bags! The standard practise is for your trekking company to send them ahead to Inle Lake for you to collect on arrival.

Click here for my report from my own experience doing the trek.

Inle Lake

Standing on a Wooden bridge on Inle Lake, Myanmar
Inle Lake

The attraction of this lake is how many local people still live and work on its waters. It is possible to stay on the lake itself but that’s an expensive option. The majority of people who visit stay in Nyaungshwe Town where all the budget accommodation is located. There is one hostel there and it’s called ‘Song Of Travel’. Otherwise its guesthouses and hotels. From Nyaungshwe you can arrange boat tours of the lake. Ask your guide to include the long wooden bridge, which I’ve pictured above. Sunset is great too as some of the fishermen like to pose for tourists. The standard tour will include workshops and a monastery. If you want to get further out and see the south of the lake you’ll need to discuss that with the boatmen and expect to pay more to do so.

Hsipaw

Palace of the last Sky Prince of Hispaw, Myanmar
Palace of the last Sky Prince of Hispaw

Head into Shan State and stay in this lovely town. One of its highlights is the Palace of the last Sky Prince of Hsipaw which is pictured above. Visit during the day and chat to the lady of the house. I can say no more online! It’s a good base for trekking too, I did a two day trek that involved a stay in a local village. Read my report on it here. This trek takes you up into the mountains around Hsipaw and is a good way to meet local people. Mr Charles is the most well known guesthouse here that organises trekking but there’s other options to. I went trekking with Lily the Home who has a great reputation and they did not disappoint.

Kyaukme is another town in the region that acts as a trekking base. It is important to know that this region has been a conflict area in the past and some military groups are still active. There are landmines around and that, as well as Myanmar law, is why it’s so important to go with a guide who knows the area well.

Mandalay

Sunset over U Bein Bridge near Mandalay, Myanmar
U Bein Bridge

This city is the cultural and economic centre of Northern Myanmar. It has a few interesting sites to check out, and is worth 2 or 3 days stay. I’d recommend it as the natural ending point for any trip that started in Yangon. You can read about my recommended things to do in Mandalay here. The above pictured is the U Bein Bridge, which is the longest teak wood bridge in the world.

If you have the time add these places:

Pyin Oo Lwin

Pyin Oo Lwin spelt by floral decorations, Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens , Myanmar
Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens

If you take the train here from Hispaw you can experience some really awesome scenery. It also crosses the Gokteik Viaduct which is an interesting experience! Pyin Oo Lwin itself is an old British colonial hill station. It is home to the beautiful Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens which make it worth staying a night here so you can check them out before heading onwards.

You can see some of my photos and read a small report on the town and garden here

Loikaw and around

2 ''long-neck' Karreni women sitting down in Kayah State, Myanmar

The appeal in visiting Loikaw is that from here you can take a guide to visit tribes in nearby mountains. Nearby in Asian terms meaning 2-3 hours drive away. When I visit we’d arranged a guide before arrival, whilst in Nyaungshwe Town. It’s not somewhere that receives many tourists yet and their isn’t much infrastructure in place.

The people I visited from Loikaw belonged to the Karenni group and lived in Kayah State. One of the collections of villages here is home to the ‘longnecks’. This is the popular term for the sub group of Karenni people who wear decorative neck coils. You may see these people in parts of Thailand or elsewhere in Myanmar. This is their original home and those elsewhere (except settlements in Shan State) are refugees or have left to be human tourist attractions.

You can read about the mixed feelings I had visiting the tribes here.

See route on the map:

Where else to go?

All of the above places are where I have personally visited (except Kyaukme). The only real major tourist destination I missed was the Golden Rock Pagoda in Mon State. Its to the east of Yangon. Nearby is Bago and the towns of Mawlamyine and Hpa-an. The former is a holy site, the middle an old British colonial city and the latter a laid back riverside town. To the west of Yangon are there are some famed beaches, though I have yet to meet anyone whose actually made it to them! These are very remote and the time required to get to them and back takes a chunk of the 28 day visa time.

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