Thinking about or researching travel in Myanmar? Because mass tourism in Myanmar is so new and the country is still so enigmatic, there isn’t a lot of reliable, “official” information around for travelers. Our 2016 Myanmar Travel Guide is here to help correct a lot of the misinformation that, unfortunately, informed how we and many other travelers we met in Myanmar prepared for our trip.
“Use only new, crisp, and uncreased US dollar notes.”
You may have come across this or something equally mystifying when researching Myanmar travel. There are plenty of informational articles within the last few years that give the same advice, and I’m pretty sure I even heard it on NPR once.
As of 2015 this statement does not really hold true anymore.
Upon arrival into Myanmar you can walk right up to an ATM and withdraw kyats (the native currency) with your ATM card. ATMs have become common as the country develops, and in tourist areas and most larger towns and cities they are plentiful.
The instructions to only use shiny new dollar bills is advice more for paying for your hotel. Since we had no idea ATMs would be available, we used US currency to pay for hotels, and withdrew kyats from local ATMs to pay for everything else. As of December 2015, many of the hotels we stayed at were accepting Burmese kyats.
We recommend bringing enough US dollars to cover your hotel budget (in the event your choices aren’t taking kyats), but don’t go out of your way to try and find enough new dollar bills to pay for your trip. This can be very difficult to do as we found out, it’s no longer completely necessary, and you don’t want to be walking around with that much cash.
Just make sure your bank doesn’t charge for foreign transaction fees.
The misinformation here was that you should reserve all of your hotels prior to your trip because Myanmar’s tourism infrastructure is small and doesn’t have enough hotels for all the tourists, so accommodation is limited.
We thought this sounded weird and kind of stupid so we didn’t reserve anything ahead of time and instead showed up in town and just asked around at the hotels. Most towns are small enough that doing so was easy. We were almost always rewarded with perfectly adequate accommodation at a lower price than what most hotel booking websites showed, and found that, except over the Christmas holiday, every hotel we visited had rooms available for the days we needed. Check-in times were also very flexible, and we were usually showed into a clean room within 5 minutes.
If you have the Lonely Planet guide to Myanmar (nearly everyone did), many hotels are mentioned. You can crosscheck the hotels you like the sound of in Lonely Planet with what’s available online or via Google search and either attempt to call and find out pricing ahead of time, or mark them on your map and visit them when you get to town.
Most of the attractions in Myanmar are within smaller towns and cities, so you won’t be walking that far to compare prices. I would recommend making an exception for big cities like Yangon or Mandalay, where you really don’t have the means or time to locate many hotels and ask around. We make the same recommendation for Soe Brothers in Hpa An, which is popular and fill up quickly. Soe Brothers staff speak great English so you can easily call and reserve a few days in advance.
We hope you like Buddhas, because Buddhas are what you’re going to get. You probably already knew that though, so we’ll just leave that be. Your bigger problem is getting an authentic experience in areas that are rapidly adapting to the influx of Western tourists. The Bagan-Kalaw-Inle Lake circuit is very accommodating, but is on its way to becoming one big tourist trap, unfortunately.
In Bagan, the famous hot air balloon rides are not only almost $400 US, but come with a disappointing review. The balloons themselves looked great from the ground in Bagan, so it’s probably best to just save your money. There’s no telling what else you could do in the country for $400 US.
Bagan is fun and definitely worth seeing, but no more than one day and an e-bike rental should show you the best the attraction has to offer.
Trekking in Shan State
There is a very popular trekking trip from Kalaw to Inle Lake or Kalaw to Hsipaw or similar. As of January 2016, many travel bloggers were reporting taking part on this magical trek, but the sheer number of people we saw flocking to it combined with disappointing reports from other travelers dissuaded us from doing it. Don’t get me wrong, it came highly recommended from some, but by the end of the year it is likely to be a very packaged tourist-only experience.
Inle Lake is rated “a must see” by Lonely Planet. The lake is beautiful and offers a lot to do, just beware the quintessential “day on the lake” boat tour, which is comprised of a set list of attractions and crucially: gift shops. Your boat guide may not speak much English and is simply taking you to the usual list of attractions, many of which are now just opportunities for tourists to buy the same souvenirs that are available everywhere else.
While the lake is beautiful and worth exploring, see if you can work out a different trip with your travel agency or hotel that excludes the tourist-trapping markets and gift shops.
The Golden Rock
If you want to go to the Golden Rock while in Myanmar, set aside some time and a lot of your excursion money. The site is a bit remote, requiring a local bus out of Bago, followed by a 45 minute truck ride, followed by about an hour’s walk. Don’t be disappointed when you get there and see that the rock is really only gold leaf on a little spot that accounts for about 5% of its total surface area. The rest is just gold paint. (After traveling in Myanmar for a while, you’ll become very accustomed to gold paint.)
The real expense is just getting there. You have to pay 2,500 kyats per person for a one way trip in the back of a crowded pick up, then about 8,000 kyats for a ‘foreigner entrance fee,’ then inflated prices for whatever you need when you’re up there, then another 2,500 kyats to get back down the mountain.
While the rock is still visually intriguing, what’s more interesting is the culture of it. Vast numbers of Burmese come to the rock on a holy pilgrimage, camping out around the rock in makeshift tents. You probably don’t want to camp out or stay at a hotel up there, unless you’re willing to wait around and see what happens around the rock all day; and whatever it is, it’ll be in Burmese.
If you stop in Yangon, which almost everyone does, the Paya is worth the money. Almost no other stupa you will see comes close to the size of Shwedagon. The complex features tons of other glittering mini temples and pagodas in all shapes and styles, perfect for retreating to when your eyes tire of the golden colossus. While there are less tourists (and less heat!) in the morning, Lonely Planet claims the Paya “glows” in the sunset.
Download the app maps.me, download the Myanmar maps pack, and bring your smartphone with you.
Maps.me is a maps application that uses GPS instead of cellular data to pinpoint your location. In our time in Myanmar, we used maps.me frequently and found that it was for the most part accurate. We even used it when trying to hunt down unmarked beaches we’d found on Google Earth in a remote part of the country that rarely saw tourists- and it worked.
That, to me, is insane. We used maps.me in the wilderness throughout the US National Parks and on the PCT, but were pretty stunned that it worked so well in Myanmar- a country so new to digital technology overall.
And yes, the maps are in English.
Food in Myanmar is all about diversity. You get a blend of Burmese, Indian, Thai, Chinese and more, and all at a good price!
Part of Myanmar’s underdeveloped charm can also get you sick, to put it bluntly. There were four of us traveling throughout the country during a 2-3 week period and everyone got sick at some point. One got sick more than once.
I’m not saying that everything is filthy and contaminated, because most establishments are clean and can run an operation without getting people sick. Lack of infrastructure and education on food safety means that a lot more restaurants and vendors aren’t observing basic food safety measures compared to say, neighboring Thailand. I heard one Burmese man confuse foreigners getting food poisoning with their inherent inability to tolerate chilis and lemons. (Chilis I get, but lemons?)
While you should be careful about where you eat, you can’t always tell who is doing a poor job. In Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) we ate at a slightly pricier restaurant aimed a tourists and Nikita found a nut (this kind of nut) in his food. Neither of us got sick but we were left wondering how the hell you accidentally land hardware like that in some potato curry.
Pack basic medicines to help symptoms if you get sick. Oral Rehydration Salts were a lifesaver for us and ensure that you’re still getting water and essential salts while your body takes care of the bug. Imodium (Loperamide) is helpful if you’re not feeling too bad but you just need to be able to stay away from a toilet for a while, for instance if you want to go sightseeing. Both of these can be bought in Myanmar if you don’t want to purchase meds beforehand on just a contingency.
We traveled throughout Myanmar for 20 days and spent an average of around $45 a day for two people. Though we didn’t spend on luxury travel activities, we did not go out of our way to save money. We kept up our habit of eating where the locals ate and spent freely on excursions and buses around Myanmar.
Basic hotel accommodation averaged about $10-15 a night, $8-10 will get you pretty much anywhere in the country on an air-conditioned bus, and you can get a traditional Burmese meal for less than $1 (expect to spend more if you want less delicious food and more ambiance).
It’s probably possible to spend $40 a day for two people if you are traveling all over the country, but not much less than that. While this is a little more expensive than other countries (we’re currently spending $25 a day for two biking through central Thailand) in Southeast Asia, it’s still pretty cheap.
Wifi at hotels and restaurants continues to be frustratingly slow. Cell phone connectivity, on the other hand, has improved by leaps and bounds. Cell phones are hot new commodities in Myanmar, and everyone has one… and is always scrolling through their Facebook feed on it. (Damn you, Mark Zuckerberg!)
We were able to pick up an Ooredoo (a Myanmar carrier) SIM card when we arrived at the Mandalay airport with 1.35GB of data for a month for approximately $7 US. 5.5 GB of data for the month would have cost about $20 US. If you have an unlocked phone you can purchase a local SIM card and tether a laptop to your cell phone data connection for enough speed to send an email or two.
Internet speed through the SIM card was sufficient for getting work done in the tourist triangle and also down south in Dawei. Connectivity away from smaller towns is generally less reliable.
Besides flying into the country at the international airports of Yangon and Mandalay, domestic air travel is available at smaller cities around the country. We did fly anywhere in Myanmar, but our travel buddies did, and reported no problems with the experience.
Air travel is also not necessarily a nonbudget option. Throughout Asia and including Myanmar, domestic air travel can be very budget friendly (we’re talking $30 and up for a seat). Here’s an excellent guide to air travel in Myanmar.
When it comes to booking air tickets, there are plenty of travel agencies and airline offices in most cities that will book your tickets for you.
Buses in Myanmar are widely used and they will get you pretty much anywhere in the country. The bus system is efficient, and employs charter buses that are not too uncomfortable and usually air conditioned. Buses are much faster than trains.
If you’re on a tourist visa, you don’t want to waste any of your precious 30 days busing through rural Myanmar (we spent one day doing this, and believe me, there is nothing to see.) A much better option is overnight buses, which are available on every route and only slightly more expensive, but you save on accommodation for that night, so really it’s less expensive in terms of your trip budget.
Roads in Myanmar are bumpy and uncomfortable no matter where in the country you are, but aside from a plane, a charter bus is going to offer the smoothest ride (we speak from experience). Even so, an overnight bus through the backroads of Myanmar won’t make the top of your list of “best night’s sleep” in your life. Many of the buses tended to blast Burmese pop music videos or TV throughout the ride, and took full advantage of the air conditioning capabilities of the bus.
Employ everything you can to combat this environment and help you get some sleep. Wear long clothing, shoes and socks, and bring a jacket and even a scarf if you have one. Bring a travel pillow or something you can use to prop your head up on. Ear plugs are a must.
Train travel in Myanmar offers more of an antiquated experience than anything else. The trains (and tracks) are old and ride like more of a vintage rollercoaster than a passenger train. Comfort in the car leaves very much to be desired.
That being said, train travel can be a fun way to get a taste of what Myanmar was like before tourism really dug in deep. The whole experience is no-frills and does not cater to needs of tourists (or people trying to make a buck off of tourists). A short train ride during the day, perhaps from a larger city like Yangon or Mandalay to a nearby, smaller one, can be a fun experience to add to your trip and a unique way to watch the countryside go by.
We tried an overnight train from Bago (a bit east of Yangon) to Mandalay, and would not recommend this to anyone ever. The experience itself was humorously bordering on horrifyingly uncomfortable, and since buses are so accessible there’s really no reason to put yourself through this.
If you’re gunning to do some long distance train travel in Myanmar, you should know that not every route will be open to you as a foreigner. The Yangon – Mandalay route should be, but some other routes are closed to foreigners. This is always changing as tourism in the country increases and restrictions relax, so you’ll just have to check and see when you get there.
Did you find the 2016 Myanmar Travel Guide helpful? Please let us know if you found anything different in your recent travels to Myanmar. Share with us in the comments section, we’d love to hear from you!