Myanmar opened its borders for travel in 2012 with the adoption of democratic elections and movement away from military rule. With the globalization in all of Southeast Asia, we expect to see rapid changes in the next ten years and a booming tourist industry. It was necessary for me to visit as soon as possible and for Nick it was his second trip since the country opened. When comparing his experiences between both trips, he didn’t feel like the tourist industry expanded as much as we expected, but rather with the small influx of travelers, budget travel has become more common. Food and accommodation is more expensive than other countries in the region because there is limited supply, we ended up averaging $50/day each for all expenses. Presently, there are no land border crossings and e-visa’s on arrival are only offered at the Yangon and Mandalay airports. We applied for a 28 day e-visa for $50 which was stamped in our passport upon arrival in Yangon. We decided to visit Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake, three common destinations on the Myanmar travel circuit. Much of the country is still restricted to tourists and requires special permission/visas to visit so be aware that options are limited.
Yangon is an interesting city, personally not at the top of our favorite places in Asia but it certainly had some highlights. We visited in late April/early May and it was excruciatingly hot, 46 degrees celsius some days. We wouldn’t recommend more than a few days in Yangon, there is no backpacker district and the city is large so it’s difficult to get around easily. Although fixed price taxis are cheap, usually $2-6 dollars to get anywhere, traffic is horrible and with the number of cars on the road the city heat feels even more unbearable. Agoda had great hotel deals but expect to pay slightly more than other Asian cities because places are limited. We managed to find a hotel for $15/night that was awful and basic accommodation with decent cleanliness is $25-30/night.
The must’s in Yangon are Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon Tea House and local train that circles the city. We didn’t end up getting to ride the train because of the extreme heat (there’s no air-con) but we heard great things about it being a way to interact with locals and explore the city.
Shwedagon Pagoda is the most famous Buddhist religious site in the country with Burmese people making the pilgrimage hundreds of miles to see it. It is a special experience because of how few foreigners are visiting. In comparison to Angkor Wat or Bangkok’s Grand Palace, at Shwedagon you will only see a few westerner’s. The locals were fascinated to see us there and we were stopped several times to take pictures with people.
Burma doesn’t have the best reputation for food, curry’s tend to be quite oily, so we were surprised to find Rangoon Tea House, the best food we ate in Burma and arguably some of the best during our time in Asia. The spicy tea leaf salad, I’m convinced, is the best on earth.
The railroad line circles all of Yangon and for less than $1 you can hop on and see local life at its finest. In the morning we heard there’s livestock on the train, all kinds of food being sold and you’ll see the outskirts of the entire city.
We booked an overnight VIP bus from Yangon to Bagan for $20 at a tourist shop in Yangon. After the 9hr journey we arrived just before sunrise in the land of temples. There is an entrance fee when the taxi driver approaches that will get you a 5 day pass of the region and we headed straight to a temple for sunrise, and three main areas in Bagan to stay, Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U. Old Bagan is the most expensive, some hotels are hundreds of dollars a night, New Bagan is a little cheaper but the furthest away from the majority of temples and Nyaung U is the cheapest for guesthouses and hostels and the largest variety of restaurants near by. We found a newly built hotel in Nyaung U for $25/night and a pool that we were very happy with. Nyaung U has a variety of restaurants and with Trip Advisor top 10 lists and recommendations you can find something that suits your taste. We ate our weight in tomato salads and tea leaf salads, two of our favorite local Burmese dishes.
We rented e-motorbikes or bicycles to explore the area-e-bikes cost $12 for sunrise to sunset, $8 for a half day and bicycles are $3. We rented bicycles when we arrived, but didn’t make it too far as it’s hard to ride on dirt roads. Each day following we rented e-bikes, they were easy to use on any terrain and we covered more ground. As there are few tourists in Bagan, we had most temples to ourselves and could spend hours driving around. Bagan used to have 10,000 temples although they are down to about 2,500 due to earthquakes and other damage so you still have your work cut out for you to try to see them all. We would recommend 5 days in Bagan to experience it all. There are a few very popular temples to climb for sunrise and sunset but when your driving through the grounds, look for other temples with stairs to climb and you can have views all to yourself.
We took another over night bus from Bagan to Inle Lake and found a great hotel on Agoda. The closest town to Inle Lake is Nyaung Shwe, so make sure to search hotels in that town as Inle Lake won’t show any options. The town is within walking distance from the bus stop and to the lake. It is another great area to rent bicycles to explore for no more than a few dollars per day. The food in town is not as good as Bagan but manageable. Red Mountain Winery Estate Vineyards & Winery is a local winery a short bike ride from town at the top of the hill where we did some wine tasting one afternoon. It’s no Napa Valley, but it was still a lot of fun and very cheap.
On our walk to Inle Lake to spend a day on the water, you will likely have someone greet you on the street asking to take you out for a day on the boats. For $15-20/day you will have a private boat taking you to all the best places. The person you speak with will speak great English and we assumed we would be able to ask questions and interact, but he then put us on a boat with a driver who spoke no English. If you leave in the morning, some of the infamous fisherman will pose and ask for money, not exactly an authentic experience, but we took the boat a little later in the day and got to see the real fisherman in action. The boat driver will have a few stops, the floating gardens where people grow vegetables on the water (definitely worth seeing), textile and craft shops where people try to sell you a bunch of stuff and the driver gets a cut (we skipped this), and a few pagodas. Our favorites were the gardens and the fisherman. This is a unique experience and pretty fascinating so it’s definitely worth adding Inle Lake to your list of places to visit in Burma.
Myanmar was a beautiful and unique experience that you can’t get elsewhere in Southeast Asia. We are happy to have seen it before it really starts to change. We are especially looking for to the ability to travel further into the country and to the coasts. If you have questions about traveling through Burma, please ask in the comments.