Myanmar

Myanmar is an amazing and special place. As a Westerner, you truly feel out of place, but in a good way. Myanmar has not been open to tourism for long, so it is very undeveloped and not heavily traveled by tourists. Of all the places I have traveled to date, this is by far the friendliest. I think it just edges out Japan in this regard. Everyone smiles and the kids are extremely well behaved. Curious about foreigners, they look at you in wonder like you are from outer space. You feel like a celebrity because people will be coming up asking to have their picture taken with you. Myanmar has some of the most beautiful countryside and there are temples everywhere. Down south along the coast has some beautiful and untraveled gems from what I've heard from locals and travelers. Due to some of the more touristy parts and the cost of getting around, Myanmar can be a bit pricier than other places in Southeast Asia. My extra expenses were mainly flights to, within, and out of Myanmar and lodging was slightly more expensive (by Southeast Asia standards). I highly recommend visiting Myanmar within the next 5 years before the secret gets out and more tourists start coming here. The best part about Myanmar is the fact there are few outsiders, making it a very unique experience.
Last Visit: Apr 2016
Cost: $82/day
Stayed: 16 days
Suggest Staying: 2-3 weeks
English: 2/5
Safety: 5/5
Currency: Kyat
Transport: Bus, minibus, pickup truck, taxi

My Favorites


1. Bagan

Beautiful Temple Views of Bagan

Highlights: Temples
Suggest Staying: 3-4 days
Stay Around: New Bagan
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One of the coolest places in the world, Bagan has 2,200+ temples, some big, some small. Personally, I enjoyed Bagan more than Angkor Wat. The temples in Bagan are not quite as impressive, but they are spectacular nonetheless. It’s cheaper and less crowded for sure. As of this moment, you can walk around, on, or through most of the temples, which is wonderful. Such fun to climb up the steep stairs and to see the old inscriptions on the walls or ceilings, not to mention the many Buddha statues. There are a few temples you can climb to the top and watch the sunset which is spectacular. It can get extremely hot, especially around March and April, so I recommend pacing yourself and taking 3 days to explore. Things are very spread out. It’s possible to do in 2 days, but if you want to take a hot air balloon ride or see some of the less frequented temples, take at least that extra day. You will need a Bagan Archeological Zone Pass, which can be purchased at the major temples. What seemed to work was to just go and see the temples and eventually someone will ask to check your pass at which time if you don’t have one, you can just purchase it there. It’s around $10 and lasts for at least a few days, so you only need to purchase once.

At one of the temples we went to, a couple of kids came up to me and the couple I was with and started indicating they wanted to play. My friend and I looked at each other as if we would soon be arrested and looked for parents in the vicinity. But soon, kids were hanging off of our arms and just being playful. This never happens anywhere else. It was really neat to see that kids who have so little can still have a ball. And despite the language and cultural barriers, we could be involved.

Must See Temples

  • Pya Tha Da. Great view, less crowded, wonderful for sunset. One of my favorites.
  • Dhammayanngyi. Massive.
  • Sulamani. Beautiful with great views.
  • Htilominio. Large and beautiful. Small building in the back with stairs to the top that give you a great view.
  • Thatbyinu. Tallest.
  • Shwe San Daw. Most popular for sunset.
  • Gawdaw Palin. White and black. Can probably catch monks heading here to pray.
  • Shwe Zi Gon Pagoda. Very popular golden pagoda and stupa.
  • Ananda Temple. Holiest.
  • Dhamma Ya Zaka Pagoda. Nice grounds.
  • Bulethi. Can climb.
  • Gubyaukgyi. Rooftop view.
  • Mingala Zedi Pagoda. Last of the large temples before Mongol invasion. Can climb.
  • Shwegugyi. Kind of gothic looking.
  • Lemyethna. White rock.
  • Lawkananda Pagoda (Lokananada). Along the Ayeyarwady River.
  • Bupaya Pagoda. Located along the Ayeyarwady River.

Tips

  • Getting There. Pretty easy to catch a tourist (VIP) bus or minibus from Mandalay or Inle.
  • Getting Around. You can bicycle, motorbike, or hire a driver. A driver is more expensive, but if you make some new friends, you can split the cost and have A/C. Normally I wouldn’t care, but having someone who knows where they are going and a vehicle to keep you cool and from getting sunburned is magical. You will definitely have a more pleasant experience.
  • Walking Around Temples. You are required to take your shoes off at every temple and leave them outside. The ground can get extremely hot especially on rock (marble is cooler). Bring socks in case. Or you can improvise like I did and wrap the bottoms of your convertible pants around your feet. Generally you won’t have to do this.
  • Sunset. The most popular is Shwe San Daw. Less crowded is Pya Tha Da. Along the Ayeyarwady River is nice.
  • Hot Air Balloon. A popular way to see the temples from an aerial view. Rides stop for a couple months starting in April due to high winds.
  • Food. I thought 7 Sisters in Old Bagan was great. Large selection, reasonable prices. Western and Asian menu.

2. Mandalay

Mandalay Hill Sunset

Highlights: Temples, nature
Suggest Staying: 3-5 days
Stay Around: 83rd & 32nd (Hotel A1)
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Mandalay is the cultural center of Myanmar and what many people don’t realize is that there is actually quite a bit to do around the area. One day is plenty for the actual town itself. There is an area near the main square and famous Nann Twin that hosts several other pagodas clustered near each other. From there you can do Mandalay Hill for sunset. The rest of your time is best spent on day trips for the variety of things to see and do within close proximity to Mandalay.

See & Do

  • Mandalay Hill. Pagoda at the top where you can walk around and if you go later, watch a beautiful sunset. Can walk from town, but I recommend motorbike.
  • Kuthodaw Pagoda & Sandamuni Pagoda. Over 1,700 Buddhist teachings on hundreds of stone tablets.
  • Kyautawgyi Pagoda. Great Marble Image with large Buddha statue.
  • Shwe Kyaung. Really cool old tweak wood monastery.
  • Shwe Nan Daw Monastery. Golden monastery.
  • Atumashi Monastery. Large, beautiful monastery.
  • Mahamuni Temple. Most important Buddhist temple.
  • Mahagandayong (Mahar Gandar Yone) Monastery. Go around 10:30am to see the monks, junior monks, and nuns (lady monks) receive alms (rice) and eat lunch.
  • Amarapura. My Thein Dan Pagoda.
  • U Bein Bridge. World’s longest tweak wood bridge. Popular for sunset. Gets crowded. Can take a boat on the lake.

Nearby

  • Mingum. Mingum Bell, Pathodawgyi Pagoda.
  • Saigaing. Saigaing Hill, U Min Thonze, Soon Yu Ponya Shin Pagoda.
  • Innwe. Island where you get around by horse carriage. Daw Gyan Pagoda, Yandana Sinme Pagoda, Bagaya Monastery, Palace Tower, Maha Aung Mai Bonzan Monastery.

Tips

  • Getting There. Flying is by far the easiest as opposed to overland travel. It is cheapest to fly from Bangkok, and it is generally pretty cheap to fly to Bangkok from various places around the world. When you arrive at the airport, many people will be competing for your business to take you to your hotel in town. The cheapest way is pickup truck, but the 1 hour long ride will be painful. Alternatively, you can take a shared minibus which is also not very expensive. Note that they won’t leave until it fills up, so you might want to help recruit passengers or make some friends. Lastly, you can take a private taxi which costs about twice as much as the minibus.
  • Getting Around. You will see many pickup trucks carrying people around, some of which have a bench to sit on and some where you sit directly on the truck bed. You can hire a private driver, possibly through your hotel, and be driven around via motorbike or taxi. I did both since I didn’t know how to ride a motorbike. I was connected with Mr. Sai (through Hotel A1) who did such a great job, I booked him for several days. It was not only nice to have an air conditioned car in the 100+°F/40+°C heat, but he showed me some places I didn’t know about. Great guy and great guide.
  • Motorbikes. A good way to get around town on your own or on the back of a local’s bike. It’s a little crazy driving around downtown, but not like Vietnam or Thailand. So although I would recommend learning in your home country, you could probably learn here.
  • Temples. You can buy a ticket for 10,000 Kyat ($8) that gets you into any 5 sites in the area and is valid for 1 week.
  • Food. If you have a hankering for some good Western food, try [email protected] (82nd and 30th).

3. Trekking to Inle Lake

Kalaw

Highlights: Trekking, countryside, rice fields, lake
Suggest Staying: 2-3 days trekking, 1 day Inle Lake
Stay Around: Kalaw (1st night), Homestay (2nd/3rd night), Nyangshwe (near Inle Lake) (3rd/4th night)
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Although not as beautiful as trekking in Sa Pa, Vietnam, this was definitely a great experience. A fun adventure where you get to see rice fields, water buffalo, ginger fields, and even eat wild raspberries right off the bush. You can trek for 2 days (31km) or 3 days (61km). You walk pretty much all day, but you will take some breaks. It was pretty flat for most of the journey, but that depends on the route you take. I know it sounds intense, but it wasn’t bad. Go with a guide. Joining a group is not only cheaper, but many companies have a minimum number of people required to take anyone out. In the center of Kalaw there are several trekking companies to pick from. For some reason, all but one seemed interested in wanting to take me. Since I was solo, I had to find others which wasn’t a problem, but would be nice if they just had a sign up sheet or something. Sammy, however, made it easy and since they were the only ones who seemed to want any business, it was easy to pair up with other trekkers right in the office. The staff was great, our guide was wonderful, and the chef who accompanied us on the trek made the best food I had in all of Myanmar. They even transported our big bags to Inle for us so we only needed a day pack for the trek.

See & Do

  • Boat ride. On Inle Lake.
  • Floating garden. On Inle Lake.
  • Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. Nyangshwe.
  • Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery. Nyangshwe.
  • Katku (Kakku) Pagoda. Ruins like Bagan (just not as many or as massive). Would be a neat sunset. About 2 hours outside Inle.
  • Pindaya. Caves outside Kalaw.

Tips

  • Logistics. I thought Inle itself was a bit touristy, but the lake is pretty big and quite nice. I think 1 day is enough to see the town, pagodas, and take a boat around the lake. It’s easy to get to Bagan, Mandalay, or even Yangon by bus from here.
  • Trekking. Do it, was a fun experience. Bring 1-2L of water and snacks. Not a lot of shade, so cover up or wear sunblock. Can register up to the day before.
  • Getting There. Minibus our VIP bus from Mandalay or Bagan is pretty easy. You will be traveling through the mountains to Kalaw. People drive crazy and roads are windy, so if you get motion sickness at all, take some medicine. Dramamine is my go to.
  • Accommodations. Definitely do a homestay, it’s a great experience. Will be very basic, sleeping on a futon on the floor, outhouse squat toilets, and bucket for bathing. If you’re shy, you might need to ask for a shower curtain if bathing outside amongst some cinder blocks (there is some coverage though). Or just don’t shower for that day.
  • Food. In Nyangshwe, there is a really nice Western/Asian restaurant with a rooftop called BeyondTaste. Had dinner up there one evening and had 360 degree views of a crazy thunderstorm that also knocked out the power.

4. Pyin Oo Lwin

Pyin Oo Lwin Park

Highlights: Cave, waterfall, pagoda, botanical garden park
Suggest Staying: 1 day
Stay Around: Mandalay or Pynin Oo Lwin (center)
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Very nice town about 2 hours from Mandalay. You can do this as a day trip, or stay over. Some people travel here and then go to Hsipaw which is supposed to be nice for trekking. The sacred cave is very unique and the park is beautiful.

While at the park admiring the quiet and the nature, I heard the sound of wings flapping. The sound you would hear in the movies from a very large bird like in Jurassic Park. I look up to see a giant prehistoric bird with a gaggle of crows in tow. The bird landed on a tree branch and continued to hop around for a few minutes before it flew away. Never seen anything like it. Even my driver was surprised when I showed him the picture.

See & Do

  • Sacred Cave. Tons of Buddha statues inside the cave which you can walk into for about 20 mins. You can sit and pray if you like. Gets crowded.
  • Waterfall. Outside the sacred cave. Small, but nice place to swim and cool off.
  • Pagoda. Large Buddhist pagoda.
  • Botanical Garden Park. Beautiful forest and botanical gardens with a lake in the middle. Great place to walk around, see the nature, sit down and relax, or take a nap.

5. Shwedagon Pagoda (Yangon)

Shwedagon Pagoda

Highlights: Temple, Chinatown
Suggest Staying: 1/2 day
Stay Around: Chinatown, Yangon
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One of the most impressive Buddhist pagodas I have seen in Southeast Asia. It’s pretty massive, so leave yourself at least a half day to explore. If you go later, you can also see the pagoda lit up at night. Located near the heart of Yangon, the capital, this is one of the most well known sites in Myanmar. I wasn’t a huge fan of Yangon itself, as it is very loud, crowded, and full of Chinese businessmen. Worth the trip if you have the time and don’t mind a long bus ride or short flight.

See & Do

  • Shwedagon Pagoda. Obviously the main attraction.
  • Sule Paya Pagoda. Smaller pagoda in the center of town.
  • Botataung Pagoda. Near Yangon river.
  • Chinatown. Neat area to check out and best place to stay around.

Tips

  • Getting There. You can take a 1h20m flight or 11 hour bus (overnight or day trip). The most reliable airline is Air KBZ, as most domestic airlines seem to only last 3-6 months. Check before you fly to see what’s available at the time. My flight turned out well, but there was little communication regarding a delay. It can also be difficult to make any changes through the website if necessary. No (or small) change fees is pretty great. You can book and pay through the website. Flying is a bit more of a gamble, but definitely saves a ton of time. If you have the time, I would just take the night bus, especially if you are coming from Bagan or Inle Lake.
  • Food. There is a place upstairs close to the center of town called Rangoon Tea House that servers tea (obviously) and a nice variety of interesting dishes and cuisines.

Cost Breakdown

  • Flights: $337 (from Bangkok, Mandalay to Yangon)
  • Lodging: $376 (hotels, guesthouses)
  • Transportation: $261 (private drivers in Mandalay and Bagan increased the cost)
  • Activities: $97 (ruins, temples)
  • Food: $240 (estimated $15/day)

Total: $1311

General Tips

  • Internet. There is limited internet throughout the country. While you will likely find Wifi in hotels around the major tourist destinations like Mandalay, Bagan, and Yangon, be prepared to be without it. I suggest trying to plan before arriving and downloading offline maps before arriving just in case.
  • Mandalay Airport. Not much food, so bring some with you or eat before your flight. Don't bother arriving more than 1h30m before your flight time because you won't be able to check in.
  • Sunscreen. Mostly for the ladies, the people of Myanmar use this really interesting cream made from a particular tree mixed with water and grinded against a stone. You will see many people, including men, with this on their cheeks mostly. Supposed to provide good sun protection. Also supposed to be good for the skin which I would believe since the people look very young and have great skin.
  • Vaccinations. Check with your doctor and the CDC website. Figure out which ones you need in advance for those that take time to become effective or require multiple doses.
  • Weather. In March/April when I went, it was very hot reaching up to 95+°F/35+°C. Be sure to wear a hat, sunscreen, and even long sleeves/pants if you can bear it. Drink plenty of water.
  • More Info. Travelfish has the best in depth information about Southeast Asia.

Myanmar Visa

While not the most technologically advanced country, you can actually get an eVisa online through the government website. Once approved, mine took just a couple days, you will be emailed an approval letter that you will show at the airport (or border entry point). Bring an extra passport photo. The eVisa only works at the international airports in Myanmar. Of course you can always get your visa at an embassy.

Mosquitoes, Malaria, and Dengue

While not really a problem in the popular tourist destinations, some of the more rural areas in Myanmar have a risk of malaria. In urban areas there is a risk of Dengue. The best you can do is cover up with long sleeves, long pants, and socks that cover your ankles. Also, be sure to wear bug spray on exposed skin, especially at dawn and dusk. You can get bug spray easier in Vietnam or Thailand.

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Regarding malaria tablets, I brought a bunch with me, both Malarone and Doxycycline, but I didn’t end up taking any of them. I talked to quite a few people about malaria tablets and a few of them who took medication had some awful stomach issues. Others, however, were not affected. I decided for me that covering up and wearing bug spray was best, especially since I needed to protect against Dengue anyway, and I didn’t want to risk the potential side effects of the pills. This is just what I did. I’m not a doctor so you should consult yours before deciding what do about malaria medication.

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