Backpacking in Myanmar (Burma)
Mystical Myanmar (Burma)
Burma, or Myanmar as it is officially known, is opening up quickly. I was lucky enough to visit in early 2012 and there was still very few travelers around, this is now quickly changing and many backpackers are racing towards Myanmar in order to glimpse ‘The Asia of thirty years ago’. The visa situation for Myanmar is constantly evolving and it seems likely that a visa on arrival program may come into effect soon. If however you need to get a visa before entering the country and are already travelling then your best bet is to try and get your visa from Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok, see the bottom of the article for details.
Travelling through Myanmar is becoming a lot easier, comfortable sleeper buses have now been introduced although unfortunately buses seem to have a habit of arriving at about three in the morning. One of the main problems with Myanmar is that there is very little cheap accommodation and very little accommodation options in general; the country has been shunned by most travelers for such a long time that it has never been necessary to build many guesthouses or hotels. Myanmar is a country where it REALLY pays to have a tent, as the Couchsurfing community is not at it’s strongest here so if you can’t camp you will HAVE to pay for an expensive guesthouse. The best time to travel within Myanmar is between October and April and I recommend spending the full 28 days (maximum visa) in the country.
- Accommodation: Your biggest cost will be accommodation so always take night buses where possible and try to travel with a buddy. Some places have single rooms and these tend to be 50% of a double plus one dollar. It’s advisable to book in advance where you want to stay as there are very few good guesthouse options, you can ask the receptionist at your current guesthouse to call and book you a room at your next destination; this is absolutely vital during the busy season and in popular destinations such as Yangon, Bagan, Inle and Mandalay. Currently there are very few Couchsurfers in Myanmar. Because there are so few decent accommodation options I have made recommendations for each destination however wherever possible I recommend that you try to camp.
- Food: Food is very cheap and super tasty. I recommend buying street food wherever possible. A draft beer costs 600 MKK.
- Transport: Transport is pretty expensive and it makes sense to try and book night buses unless you are willing to hitch; I recommend hitching. Taking a boat down the river is a great way to travel but is pretty slow. Hitching, especially short distances, is pretty easy. Local transport is extremely cheap but it can be very crowded and uncomfortable, the night buses are probably the best way to cover the major distances. Trains are slow and relatively expensive.
- Currency: You need perfect US dollars when travelling in Myanmar. The Lonely Planet (2012/13) is wrong about exchange rates; a set rate now exists across the country and the BEST rate you can get is currently in the airport. Exchange dollars (enough for the whole trip) for Kyat (MKK) at the airport. The rate is currently (July 2012) around 850 MKK to the dollar in Yangon but outside of Yangon this drops to as low as 700. Hotels and guesthouses almost always ask for payment in dollars. In 26 days in Myanmar I spent $300 in US dollars and $400 worth of MKK. I bought a few souvenirs – perhaps $30 worth – and had a fair few beers. For a trip of the same length I recommend taking maybe 300 USD in 20 or 10 dollar bills (for accommodation) and everything else in 100 dollar bills to exchange for MKK. Different bills get different exchange rates with one hundred dollar bills getting the best rate. You will need smaller denominations to pay for your accommodation however so don’t take just one hundred dollar bills.
- Activities: Many of the most popular sites such as Bagan, Inle and the Golden Rock enforce a ticketing system where you have to pay to enter, if you arrive at night it is sometimes possible to get away without paying; do not feel bad about this as the money from these entrance fees goes straight into government pockets. If you want to trek you will need to hire a guide, this is definitely worth doing and is relatively cheap, a guide will normally charge 10,000 MKK a day and this price will include your food and accommodation.
Top Things to See and Do
- Yangon: Since it is currently almost impossible to enter Myanmar overland you will probably arrive by plane via Bangkok into Yangon. If you are planning on just visiting Myanmar and not travelling around the rest of Southeast Asia then it may make sense to fly to Kuala Lumpar or Bangkok from Europe and then arrange your visa at the relevant embassy before catching an Air Asia flight to Myanmar. A taxi from Yangon airport to the center of town costs $8 although you have to haggle to get this rate. I have heard it is possible to hitch a ride from the airport but I had no luck attempting this myself. You need one full day in Yangon to visit the amazing Shwedagon Paya and arrange onwards travel by bus (8000 MMK) to Kyaiktiyo (5 hours). In Yangon I recommend staying in the fantastic ‘Motherland 2 Guesthouse’, a dorm bed is ten dollars and the hostel runs a free airport shuttle bus. Like most hostels in Myanmar it really is advisable to book your room in advance, there is very few cheap accommodation options in Myanmar at the moment, see notes at the bottom of this page for details. If ‘Motherland 2′ is full then stay at the ‘Okinawa guesthouse’ or ‘Daddy’s home’. You can haggle a little bit for accommodation in some rural places but not in cities and not in peak season.
- Kyaiktiyo: Climb the mountain (45 minutes) to see the Golden Rock on the same day that you arrive. You can stay in Kinpun town in the ‘Sea Sar Guesthouse’. The next day catch whatever transport you can arrange, probably by hitching on local pickup trucks, to Hp-aan (4 hours). If you end up having the morning free there’s a couple of interesting short hikes from the guesthouse itself.
- Hpa-an: Stay for three nights in the ‘Soh Brothers Guesthouse’ or head out of the town and ask to crash in one of the monasteries nearby. There is a lot to do around Hpa-an and it was my favorite place in the whole of Myanmar. I highly recommend visiting Mt Zwegabin and climbing to the top (4 hours round trip), keep an eye out for the colorful fresh water crabs! On top of the mountain is a monastery with amazing views, it is possible to stay here for free. Nearby is a local lake where you can swim before heading to the incredible Saddar cave (take a head-torch). Kawgun cave is also well worth a look. To get around you will either need to hire a motorbike for 8000 MKK or hire a tuk tuk for the day for 20,000 MKK, you can arrange this through the guesthouse. You can catch a night bus from Hpa-an to Mandalay, it leave in the evening between half four and half six and arrives in Mandalay early the next day, it costs 16,000 MMK.
- Mandalay: The ‘Royal Guesthouse’ is probably the best budget accommodation option. The nearby and super posh ‘Central Mandalay Hotel’ is awesome and has free WiFi and a pool which non guests can use for $5, if you’re feeling plush! Nearby to the ‘Royal Guesthouse’ there are laundry services, a cinema (on 82nd street, down from 26th – three blocks) with air con that sometimes shows English films for just a dollar entrance, and a night time chapati stand which is just up from the awesome ‘Nylon Ice Cream Bar’ (fantastic strawberry ice cream). Whilst in Mandalay you should visit and climb Mandalay hill for sunset (a spot in a pick up truck to the hill costs 500 MMK and a motorbike taxi back to central Mandalay costs 1500 MMK). You should also hire bicycles for one day (1500 MMK) and visit the gold pounders district. The ‘King Galon workshop’ is very friendly and you should buy a small square of gold leaf for 300 MMK here before cycling to Mahamuni paya where you can put gold leaf on the massive sitting Buddha. You should also cycle to Shwe In Bin Kyaung Monastry, it’s quite hard to find but worth it. If it’s not too hot consider cycling to Amarapura (at its best just before sunset) to see U bein bridge. Alternatively catch a pick up from near the night Market for 200 MMK. After sunset getting back to Mandalay will probably cost at least 1000 MMK if your good at haggling. There are not many transport options available in Myanmar once it gets dark. I recommend just one or two full days in Mandalay. A bus from Mandalay to Hsipaw takes six hours and costs 5000 MMK.
- Hsipaw: Stay for one night at the ‘Charles Guesthouse’ and the very next day take a uncomfortable pick up truck journey (6 hours, 5000 MMK) to the remote village of Namshan. Again just stay here the one night, there is one guesthouse and it doesn’t have a name, it costs 3,500 MMK per person. It is also possible to camp on the town outskirts. The next day begin a three day, two night trek back to Hsipaw. You should take a guide to arrange accommodation in monasteries and home-stays as very few people in the hills speak English. Ask at the guesthouse in Namshan for Momo, he speaks excellent English and charges 10,000 per person per day for guiding and breakfast, dinner and accommodation. Sleeping is cold and uncomfortable. Take a fleece. You may meet rebel fighters from the Kachin Independence Army, don’t photograph them without permission. Spend one night back in Hsipaw. To keep busy you can go to ‘Valentines’ for ice cream, ‘Mr Food’ for beer on tap and an unnamed pool hall almost directly opposite the bank (across bridge) which has a cinema in the back, here you can choose from their extensive pirated films collection and it costs just 300 MMK to watch something. The next day take the very scenic train to Pyin Oo Lin, spend one day here and check out the waterfalls. Really your main reason for visiting Pyin Oo Lin is to experience the train journey. From here take the bus to Lake Inle.
- Lake Inle: Try to stay in the very popular ‘Aquarius Guesthouse’, a double room is ten dollars and includes a fantastic breakfast. ‘Inle Pancake Kingdom’ does awesome snacks and has free WiFi, nearby ‘Kaung Kaung’ has cheap draft beer. That evening arrange a boat trip (16,000 MMK for 8 people) for the next day. On your boat trip you can hope to see the famous Jumping Cat Monastery, the villages on stilts, aquaculture and traditional fishermen. The best part of the day is the journey itself and passing through small stilt hamlets and past locals, the main ‘sites’ are pretty good but the atmosphere on the lake itself is wonderful. On your second day in Inle hire a bicycle, 1000 MMK, and visit a market – the markets in Inle constantly rotate but there will be one somewhere. The tofu village and local vineyard are both worth visiting. The ‘Smiling Moon Restaurant’ is a good place to arrange boat tours and bus tickets, the woman who runs the restaurant is very friendly and can arrange almost anything you may need. I recommend three full days in Inle; one for a boat trip and two for cycling and relaxing. It is well worth having a tent for Lake Inle.
- Bagan: There are two options for travelling to Bagan. you can either get a bus from Inle (it is direct but currently there is no overnight option and it takes 12 hours) OR you can go back to Mandalay by night bus, arrive at 3:30 am and at 5 am catch the Government boat to Bagan. This also takes twelve hours but it is pretty relaxing and very scenic. I did not book in advance. Currently the Government boat leaves on Wednesday and Sunday mornings but this is subject to change. When you get to Bagan go to the ‘New Heaven’ in Nyaung U – it costs fifteen dollars for a double with AC and a bathroom. The cheapest rooms in town are in the horrible ‘Winner Guesthouse’. Whilst in Bagan you should definitely catch a sunrise at shwesandaw Paya and a sunset at the less crowded pyathada Paya. Hire bicycles for 1500 MMK a day and explore the local area. Make a point of eating at the ‘Be Kind To Animals The Moon Restaurant’ – it may have a ridiculous name but the food is delicious. ‘Cafe Novel’ on the main restaurant row has the best WiFi in town and does good mango lassies. I recommend just cycling around Old Bagan and the Central Plain and seeing what you can find. There are many cool souvenirs to buy, the going rate for paintings is 3000 MMK. The rubies you will see for sale are probably fake. The Southern Plain is much less crowded and a good break from touts. I wouldn’t bother with a horse cart but if you do it’s 15,000 MMK for the whole day. One of the most interesting places I found in Bagan was Ywa haung gyi temple, there was nobody there and after a stiff scramble I was able to get right to the top floor where I had incredible views. I recommend spending at least two full days in Bagan before catching a bus back to Yangon.
- Mrauk Au: The only other place that I really wanted to visit whilst in Myanmar and missed out on was the mysterious temple ruins of Mrauk Au. It is currently extremely difficult to get to Mrauk Au but if you do make it here you will pretty much have all of the site to yourself.
- Ngapali Beach: Often described as the Naples of the East, Ngapali offers gorgeous beaches in a tranquil environment. Unfortunately accommodation here is very expensive, there are many great beaches in Myanmar and I recommend exploring.
A note on the people – Most Burmese people are very very nice and genuinely friendly. The majority of locals refer to the country as Myanmar and prefer this to Burma as the old name only referred to the dominant ethnic group. Hitching, especially short distances, is easy and often people won’t ask for money however I think it’s only fair to offer as gas is pretty expensive by local standards.
The visa situation for Myanmar is constantly changing and I suggest that you check a government website before visiting. It seems likely that a visa on arrival program will come into effect in the near future but if you need to get your Myanmar visa and you are already travelling in South East Asia then your best bet is probably to get it at the Bangkok Embassy, details below.
Embassy in Bangkok – The Myanman Embassy in Bangkok is located at No. 132, Sathorn Nua Rd in Silom. It is very near to Surasak BTS Skytrain station. From Surasak station, go to Exit Three. Walk down onto street level and then turn right when you get to the bottom of the stairs so that you are walking along the pavement underneath the Skytrain station. You will pass the Skytrain’s escalator entrance. If you don’t, you are walking the wrong way down Sathorn Road! Continue walking up the busy Sathorn Road for about 200 meters You will arrive at a forbidding grey looking wall with big spikes on top at the corner of Sathorn Road and Thanon Pan. This is the Myanmar Embassy. Walk a few meters down the side road Thanon Pan and you will find the entrance to the Myanmar Embassy’s Visa section. It is a unmarked steel door with no handle. You need passport photos as well as a photocopy of your passport. The visa costs around thirty dollars depending on how soon you need to get your passport back.
Written by Will Hatton. This article originally appeared on thebrokebackpacker.com.