Myanmar overview

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the most recent addition to on the Southeast Asia backpacking circuit. Following government reforms and lifting of international sanctions in 2012, it’s become a favorite among travellers looking something a bit different, or perhaps just seeking an escape from the busy tourist sights and crazy party crowds in neighbouring Thailand.

While it might not stay this way forever, Myanmar still feels authentic and mostly unspoiled by mass tourism. Locals may greet you with friendly curiosity and, to the bewilderment of travellers used to having to drive a hard bargain elsewhere in Asia, taxi drivers might just charge you the normal local rate (I know, shocking!). It’s a low-key destination perfect for those wanting to immerse themselves in the local culture, food, and nature, and don’t particularly need to be near any luxury beach resorts.

The temples of Bagan are Myanmar’s star attraction, and while they are impressive I found the everyday experiences in Myanmar ultimately the most memorable. In the cities, you can grab a plastic chair at a roadside tea house and just watch the people passing by, often wearing longyi sarongs or a traditional cosmetic face paint called thanakha. You can rent a scooter and meander through the countryside, or take a train journey and enjoy the hustle and bustle on a creaking old train chugging its way through the landscape. You’ll get the most out of Myanmar if you can create your own little adventures.

Don’t miss out on the food either. Go to a local restaurant and you might be delighted with an array of little plates and bowls, each containing something delicious. Foodie and traveller Anthony Bourdain has listed Burmese food as one of the most underrated in the world, and he’s probably right.

I should mention that I visited Myanmar in mid-2013, which is a while ago now at this point. At the time of my visit the first ATMs were only just being connected to the international banking systems and travellers were still recommended to bring lots of USD in cash (this is not needed anymore). I’ve since been updating this post to reflect the changing visa regulations, permitted areas, and to include some tips from my correspondents who visited more recently.

Boats arriving in Nyaung Shwe, near Lake Inle.

 

Places to visit in Myanmar

Travel in Myanmar can still be limited in some respects, as visitors are legally restricted from going to certain areas (in particular in the east and far north). Many travellers stick to what’s often called the ‘tourist triangle’ of Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake, though plenty of other places are also accessible.

The map below shows just a few of the best places to visit and top things to do in Myanmar.

Myanmar backpacking map

The top attraction in the north is no doubt the temple complex of Bagan, an archeological site with over 2200 ancient Buddhist temples and pagodas. Bagan offers spectacular views particularly at sunset, and it’s often (and rightly) mentioned in the same breath as Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Borobodur in Indonesia.

There are some good treks and day-hikes in Myanmar especially around tourist magnet Lake Inle or the quiet town of Hsipaw.

In the south you’ll find the commercial capital of Yangon, which is home to many markets, golden temples and chaotic little back-streets.

In Kyaikto, east of Yangon, you can visit a Buddhist pilgrimage site which famously had a big Golden Rock perched on the edge of a cliff — this sight will be conveniently on-route if you’re entering Myanmar overland from Thailand via the most commonly used border crossing at Myawaddy.

If you’d like to get away from the cities you can head for the coast, where Chaungtha and Ngapali are two small and barely developed beach towns. Mrauk-U on the far west coast is a temple complex similar to Bagan, though it takes a long time to reach and is much less visited (which can, of course, be the perfect reason to go). I didn’t get a chance to see Mrauk-U, but you can find more information and photo impressions of this place on this blog.

While alternative itineraries are possible, many travellers ultimately end up spending much of their time around Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay, and from there adding various excursions into other areas.

Yangon

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

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.

Bagan

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

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 can find enjoyment just in the act of travelling 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 however. 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.

Practical information

Travel information for Myanmar changes often and many details you find around the web are either outdated or inaccurate. I’ve collated the most important details here and last updated this page in May 2016.

Permitted areas for visitors

All of the places mentioned on this page are within the permitted areas for visitors. You are completely unrestricted in visiting any of these parts so long as you have a valid visa.

Some areas of Myanmar do remain off-limits for tourist. For up-to-date information, check out the official government list or these maps at TourismTransparency.org. While the brown areas are labelled as requiring “prior permission”, this is rarely given and so you can basically regard these as closed.

Source: Tourism Transparency

Entering Myanmar overland

If you’re on a regional trip in Southeast Asia, or trying to combine another country with Myanmar, be sure to read this section carefully as there are various limitations around overland travel.

The easiest way to get into Myanmar is to get an eVisa and to simply fly in. Budget carrier AirAsia flies to Yangon or Mandalay from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. This will involve the least amount of hassle.

Many land borders are closed. Overlanding from China, Bangladesh, India or from Laos into Myanmar is not possible. Some special tour packages do cross the China or India-Myanmar border, though these require a mandatory guide, private transportation and advance planning. Broadly speaking all of these borders are closed to independent travellers. If you need to connect between these countries, flying is your only option.

Entering overland from Thailand is now possible thanks to the opening of several border crossings. You must get a valid visa beforehand as these are not issued at the border. You are free to exit Myanmar through any airport or valid overland crossing. (It’s not true that you have to exit via the same border crossing.)

There are four Thai-Myanmar crossings:

  • 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 (you can’t find it on Google Maps) and on a slow mountain road, though it’s fully accessible.
  • Mae Sai – Tachileik (north). You can cross here into Myanmar from 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 travellers intending to go into Myanmar overland without restriction.
  • 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.

A new border crossing connecting Thailand’s Mae Hong Song and Myanmar’s Kayak province is likely to open in the future. This would then make it practical to travel overland from the Chiang Mai area of Thailand into central Myanmar, and would finally make it possible to combine Thailand and Myanmar in one overland circle itinerary. Currently this is not possible.

Keep in mind that eVisas are for airports only and will not be accepted at land borders. You need a regular visa to use the land borders.

Visas

Tourist visas are single entry only and allow you to stay in Myanmar for 28 days. They have to be used within a 90 day window after they are issued. You always need a visa in advance of coming to Myanmar. There are two ways to get a visa:

  1. Applying for a tourist visa at a Myanmar embassy. This costs about €25 / $25 and requires a bit of paperwork and physically visiting an embassy. You can go to a Myanmar embassy if there is one in your home country, or you could go to the one in Bangkok, Thailand if you’re on a regional trip.
  2. Use the new e-Visa programThis costs double the amount but you can do it online. The only red flag here is that you can use the e-Visa only to fly into Yangon, Mandalay or Nay Pyi Taw airport. For entering overland, you need a regular visa.

Money & ATMs

Ignore old advice to bring a big pile of US dollars in cash into Myanmar. This is pre-2012 advice! There are currently over 600 ATMs accepting foreign debit or credit cards in Myanmar. They are commonly found in airports, hotel lobbies, major markets (e.g., retailers in Bogyoke Market in Yangon) and bank branches. Over 1000 merchants now accept Visa and Mastercard, and they are concentrated particularly in and around Yangon and the ‘tourist triangle’ of Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake.

Withdrawing money is easy especially in tourist destinations. It may still be a little more difficult to find an ATM in more remote places, so it’s still a good idea to withdraw cash when you’re in cities and to keep some emergency dollars with you as well (though that goes for travelling in any country).

Ethical travel

Some older guidebooks will still give you tips and tricks on how to avoid your tourist money from flowing to the (then) military government. While the government is now only partially democratic and not without major controversies (particularly around the treatment of minorities), the concerns around tourist money supporting a military regime date mostly from pre-2011. Most government-owned hotels and such have now been privatised rendering this advice moot.

‘Bamboo village’ near Kalaw 

Cost of travel

For cost of travel information about Myanmar as well as other countries in the region, check out my Southeast Asia cost overview.

Accommodation is not as cheap as in some other South East-Asian countries; expect to pay at least around $15 – $20 for a private room. It is advisable to book ahead your accommodation especially in high season. The extreme high season is in Oct-Dec, and I’ve been told things get pretty rammed during this time. The low season is Apr-Sep; I went during this time and while finding accommodation wasn’t too difficult, the climate can be very hot especially in the central plains (Mandalay, Bagan). You might have to take a little siesta in the afternoon to escape the heat.

Internet is available though not very widely, and it’s often slow.

Power cuts are frequent. Bring a headlamp or flashlight so you can find your toothbrush in the dark if needed.

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