Myanmar is the country to visit right now. This is because it has only recently opened to the outside world in 2011 due to Military Rule for the previous 50 years. For a century prior to that the country was under British Rule, which is why a majority of the people speak decent English. The country is still beginning to build its tourism so you won’t find it as accommodating to the backpacker as other South East Asian Countries. However, it’s still possible to travel the country on a budget. Thailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’, but after travelling through Myanmar I would have to disagree, the Myanmar people are some of the friendliest I’ve had the pleasure to meet. They are always willing to help and are genuinely interested in what you have to say and who you are. Don’t be surprised if you get stared at often as a foreigner- it’s not a negative thing. I would recommend a solid month to properly explore this country, but I only had 10 days to spend, and below is everything I was able to see and do.
Myanmar requires a visa like many other South East Asian countries. You can apply at an Embassy, but the easiest way is to get an E-visa, which will run you about 50 USD. E-visa’s take a few days to process, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time.
Visit: http://evisa.moip.gov.mm/ for more information and applications.
Myanmar is quite a conservative country, so respect the culture and try not to walk around like the common backpacker in short shorts and crop shirts. Temples require pants or skirts past the knee and covered shoulders. You can buy a ‘Longee’ from a local market to wear when needed. Myanmar people speak quite good English, so don’t be afraid to ask for help, or just strike up a conversation and get to know the people and their culture.
I suggest if you only have 10 days to 2 weeks in the country, that you divide your time up between the following three cities; Yangon, Inle Lake, and Bagan. There are numerous other places to visit and explore in Myanmar, and if you have more time you can definitely fit it all in, such as Nepali Beach, Chaung Tha Beach, Mandalay, Kyaiktiyo, Mawlamyine, and Hpa An. These are known by tourists but definitely more ‘off the beaten path’
Yangon is the country’s capital, and the largest city in Myanmar. If you’re coming from Bangkok, or any other Asian capital however, ‘large’ is an inaccurate way to describe this city. It’s relatively small, with no skyscrapers (at this time in 2016). You’re not supposed to obstruct the view of the Shwedagon Pagoda, so most condos or shopping malls are limited to only a few stories.
What To Do:
1. Shwedagon Pagoda: Don’t miss out on this gorgeous place of worship for Buddhist people. Try not to visit on a holiday, unless you want to fight your way through the crowds. Dress appropriately and don’t wear your shoes inside.
2. Yangon Circle Train: This is the way to truly see Yagon. You can ride the train for roughly 20 cents, and a complete circle would take you about 3 hours (32 miles long). The train allows you to see the real life of the Myanmar people.
3. Bogyoke Aung San Market: Pick up your souvenirs here at this traditional and touristy market. It’s open every day but Monday. Feel free to haggle your prices, and make sure to pick up a few street snacks. Buy: Real Jade Products and Finger Paintings.
4. Walk around ‘Downtown’ Yangon, which is near the riverfront. The buildings are more than a century old, and resemble the traditional Colonial style. Great for pictures!
5. Nagar Glass Factory: An old glass factory that was destroyed in 2008 from a hurricane, which is now a ‘secret garden’ of glass. You can rummage through the glass and even purchase what’s left. They can clean it and sand it for you
6. Pansodan Street: Full of art galleries from local Myanmar people.
Where To Eat/Drink:
1.Lucky Seven Tea Shop: Chain tea shop, but has authentic Myanmar food. Always busy by the locals. Tell any taxi driver “Lucky Seven” and they will know where to take you. Order the noodle salads or Mohinga. They have a picture menu so it’s easy for you to point and order.
2. Morning Star Bakery: Standard teashop breakfast with delicious food.
3. Feel Myanmar: Tourist friendly, just point to the dishes you want!
4. Rangoon Tea House: More upscale than the basic teashop, about triple the cost.
5. 19th Street: Outdoor bar scene with BBQ
6. Vista Bar: Rooftop bar with a spectacular view of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Go at night to see it all lit up!
Where To Stay:
It’s tough to find the great budget accommodation prices you find in other countries in Asia. Being that the country has recently opened to outsiders, it’s not build yet for the backpacking industry. Prepare to pay higher prices for hotels throughout the country compared to those in Thailand or Indonesia.
1. Naga Hostel and Four Rivers Hostel are good for budget accommodation and meeting other travelers.
2. There are plenty of upscale hotels to choose from, just check Tripadvisor for the current prices.
An overnight bus from Yangon costs roughly $15 and takes approximately 12 hours. Bring a jacket – the buses are well air conditioned! Some VIP buses may even have your own T.V. attached to the seat in front of you.
The town at Inle Lake is called Nyaung Shwe, and it is very easy to walk around the town. Many guesthouses offer bicycles for rent, which may be more convenient in the heat.
What To Do:
1. Boat tour on Inle Lake: Go to the boathouse near the river to book your day trip on Inle Lake, it’s cheaper this way when you negotiate directly with a driver than booking through tour companies in town. Expect to pay around $15-20 USD for a day trip. You can also negotiate what you want to see and do on the lake. It’s fun to get off at some of the stilt villages and explore. Many of the villages are pretty touristy, but it offers you a chance to see how handmade products are made (such as jewelry, cigars, lotus weaving clothes, boats, and silver) and gives you a break from the boat.
You don’t have to purchase anything, but if you do your boat driver gets a little commision. You may want to purchase some traditional scarves or clothes made out of Lotus flowers. You can even watch how their made. Another option for souvenirs are Burmese ‘Cheroots’, or cigars, which will cost you roughly $10 for 20 Cheroots in a hand-painted box. The cigars are unique in that they are typically made with tobacco, honey, cinnamon, tamarind, banana, and star anise. You can purchase the sweet or unsweetened kind.
A tour on the lake will show you traditional stilt villages and floating gardens. About 80% of the tomatoes in Myanmar are grown here on top of this lake. You’ll be able to see traditional fishing methods (seen in the title picture) which is truly a unique experience.
Skip places such as the ‘Jumping Cat’ Temple or similar names that sound ridiculous – they are.
2. Mr. Min’s Cooking School: There are several Burmese or Shan-Style Cooking classes now in Nyaung Shwe, but this is the best. Not well known and a little difficult to contact, Mr.Min’s Cooking School offers a chance to learn authentic Shan-style cooking at an affordable price. Your experience will be a private cooking class, not combined with other groups, and cost roughly $15-20. The morning will be spent shopping for fresh groceries at the local market in town. From there you will get on a private boat to the cooking school, which is located on one of the stilt villages directly on Inle Lake. The setting is unbeatable, and the food is outstanding. We cooked around 8 different traditional dishes, including the Burmese Bean Salad, Chickpea Tofu Curry, Cauliflower Curry, Stuffed Fish, Roasted Eggplant Salad, and Vegetable Tempura. Most of the recipes for these dishes can be found here on Nutrition Abroad.
3. Red Mountain Winery: This winery can be found about 3km from Nyuang Shwe town, and is easily accessible by bicycle. The setting is spectacular, and wine tasting at the time was $3 for 4 wines. The wines are on the sweeter side, but very good for Asian wines. Go near sunset for an incredible view. Take the back roads, you may find hidden ruins.
4. Bicycle to nearby towns: It’s very easy to ride a bicycle to nearby towns and villages – just take the main road out of Nyaung Shwe town. There are beautiful small towns a few kilometers out, and you’re guaranteed to find temples and road-side antique shops. Make sure to bargain with the sellers – they tend to start prices very high. The people in the small towns are incredibly friendly, and very interested in tourists – stop to say hello!
5. Local Food/Clothing Markets: Nyaung Shwe has a rotating market for clothing and gifts, and a permanent food market. Purchase some ‘Thanakha’ products. Thanakha is made from the bark of the tree by the same name. Myanmar men and women wear this bark on their face or whole body. It has a number of different claimed benefits, such as protection from the sun and anti-wrinkle. You can purchase a whole piece of bark to grind yourself, or a pre-made paste in a container.
6. Shan-style Massage in Traditional Bamboo Hut: An authentic experience for the massage-lover. Ride your bicycle around the outskirts of town and you’re guaranteed to find a good place that’s not the touristy places in town. I can’t remember the name, but I visited one on a side street near the Princess Garden Hotel, where the massage cost $3 and was in a woman’s bamboo hut home. She was so excited for the business, and even offered me tea and food, and asked me to speak to her daughter so she could practice her English.
Where To Eat/Drink:
1. Everest 2 Restaurant: This Nepali restaurant serves authentic food at incredibly low prices.
2. Red Mountain Winery: See above.
3. Traditional Tea Shop Restaurants: Find a teashop in Nyaung Shwe town early in the morning. Tip: Find the one packed full of locals. Get there early if you want hot breakfast items like Samosas to still be available.
4. There are numerous restaurants and bars in town, ranging from basic to upscale. You couldn’t possibly visit them all. Recommendation: Stick to traditional Myanmar, Shan, or Indian food. Avoid the Western food.
Where to Stay:
1. There are all types of accommodation to cater to your needs, ranging from simple rooms ($15) to upscale resorts ($200). As a backpacker, plan to spend between $15-30 for a decent room. I recommend The Princess Garden Hotel ($25). Breakfast is included and the hotel has a pool. You can choose between a bungalow and a hotel-style room. The rooms are clean with hot water and comfortable beds. They also have bicycles to rent. The hotel is on the outside of town, near the canal. The location offers a chance to get away from the noise of the town, while being an easy 5 minute walk away.
No trip to Myanmar is possible without a visit to Bagan. I would recommend a minimum of 3 days in this ancient city, in order to see as many sites as possible without over-exhausting yourself each day. An overnight bus from Yangon costs roughly $15 and leaves around 6-7pm. A bus from Inle Lake (Nyaung Shwe) leaves at 7am and costs about the same. The day trip from Inle Lake is nice so you can see the sights of the small towns, mountains, and valleys on your way to Bagan.
Bagan has roughly 2,200 Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas, and ruins from the 11th and 12th century. It is estimated that during the ‘Golden Age’ of Bagan there were roughly 13,000. The major difference between Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar is that the ruins are all centrally located to each other, where in Cambodia the ruins are far more spread out. The easiest way to see all of Bagan is to get a good map of all the ruins, circle the ones you think you want to visit, and make a plan for which ones you’ll tackle each day. You can hire a private driver, or take the adventurous path by renting an electronic bicycle ($5 per day) and exploring on your own. Remember: These are places of worship; dress properly and behave yourself.
If you’re lucky and travel through Bagan from October through April you can ride one of the famous hot air balloons over Bagan. The cost is roughly $400 but gives you a birds-eye view of the entire complex.
Bagan has a tourist entry fee of $20 and is divided into 3 sections: Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung U. There are pros and cons to each section. It is easy to stay in one section based on your budget, and bicycle between the other sections. Below is a description of each section, with the ruins you should visit at each.
Nyaung U: This is the backpacker section of Bagan. Accommodations are more affordable ($15-30 per night) and has the largest selection of good restaurants. It’s easy to find accommodation, we stayed at the New Park Hotel ($30- includes air-con and breakfast) which wasn’t too fancy, slightly rundown, but in a good area of town and accommodating to your needs.
Temples, Pagodas, Stupas, and other ruins to visit include the Shwe Zi Gone Pagod and Gubyaukgyi Complexes.
The best restaurants can be found on ‘Restaurant Row‘ street which has popular places such as Weather Spoon’s Bagan for international food, Aroma 2 for Indian food which has a ‘No good No pay’ policy. The Mani-Sithu Market is best for traditional Burmese cuisine, and the tea shops lining the same street have excellent dishes including the Burmese Bean Salad, Ginger Salad, and traditional soups.
Between Nyaung U and Old Bagan, you’ll find that the ruins to visit are Sulamuni Pagoda, Htilo Minlo Pahto, and Upali Thein. There are two main roads that run between the sections; Bagan-Nyaung U Road and Anawrahta Road. I recommend travelling both. On your left hand side if you’re travelling Anawrahta Road you will find the popular locations for watching the sunrise. Sunrise and Sunset are the most popular times for the temples. My recommendation – hit a few of the popular ones but also find a random temple of your own that looks as though it might have a good view and climb up – this way it’s less crowded and better for photos.
Old Bagan: This is where you will find the more high-end accommodations and restaurants. A popular flashpacker budget restaurant is the ‘Be Kind to Animal The Moon‘ which offers unique dishes in a cool setting. It’s a great stop for lunch to get out of the heat of the day when temple-hopping. You’ll recognize Old Bagan because it is completely closed in with a brick wall.
Ruins worth visiting in Old Bagan are Ananda ( just outside walls), Thabyinyu, Shwegugyi, That Byin Nyu (the tallest), and Mahabodi. Ruins found just outside Old Bagan are Nathlaung Kyaung, Shwe San Daw, Dhamayangyi (must-visit), and Gubyaykgyi Myinkabar.
Between Old Bagan and New Bagan you’ll find in Manuha, Nanpaya, and Apeyadana near the river and Nagayon and Tamani Pagoda somewhat opposite those.
New Bagan: This section offers mid-range accommodation. I didn’t find anything particularly exciting in this town, but there were a few restaurants and art galleries that looked interesting. From New Bagan you can take a road all the way that loops back to Nyaung U. There are many ruins worth visiting on the way, and small villages that are nice to stop in and visit such as West Pwa Saw Village, East Pwa Saw Village, and Minnathu Village.
The ruins include Dhammayazoka Pagoda, Hsu Taung Pyi, Pyathada Paya and Thamanpaya. Near the Nan Myint Tower you’ll find a cluster of Nanda Pyin Nya, Thambula, and Payathonzu. Some of these are excellent for sunrise and sunset. They are accessible by Myat Lay Road.
Note: Some of the roads are still dirt and sand, and can be difficult by electronic bicycle but not impossible. We were able to visit all the ruins we wanted, but sometimes you have to get off and push your bike a little ways.
What To Buy:
1. Pick up a traditional silk Longee in the market in Nyaung U – the cheapest I found in Myanmar
2. Sand Paintings: This unique painting is found at the entrance or alongside most of the temples and pagodas. The painters mix sand with the paint which gives the painting a unique texture. They use a cloth canvas that will never wrinkle and can be washed. A popular gift for people at home. Prices will vary from painter to painter. Tip: When you’re visiting the temples, price the paintings at each but don’t buy. Find the cheapest place and re-visit the next day to purchase a bunch. I was able to get some good size paintings for between $3 and $15, but saw many of the exact same paintings being sold to tourists for $15-$30.
Feel free to message me with any questions about travel through Myanmar!