Myanmar, also known as Burma, is home to about 53 million people. The country is so beautiful and the people there are so pure. Everyone is so friendly and helpful, and they are very curious about everything since they country had been closed to the rest of the world for so long. In 1962 the government kicked out all foreigners and didn’t allow Burmese to leave the country. It wasn’t until 1992 when tourism started to become encouraged, but it was still difficult to get visa until 2011. Spend as much time as you can here, but if you are limited on time the main cities to visit are Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake. Two weeks was not long enough for me – there is still so much I want to see and I will for sure be going back!
When to Go
The best time to visit is from November to February, after the rainy season passes and before the unbearable heat swings in. The temperature will still be quite hot and humid in some areas but this is the most bearable time to go.
The cheapest way to get to Myanmar is to fly from Bangkok. There are daily flights from Bangkok to Yangon and Mandalay that you can get for as low as $30US. Lion Air, Thai Smile and Nook Airlines are airlines where you can find cheap flights. You can also fly direct Yangon from Tokyo (ANA), Hong Kong (Hong Kong Express, Dragon Air, Myanmar Air), Singapore (Silk Air, Singapore Airlines, JetStar, Tiger Air, Myanmar Air), Kuala Lumpur (Air Asia, Malaysia Air), Beijing (Air China), Hanoi (Emirates, Vietnam Air) Doha (Qatar), Dubai (Emirates) and Seoul (Korean Air, Asiana Air). If you can, it is a good idea to start in Yangon, make your way north and fly out of Mandalay so you don’t have to travel back down south again.
There are two international terminals at the Yangon International Airport. Terminal 1 is brand new and just opened March 2016, there is AC and very nice shops and a small food court to eat. Most of the major international airlines (Air Asia, Singapore, Silk Air, HK Express, Air China, Emirates, Thai Lion Air, Bangkok Airways and Vietnam Airlines) now fly out of this Terminal. Terminal 2 is the old terminal where the more local airlines will fly into, but ANA flies into Terminal 2 as well.
Flying within the country can be very expensive depending on when you book and where you go. The best way to get around the country is by bus, unless you are very short on time then take a flight. The VIP buses are actually quite nice and very safe, but make sure you book the VIP bus because the normal ones will not be a comfy ride. JJ Express is the best, but also the most expensive (only costs a few dollars more than the other companies though). You do get your own personal TV with movies to choose from. Elite Express is also a good choice. A ticket from Yangon to Bagan will cost between 20,000-24,000kyat depending on where you book it. It is a 12 hours ride, compared to an hour and twenty minute flight. But if on a budget the night buses aren’t a bad choice and it will also save you a hotel night. You can book ahead online and pay with credit card if you want the ease but it is cheaper to go to the bus station or an agency and book it in person. I would recommend booking your bus tickets a day or two in advance (further in advance if travel dates coincide with a festival or holiday), to make sure you get a seat on the bus as sometimes they sell out. There are VIP buses that go to and from all of the large cities. Make sure you have something warm to wear on the bus because they tend to blast the AC.
Every visitor will need a visa to enter the country. You need to get it before you arrive – only business visitors can get a visa on arrival. For 100 countries, including Canada and the US, you can get your visa online at http://www.evisa.moip.gov.mm/. Just fill out the form and the will e-mail you the visa. It will cost you $50 US and usually approves within 24 hours (but can take up to 3 days). You will need to print visa so make sure you have a printer accessible to do that. The visa is valid for 4 months after it is granted but only for one entry. You will need to submit what airport you are flying in and out of for the visa and this cannot change so make sure you know. The visa application will also ask you for the hotel you are staying at in the city of arrival, but you can just put any hotel address as this is not as important. If you are coming from Thailand though, it is much cheaper to get the visa in person at an embassy. It will cost you only about $22US instead of the $50.
Before You Go
There is no need to put your phone on a plan because it is so easy and cheap to get a local SIM card there. When you arrive at the airport, go to the MPT or Ooredoo booth and purchase a SIM card and phone package for about $12US. There are many different packages but pick which one is best for you. The 1.35GB data plan + sim and 5,000kyat of credit is plenty for two weeks, because they also give you bonus credit and data when you sign up. One local text will only cost you about 1 cent and an international text to Canada or the US is not much more. If for some reason you run out of credit, you can always purchase more at any corner store.
Thanaka is the name of the white-ish paste that you will see locals wearing on their faces and sometimes on their body. It is made from ground bark and in some instances you will come across locals who will want to put some on your face. Let them do it because when you walk around with thanaka on your face, the locals light up and open up to you easier.
It is safe to hitchhike here if you are really on a budget. Locals love to meet tourists and will stop to help you if you need a ride. It is also a great way to meet Burmese and to get some tips about the cities. Don’t be scared to do it even if it’s just a quick 20 minute ride!
Currency & Payment
The currency in Myanmar is kyat. It is about 1,285kyat to $1US and 960kyat to $1CAD. They also accept USD here but the bills have to be crisp with no creases, ink stains and in pristine condition. This also goes for the bills that you exchange for kyat. The larger USD bills (100’s and 50’s) also get a better exchange rate than the smaller bills (20’s and 10’s). The only currency they accept at the money exchange counters are USD, Singapore Dollars and Euros so make sure you have one of these currencies if you are exchanging money, otherwise you can always pull cash from the ATMs around town.
What to Eat & Drink
- Shan noodles
- Tea leaf salad
- BBQ foods off the street
- Fried bread
- Myanmar Beer is the best
A taxi from the airport should be no more than 8,000kyat into the city center but this ride can take up to an hour and a half with traffic. Traffic is very bad in the city, especially during rush hour so make sure to allocate plenty of time to get from one place to another. Taxis within the city center are very cheap but things are not too far from each other so you can easily walk around the city center as well.
Where to Stay
It is best to stay in the heart of the city as that is where most of the action happens and it will allow you to explore by foot.
- Four Rivers Hostel (if on a tight budget, about $7US per night)
- Backpacker Bed and Breakfast (if on a budget, about $12US per night)
- Scott Hostel (if on a budget, about $15US per night)
- Shangri-La Hotel (if budget is not an issue, about $175US per night)
- Strand Hotel (if budget is not an issue, about $400US per night)
What to Do
- Visit the 2,500 year old Shwedagon Pagoda – this is the most sacred and impressive Buddhist site in Mayanmar. Open 4am to 10pm daily and entrance fee is 8,000kyat. Make sure you wear something that covers your knees and shoulders, otherwise you will have to buy something at the door.
- Shop at Scotts Market – here you can find many souvenirs, clothes, art and gems (something that Myanmar is famous for – they sell millions of dollars’ worth of their rubies and sapphire gems to China every year). Open every day except Mondays.
- Go on the Heritage Trust Walking Tour, or if on a budget do a guided book walking tour – this two and a half hour tour brings you down the wide avenues leading to the waterfront between Sule Pagoda Road and Bo Aung Gyaw Road notably between Maha Bandoola Park and Pansodan Street. This will cost $30US or 3,800kyat.
- Explore a local village – this may be out of your comfort zone but step into one of the local villages where kids are playing bare foot around their houses that are built over sewage waters. If you smile and talk to them, they will open up to you. People will let you take photos of them and will love seeing them on your camera. You will find that some of the happiest people live in these villages. See if one of the kids can put some thanaka on your face!
- Take the Circle Train around the city. It is 46km, has 38 stops and takes an average of 100,000 passengers daily. It is the best way to see the city on a budget. It will take about 3 hours to do the whole loop and will cost you only 200kyat. There are 15 departures daily starting at 6:10am ending at 5:10pm. The best place to board is from Yangon’s downtown train station.
- Visit the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda (Chaukhtatgyi Buddha) – only do this if you have an extra hour. There is no entrance fee. Constructed in 1990, this statue is 65 meters long and beautifully sculpted with 108 sacred symbols delicately drawn on the soles of the feet.
- Walk around Kandawgyi Park – it costs 2,000kyats to enter and is open daily from 4am to 10pm. This is a good place to come to watch the sunset or for a run. The main entrance is on the south-east corner opposite U Aung Myat Road. The wide boardwalk to the left of the entrance is best place from which to photograph the Shwedagon as the sun turns it very gold when it sets.
Where to Go Out / Grab a Drink
- Gekko – great for dinner or after dinner drinks. Open 11am to 11pm daily. Friday nights are the best to go because they have live music.
- The Blind Tiger – for drinks
- Root Kitchen & Bar – for food or drinks
- Craft Yangon – good café
- Tin Tin – for dinner
- Green Elephant – for dinner
- Union Bar & Grill – for dinner or drinks, they have a great happy hour from 5-7pm
- Feel Restaurant – to try all the local Burmese foods at a cheap price
- Shan Yoe Yar Restaurant – for great Shan food (from the Shan region). The Shan noodles here are delicious!
This is the city that you have seen in the famous pictures of Myanmar with the hot air balloons floating over the temples at sunrise. It is one of the top 3 places in the world to do a hot air balloon ride, but also just an incredible site to see if you are on a budget. Unfortunately I wasn’t very lucky and had some cloudy and rainy days while I was there so the hot air balloons didn’t go up those days. Another reason to return!
Rent an electric scooter to get around the city. It is way better than a bike because you can cover more ground and it gets really hot in Bagan so it is nice to have the breeze! It is also harder to go off the main road with a bike, especially if it rains. It is only 5,000kyat to rent an electric scooter per day. And if you rent from the place right next to Ostello Bello Hostel they will do your laundry for free – it takes two days to do it though.
If you fly or take a bus into the city, take a taxi to your hotel. To New Bagan it shouldn’t cost more than 5,000kyat per person, to Old Bagan no more than 6,000kyat and to Nyaung U no more than 4,000kyat. You may need to negotiate a little to get these prices though, and you may have to share the cab with other people.
Where to Stay
There are three areas of Bagan: Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U. Old Bagan is where you will find a lot of the high end hotels/resorts that will cost upwards of $100US per night. New Bagan is where you will find mid-range accomodations. And Nyaung U is where you will find the budget accommodations. I stayed at Ostello Bello Hostel in New Bagan which was about $25US per night but very clean, had friendly staff and had a very social community.
What to Do
- Rent an electric scooter and explore the pagodas around New Bagan, Old Bagan and Nyaung U. Do this every day and just turn down random roads and see where it takes you. If there are few temples you have read about that you want to visit, download Maps.me and pin the temples on the map so you can easily find them. Make sure you download the region map while on Wi-Fi before you head out exploring. Try to see sunrise and sunset every day at a different temple, and make sure to get up every day for sunrise because it is worth the site. My favorite pagodas were No. 433 (21˚10’26.54”N 94˚53’07”E) and No. 690 (~21˚10’12.7”N 94˚54’11.85”E). No. 433 is great for sunset, not crowded like the more known ones but still has a great view. Shwegugyi is a good temple for sunrise. Also, make sure to wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off because you will have to take them off at every Pagoda you visit. You will also need to cover your knees and shoulders.
- Watch sunrise from hot air balloon. This is one of the top places in the world to do this but it will cost around $350 per person. It is worth it if you haven’t been on one before. Two companies that are recommended are Oriental Ballooning Bagan and Balloons over Bagan.
- Go to the Manisithu Market in Nyaung U to buy souvenirs and see where the locals buy their produce. Here you can find some foods to snack on as well.
- Take a sunset cruise down the river for 5,000kyat with Ostello Bello. You can just walk into the lobby and sign up. The sheet will ask for your room number but you don’t need to put it down. It is a great way to meet people and you get a free drink on the boat!
- Visit Mount Popa if you have time. If you are limited on days though, this is probably something you can skip. Ostello Bello has an organized day trip there, for 9,000kyat that you can sign up for.
Where to Eat
There are many good places to eat around the city – the best is to just ask a local where they like to eat and you will likely get an amazing meal, for very cheap! Here, there aren’t many places to go out at night and drink because the city has a curfew of 11pm. You can grab a beer at many places and you will find a bar here and there but they are frequently seen.
- Rose Café in New Bagan – great local food for $1-2US. Make sure you ask for the local menu and the local prices when you sit down because they may try to give you the tourist menu. Also make sure you go to Rose Café (has a yellow sign) and not Black Rose Restaurant.
- Eat lunch at a family run restaurant under the trees behind the Ananda Temple by the wall entrance to Old Bagan (21˚10’23.06”N 94˚51’58.35”E). The restaurant does not have a name but it is fairly big and will be packed with locals. You can get a great meal for 1,500-2,000kyat and they also have fresh sugar cane juice!
- The Moon Restaurant in New Bagan – vegetarian restaurant across the street from Ostello Bello Hostel. They have a great Tea Leaf Salad here.
TREK FROM KALAW TO INLE LAKE
Kalaw is the town where you need to go to do the trek to Inle Lake, and it is the only reason to go to this town. This trek was my favorite part of Myanmar because you really get to see the countryside and walk through local villages. You can either do a 3 day (2 night) trek or a 2 day (1 night trek). I highly suggest you find the time to do the 3 day trek, even if it’s forecast to rain a bit – it is worth it and a trek you will never forget! Just keep an open mind and know that you are not going to stay clean!
There are many different companies you can go with for the trek but the two that are recommended are Eversmile Trekking and Sam’s Trekking. Eversmile is slightly cheaper (40,000kyat, about $35US, vs. Sam’s which is 45,000kyat if you have a group larger than 4) and you will have a larger group of people, sometimes up to 12. Sam’s will cater to private groups if you are looking for that. The trek includes food for the 3 days and lodging but no drinks or water. You can buy water along the way at small stores for 300-500kyat for half a liter. There are different routes you can take on the trek depending on your hiking ability and what you want to see. As a group you will decide this though.
If you take the night bus into town and are going to wait it out until the trekking office opens, make sure you wear something warm because it is very cold in the town in the mornings, especially if you arrive at 3 or 4am. I think it is better to take a day bus which will get in late afternoon, spend one night in Kalaw to rest up for the hike the next day.
Tips for the Trek
- Make sure you have good trekking shoes. Especially when it rains, it gets very very muddy and the extra traction on your hiking shoes can save you from many slips in the mud. You can do it in sneakers though if you don’t have anything else.
- Bring a day backpack that you can pack your 3-days’ worth of gear into. You can leave your big luggage with the company and they will send it directly to your hostel/hotel at Inle Lake. If you don’t have one, buy on in the village for about $6US.
- Buy a poncho for 4,500kyat in the village. They have large 100% waterproof ones that you can slip over your head and it can cover your day bag as well. It has buttons on it but they are fake and comes in pink, blue or green colors.
- The food provided is mostly vegetarian. If you are the type of person that need a lot of protein, pack some nuts and protein bars to take with you.
- There are no electrical outlets during the trek so make sure to charge all your electronics before heading out. It is also a good idea to bring a power bank to charge any items that die during the trip (i.e. your camera).
- As a group you will sleep in a homestay in small villages along the way. Everyone will be in the same room and you will sleep on a small mattress on the floor. If you are worried about cleanliness, make sure to bring a sheet to sleep on/in and a pillow case or cover.
- Pack lots of toilet paper, wet wipes and hand sanitizer! Toilets are outhouses and can be very gross. Sometimes it’s better to just go in the bushes. The shower stall is also outside – it is a bucket shower so you take water from the well and rinse yourself. If you get there after dark though, it may be hard to shower so the wet wipes come in handy.
- Pack bug spray! There are many mosquitos out there and you will get eaten alive if you don’t have any mosquito repellent.
- You will need to pay an entrance fee to the lake of 12,500kyat before you enter the area so make sure you have enough cash.
Where to Stay
- Seint Hotel for $15 for a private room (walking distance to everything and one block from bus station)
- Railroad Inn for $15 for a private room (e-mail them and ask for a rate as it will be way cheaper than what is posted online)
Where to Eat
- Thu Maung Myanmar Restaurant on the main road has really good local food ($2-3 for a meal)
- Napoli Restaurant is a Nepalese restaurant popular with tourists but is a bit more expensive ($5-6US for a meal)
If you are planning to head to Inle Lake in November, try to time it for the full moon mid-November as one of the biggest festivals in Myanmar is at that time – the Taunggyi Balloon Festival. This is about 20km from Inle Lake and is worth heading to even though it will take about two hours to get there because of traffic. Over the span of one week, locals will release hot air balloons in the sky that shoot out fireworks. There is also a man powered Ferris wheel that is a must do. If you come during this time though, make sure you book hotels and buses ahead of time to and from the cities as they will fill up quickly. You will also need to pay a 12,500kyat fee to enter the Inle Lake area.
If you stay in Nyaung Shwe, rent a bike to get around. They are only 1,500kyat for the day and you can explore the city and even go to other villages around the lake. If you are taking a VIP bus to another city from here, make sure the company comes and picks you up from your hostel/hotel as the ride to the bus station should be included in the ticket price.
Where to Stay
- Ostello Bello Inle Lake Hostel – walking distance from the dock and central to restaurants and bus stations
- Song of Travel Hostel – a little far but bikes are free there
- Shwe Inn Tha Hotel – high en floating resort on the lake if budget isn’t an issue
- The Golden Island Cottages – has beautiful huts on the lake if budget isn’t an issue
What to Do
- Take a boat ride around Inle Lake (try to find others to go with you to split cost which shouldn’t be hard at hostels as they can organize this for you). Go see the floating gardens, floating markets, the leg rowers and the Phaung Daw Oo This will cost between 30,000 to 50,000kyat for a boat of around 8 people. If you do the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake though, it includes a boat ride from the middle of the lake to Nyaung Shwe and you can ask them to take you on a tour on the way up to Nyaung Shwe for only 1,000kyat per person more (but the whole boat has to do it).
- Rent a bike for 1,500kyat and bike to the Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and Winery to do some wine tasting for $5US, the Htet Eain Gu cave, and the Maing Thauk village to see the Maing Thauk Bridge. If you go on Sunday, there is also a weekend market at the Maing Thauk village.
- Get a massage at Amaradavi Spa on Yone Gyi Street. It is great and relaxing, especially after the trek. For a one-hour Thai massage and a 30 minute foot massage it will cost you around $18US. They take credit card here as well. It is a good idea to book in advance.
- Visit the flying cat monastery.
Where to Eat
- Linnhtet Restaurant – delicious local food, located across the street from Sunflower restaurant on Yone Gyi Street, one of the main streets in the village.