The country of Myanmar has only opened up to tourism in the past few years. As such it can feel much more adventurous than it’s South East Asian neighbours, which makes it an appealing place for those seeking to learn about local culture and traditions. There are some amazing temples here too! This Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary seeks to show you the highlights of the country, particularly it’s religious history, people and natural environment.
The country of Myanmar is an interesting one to visit. Whilst it can prove controversial due to the actions of it’s government, there is a lot to see here that makes the trip worthwhile. The ethnic makeup of the country is very diverse and you will meet many different groups whilst following this Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary. Generally the people here are very happy to meet visitors and love to say hello ”Mingalabar”. Often you will be asked for photos and they are usually very happy to pose for your own. The country has a lot of interesting historical sites, generally focused around the Buddhist religion. The natural landscapes here are worthy of exploration too. This Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary includes 2 treks that show you the natural environment and afford opportunities to interact with local inhabitants.
NOTE – This article was written before the 2021 Military Coup
Obviously the coup will have a huge impact on the ability to travel the country after the Covid 19 pandemic. I am leaving this Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary online in hopes that democracy and peace can be restored to the country. I hope that the civilian population has justice and they can welcome back tourists in the future.
The length and route Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary
This Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary is designed to take around 3 weeks to complete. This is not an absolute set time limit and it depends on how you want to amend it yourself. It covers the following destinations:
- Trek from Kalaw to Inle lake
- Inle Lake
- Loikaw (and surrounding area)
- Pyin Oo Lwin
A note on this Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary
Throughout this Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary I have given details about how long to spend in each destination and how to travel between them. Journey times can be long in Myanmar and I have listed information about when to travel overnight. The long distance buses in Myanmar are well generally well maintained and comfortable. They serve both tourists and locals. They only run the main routes though, when travelling to Loikaw you may have to take uncomfortable local buses. There are some trains in Myanmar though I have only one journey in this Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary. It is a good one though, highly recommended!
Within the cities themselves the best method to get around is by taxi. This could either be by car or by motorbike. In fact the latter is often very cheap, and fast.
The temperatures in Myanmar can get very high, I have been in April and experienced 40C plus in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan. Hence whereas I normally enjoying waking around a city, I definitely advise a taxi here. The areas which are popular for trekking are still hot but the temperatures are more bearable. Though it’s important to take plenty of water and stay hydrated.
Where appropriate I have also recommended hostels or guesthouses to stay in. These are based on my own personal experiences.
Yangon has been selected as the starting point for this Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary. This is partly because I feel it’s the best introduction to the country. And also for practical reasons, there are only 3 international airports in the country. One of these is in the capital Naypyidaw. However I have not included this city in this Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary. Its a newly built city, construction having only started in 2002. And I feel their are other parts of the country with history and nature much more worth your time. So that leaves Yangon and Mandalay as the other 2 airports, and I feel Yangon is the better one to begin with.
The old capital of Burma, this city is the largest in the country and an interesting one to explore. The downtown area is full of old British Colonial architecture, its fun here just to wander around the streets and see what you can find. The Bogyoke Aung San Market is worth a visit whilst exploring the downtown area. Its a big bazaar full of different kinds of shops and food spots. And on the subject of food, visiting the local Burmese restaurants in the city are a great experience. Aung Thukha and Feel Myanmar Food restaurant are 2 i’d recommend to try. They are both very popular with locals and give you an authentic taste of Burmese food.
The city has several temples worth checking out. Shwedagon Pagoda is by far the most famous. Its a huge complex that you can easily spend a few hours exploring. It dates from the 6th Century and was built by the Mon people. The Botataung Pagoda dates from around the same time. Though unfortunately the original buildings were destroyed in World War and it was rebuilt after. As well as lots of interesting Buddhist artwork and statues it contains a golden covered interior. This houses the Buddha’s Sacred Hair Relic. Another temple worth a look is the Sule Pagoda. Housed on a roundabout this used to mark the centre of old Rangoon under British rule. Its also ancient, apparently over 2000 years old.
And if you need a break from the heat of Yangon’s dusty streets, the Kandawgyi Lake makes for a pleasant walk. Its a large reservoir that was artificially created by the British Colonial administration.
How long to stay in Yangon and taking an overnight bus
2 full days are a good amount of time to fully explore Yangon. And as the journey to Bagan is a long one it is best done on one of the overnight buses. Therefore with these 2 things in mind I recommend staying 2 nights here, and travelling overnight on the 3rd night. This factors in the idea that you likely have arrived to your accommodation afternoon or evening on the first night. So you then have time to explore the next 2 days whilst only needing one more nights accommodation.
The bus station for Yangon is a little way out of the city so it’s best to get a taxi there and go early. If your accommodation doesn’t offer bus tickets then you can find multiple travel agencies opposite the train station in Yangon. You should book as early as you can I advise doing it a soon of your first things in the city, before you start exploring.
Additionally be sure to use the ATMs to take out plenty of local currency (Kyat) whilst in Yangon. There are limited ATMs at the next stop and in fact throughout Myanmar. So it’s good to stock up on local currency whilst you can.
The Bagan area is home to over 2000 temples, which remain from the era where it was capital of the Kingdom of Pagan. Between the 9th and 13th centuries thousands of temples were built in the area and what remains now is truly impressive to look upon and explore. This is done by either renting an e-bike or hiring a taxi to you around. Please note when arriving in the area you will need to pay the Bagan Archaeological Zone Tourist Fee. Its $20 last time I checked. Make sure you have either crisp US dollar notes with you, or enough Kyat. Having arrived at the bus station you will need to take a tuk tuk or taxi to your accommodation and the drivers will all stop at a point for you to pay this fee.
Baga itself is divided into 3 parts. Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U. For travellers this is an important way to determine which part of the area your accommodation is in! Additionally of course it’s useful for navigating your way around by e-bike. The temples themselves are actually spread out across the area.
Exploring the temples there are several which are popular for sunrise and sunset. This because of the amazing view they give over the area. Shwesandaw Temple in particular is popular for sunset. Dhamma Yangyi Temple and Ananda Temple are two other really popular ones.
Its also worth stopping at the market in Nyaung U. Its a good way to observe the locals going about their daily business. And you can of course chat to them and browse their wares too.
Staying in Bagan, the heat and onward travel
Including your day of arrival I suggest staying 3 nights in Bagan to give you time to really explore the area. There is loads to see but also importantly the temperature is a factor. I visited in the month of April and it was as high as 48C in the midday sun. You really need to get your exploring done in the mornings before 11am and afternoon’s after 4pm to avoid the scorching heat.
The bus to Kalaw leaves for Bagan at 7:30 in the morning. You will arrive around 3pm. However if there is a group of you then hiring a min van is also an option. This is what I had to do when I was there in 2016 as it was across Thingyan, the Burmese new year where buses simply don’t run.
Trek from Kalaw to Inle lake
At this part of the Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary you are heading into Shan State. As previously mentioned, Myanmar is home to many different ethnic groups. Shan State is where you will start to really see this diversity.
Kalaw itself is a small mountain town, pleasant enough for an evening. Its only worth staying one night here when you arrive, before heading off on your trek the next day. There are a whole range of trekking tour guides who ply their trade here. Book one when you arrive to leave the next day, Its best to go with a group, and the guides tend to try and get you to join one anyway.
The trek to Inle Lake takes 3 days in total, including 2 nights staying in villages along the way. Discuss with your guide where you will stay. It will also include meals, though its best to take snacks and certainly you should take plenty of water and other drinks with you.
The trek will take you through the countryside, allowing you to experience the different terrain in the area. You should meet various different people along the way, of different ethnic groups. Arriving at the waterside you will then take a boat up to the town at Inle Lake.
Inle Lake (staying in Nyaungshwe)
Inle Lake is famous for the people who live and work on the lake. Its good here to take a day tour, where you are shown around the lake by a local boatman. This will include looking at the lake’s natural features as well as visits to floating shops and seeing the floating houses on the lake. There are also religious sites to visit such as Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery. Sunset over the lake can be very beautiful, and fishermen will often pose for tourists.
The town here is named Nyaungshwe. It has many accommodation options and restaurants aimed at visitors to the lake.
How long to stay here and where to stay
2 nights are enough when you first come to the lake. One night to settle in and rest after your trek. And then another to spend a day doing a boat tour. Details about onward travel are listed under the next destination on this Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary. A recommended hostel here is the Song of Travel Hostel. The staff here are very helpful for planning your time here and onward travels.
Loikaw (and surrounding area)
This area is little visited by foreign tourists and as such present some excellent opportunities to observe and learn about local life. The main interest here is to visit ‘tribal’ villages of the different ethnic groups that live in the area, particularly the Karenni. There are several different groups of these people who each have their own culture and traditions. Their home villages are found in Myanmar’s Kayah State of which Loikaw is the capital. Travel to visit these villages should be arranged through a guide.
One of the groups you can visit are the Kayan people. They are particularly well known for their ‘longneck’ style. This is a decorative style worn by the women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe.
In Loikaw itself the biggest attraction is the Taung Kwe Pagoda. Built into a hillside it’s interesting to look around and gives some great view over the city.
A note on the ‘long neck’ villages
There are of course ‘long necks’ in Northern Thailand. These are all refugees who are originally from Kayah State. Visits to see them in Thailand are controversial considering how they are treated. Often people say they feel uncomfortable simply ‘viewing’ a human being. There are some long neck women around Inle Lake they are there simply to be viewed by tourists. Even local tour guides I spoke to there were unhappy about this.
The reason I have included a visit to them on the Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary is that this is there home and they want to encourage visitors to it. The population of Myanmar is hugely diverse and I think it’s important to recognise the different people for who they are. They live in poverty and tourism is a valuable source of income to them. A visit to them is not just to see the long neck decoration and nothing else, it’s to learn about their culture and traditions. Its a very different experience to simply going to see a long neck on display.
How long to spend in Loikaw and travel info
3 nights is a good amount of time to spend in Loikaw to enable you to visit a couple of different travel villages.
The standard way to get to Loikaw is by bus or mini van. You can sort of booking these in Nyaungshwe. The journey takes a few hours and its a bumpy road with lots of curves.
You need to return to Nyaungshwe before you can head to Hsipaw. You will likely need to stay another night here before heading onward. The journey to Hsipaw is a long one and it’s bets for you to do overnight. You should be aware you may arrive early morning, around 4am.
A note on my own trip here:
When I visited Loikaw transport was arranged in Nyaungshwe before my group left. We actually travelled by boat for a large part of the journey, down through Inle Lake and the waterways that run south of it. We were picked up by mini van at Pekon and taken the rest of the way to Loikaw. Whilst this was a lot of fun it was also tiring and involved a lot of time in the sun whilst on the boat. The return journey involved a local bus ride back to Nyaungshwe. This and the guide we had was all arranged via the Song of Travel Hostel in Nyaungshwe. They used their local connections to find out what was possible for us.
The town of Hsipaw is great to explore before heading off on a 2 day 1 night trek into the nearby mountains. Its a good place to try Shan noodles, a local delicacy. They can be made vegetarian too. Take a walk out to the ‘Palace of the last Sky Prince of Hsipaw’ whilst your in town. Here you can learn some history of the palace. For reasons I shan’t say I won’t post more information online, you have to go there and speak to it’s owner yourself! You can also check out a noodle factory whilst walking back into town, and see how the food is made. Around the town you will also find several ‘Mr Shakes’ offering tasty fruit and vegetable drinks.
Embarking on a Trek here is alot of fun and every rewarding. You go up into the hills around Hsipaw and stay a night with a local family. It gives you chance to meet and interact with the locals. There are many villages dotted around in the hills, its in one of these you will stay. The scenery is great as well, a mixture of jungle, tea plantations and other agricultural land.
Where to stay, how long to spend here and who to trek with
I recommend 3 full days/nights here. On your first day explore the town and book your trek. On the 2nd go for the trek, returning the next day after sleeping in a local village. Stay the night and get some rest before departing the next morning.
The most famous hostel and trekking company here is Mr Charles. They are a good bet for staying your first night too as they will let you check in early in the morning. I actually arrived at 4am and they didn’t even charge me for that night! They have plenty of people who do treks with them too.
I personally went trekking with Lily The Home. Their guides have a good reputation and ours was excellent. Its a nice place to stay when you get back to, it’s a lot quieter than Mr Charles (but also more expensive).
The Train ride to Pyin Oo Lwin
T he train ride from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin is famous for its scenic beauty. And for the fact that it crosses the Gokteik Viaduct. This was completed in 1900 and it has a huge drop to the jungle floor beneath then bridge. it really is a spectacular site to behold and the bumpy journey across it is pretty special. You can take the train in the morning from Hsipaw, it takes a few hours to arrive in Pyin Oo Lwin.
Pyin Oo Lwin
The National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens are the reason to visit this old colonial town. Orinally create din 1915 these gardens are very beautiful and home to many different plants and flowers as well as deer and other wildlife. The town of Pyin oo Lwin is a cooler than much of the rest of Myanmar. The colonial British used to move here form Rangoon during the summer to avoid the heat. The town still has some of it’s old colonial buildings and a diverse population has a result of those times. There is a large Indian presence here as well as many Eurasians, Chinese and other ethnicities.
How long to stay here and onward travel
Many choose just to visit Pyin Oo Lwin for an afternoon and then head onto Mandalay. The obvious issue with this is your bags – you’d need to find somewhere to keep your biggest bags whilst exploring the Gardens. Otherwise you can stay a night in the city and travel onward to Mandalay the next day. Whilst you could wait for the train the best way to travel is by shared taxi. These are regular and are shared by locals and travellers alike. Check with your accommodation or local drivers about booking one.
We end this Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary with the city of Mandalay. There are plenty of things to do here, particularly focused on history and culture.
The Shwenandaw Monastery is made entirely of Teak wood, and is the only major building from Mandalay’s original wooden royal palace to have survived World War II. The rest was sadly destroyed in bombing raids as the British and Commonwealth forces battled the Japanese. Built by King Mindon, it was then moved to its current location by his son between 1878 and 1880. It is full of intriguing carvings from Buddhist myth and legend.
The Mahamuni Buddha image at the Mahamuni Paya temple is said to be one of only five likenesses of the Buddha that were made during his lifetime. Therefore it is a major Buddhist pilgrimage site, and always very busy with visitors. Lookout here for the 800 year old ‘war loot’ from Angkor Wat that is on display. The story goes that armies from the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (Thailand) captured these from the Khmer Empire and then in turn Burmese armies captured it from them.
Another sunset spot inside the city is the 700 meter high Mandalay Hill. This a Buddhist spot which you can walk up (barefoot), passing religious monuments, shops and alike on the way. Local citizens often come here too, they like to chat to tourists to practise their English. watch out for any monks asking for money though, it’s a common scam. But don’t be afraid if others engage in conversation, they are likely just being friendly.
Nearby is the Kuthodaw pagoda. It is famous for being home to what is regarded as the world’s largest book. 729 stone tablets set in rows of Stupas detailing Theravāda Buddhism’s Pāli Canon.
The Royal Palace
The original royal palace in Mandalay was constructed under order of King Mindon between 1857 and 1859. Today you will still find here a walled city inside of Mandalay, featuring 4 walls that are 2km long each. The whole site is surrounded by a visually impressive moat. As previously mentioned the Royal Palace was sadly destroyed by bombing in World War 2, so what you see inside the walls now are a reconstruction that began in 1989. Arguably the interest here lies more in the outside and the way it’s a ‘city within a city’ rather than the actual reconstruction itself.
You can only enter via the main eastern Gateway. It’s a long walk from the entrance to the main area – you can rent bicycles if you wish to make the journey. There is also a military site inside the walls which is strictly off-limits to tourists.
I’ve found other travellers opinions on whether or not visiting this palace is worth it. I advise that you definitely check out the palace walls and moat. As for the reconstruction inside it was interesting to an extent but not essential and other sights in Mandalay are better. Therefore if your on a tight budget you might want to skip that part.
Heading out of the city
A great place to visit nearby to Mandalay is the U Bein Bridge. Built in 1850 and at 1.2 Kilometres long it is the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. Its another great sunset spot, you can get some really nice views over the river.
How long to stay here and where to stay
I definitely recommend at least 2 full days in Mandalay, there is a lot to get around. If you have more time then 3 or 4 should allow you to cover all of the above as well as take some time out in the cafes and restaurants.
Dreamland Guesthouse is a fantastic place to stay here. The staff are friendly and the dorms and rooms pleasant. Additionally there is a roof top here to relax on too, and some interesting artwork hung around the building.
Thanks for reading this Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary! I hope it inspires you and helps you to plan your own trip.
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