Although Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is fast becoming a part of the trail for backpackers visiting Southeast Asia, it is still possible to visit and feel as though you’re one of the first to discover this amazing country. But, as you’ll hear from anyone who has been, the best time to go is now or as soon as possible.
The number of visitors to Myanmar is greatly increasing from year to year. In fact, in 2012, the number of annual tourists broke one million for the first time ever. The government has initiated a plan to increase that number to over seven million by 2020.
As tourism quickly grows, the government has reacted with matched speed and recently made drastic changes regarding tourism. One of my favorite memories is climbing the temples in Bagan to view sunrises and sunsets, but changes in the law due to what the Burmese government described as “culturally disgraceful acts” have now made climbing all but five temples illegal.
A mix of India & Thailand-
Upon arriving in Yangon, my friend and I both agreed that it felt much like a mix of Thailand and India.
Many areas of Yangon are busy, hectic, hot, fast and crowded. It would be easy to assume that Yangon is the capital city, and while it is actually the largest city in Myanmar, Naypyidaw is the actual capital.
To be honest, of the three cities we visited while touring Myanmar, Yangon was my least favorite. Aside from seeing some truly amazing temples, including the stunning Shwedagon & Sule Pagodas, and hanging out at night drinking beer and enjoying BBQ, I didn’t feel like there was much to do.
Speaking of the beer, I would say that Myanmar easily has the best local beer in all of SE Asia. And it’s so affordable- an ice cold mug of draft beer was about .50 USD, and a bottle was less than a dollar! It was perfect for washing down the freshly grilled meats and vegetables of the street side BBQ restaurants.
To experience the BBQ restaurants with the best food and atmosphere, make sure to visit 19th street in the central part of town. When visiting the street side grills, you take a basket, fill it with your selections and leave the basket with the man working the grill as you grab a beer and find a table. Several minutes later, you’ll be served a hot plate full of your now cooked selections. Make sure to try the hot sauce found on every table- it’s delicious!
I also received one of the best massages of my life while on this street, all for a cost of 5,000 kyat, or $4 USD.
In my opinion, 2 days/1 night would be plenty of time to spend in Yangon. You could take a night bus to your next destination to save a night’s accommodation.
The Temples of Bagan-
Bagan is a truly magical city and unlike any other I’ve ever visited. The city is literally covered in temples- more than 2,200 of them. This makes Bagan’s scenery completely unique.
Some of the temples are small and simple, while others are huge and astoundingly complex. Many people consider the temples of Bagan as impressive as Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I would certainly agree, although it’s worth noting that Bagan does not have a temple that compares in size to the Ankgor Wat complex. Instead, the scenery of so many temples littered across the landscape, all of differing size and intricacy, is what draws the comparisons.
You could pay to go on an organized tour that will take you to the major sites in an air-conditioned bus and include a stop for lunch at a restaurant aimed at tourists. Or, you could do what we chose to do and rent an e-scooter for 6,000 kyat/$5 USD and go at it on your own. I would strongly recommend this option.
We left before sunrise to find a temple to climb and witness the views. It was freezing cold, and I was only half awake, but watching the sunrise with the hot air balloons scattered across the sky made the experience completely worth it.
In the distance, we could see one of the larger temples that the tour groups had visited, which had nearly a hundred people on it. Our smaller temple had a total of six people on it during our time there, and never all six at once.
After the sun finished its climb over the horizon, several small local children came to try to sell the postcards and souvenirs they all carry. After they found out that we weren’t interested in purchasing anything, their shyness relented and curiosity got the better of them.
They began playing with us by demonstrating the sling shots they were selling and posing for photographs. These kids were truly gorgeous and friendly and not at all aggressive or pushy like some of the children of other countries in Southeast Asia that make a living selling to tourists.
We spent two days exploring the temples of Bagan. On the second day, we went far off the path away from tourists and managed to “discover” our own temple for sunset. We excitedly climbed through the small doorways, scaled to the top of the temple and settled in for the sunset, congratulating ourselves on our discovery. “We’re probably the only foreigners to ever find this place”, I said out loud.
Imagine our genuine shock and sadness when several minutes later, just in time for sunset, we saw nearly twenty e-scooters cutting through the field directly toward our temple. Most of the scooters held more than one person. The group loudly parked and began crawling up the temple to join us for the sunset. Apparently the hostel they were staying at hands out a map to that particular temple to all their guests. I now better understand the scene from ‘The Beach’ when the people who Richard left the map for began to show up on their private island. Oh well, the view was still amazing.
Inle Lake was our last stop in Myanmar, and I think we managed to save the best for last. I had recently seen some amazing photos of fishermen on Inle Lake, and I wanted to capture this moment for myself. We negotiated a private half day tour for 15,000 kyat/$12 USD.
The small boat launched, and we made ourselves comfortable and enjoyed the scenery as the boat’s captain expertly navigated the waterway and steered us toward the larger lake. All around us we saw vast fields tended to by hardworking local people who occasionally waved as we glided by. Many types of birds either flew along near the boat or lazed on the water close by.
As soon as we exited the waterway and the lake opened up before us, I could immediately see the fishermen in the distance. We sat up and grabbed our cameras as the boat neared the fisherman and slowed for our photos.
As it turns out, although they make for great photos, I don’t know how much fishing these guys actually do.
As boats entered the lake, the fisherman would get into position, pose for photos, and then ask for tips afterwards. As our boat pulled away, the men went back to relaxing in their boats, waiting for the next group of tourists to arrive. I didn’t see any actual fish being caught. The photos are amazing though.
The half day tour included stops at a silver shop, a fabric store, a weaving factory and several other places on the lake. After stopping at the first store, the silver shop, we quickly realized that it was more of a sales pitch than a course in local life or customs.
If you’re interested in buying local hand-made goods that look suspiciously mass-produced and identical to the local hand-made goods seen in countries from Kenya to Cambodia, then these stores may interest you, but buyers beware. We chose to have our guide forego the following stops.
On our second day at Inle Lake we decided to rent bikes and cycle the lake to find the hot springs spa that we had heard about. I suggest you skip both the cycling and the hot springs.
The road to the “spa” is poorly maintained and has no views of the lake. You’re essentially riding through the woods along a mostly dirt road full of pot holes.
After arriving at the spa and paying 13,500kyat/$10 each to enter, we found three dirty pools with bugs and leaves floating in them and a restaurant selling $6 cheeseburgers. We chose not to finish cycling the lake and instead returned to town.
I was also excited to visit Inle Lake because I had heard there were two vineyards located just outside town. But, as much as I love wine, I’ve learned to keep my expectations low when in Southeast Asia.
We returned the bikes early and, when we were quoted an exorbitant rate from several taxi stands, we decided to try hitchhiking– this would be only my second time hitchhiking ever.
The vineyard was gorgeous, but as expected, the wine was decent at best. We shared a wine flight and struggled to find one that we could say was good, but both agreed that the Sauvignon Blanc was perhaps the best. If you do decide to visit the vineyard, go for the views and sunsets, but not necessarily for the wine.
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You must apply for and receive an approved visa before arrival in Myanmar. If you are in Thailand, you can visit the Burmese embassy, but most people choose to apply online. The process is easy, and I received my visa the same day I applied. You can apply online for your visa here. The fee for the visa is $50 USD.
The currency of Myanmar is the kyat, which at the time of writing was about 1,200 kyat to $1 USD. Outdated information says that ATM’s are few and far between, but I did not find this to be the case. I was easily able to find ATMs in all three of the cities we visited, and paying by credit card was an option at some of the larger hotels.
We were also warned of famously slow wifi throughout the country, and while we found this to be true, it also wasn’t as bad as expected. The larger hotels had decent wifi, and some of the nicer restaurants offered connectivity as well, but not like you’ll find in much of the rest of Southeast Asia, where every restaurant offers free high speed wifi. If you work online, finding wifi might prove challenging but is not impossible, at least in the larger cities.
After landing at the airport in Yangon, I was able to get better rates for the taxi ride into town from the airport taxi stand with fixed prices rather than negotiating directly with the drivers outside. This is rare, since in most countries you’re almost always able to get a better price by haggling directly with the drivers.
Entrance to the Shwedagon pagoda was 8,000 kyat/$6.56 USD, while entrance to the Sule pagoda was 3,000 kyat/$2.46. If your time or money only allows for one, the Schwedagon is by far the more impressive of the two.
We used the company JJ Express for bus transportation between cities. Their buses are large, clean and comfortable. We had a charging station for our electronics and small television screens similar to those found on aircraft attached to the backs of the seats. An attendant working on each bus will help you get settled and even provide free bottled water. Online bookings can be made here, but I would recommend having your hotel or guest house handle the reservations for you. From Yangon to Bagan, we paid 22,000 kyat/$18 USD each, and from Bagan to Inle Lake, we paid 19,500/$16 USD, with this bus slightly less nice than the first. Leaving Inle Lake to return to Yangon to catch flights out, we took a night bus that cost 26,ooo kyat/$21 USD. We arrived ten minutes early to catch this bus only to find that it had already left. The employees of the ticket office had to call the bus driver, have him stop and deliver us to the bus on the backs of their motorbikes. I would suggest coming a half hour before your bus is scheduled to depart.
If you’re pressed for time or your budget allows for flights, we spoke with several people who told us Air Bagan had competitive rates.
Because of the cost to maintain and care for the temples, Bagan has an entrance fee of 25,000 kyat/$20 USD.
Inle Lake imposes an entrance fee of 13,500/$11 USD, or they also accept $10 USD or 10 euros. For the best rates, bring American dollars, preferably a new and undamaged $10 bill for the entrance fee.