Well-known for its ancient temples, stunning landscapes, and friendly people, Myanmar is truly an incredible place to visit. The country was on my travel list for a long time and I was extremely happy to come here for the first time some years ago, just when it became more accessible for tourists.
If your idea of having a good time includes experiencing authentic culture and exploring low-key destinations away from the tourist hordes, Myanmar is definitely the place you want to go to.
Should you travel to Myanmar?
The truth is that Myanmar is known for its troubled history as well as more recent political issues. The country used to be run by a military dictatorship while the democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi spent a significant amount of time under house arrest.
There is also the issue of racially-fuelled violence against the country’s Rohingya Muslim population. About 625,000 refugees from Rakhine, Myanmar were forced to leave their homes and cross the border with Bangladesh during the 2016–17 crisis.
Whether you feel this is a reason not to visit Myanmar is ultimately a personal decision. There’s been plenty of debate on this among travel bloggers, with many people passionately arguing for both sides.
However, safety is not an issue for tourists. In 2012, the international bans were pulled and foreigners started traveling to Myanmar. Authorities don’t allow tourists anywhere near any danger and despite all the negative coverage, most people in Myanmar have nothing to do with the politics and the country itself is very safe to travel.
During my visit to Myanmar, I discovered that petty crime and scams are very rare. Due to having been fairly isolated for many decades, there is generally a very welcoming and uncynical attitude towards tourists.
Why go backpacking in Myanmar
Myanmar is definitely one of the least visited countries in Southeast Asia, but maybe that’s what makes it so special and unique. If you wish to get a break from hyper-touristy destinations in Asia like Thailand, you’ll be happy to hear that Myanmar is a relatively unexplored destination. There are no overcrowded beaches here, everything (except hotels) is dirt cheap, and the locals don’t treat you as an ATM.
While backpacking Myanmar, you will have an opportunity to visit dozens of seriously awesome places!
From Inle Lake which is one of the most stunning lakes in the world to the temple complex of Bagan where you will find over 2,000 Buddhist pagodas and temples, there are plenty of interesting destinations in Myanmar just waiting to be explored.
Get lost in the chaotic streets of Yangon and admire the capital’s cool golden temples or pay a visit to Kyaikto which is home to a unique Buddhist pilgrimage site. If you wish to get away from it all and find some peace, I recommend spending a few days in the quiet town of Hsipaw or visiting the small beach towns of Chaungtha and Ngapali.
Is it Myanmar or Burma?
Let me start by saying that no one’s going to give you the stink eye for using these country names interchangeably. This South Asian country had its share of ups and downs, so it comes as no surprise that all of that leads to a bit of a dual identity.
On paper, the country is called Myanmar, but many people still refer to it as Burma.
It was back in 1989 when the military pushed aside General Ne Win’s government and decided to change things and rename the country from Burma to Myanmar. While they were at it, they also changed the name of the capital city of Rangoon to Yangon. Why? They wanted to give a national identity to other ethnic groups apart from Burmans and to get rid of the British colonial influence.
Nowadays, there is not much fuss about all of this and most people use both names.
Travel limitations in Myanmar
In the past, travel in Myanmar was fairly restricted due to the political situation. Fortunately, things have changed a lot in the last 10 years and these days backpackers can explore most parts of the country.
However, the northern parts of Myanmar including places like Kachin state, Southern Chin and Rakhine are off-limits to tourists for safety reasons. Therefore, going truly off the beaten path in Myanmar can be difficult. On the map below you can see some of the common tourist highlights where you can definitely travel unimpeded.
In Thailand, you can pretty much go anywhere you like as a traveler. In Myanmar, it’s best to stick to your average backpacker route and stay away from the northern parts. I mean, even if you try to reach these northern states, you will be stopped by the authorities at some point. Since the accessibility of different areas in Myanmar changes every year or so, it’s always best to check the government website for fresh information and updates.
Entry points to Myanmar
Getting into Myanmar is quite easy. There are many flights from South Asian countries to the capital city of Yangon, but you can also opt for flying into Mandalay which is also served by numerous airlines.
Backpackers who wish to travel overland should know that it is possible to cross Myanmar’s borders with India and Thailand. The borders with China and Bangladesh are closed to foreigners, while the border with Laos is remote and you need some special permission from the authorities to cross it. There were recent reports in the local press saying how the border between Laos and Myanmar is now open to foreigners, but local expats write that it is still not possible to cross this border as a foreigner.
There are three border crossings between Myanmar and Thailand:
- Mae Sot – Myawaddy (central). This is the easiest way to get from Bangkok to Yangon, and by far the most popular crossing due to its proximity to various places of interest in Myanmar. Ignore any advice that says this crossing is one-way only; this is not the case anymore since a new road was completed in 2016.
- Phunaron – Htee Kee (central). Buses go from Kanchanaburi in Thailand to the small border town of Phunaron. It’s a small and remote crossing and on a slow mountain road, though it’s fully accessible.
- Ranong – Kawthaung (south). This crossing lets you enter Myanmar from the far south. The roads here are reportedly rough, and in bad weather conditions overland travel to Myeik may not always be possible.
There is also the Mae Sai – Tachileik border crossing near Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, but you’ll get stuck if you don’t have a permit to travel further overland which is rarely issued. This crossing is, broadly speaking, not usable for independent travelers intending to go into Myanmar overland without restriction.
Two open border crossings are connecting Myanmar and India which are open to foreigners. One is Moreh/Tamu, while the second one is Zokhawtar/Rikhawdar which puts you close to one of the most beautiful mountainous regions in Myanmar and the incredible heart-shaped Rih Lake.
Visa process in Myanmar
You will need a visa to enter Myanmar, but the whole process is relatively easy. The good news is there an official e-Visa website and you can apply for your visa to Myanmar online. All you need to do is pay the $50 fee, upload your passport photo, and specify a port of entry in your application.
On the website, it says you should get your visa approval within 3 working days, but in many cases, it takes less time to obtain the visa. Your e-Visa is valid for 3 months from the date of issue and allows you to stay in Myanmar for 4 weeks.
Top places to visit in Myanmar
The main attraction in Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a huge gold-roofed Buddhist temple. Sunset is an excellent time to go as the dome will be gleaming beautifully in the orange sun.
Apart from the pagodas, some people might feel that Yangon is not particularly rich in major ‘sights’ or museums, but I think there’s plenty to experience. You can have a wander through the streets and markets, or sit down in a tea house and watch people go about their business. Chinatown is a great area for street photography or to sample some very yum street food.
Interestingly, motorbikes are outlawed in Yangon. According to rumor a well-placed individual in the army had once been in a motorbike related accident, and then decided the city could just as well do without them. I am not sure if this is exactly how this law came to be, though it has resulted in the streets of Yangon having a relatively quiet and pleasant character.
Mandalay is the second largest city, and it’s mainly a great base for daytrips to various sights in the area. You can take a taxi or rent a scooter and make your way to the U Bien Bridge, Myanmar’s iconic 2.5 km long teak bridge across a lake, which is also the cover image of many Myanmar guidebooks. Another popular sight is Mandalay Hill, which has some great viewpoints where you can see the entire city below.
With lots of motorbikes and many power generators set up outside of buildings (as backups for use during power cuts), Mandalay is not quite as walkable or as tranquil as Yangon. Still, there is a lot of interesting city life to see here, and you’ll find various markets with great Burmese street food.
With over 200 temples dotted around the landscape, Bagan is quite the sight. You can explore the area on your own by foot or by renting bicycles, or get a guide with horse carriage to ride you around.
A few of the temples you can climb on top of, and these make for perfect viewing points at sunset. Don’t miss this spectacular panoramic view! (It’s easiest to ask your guide or hostel where these particular temples are.)
Seen as a whole the temples of Bagan are especially impressive, though it’s maybe worth saying they’re fairly identical when exploring up-close, and many of the temples are essentially empty inside. By the time you’ve seen your tenth temple you’ll probably be ‘templed out’, but I’m only saying that to temper expectations slightly. You can easily spend a full day exploring the area.
Lake Inle is the second big attraction in Myanmar after Bagan, though unlike the rest of the country things can feel decidedly inauthentic here. If you go on one of the boat tours, you’ll likely be dropped off at various tacky souvenir shops. Some of these shops have a member of the long-neck Karen tribes almost as a kind of human display. While the lake is beautiful, it’s becoming full of noisy longboats and there have been alarming reports about the ecological impact of tourism on the lake. Maybe these boat tours can be skipped. (They’re not so special anyway.)
The town of Nyaung Shwe is the main travel hub in this area from which to go on excursions. A worthwhile trip is to Inthein, a sort of mini version of Bagan. The hundreds of small crumbling temples and stupas here are overgrown with gnarly trees and foliage, giving these ruins a bit of an Indiana Jones feel.
A good way to see the beautiful nature near lake inle—and much less tacky or invasive than the boat tours—is to go on a trek. I did a 2 day trek from the town of Kalaw to Nyaung Shwe which was very enjoyable.
Train to Hsipaw
Riding a train in Myanmar is quite the experience! If you find enjoyment just in the act of traveling itself, I recommend taking a train in Myanmar at least once.
A popular route is the circle line in Yangon and you can read a great report about this on the blog Borders of Adventure.
Another recommended journey is the one between Mandalay and Hsipaw. You can get a minivan or taxi to the town of Pyin Oo Lwin first and then get on the train in the early morning, so you can catch the best part of the route.
It can be an uncomfortable journey though. If you are prone to motion sickness, the extreme swaying from side to side could easily trigger it.
The train crosses a canyon via the Goteik viaduct which was built during British colonial times. While crossing this bridge was not quite as thrilling as the guidebooks made me believe, this journey is more about seeing the beautiful landscapes passing you by.
It might also be just about the physical experience of being on a super old train. When it picks up speed you will surely be bouncing around the cabin, and you do have to watch your head if you’re near an open window as the trees and bushes get very close. At certain points during my ride, the train basically turned into a giant hedge trimmer cutting through the jungle, spraying leaves and branches into the carriage through the open windows.
Hsipaw is a great base for hikes in the area east of Mandalay. Since it’s at a higher altitude, it’s pleasantly cooler here compared to Bagan or Mandalay.
Located just 50m km from Inle Lake, Kalaw is a lovely town and serves as an ideal base for the famous Kalaw-Inle Lake hike. Check out the local market where you can try the traditional shan noodles and purchase a bottle of local wine. There is also a nice spa and wellness center located just a short walk from the train station. They offer everything from massages to foot scrubs and manicures at a fair price.
Many backpackers spend only one night here before going on a three-day hike to Inle Lake. The trek has become popular over the last couple of years and allows you to admire the beauty of the surrounding mountains and see the small picturesque villages along the way.
If spending a couple of days on stunning beaches in a tranquil environment sounds like something you would enjoy, I recommend paying a visit to Ngapali Beach. You can go on fishing trips from the beach or join one of the boat tours.
The only downside is that accommodation can be expensive here, but you can always go down the coast to places like Ngwe Saung where it’s easier to get better deals. Keep in mind that from May to October it’s not recommended to visit the beach because of the monsoon season.
A part of the Kyaikto Township in Thaton District, Kyaikto is an ideal base to see the Golden Rock which is one of the most famous landmarks in the country. You can climb the mountain in about 45 minutes to see the Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo Pagoda), a well-known Buddhist pilgrimage built on the top of a granite boulder.
Rising about 1,500 meters above sea level, Mount Popa is a great place to visit while backpacking through Myanmar. Located in Mount Popa National Park, this place is actually an extinct volcano with a lovely monastery on the top.
There are 777 steps to climb to reach Mount Popa. Luckily, the stairway to the top is covered and along the way, you will come across many locals selling everything from flowers to wooden handicrafts. There are also many monkeys along the staircase and what’s even better; you can see them in the monastery itself. The views from the top are breathtaking. If the weather is nice, you can see the Irrawaddy River from the top of the mountain.
Cost of travel in Myanmar
You will be happy to hear that backpacking Myanmar is not expensive at all. The accommodation is affordable, the food is cheap, and the transport is reasonably priced.
Expect to pay around $15-$20 a night for a dorm bed, while basic private rooms can set you back around $30. Of course, the price depends on which part of the country you are visiting. In tourist destinations like Ngapali beach, accommodation is a bit on the expensive side. If you are visiting small towns, you can even get a dorm bed for as little as $10 per night.
Accommodation tends to cost a bit more in Myanmar than other neighboring countries. One reason for this is that the country was so isolated for so long, that there just wasn’t much need for that many hotels or hostels. Myanmar had to play catch-up, so prices are a bit higher.
The cost of traveling from town to town in Myanmar is relatively cheap. Expect to pay around $6 for a bus ticket from Bago to the Golden Rock, while a ride from Mawlamyaing to Yangon will set you back $9. If you wish to go with a car from Sittwe to Mrauk U, expect to pay around $50 which is not that expensive if you find 2 or 3 other travelers to share the cost.
Costs for admission
Many historical sites have charge admission in Myanmar. For example, the entrance to Shwedagon Pagoda costs $8 and for the Golden Rock $6. Small temples usually charge a $1 fee. To enter Bagan, you will need to set aside $15.
Street food in Myanmar is extremely cheap. You will pay around $1-$2 for a basic meal. In local restaurants, the meals are usually around $3. I liked the fish soup with rice noodles that they call Mohinga. Burmese curry is also delicious and usually comes with chicken, beef, or pork. Make sure to try the deep-fried stuffed tofu which is made in a special sauce and served with cabbage and chilies.