Myanmar isn’t a Southeast Asian country that is often on travelers “must see” lists, or planned for their great backpacking adventure. Which is a shame, because Myanmar is one of the most culturally preserved and exciting destinations in Asia.
Why isn’t Myanmar on everyone’s “must do” lists?
It honestly wasn’t on my list until I was invited by a friend. Before traveling to Myanmar, I didn’t know anything about the country except about how it was closed off from the world up until about a couple decades ago.
After backpacking through a large portion of Myanmar during their annual Thingyan Festival, I can without a doubt declare Myanmar as my favorite country in Southeast Asia.
Myanmar is captivating and exciting country for many reasons. From floating villages, to valleys of ancient temples that beat out Angkor Wat, to multi-day jungle treks into mountain tea picking villages.
Ready to go yet? Awesome. Here’s my itinerary on the best of Myanmar, from where to go and what to do from my own personal experiences, and a few key tips and tricks to know before you go.
Yangon (former capital city of Rangoon) is the highest populated city in Myanmar, and most likely where you will arrive. It’s the country’s bustling economic capital filled with colonial-era buildings mashed up against the modern high-rises and buddhist temples.
The first thing you’ll notice is that there aren’t constant horns, and no motorbikes in the city. That’s because they aren’t allowed in downtown Yangon. Ahhh, peace and quiet! TO some extent.
On arrival, it can be just as overwhelming as a place like Bangkok or Jakarta, but take a deep breath, settle into a hostel, and go for a wander. Here in Yangon you’ll get to experience everyday life of Myanmar people who are usually too busy to try and surround you to sell goods, but are happy to flash a smile. Explore the old and new of a fast growing city, and Yangon will have endless opportunity for street photographers.
Most of the accommodation will be centered around the market streets and Chinatown area, and this is a great place to eat for your first night as you take everything in. 19th and 20th streets are the hotspots, and though it can be crowded and a bit funky smelling, there are plenty of restaurants to have a big meal, large cold beer, and ample people watching.
Shwedagon Pagoda (Golden Pagoda)
Personally, I’m a bit “templed out” in southeast Asia, but this one is worth a visit. Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred temple in all of Myanmar, and a popular pilgrimage for Buddhists. Legend has it that this golden pagoda and complex was built more than 2,500 years ago, making it the oldest Buddhist temple in the world.
I love walking through markets, you can get a real sense of life in the countries there. Especially when nobody bothers you! These sprawling ornate ironwork markets date back to British rule almost 100 years ago and will be a good escape from the heat and best place to buy clothes, bags, and other trinkets if you need anything. Bonus, the vendors don’t chase you down like many other markets.
Quick Tips: Eat eat eat! Yangon will have the most diverse selection of food in Myanmar. Book accommodation ahead of arrival, hostels and hotels fill up fast, especially during holidays. Yangon will be the best place to get toiletries and supplies so stock up. Get a sim card here (they are easy to find, and the airport has reasonable prices.)
Kyaiktiyo Pagoda and Golden Rock
East of Yangon is one of the top three most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Myanmar. Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is a massive golden rock barley balancing on the edge of an 1,100 meter tall mountain with breathtaking panoramic views of the jungle valley (and a heart-pounding ride to the top). To get to the pagoda, you’ll need to take a bus to Kinpun village and head up early morning packed into the back of a truck with monks and Myanmar people.
If you feel up for the challenge, you can hike the entire way to the top from the village which will be a 5+ hour trek through jungle and mountainous terrain, but it’ll be the ultimate way to experience the pilgrimage. Once at the top, buy a golden leaf and stick it onto the boulder…just don’t be the one who finally pushes it over the edge!
Inle was one of the most beautiful town I visited in Myanmar, which is hard to choose because many are. But, let’s just say, it was the most lush. About 9-10 hours north by bus is Inle Lake, a sprawling and beautiful natural contrast to Yangon tucked into a valley surrounded by green hills is a network of canals, irrigation waterways, farms, and a giant fresh water lake. It’s a perfect escape after experiencing the bustling city life of Yangon.
Boat ride through the Floating Village
Once in Inle Lake, the most known attraction is the floating villages. It is essentially a neighborhood on stilts, where locals live in huts built above a network of marsh and grass waterways. Take a boat and see what life is like living on the water and relying off of food farmed in the grassland or fished. The scenery itself is beautiful, and it’s relaxing sitting in the canoe cruising through the maze of houses watching children climb from one house to the next to wave you along.
Trekking to Inle Lake
If you’re trekking and outdoor inclined like myself, hit Kalaw first and do the 3-day trek to Inle Lake that takes you through valleys and small villages where you’ll stay each night, experiencing rural Myanmar life. The cost cheap, the views are spectacular, and the trek is life-changing. No hot showers, no electricity, not internet, just pure experiences with the nicest people on earth.
Quick Tips: Inle Lake is one of the more popular destinations so it’s good to book accommodation ahead. Just outside of the town limits, there is a vineyard and winery that’s worth a visit after a bicycle ride around the country roads.
Bagan was one of my favorite experiences during my time exploring the county. Whether you hit Bagan before or after Inle Lake, it is still a must see when visiting Myanmar. Considered the Angkor Wat of Myanmar (but I think it’s better), Bagan is a UNESCO Heritage site and valley of more than 2,000+ ancient temples built during a golden era of Burma in the 12th century. During the summer months while I was there, the valley is arid and covered in rust-colored red sand, but in the monsoon season becomes a vibrant green jungle climate.
At times, we were surrounded by hundreds at the largest temples, and at other times, completely alone to crouch and crawl through narrow passages of empty temples. Rent a scooter and cruise around to some of the 2000+ temples around Bagan, but there’s no way you’ll see them all. Get adventurous and go down some of the dirt roads to the smaller temples where you’ll find yourself alone to explore, living out your Indiana Jones or Lara Croft fantasies. Scooters can be rented for $5-$10 a day and will make it much easier than bicycles to explore.
Quick Tips: Bring U.S. dollars for the entrance fee, it ends up being cheaper. Rent a motorbike to explore the temples, it’s the fastest way to see them. Wear sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses. Also, bring something to cover yourself if you want to enter the temples.
Hot air balloons over Bagan
Though we never got to ride the hot air balloons because they stop it during the summer months, everyone tells me it’s an awesome way to experience Bagan. Just before sunset you can take a ride up in a hot air balloon and see the entire valley change from gold to purple with ancient temples as far as the eye can see silhouetted against the horizon.
We were in Mandalay during the Thingyan celebrations, so my experience of the city my differ from many others. In central Myanmar, Mandalay is the second largest city in the country, and a good place to launch from for almost all activities and destinations. From Mandalay, you’ll be able to reach Inle Lake, Bagan, and Hsipaw in the far north, which might make it a better choice to base yourself out of. Being another large metropolis of the country, Mandalay will have plenty of delicious places to eat and a decent nightlife scene, with a couple swanky bars overlooking the river.
U Bein Bridge
I’m sure you’ve seen the photos of silhouetted monks walking across a long bridge with a fiery orange sunrise. That my friends it U Bein bridge. By far one of the best sunrises I’ve ever experienced (and I think it will be for you as well), U Bein Bridge is the world’s oldest and longest teak wood bridge. I would have stayed there all day, but by 9am, it was swarmed with people, so make sure to arrive early! Just before sunrise, the monks follow the call to prayer and all walk across in their crimson robes to the temple across the river.
Mandalay Hill and Mandalay Fort
Get ready to break a sweat. I was panting by the time we reach the top but it’s worth the long walk up to Mandalay Hill to the temple perched at the top for an incredible view at sunset (and one helluva stair climb). In the city center, Mandalay Fort is worth checking out surrounded by a large moat.
Oh Hsipaw, how I miss those days. Mountains all around, trees that grow out of temples, lush farmland, waterfalls, and the best tea you’ll ever have — sound good? Hsipaw is the main township of the Shan State, located 200km northeast of Mandalay and perfect for anyone needing an escape into the outdoors.This will be the main destination for anyone wanting to do some serious multi-day trekking and to explore more untouched Myanmar in remote mountain villages.
We rented bicycles while in Hsipaw and explored for a couple of days. Though it can become quite hilly and rugged outside of town, every road you go down will have something fascinating to see. Don’t miss the ancient temple complex and check out the stupa that has a tree growing out of it. Watch young monks play games, wander the vibrant fruit and vegetable markets, and relax by the river.
Goteik Viaduct and Train to Hsipaw
For someone who is obsessed with train travel, I had to do what is said to be one of the greatest train journeys in the world. This, above most else, should be on your list of must-do’s in Myanmar. Along the 12 hour journey, you’ll also cross the Goteik Viaduct, considered a world masterpiece in engineering and at one time the world’s longest viaduct bridge at 2,260 ft long.
The old train to Hsipaw is a clunking and captivating journey that leaves Mandalay before dawn and takes you up mountains by zig-zagging it’s way forward and backwards, then down into lush valleys of rice and soy fields. Over 100 years old, it’s a technological marvel of it’s time period and the coolest mode of transport to get to Hsipaw.
Quick Tips: Purchase tickets at the train station days before, and try to get first class seats for 2,000 Kyats ($2.00). We could only get second class seats and 12 hours on wooden benches is doable but brutal
Hiking to Mountain Tea Villages
Hiking in the countryside was one of the best excursions we did in Myanmar. On the 2-3 day trek you’ll meet rural farmers, tea pickers, and even rebel soldiers who are happy that you are experiencing their small world and sharing their every day life. Don’t worry, even the soldiers were nicest people I’ve ever met. Plus, the tea leaves there are said to help with longevity in life, so drink away!
We stayed in a small traditional hut and ate home cooked meals with a local family, and I drank some rice wine with soldiers (shhhh). Our guide, Ax Sai, was extremely knowledgable and spoke English very well, and even took us to some secret waterfalls after a scorching day of trekking.
Quick Tips: Wear a hat, sunscreen, and bring extra bottles of water and snacks. And proper shoes! Pack things like peanuts or apples that won’t go bad in the heat. Look for Ax Sai, he’s awesome.
BONUS: Thingyan Festival
Thingyan Festival, or the New Year celebration for Myanmar, will most likely be one of the craziest experiences of your life. Thingyan is Myanmar’s biggest holiday and a Buddhist celebration for the purpose of washing the previous year’s sins away and beginning the new year with a clean spirit. With millions of gallons of water.
From my experience at Thingyan, it lasted the full week and there was no escaping the chaos. It’s fun, but it’s also exhausting, and after a few days you’ll probably lock yourself inside. Luckily I had goggles after taking on the Rickshaw Run in India to protect me front he blasts to the face.
Quick Tips: Book accommodation and transport WAY in advance, everything sells out. Get a water proof bag for money and phones. Don’t carry your DSLR, it’ll get destroyed. Remember, it’s their holiday and there is no escaping it, so have fun and don’t get mad. Bring goggles, they are a life saver (especially from eye-infections). And buy the biggest damn water blaster you can find!
Arrival & Getting Around
Before Myanmar relaxed it’s tourism policies, getting visas for the country, let alone most everything else, could be a huge hassle. Sim cards used to be thousands of dollars, banks were scarce, and much more of the country was closed off to travel. Luckily it’s become much easier now to travel to. I found it actually easier than a lot of other countries I’ve visited.
E-Visa: For your Myanmar visa there are two options. If you want to get everything squared away before arriving, you can apply for the e-visa (https://evisa.moip.gov.mm/) which takes a couple of days to process, and after approval, you receive a government issued letter to print and show on arrival. When you arrive, there is a separate line for foreign travelers to walk through and present their passport and letter of approval — no sweat huh?
Visa on Arrival: If you don’t have time to apply before you arrive, or just feeling a little lazy, you can get a visa on arrival. When I traveled to Myanmar, there was only one person in that line, but it could be a long wait as tourism grows.
Buses: This was how we mainly traveled through Myanmar. There are fancy VIP buses that are cheap and much comfier than I’ve had in Thailand, with reclining seats, blankets, and snacks offered. Now that there is a main highway that runs from Yangon all the way to Mandalay, the road north isn’t too dicey.
Train: I only got to ride the train in Myanmar once, but it was my favorite way to travel. Train travel is another good option and can be taken from Yangon all the way north to Hsipaw with transfers. My recommendation from experience is to book a 1st class ticket on the train which won’t be much more expensive, and it’ll save your back and bum from a lot of pain. I know from experience.
Private Taxi: During our time in Myanmar, we mainly took buses when we could find them, but occasionally had to hire a private taxi to drive us to the next destination because nothing else was available. These drivers have nice cars with air-conditioning, but can be quite the speed demons even on roads with sheer cliffs dropping off the side. Our driver had to stop to hose off the breaks because they were smoking. A private taxi will run around $20-$25 per person for a full day drive to another city.
Public Taxi: Normal taxis are available in the major cities around Myanmar, and will often tell you a high set price if you are going to a main tourist sights, so make sure to barter with them on a lower price. For most sights around Yangon that were too far to walk, we paid around 1,000-2,000 Kyat per person.
Myanmar isn’t quite the wild east of Asia anymore because the country’s relaxed tourism policies are spurring growth, but it was one of the most authentic cultural experiences I’ve had. Getting around Myanmar is much easier than it was even 3 years ago, and if you prepare before arriving by having visas and accommodation sorted, you won’t run into many hiccups. With infrastructure improvements, wifi and 3G/4G available almost everywhere, and banks in every town, there’s not much difficulty in getting around.
But I can’t forget the best part. The most memorable aspects of Myanmar are the people. Always smiling, unending generosity, and not once did I feel I was trying to be scammed from every direction. This, combined with the culture and fascinating places to visit, made it my favorite destination in Southeast Asia. And it’s bound to become your favorite as well.
About the Author
Ryan Brown is a corporate escape artist with a severe disdain for the mundane, an adrenaline junky, and a hammock addict. On his adventure travel blog, Lost Boy Memoirs, he shares his mis-adventures getting lost around the world through personal memoirs, photos, and videos. His mission is to experience cultures first hand to break down barriers and to inspire YOU to escape their comfort zones. Not all who are lost need to be found.