Backpacking in Burma

Budget Backpacking Myanmar
Mystical Myanmar

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, there is so much to see and it’s changing fastIt’s fairly straightforward to sort out your Burmese visa before you arrive, I recommend VisaHQ if you want minimum hassle.

Travel costs

  • 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

  • YangonSince 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. There’s a huge amount of things to do in Yangon and it’s one of my favourite cities to wander around in the world. Although not the capital, Yangon is leading the way for cultural change in the country, check out this report on gay life in Yangon for a glimpse of just how quickly things have changed since reform in 2010.

 

  • 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. 

 

  • BaganThere 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. 

 

  • Meet 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.

 

Myanman Visas

The visa situation for Myanmar is constantly changing and I suggest that you check a government website before visiting. It is now possible to arrange your visa online but you can also sort it out through the embassy in Bangkok.

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.

 

Backpack Myanmar for free! 

Perhaps one of the best options for backpackers wanting to explore Myanmar long-term and experience living in this truly incredible country is to get a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course online. TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching english abroad.

 

Get insured!

Even if you are only going on a short trip, you should always travel with insurance. Have fun on your backpacking adventure but please do get insurance – take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.

As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on a backpacking adventure! Travelling without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads

Peace and love guys!


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27 Comments

  • Kate says:

    Hi Will ,

    Really helpful article, Im hoping to head to Myanmar later this year. Possibly using one of the land boarders I’ve heard have been opened. Thanks in particular for the detailed explanation of how to find the embassy in BKK. Im really looking forward to Bagan!

    Perhaps see you on the road some time.

  • Manuela says:

    Hi Will!
    nice article. Couple of questions: 1) how did you do with the language? For example, for busses or hitchiking, how do you find out/ ask for your destination? 2) In some countries, people are very open and invite you to sleep at their plalce. Is it true that in Myanmar is forbidden for locals to host travellers?
    Cheers.
    Manuela

    • Will Hatton says:

      Hi Manuela! In Burma I found that although most local people did not speak English, everybody was very friendly and usually someone would understand a place name and help me get on the right bus. I found hitchhing very easy – local people pulled over and if they understood where you wanted to go would happily take you there. In Myanmar, it is true that is forbidden for locals to host travellers (for now) so I didn’t do any couchsurfing whilst I was out there which was a shame. However, when trekking in the highlands villagers would often invite me in and let me stay with them for free – I guess it depends on a case by case basis and how strong the Government’s presence is in a region. Hope that helps! :)

  • Caroline says:

    Hi Will,

    Thanks so much for all this great info- I’m psyched to see Myanmar! How did you make your way down to the peninsula and to the beaches? I’ve been getting a lot of conflicting info on other blogs. I think I’m set in transportation around central and north Myanmar. Thanks so much again!

    • Will Hatton says:

      Hi Caroline! Great to hear from you! Myanmar is amazing, you will have such an awesome time! How long are you going to spend in Myanmar? I was able to hitch most of the way to beaches on pick-up trucks, it wasn’t too hard to get a life and I sometimes paid fuel money to help the driver out, when asked. I want to go back to Myanmar to spend a full month just trying to explore the islands, it’s hard though – you need to make friends with a fishermen and get him to take you out or go on an organised tour..

  • Van says:

    Hi Will! Great blog. I’m going to Myanmar next month so your information is invaluable :) Btw, do you know how I can book a room at Royal Guesthouse at Mandalay?

  • Simon Espinosa says:

    Hey Will,
    I wanted to tell you ot was very helpful all of this, also that it is very easy to come from thailand overland through mae sot, 9 hr bye bus from BKK. It is near Hpa An and extreamly cheap to get here. Important to know that traffic flows up every other day so if you come in the wrong day you will have to stay in myawaddy for the night. The traffic goes up in 2015 on the even days of February, March, May and July. On the odd days of April, June and August. It could change. They are making the road with two lanes but not done yet.

  • Just stumbled upon your website when someone shared 10 reasons to go to Myanmar. LOVE this guide. I was in Asia last year, but at the last minute opted to go to Malaysia rather than Myanmar. I will almost certainly be back, probably next year!

    Thanks for such a great guide – much appreciated!

    Beanie

  • Carmen B says:

    Great post!
    I just returned from Myanmar and loved it so much… Check out my blog for more inspiration and tips: http://bonatravels.com/2015/06/13/country-summary-myanmar/

  • Khuyen Tuong says:

    Will,

    In your post you said “You can catch a night bus from Hpa-an to Mandalay”,
    have you happened to know if there is night bus from Mandalay to Hpa-an?
    I googled but have no info.

    Thanks,
    Khuyen

  • Jessica Gray says:

    Hi Will,

    You have a great and very informative guide. It gave me a lot useful tips for my next planning trip to Myanmar. Thank you.
    Jessica Gray recently posted…Vietnam photography: A Mosaic Of ContrastsMy Profile

  • Emelie says:

    Hey Will, thanks for your very much helpful guide to Burma! Im going there in January planning to visit Yangon, Bagan, Kalaw and Ngapali. I would like to go trekking in Kalaw for 1-2 days, to you have any tips on where to stay/where I can find a guide for the trekking? Would appreciate any tips from you!
    Thanks!
    Emelie

    • Will Hatton says:

      Hey Emelie! I didn’t trek in kalaw as even when there four years ago it was becoming a little commercialised. I trekked in hsipaw which was awesome, and I definitely recommend!

  • ritter says:

    this was a good page, bad sadly extremely outdated, there are now 4 landcrossings possible, the dollar is 1300 kyats ( not 850) , no need to take dollars with you, Still impossible to reach Namshan from Hsipaw.( 30 jan 2015)- no more jumping cats at inle, ….after more than 3 years you should update it or close it.

  • Hey Will,
    We just finished a month in Myanmar. The visa process is 100% online now. Much easier than going to the embassy.
    Prices haven’t changed much although we did find accommodation was priced unusually high for SEA. We didn’t spend any USD. Most of the time prices worked out much cheaper in MKK. One guesthouse gave us the option of 30 USD vs 30000 MKK. That’s 20% cheaper in MKK. Go figure.
    We missed out on Mrauk Au as well. Just too difficult and expensive to get to. We plan on returning later this year.
    Pete
    Myanmar backpacking recently posted…The road to MyanmarMy Profile

  • Johanna says:

    Hey Will,

    wonderful article! Full of useful details, thanks for sharing. Just found this after travelling Myanmar for a month. My favorite country so far. People have the most incredible smiles. I agree with your recommendations. Maruk U is a magical place,one of my favorites. it took us 30 h in a local bus from Yangon on super bumpy streets. Flying might be more comfortable. Or taking a few breaks in between ;)

  • mafalda says:

    Hi Will,

    Just wanted to say thank you for you post, as it is helping me planning my trip next month to Myanmar. I can’t do as much as you have done as I will have only 2 weeks. But I will try my best to enjoy every moment possible :)
    Regards

  • pei pei says:

    Hi Will,

    I found that your trip is very useful to me.
    May I know how you manage to book your hostel? Normally you walk in to ask the price or do some online booking?
    May I know how you book Hpa-an soe’s brother guesthouse?

    Regards,
    pei pei

    • Will Hatton says:

      Hey Pei Pei,

      I do a bit of both depending on where Im headed and what I think availability will be like.
      Its always good to see a place before booking it, but if very short on time or accommodation is limited in a certain place, I try and get at least the first night online.

      For Soh Brothers Guesthouse, I would recommend calling ahead, by phone, when you arrive in Myanmar. It’s also possible that more places are taking bookings online now, so check out that possibility too. Have a great trip!

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