I first travelled to Myanmar in 2011 and instantly fell in love with this truly special country. In a month-long backpacking trip, I met under a dozen other travellers. The country seemed almost completely empty of backpackers and I couldn’t understand why – Myanmar was the most incredible place I had ever been at the time. With ancient temples, untouched tribal areas, some of the world’s friendliest people, dirt cheap beer and pristine mountains, Myanmar is backpacking gold…
Myanmar is hands down my favourite country in South East Asia and in January 2017, I returned for a month-long backpacking trip. I was shocked to see how much the country has changed… Don’t get me wrong, backpacking in Myanmar is still an incredible experience but it’s now so much easier to travel to Myanmar (most nationalities can get an e-visa on arrival) and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists in the country’s best known spots.
Luckily, Myanmar is absolutely massive and it’s still relatively easy to get off the beaten track, away from the tourist hordes, and discover the Asia of thirty years ago. Backpacking Myanmar can still be low-key… Simply pull up a chair and watch life go by as you sip on tea and soak in the chilled vibes.
- Arriving into Myanmar
- Getting around Myanmar
- Entry requirements for Myanmar
- Accommodation in Myanmar
- Currency in Myanmar
- Off The Beaten Path travel in Myanmar
- Where to go in Myanmar
- Trekking in Myanmar
- Motorcycling Myanmar
- Food in Myanmar
- Myanmar backpacking travel costs
- Top Tips for Broke Backpackers
- Learning Myanman whilst travelling in Myanmar
- Internet in Myanmar
- Dating in Myanmar
- Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Myanmar
- Best time to travel to Myanmar
- A Brief History of Myanmar
- Being a Responsible Backpacker in Myanmar
- Useful apps to download before backpacking in Myanmar
- Books to read on Myanmar
- Live in Myanmar
- Staying safe in Myanmar
Arriving into Myanmar
Backpacking Myanmar has exploded in popularity and with increased international flights and relaxed border crossings, it is now quite easy to get into Myanmar. Yangon is served by numerous airlines and you can pick up cheap flights from most other South East Asian countries into Myanmar. Most backpackers flying into the country start their adventure in Yangon but you can also fly into Mandalay (which puts you closer to Bagan) if you’re coming from Thailand.
There are four border crossings between Myanmar and Thailand…
Mae Sot – Myawaddy (central). This is the easiest way to get from Bangkok to Yangon and by far the most popular crossing due to its proximity to various places of interest in Myanmar. Ignore any advice that says this crossing is one-way only; this is not the case anymore since a new road was completed in 2016.
Phunaron – Htee Kee (central). Buses go from Kanchanaburi in Thailand to the small border town of Phunaron. It’s a small and remote crossing (you can’t find it on Google Maps) and on a slow mountain road, though it’s fully accessible.
Mae Sai – Tachileik (north). You can cross here into Myanmar from Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, but you’ll get stuck if you don’t have a permit to travel further overland which is rarely issued. This crossing is, broadly speaking, not usable for independent travellers intending to go into Myanmar overland without restriction.
Ranong – Kawthaung (south). This crossing lets you enter Myanmar from the far south. The roads here are reportedly rough, and in bad weather conditions, overland travel to Myeik may not always be possible. This is, however, THE place to enter if you want to check out the stunning Mergui Archipelago.
The border crossing between India and Myanmar has been open for about eighteen months at the time of writing and, finally, makes it possible to travel overland from Europe to South East Asia without having to go through China. It is currently not possible to bring a vehicle from India unless you agree to have a Myanman government tour guide with you for your entire time in Myanmar at a cost of $100 a day. It is, however, possible to drive a motorbike up to the border, sell it, cross the border and then buy a cheap Chinese bike on the other side for around $300. Some reports indicate that you need a permit to be able to cross the India / Myanmar border but this information is outdated. Be aware however that on account of the escalating situation in nearby Rakhine State, the India / Myanmar border rules are subject to change without notice.
It is not currently possible for backpackers to travel overland to Bangladesh (and I doubt it will be for many years) or Laos (this will probably change soon) from Myanmar. Onwards overland travel to China is only possible with relevant permits.
Getting around Myanmar
Travel costs, in general, are more expensive in Myanmar than other countries in South East Asia but it’s easy to hitchhike whilst backpacking Myanmar if you’re low on funds. The best way to explore the country is definitely by motorcycle and it’s now possible to motorcycle around most of Myanmar without needing special permits. Trains and long-distance buses are plentiful with the buses normally working out faster than the trains. I took a few buses in Myanmar and always travelled at night (to save having to pay for accommodation). Travelling in Myanmar by bus is getting more organised. Rather than just rocking up at the bus stop in the hope they will have space to fit you on, you can now book tickets in advance for most of South East Asia using 12Go.
Internal flights are relatively cheap, according to Skyscanner – I didn’t fly whilst backpacking Myanmar. In some parts of the country, you can travel by boat and this is a really unique way to get around – the slow boat between Mandalay and Bagan is well worth doing if you have the time. Local buses are very cheap but can be very crowded and uncomfortable – if you’re familiar with local transport in India or Central America then this won’t be anything new to you but if you’ve only travelled on ‘tourist transport’ before then you might find it a bit of a shock! For the really long distances, if you’re not going to hitch, I recommend spending a bit more and going with a half decent bus company – JJ Express are relatively affordable and are clean, comfortable and reliable. Avoid travelling in the ‘private’ mini-vans.
Entry requirements for Myanmar
Over one hundred nationalities can now apply for an e-visa online through this website. E-visas can only be used if arriving by air or crossing overland from Thailand. I have heard some mixed reports that it is possible to cross from India with an e-visa if you have some additional paperwork. Visas typically cost around fifty dollars and are valid for thirty days. They can be overstayed by 14 days at a charge of three dollars per day plus an additional admin fee. If you’re not on the e-visa list and are from say, Iran, it’s still possible for you to get a visa – you just need to go to a Myanman consulate. I secured my Myanmar visas from the Bangkok and Chiang Mai consulates and on both occasions, it took just a couple of days – be sure to take passport size photos with you! If you do need to acquire a visa I suggest checking out iVisa for assistance.
Accommodation in Myanmar
Myanmar backpacking accommodation is still fairly poor compared to the rest of South East Asia. There are a few cool hostels popping up in places like Bagan, Inle and Mandalay but you only have to take one step off the beaten path and your options rapidly dwindle. This can actually be kind of cool as you will often end up staying in ‘Mom and Pop’ family run guesthouses where you will be welcomed into the family. I very rarely endorse booking accommodation in advance as my own travel plans change so frequently that I prefer to wing it but in Myanmar if you don’t book accommodation in advance you may well not be able to find a place to crash… All of the half-decent, half-affordable, accommodation sells out weeks in advance and I strongly recommend that you book your rooms (especially for Bagan and Inle!) before you travel.
|Yangon||Little Yangon Hostel||Awesome hostel, clean, cozy, a great place to meet people and comes with free wifi!|
|Kyaiktiyo||Kyaik Hto Hotel||A prime place to crash in Kyaikhtiyo, make sure you book it in advance as it gets booked out real fast!|
|Hpa-an/Kayin||Little Hpa An Hostel||Centrally located, this is an excellent choice for broke backpackers who are looking for a cheap place to stay.|
|Mandalay||Ostello Bello Mandalay||Currently one of the best backpacker friendly hostels in Mandalay, they have free breakfast and wifi!|
|Hsipaw||Red Dragon Hotel||Even though this is not a hostel, it is ridiculously cheap AND they offer free breakfast!|
|Lake Inle||Ostello Bello Inle||The Ostello Bello chain just started a brand new funky hostel here and they have great deals on happy hours!|
|Bagan||Ostello Bello Bagan||Clearly, these guys are killing it in the backpacker market! Can’t recommend them more!|
|Mrauk U||Mrauk U Palace Resort||It is a bit difficult to find backpacker style properties here. So splurge a little and enjoy this chilled out resort.|
|Ngapali Beach||Ngapali Banyan boutique Hostel||Again there are no backpacker friendly options. This is the cheapest we could find there!|
|Mergui or Myeik||White Pearl Guest house||This is currently the cheapest property around. Again they offer free breakfast. Make sure to load up on that before you start your day!|
|Pyin Oo Lwin||Orchid Nan Myaning Hotel||This is a cozy little hotel at a cheap price and it has dorms! It has a great common area where you can meet a ton of other travellers.|
|Kalaw||Railroad Hotel||This is where most of the backpackers stay when doing treks to/from Inle lake. The private tent room is great value for money & you get free breakfast.|
Currency in Myanmar
Whilst it IS now relatively easy to find ATMs pretty much anywhere in the country the ATM fees can be as high as nine dollars a pop so I recommend bringing cash and changing it instead. If you are bringing in cash, you need perfect US dollars or Euros. As of February 2017, the current rate of exchange is between 1330 – 1400 MKK to the USD. The exact rate you get depends on the size of the note you are changing (100 dollar bills get the best rate) and where you are changing it (rates in rural parts of the country are not as good as the cities).
Off the beaten path travel in Myanmar
You could easily spend two months exploring Myanmar, there is a huge amount to do here. Realistically, the longest you can easily spend in the country is six weeks – the full month visa and the fourteen days overstay that are allowed. With six weeks, I would definitely aim to explore some of the beaches of Bengal as well as the South of the country; there are some true backpacking gems down there which have yet to be properly discovered. Bagan is without a doubt the highlight of Myanmar and, if you can afford the time, I recommend spending four or five days at Bagan… The map below shows the main spots you can explore in Myanmar but remember, unless you have a motorbike, getting around in some of the more remote areas can be a bitch and getting from A to B is not as easy as it looks on the map. I strongly recommend travelling at night, to save on accommodation and time, if you are travelling by bus. There are a lot of different Myanmar backpacking routes but the most popular is the ‘backpacker triangle’ between Bagan, Inle and Mandalay and shooting up to Hsipaw to get some trekking in… If you only have ten days or a couple of weeks, I recommend sticking to this route but if you’re feeling adventurous, lose the map and head South. If you have a tent, you will have significantly more options for getting off the beaten track – check out this post on the best tents to take backpacking.
Where to go in Myanmar
Many travellers backpacking Myanmar will start their route in Yangon, arriving on a cheap flight from Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. A taxi from Yangon airport to downtown costs between 8000 MMK and 12000 MMK – you will need to haggle to get a good rate. I have heard it is possible to hitch a ride from the airport but I had no luck attempting this myself. Buy a Telenor Sim Card from the airport so you can stay connected around the country – 2GB and some credit will set you back around 10,000 MMK. You should definitely spend a full day in Yangon to check out the truly stunning Shwedagon Pagoda. It currently costs 8000 MMK to enter the Shwedagon Pagoda.
In Yangon, I recommend staying in the fantastic Shwe Yo Vintage Hostel a dorm bed is eight dollars and comes with free breakfast. Like most hostels in Myanmar, it really is advisable to book your room in advance, there are very few cheap accommodation options in Myanmar at the moment. 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. Make sure you check out 50th Street Bar & Grill, they’ve got half price beer every day from 6-8pm & have a pool table, dart board, Foosball & shuffleboard table. Exploring the city is easy and it’s a fun place to walk around although you may want to catch a cab for longer distances – taxis don’t have a meter and you need to negotiate before getting in, it’s always possible to score a discount. From Yangon, you can head East to the famed Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo, West towards Mrauk U or you can head north to Bagan or Inle.
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 Star Guesthouse. The next day catch whatever transport you can arrange, probably by hitching on local pickup trucks, to Hpa-an (4 hours). If you end up having the morning free there are a couple of interesting short hikes around Kinpun.
Stay for three nights in the Little Hpa An Hostel 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 during my first trip, in 2011, it was the highlight of my time travelling in Myanmar. I highly recommend visiting Mt Zwegabin and climbing to the top (4 hours round trip), keep an eye out for the colourful freshwater 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 your guesthouse. You can catch a night bus from Hpa-an to Mandalay or head to Inle instead. From Hpa An, you can head further into Southern Myanmar. This part of Myanmar has only become accessible to backpackers very recently and offers some awesome adventure travel opportunities… Probably best taken on by motorbike! I have heard incredible things about Dawei and Maungmagan Beach which is supposed to be totally untouched.
I first visited Mandalay in 2011 and thought it was a great place to spend ONE day. I have since revisited and whilst the city is a popular jumping off spot for backpackers due to its good transport connections I have to be honest… I don’t particularly like Mandalay. The temples are so much more impressive in Bagan that it’s kind of hard to get excited by Mandalay and the once-gorgeous U Bein bridge has become the very definition of a tourist trap, the litter problem here is truly awful. If you are going to crash out in Mandalay for a bit, hire a motorbike and explore that way – it’s easy to sort and there are a few expat run operations hiring out bikes. U Bein bridge should only be visited at sunrise, for sunset, you will have to share it with literally thousands of people… Mandalay does have an admittedly interesting history (maybe I’ve just been there too many times – four in total!) and it’s well worth checking out the gold-pounding district and buying a small square of gold leaf to place upon the mighty sitting Buddha at Mahamuni Paya. The Shwe In Bin Kyaung Monastery is also well worth visiting and the Nylon Ice Cream Bar serves up the best ice cream in all of Myanmar! I recommend crashing out at the Ostello Bello Mandalay. From Mandalay, you can head up towards Hsipaw (six hours by bus) or travel to Bagan. If heading to Bagan, I recommend catching the scenic riverboat rather than travelling by bus.
One of my favourite places in Myanmar and a great place to sort out some treks, many backpackers stay in Red Dragon Hotel. Hsipaw itself is a quiet town and a good place to chill for an afternoon before catching a pickup truck (6 hours, 5000 MKK) up towards the remote village of Namhsan. 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 to crash on the floor. It is also possible to camp on the town outskirts. The next day begins 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 Namhsan 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.
Update February 2017: Due to renewed fighting, the road to Namhsan is now closed again. The situation here is extremely subject to change. There are other treks you can do around Hsipaw instead.
Once you get back in Hsipaw, keep yourself busy by checking out ‘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 Pyin Oo Lin, you can connect to Inle or head to Bagan via Mandalay.
Backpacking Lake Inle
Try to stay in the very popular Ostello Bello Nyaung Shwe where dorm beds are for ten dollars and include a fantastic breakfast. ‘Inle Pancake Kingdom’ does awesome snacks and has free WiFi, nearby ‘Kaung Kaung’ has cheap draft beer. In the 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 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 (although busy) 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 two 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. Bear in mind that Inle is, now, the very definition of ‘tourist trap’ and is probably the most expensive place in all of Myanmar. It can be a good place to party though…
Just a two hour drive from Inle is the rarely visited town of Pindaya, a tranquil place that is often buried in mists. It’s well worth popping up here for a night or visiting as a day-trip in order to visit the truly mesmerising cave of eight thousand Buddhas… From Pindaya, you can arrange a two night, three day trek back to Inle. It’s possible to do this without a guide if you have a GPS.
The temple studded plains of Bagan is hands down the most incredible place in all of South East Asia. I’ve spent a total of about two weeks exploring Bagan by bicycle (in 2011) and electric-bike (in 2017) and I still feel like I’ve seen less than half the temples… The biggest, most impressive, temples are now usually heaving with tourists and in my opinion, are best avoided. It costs 25000 MKK to enter the Bagan site but out of the four times I have visited I have only had to pay this twice – whether or not you get checked seems to depend on what road you enter the Bagan area.
The real Bagan can only be reached with a bit of off-roading… There are plenty of stunning isolated temples where you will be the only person exploring. It’s possible to camp out (although it’s not exactly legal) on some of the temples and I spent a magical two nights beneath the stars, surrounded on all sides by illuminated temples stretching as far as the eye could see. At 4 am a gong whispered across the wind and shortly after Buddhist chanting from one of the monasteries began. The sun crept up behind one of the largest temples at around 7 am and I can honestly say it was one of the most magical mornings I’ve ever experienced… Here’s a quick video to give you a sample:
Accommodation is spread across two main areas, New Bagan and Nyaung U. Most of the backpacker’s accommodation is in New Bagan although Nyaung U has a better selection of restaurants. There are some truly great places to eat in Bagan, my favourite place was Star Beam – it’s a little hard to find, just outside New Bagan, but so worth it. Be sure to try the strawberry juice… Accommodation in Bagan, especially during high season, tends to sell out extremely fast so it’s worth booking ahead. I can recommend Ostello Bello if you want a backpacker vibe or Lux Pillow Hostel if you want an affordable hostel with a pool. If you choose to camp out, I recommend scoping out your temple during the day first. Take warm clothes, plenty of water and a blanket – it gets damn cold at night. You probably won’t actually get any sleep but camping out is an amazing experience all the same.
You can get around Bagan by walking or cycling but the best way to get around is by e-bike. These are electric scooters with a maximum speed of about 40km an hour. You can rent these out for 8000 MMK a day (as a duo or 5000 MKK if you’re by yourself). If you ever want to learn to ride a scooter, this is probably the easiest thing in the world to drive and Bagan is probably one of the best places to learn… even if you do come off, you’ll probably land on sand. Remember to use your mirrors and go easy on the front brake.
Bagan is a truly stunning place and for a really unique view, you can take to the skies in a hot air balloon. There are a few companies that offer hot air ballooning services although they tend to book out quickly – I recommend liaising with FlyMya if you’re dead keen on giving the balloons a whirl!
There are SO many amazing temples in Bagan that, honestly, it’s hard to give recommendations… My real recommendation is to simply get an e-bike and to head off into the bush to get away from the bus-tourist-hordes and discover some incredible temples for yourself! Please don’t go for a horse and cart ride, the animals are overworked.
Bagan is a pretty good place to buy souvenirs and although you have to shop around there are some good paintings to be had… Bagan is fairly easy to reach from Mandalay, Inle and Yangon. From Mandalay, you can catch the Government boat to Bagan. This takes about 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. From Bagan, you can connect to Chin State for some off the beaten track treks…
Backpacking Chin State
Chin State has been on the backpacker radar for about five years now thanks to the many trekking opportunities and the famous women with tattoos upon their faces. Until recently you needed permits but the whole area is now open and can be discovered on foot or, if you have wheels, by motorbike. The Chin people are friendly but reserved and you DO need a guide to help you sort out accommodation and food in the villages you pass through. I went on a challenging five day trek from Mindat, where most backpackers arrive, along the valley towards Ma Hlaing. It was damn hot during the day and damn cold at night, the trails were accessible but steep in places and our guide taught us a lot about local living and some of the challenges the area is facing – namely poaching of tigers and leopards to sell to China for herbal remedies. Chin State is in the process of being slowly connected with new government funded road projects and some of the trekking opportunities will be reduced here in the near future so if you’re keen to check out Chin, go soon! In Mindat, there is an excellent locally run museum which is well worth checking out. You can crash in the Floral Breeze Hotel in Mindat, be sure to book in advance as there is very limited accommodation around. It’s possible to travel to Mindat by local transport but the buses are sporadic and most travellers opt to hire a car and driver and travel from Bagan – the journey takes seven hours.
Backpacking Ngapali Beach
Often described as the Naples of the East, Ngapali offers gorgeous beaches in a tranquil environment. Unfortunately, accommodation here is very expensive but if money is not an issue it’s a great place to unwind. You can arrange fishing trips and boat tours from Ngapali or if you fancy venturing further afield, push on down the coast to find other beaches that offer cheaper accommodation – I’ve heard good things about Ngwe Saung. If you want to get totally off the beaten track and have miles of undeveloped coastline all to yourself, head to Gwa and Kanthaya.
Backpacking Mrauk U
If you want to explore some stunning temples and have them all to yourself, Mrauk U is the place to go. Picture hundreds of abandoned temples (almost all of them unlocked) spread across a rolling landscape of lush green hills and small villages… The only reason that Mrauk U isn’t as popular as Bagan is that it’s a total bitch to get to (although this may change with time). Currently, you have to first travel to Sittwe from Yangon – the best option is to catch a flight although it is possible to do it on a (very long) bus journey. Once you are in Sittwe you need to catch a boat or another bus onwards to Mrauk U. There isn’t much of a backpacker scene here yet but it’s a great place to do some Indiana Jones-esque exploring!
Backpacking Mergui Archipelago
Perhaps one of the last true adventure frontiers in all of Asia, The Mergui Archipelago remains almost entirely untouched. If you travel here you are unlikely to meet any other backpackers… It’s impossible to explore the Mergui Archipelago without a boat and although day-trips can be arranged from the port-town of Myeik with local fishermen, if you want to head deeper into the islands and meet with the Moken Sea-Gypsy people you will probably need to charter a boat. A few companies have started offering eight day tours of the area but they are decidedly pricey… Most of the longer operations run out of Kawthaung and this is where you should head if you’re hoping to snag a last minute bargain cruise. To get to this truly incredible part of the world you can travel from Yangon to Myeik and then onwards to Kawthaung or travel directly from Thailand (this is actually easier) via the Ranong border crossing.
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. Be sure to be a decent human being and don’t ruin Myanmar… The people are probably the main reason that Myanmar is such a special place.
Trekking in Myanmar
Myanmar is a fantastic place to head out on a trek and the sky really is the limit… You can head off on extremely ambitious two week treks around Shan or Chin state and the Chinese Himalayas, which require special permits, are one of the last backpacker frontiers in South East Asia offering a whole bunch of unclimbed peaks…
Most people opt to do the very easy trek from Kalaw back to Inle Lake, although Pindaya to Inle is a better trek. Trekking in Myanmar is a fantastic experience and you can expect to crash out in local monasteries and homestays which will give you a great chance to interact with the very friendly local people. Shan state is also a popular place to go trekking and there are some great hikes to be had around Kachin state as well… There are definitely plenty of off the beaten track adventures in Myanmar which have never been written about, go and find them! It is well worth taking a tent, especially if you are on a budget.
Motorcycling Myanmar is definitely the best way to get around and a recent relaxation of rules governing foreigners driving around has made things a lot easier. It’s possible to buy or rent a bike in Mandalay and other cities and from here you can embark on an epic loop of the country… I intend on returning to Myanmar via India by motorbike, watch this space.
Organised tours in Myanmar
Independent travel in Myanmar is totally possible for the majority of the country but if you want to do something truly special and to get far off the beaten track you will often need help sorting permits and sorting a guide – I strongly recommend FlyMya as your first port of call for sorting out guides, permits, accommodation and transport. FlyMya is a great new company set up in Myanmar to provide travellers with a one-stop shop for sorting adventures across the country. Crucially, FlyMya runs numerous social initiatives throughout Myanmar so you can be certain you’ll be supporting a good cause. If you want to do something really unique or need the latest intel on what is and isn’t possible when it comes to driving Myanmar, these are the guys to talk to. If you want to arrange something really plush, My Way Travel organise luxury tours of Myanmar.
Food in Myanmar
Burmese Curry – You can’t go backpacking in Myanmar without trying a proper Burmese curry. The curry is usually serviced with pork, fish, shrimp, beef or mutton. It includes rice, a salad, a small dish of fried vegetables, a small bowl of soup and a side of fresh crunchy vegetables and herbs- a pretty wholesome meal I would say!
Local Tea Shop Snacks – Apart from serving tons of milk tea, local tea shops serve baked sweets as well as meaty steamed buns and dim sums. Enjoy a cheap snack with your tea, cause why not!
Shan Style noodles – The dish is a combination of thin, flat rice noodles in a clear, peppery broth with marinated chicken or pork and pickled vegetables. Yummy, healthy and bloody cheap!! Backpacker gold…
Shan Rice – Also known as fish rice, this Shan dish is one of the most typical Myanmar food and you can find it in most local places. The Burmese usually pair it with leeks, garlic and pork rind.
Deep Fried stuff – The Burmese love frying up stuff!! You get fried samosas, spring rolls, fritters, sweets, bread, noodles topped with deep-fried crispy garnishes. Sinful but delicious!!
Nan gyi thohk – Popular with tourists, this dish has rice noodles with chicken, thin slices of fish cake, bean sprouts and slices of hard-boiled egg. Pretty light on the stomach if you’re not feeling so great…
Mohinga – This is the favourite breakfast dish. It is made from rice noodles in a tasty herbal broth. And of course it has to have some crunchy stuff, in this case, it is banana pith that adds the crunch.
Myanmar backpacking travel costs
On my first Myanmar backpacking adventure in 2012, I spent a total of $700 in one month. In January 2017, over a three week period, travelling as a couple with Esme, we spent a total of $900.
It’s possible to go backpacking in Myanmar on a comfortable budget of about $25 per person per day assuming you stay in cheaper accommodation, eat local food and avoid internal flights. You can quickly blow your daily budget if you eat in tourist-trap restaurants (of which there are MANY in Inle) or if you insist on travelling in VIP coaches. If you’re on a real tight budget, it would be possible to backpack Myanmar on a budget of around $10 a day if you hitchhike, camp out and stick to local food but I ain’t gonna lie to you – Myanmar IS more expensive than most of South East Asia and you need to plan your budget accordingly.
Top Tips for Broke Backpackers
To keep your spending to an absolute minimum whilst backpacking Myanmar I recommend sticking to the basic rules of budget adventuring….
Hitchhike; In Myanmar, it is relatively easy to thumb a ride. Hitchhiking is an ace way to keep your transport costs down.
Camp; With plenty of gorgeous natural places to camp, Myanmar is a great place to camp. You can often crash in Buddhist temples for free when trekking. Check out this post for a breakdown of the best tents to take backpacking or maybe you prefer a camping hammock?
Eat local food; You can get a bowl of tasty Shan noodles for under a dollar. If you’re on a real tight budget; it’s worth taking a portable stove – check out this post for info on the best backpacking stoves.
Volunteer: If done properly, volunteering is an excellent way to cut down your costs on the road. I strongly recommend Workaway – you pay just $29 for the year and then have access to literally thousands of projects all around the world where you can help out in exchange for food and board.
To learn how to travel the world on $10 a day, check out the backpacker’s bible.
Learning Myanman whilst travelling in Myanmar
Not many people know this but the Burmese speak a total of 111 different languages. The official language is Burmese and some of the most important secondary languages are Shan, Kayin, Rakhine, Mon, Chin and Kachin. Burmese is a Sino-Tibetan language and is one of the most widely spoken in the world. It was first spoken by the Bamar people and related ethnic groups. Today, Burmese is the primary language of instruction, and English is the second language taught in schools.
Whilst backpacking Myanmar, I used uTalk Go, a super magical language learning app, to get to grips with the language and learn a few phrases in Burmese.
Hello – kyaosopartaal
How are you? – Shin ne-kaùn-yéh-là?
Good Morning – Min-ga-la-ba
I don’t understand – Nà-m?leh-ba-bù
How Much – Blau leh?
Stop here – Dima seh meh
Where Is The Toilet? – Ein tha beh meh lay?
What Is This? – Da ba lay?
Sorry – Wùn-nèh-ba-deh
Help! – Keh-ba!
Cheers! – Cha Kwa!
Dick head! – Lee Gon!
Internet in Myanmar
WiFi in Myanmar is pretty slow so your best bet for staying connected is to get a Telenor Sim and to simply load it with data, you can then hotspot your laptop if staying connected is absolutely essential. Some bloggers bitch and moan about the situation in Myanmar but frankly, they should try travelling in Pakistan…The internet situation in Myanmar is not as bad as a lot of people make out and you will be able to stay on top of emails with no worries. Downloading large files is fairly impossible though.
Dating in Myanmar
In my humble opinion, Myanmar boasts the most beautiful women in all of South East Asia. Yangon has a growing party and rave scene and it’s possible to meet up with local girls in bars and clubs (most of which close at 3am). Bear in mind that this is a fairly traditional country and whilst Myanmar is opening up to the West, many girls are pretty shy, especially around Westerners. Be polite and be aware that dating in Myanmar is usually a long-game. If you have anything to add to bulk out this section, please get in touch!
Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Myanmar
Myanmans love to drink and good quality beer and rum is available very cheaply meaning there is always a party happening somewhere. Myanmar is part of the infamous Golden Triangle and produces a huge amount of opium but almost all of this is exported. Despite being part of the Golden Triangle I was never once offered drugs of any kind whilst travelling in Myanmar – which goes in stark contrast to India or Thailand. The growing expat scene in Yangon are fond of crushing up Ritalin (which can be purchased without a subscription in some parts of the country) and snorting it – the effects are very similar to speed. It is possible, but extremely difficult, to find low-quality marijuana in Myanmar but without a reliable connection (make friends with expats) your chances of scoring are practically zero. Rumour has it that one backpacker hid a small geocache amongst the temples of Bagan with a few tabs placed inside… Happy treasure hunting amigos! Check out Blazed Backpackers 101 for tips on how to stay safe, whilst getting fucked up!
Best time to travel to Myanmar
The dry season in Myanmar runs from October to May. It starts to get real hot between March and June so the high season (when accommodation often runs out) is between November and February. I’ve travelled in Myanmar during June and would not recommend it; it was unbelievably hot. If you want to try and catch Myanmar without the crowds; consider rocking up early on in March.
A Recent History of Myanmar
Myanmar, or should I say Burma, has a turbulent history… Run as a ‘province of India’ under the British Raj, Burma has seen numerous invasions and battles over the years. The Japanese occupied Burma during WWII and the country saw some of the fiercest jungle fighting ever recorded. The Japanese rushed across the country, quickly overwhelming poorly equipped British forces and threatening India with an invasion. Hoping that the Japanese may bring change, Burmese nationalistic groups came together under the leadership of General Aung San to fight against the British. It didn’t take General Aung San long to realise that the Japanese were even worse than the British and towards the end of the war General Aung San switched sides and helped advancing British forces kick out the Japanese.
General Aung San fast emerged as a national hero and is often referred to as ‘the father of the nation’. He penned an agreement with the British for Burmese Independence within a year but in July 1947 he was assassinated along with several other prominent figures by political rivals. Burma went into mourning and a few months later, on 4 January 1948, the country gained its independence.
From here, things spiralled rapidly out of control. For ten years, the government struggled to contain ethnic uprisings by groups who wanted to stand apart from Burma. Communist and other insurgencies kept the army busy and many atrocities were committed as the country slid further into bankruptcy due to poor management and the ravages of WWII. In 1958, General Ne Win announced that he would govern the country in a ‘caretaker’ position. Two years later he solidified his dictatorship with an army coup.
Ne Win’s new revolutionary council suspended the constitution and began authoritarian military rule. Tens of thousands went ‘missing’ as the army waged numerous wars against insurgencies on every front from groups determined to live in a free Burma. The countries economy withered further and international visitors were limited to a handful of major cities which could only be visited with some serious paperwork. In 1988, Ne Win announced he was retiring and hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand fair elections. The army intervened and fired blindly into crowds of protestors, killing an estimated ten thousand civilians.
Thousands of student and democracy groups fled to the border regions which were largely under Ethnic militia group control and began to plan. At this time, as if a sign from the God’s themselves, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the father of the nation, General Aung San, returned to Burma after many years of absence and threw herself into the political fray.
In an attempt to quell international condemnation for violence against civilians, the military announced it would hold multi-party elections. After much convincing by student groups, Aung San Suu Kyi and like-minded colleagues founded the National League for Democracy. The new party swept across Burma gathering more and more support. In the final hour, when victory seemed imminent, Ne Win orchestrated another army coup from behind the scenes and the country was thrown backwards once more.
Although committed to non-violence, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in July 1989 for “endangering the state” and kept there for the next six years. Desperate to improve their image and generate foreign investment, the generals held the multi-party elections they had promised. Despite the army’s severe repression against members of opposition parties and the complete lack of freedom of expression throughout the country, Suu Kyi’s NLD party swept to victory with 82% of the vote. Surprised and outraged, the army refused to acknowledge the election results and has retained its repressive grip on power ever since. In a bid to promote unity amongst the country, Burma was renamed to Myanmar in 1989 so that not only the Burmese people were reflected in the name of the country. In a further bid to protect their grip on power, the capital was moved from Yangon to Naypyidaw – a ghost-town in the middle of the jungle…
In 2002, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and the political situation began to thaw as her party was given some minor powers. The first tourists began to trickle into the country and slowly but surely word got out about Myanmar… An incredible, beautiful country with a dark history, filled with some of the world’s kindest people and an uncertain path ahead of it.
In 2007, violence erupted again as the army turned on peaceful protests by thousands of monks across the country campaigning for improved human rights and a proper democracy. The Monks protests became known as ‘The Saffron Revolution’ and Myanmar was, once more, a scary place to be a civilian. Many army units refused to use force against the monks. Sadly, this was not the case across the whole army and an unknown number of civilians and monks were killed in clashes with riot police and army units.
Since 2007, Myanmar has emerged blinking into the light and more and more backpackers have rocked up to explore this truly incredible country. I wanted to cover the history of Myanmar here because if you really want to understand Myanmar it helps if you understand some of the challenges that the nation, and its people, have had to face over the recent years. Hopefully, the future is bright for Myanmar.
Being a Responsible Backpacker in Myanmar
Writing your name in black marker on temples, chugging beer while shirtless, swearing loudly and visiting unethical animal attractions? You Sir, are a twat. Luckily, most backpackers don’t fall into this category but, when you’re out and about and have had a few too many drinks, it can be easy to embarrass yourself. It’s easy to get carried away in South East Asia, everything is so damn cheap and so much fun. I’m in no way the perfect traveller; I’ve been the drunken idiot on the street. I know first hand just how hard it is to be the one person in a group to say no when somebody comes up with a stupid idea that, for some reason, everybody is down for.
By no means am I telling you not to drink, smoke and party. Do it and love it. Just don’t get so drunk you turn into an imbecile your mum would be ashamed of. If you can’t handle drinking buckets, then stick to beer. If you want to see Elephants, then go and see them but do your research first. Look up ethical animal sanctuaries such as The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, who treat and care for animals properly. Don’t ride elephants. If you’re not into seeing the temples, no worries but don’t be disrespectful, inappropriate or deface them – certainly, do not try to wander in shirtless.
Wear a helmet when you hop on a motorbike in Asia. Despite being an experienced driver, I’ve had a total of three crashes in South East Asia over the last ten years. On the one occasion, I wasn’t wearing a helmet, I split my head open and had to go to the hospital. It was an expensive mistake. The local people are sick of scraping foreigners off the road and, trust me, you don’t look cool for not wearing a helmet.
Humans are humans; treat people you meet along the way with the same respect you would show your friends and family back home. You are not superior to anyone including the girls/guys walking the streets. Sex workers in South East Asia are people like you and me; they may enjoy what they do, or they may be on the darker side of it. Regardless of your beliefs and thoughts on prostitution, remember this is another person with thoughts, feelings and a life outside of the sex industry too. You are not superior to these people, you just happen to be from a more privileged background.
Go to Asia and have the time of your life, do the things you’ve dreamed of but be respectful along the way. Travelling the world makes you an ambassador for your country, which is awesome. We can make a positive impact on people when we travel and get rid of any ugly stereotypes that may be associated with your country…
Apps to download before backpacking Myanmar
uTalk Go – The backpacker’s secret weapon when it comes to learning languages, I cannot recommend uTalk enough; whilst backpacking Myanmar this app is the most important tool to break down language barriers and make local friends. Best of all, it’s free! Download it here.
Maps.Me – Prone to getting lost or taking that ‘shortcut’ that adds another few hours onto a simple walk? This app is definitely for you. My favourite offline maps app, download your map and route before you venture out to keep you on track while backpacking Myanmar.
XE Currency – I used this a lot when backpacking Myanmar. It is a great help while calculating expenses.
HIDE.ME – I always have a VPN ready to go on both my phone and laptop, I personally use Hide Me which is one of the fastest and most reliable options out there. This particular VPN allows for up to five connections which is handy for keeping all your devices connected without having to purchase multiple VPN packages.
Books to read on Myanmar
The Backpacker Bible – Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building an online income.
The Piano Tuner – The story of an unlikely soul sent on a top secret mission to Burma to tune the piano of an eccentric British officer living deep within enemy territory.
Myanmar Lonely Planet – It’s sometimes worth travelling with a guidebook and despite Lonely Planet’s history of selling out and writing about places they haven’t been to, they’ve done a good job with Myanmar.
War in the Wilderness: The Chindits in Burma 1943-1944 – During WWII, The Japanese were an almost unstoppable force in Burma. The British, desperate to inflict some damage and postpone an inevitable invasion of India, dropped special forces soldiers far behind Japanese lines with orders to disrupt the Japanese War Machine and create havoc. These unique jungle soldiers were known as ‘The Chindits’. War in the Wilderness is a comprehensive narrative of the human aspects of the Chindit war in Burma. It has heartfelt interviews from the veterans of the Chindit expedition – normal men who experienced the very worst of WWII and battled through starvation, jungle warfare and illness to strike a blow at the Japanese Empire.
Burmese Days – This book by George Orwell is a portrait of the dark side of the British Raj – of an individual trapped in the larger system.
The Glass Palace – This book by Amitav Ghosh is a sweeping story of Burma over a span of one hundred years. The picture of the tension between the Burmese, the Indian and the British, in this rendition is excellent.
Letters from Burma – In these astonishing letters, Nobel prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi paints a vivid and poignant picture of her native land. She also writes about the time when she was placed under house arrest in Rangoon in 1989- an account of one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners.
The Lizard Cage – This book talks about Teza who once electrified the people of Burma with his protest songs against the dictatorship. Arrested by the Burmese secret police, he was cut off from his family and contact with other prisoners.
Live in Myanmar
Yangon is fast emerging as one of the hippest places to live in South East Asia. The WiFi is still fairly shit so if you require the internet to make a living then this might not be the place for you but on my recent trip backpacking Myanmar I was sorely tempted to move to Myanmar myself; the people are so incredibly friendly, the food is good and the country is so massive, with so many adventure opportunities, that it’s no wonder more and more expats are setting up shop here.
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.
Alternatively, if you want to find a cheap way to stay in this incredible country for as long as possible, check out Workaway – for just $29 a year you get access to literally thousands of projects around the world where you can volunteer in exchange for food and accommodation.
Staying safe in Myanmar
Check out Backpacker Safety 101 for tips and tricks to stay safe whilst backpacking.
I strongly recommend travelling with a headlamp whilst in Myanmar; there are frequent power-outages plus lots of caves and fairly dark temples to explore – check out my post for a breakdown of the best value headlamps to take backpacking.
Get insurance! Even if you are only going on a short trip, you should always travel with insurance. Have fun on your Myanmar backpacking adventure but 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 an adventure! Travelling without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads.
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Even if you don’t get insurance with World Nomads, Please do get some sort of insurance from somewhere, there are lots of decent options online.
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