Myanmar Travel Guide: Discover a new side of Southeast Asia
Myanmar is a polarizing country for some travelers: rich in nature, history, unique sights, and delicious cuisine, yet still not firmly planted onto the Southeast Asia backpacker trail due to its previous lack of ‘openness’, plus a questionable political track record. Politics aside, some travelers that I’ve met had the impression that you have to be a true adventure-seeker to backpack this sprawling country. Ready to really ‘slum it’, for lack of a better term. But let me tell you – getting to know Myanmar and getting around is not wildly different from its neighboring countries in the region. Yes, there are notable differences in infrastructure sometimes, and the tourism is not as wide-spread all over the country as it is in Vietnam or Cambodia. This can actually be a good thing. Myanmar’s recent wake-up call on the economic benefits of tourism has really boosted the motivation to really make sure that visitors have a positive experience, all the while this growth has made both popular and less popular destinations more accessible than ever. Still, you can have have a less ‘touristy’ (i.e. oversaturated) experience in Myanmar. This is a wonderful thing for slow travelers looking to discover a place through a local lens. Curious to learn more? If so, this Myanmar travel guide will give you a rundown of some general backpacking (and budget travel) info for visiting this amazing country.
Destinations and Accommodation
Here are some of my recommendations for Inle Lake, Mandalay, and Bagan – the destinations we visited in Myanmar thus far. Click on the location to get more information about what do to, where to eat and get to know the place.
Mandalay is a relatively big town in the northern-central part of Myanmar. Easily accessible from Thailand with direct flights with regional low-cost carriers, Mandalay is often either the starting point or the last destination for many Myanmar travelers.
The city itself is not spectacular, nor easy to navigate. I mean, the grid-like layout couldn’t be any easier for getting around; however, there are barely any sidewalks and the traffic is crazy, with pretty much no traffic lights that would regulate the flow in any way. If you don’t want to eat a handful of dust everytime you walk somewhere, I recommend hopping on a tuk-tuk if you need to go more than 4 blocks.
Still, though, visiting Mandalay is worthwhile: you’ll get to experience some of the cheapest and most diverse culinary creations Myanmar has to offer. There is a big Indian and Muslim community in town, and you’ll be able to find many pop-up streetside eateries after sundown. The even more sizeable Chinese community will provide you with choices in dumplings, noodles and delicious wok dishes. Local attractions include Mandalay Hill, the royal palace (though this is the replica of the original that burned down), and U-Bein Bridge. Here are some tips on where to stay:
- Ostello Bello Mandalay: a lively backpacker hostel in the middle of the city. Offers a choice of activities and tours – which you can join in on also as a non-customer
- Moon Light Hotel: A decent budget-friendly hotel with full amenities. Includes breakfast and LOTS of very friendly staff.
Bagan is perhaps one of the most popular destinatios in Myanmar – and with a good reason. The sprawling plains on the banks of the Ayerawaddy river are littered with hundreds of pagodas, the remnants of the centuries-old Bagan Kingdom. As of 2018, there were 2,200 intact pagodas (some toppled over a few years prior due to an earthquake).
Truly a magical place, Bagan’s archeological zone is a little bit pricier than Mandalay – but well worth it. And though accommodation is a dollar or two more per night (if you’re budget-conscious), you’ll find many budget eateries if you look well enough. And, truly, exploring the area on your own, just you and the (very quiet) electric motorbike, has something to it. Visit as many or as few pagodas as you like, big or small, remote ones. I’d recommend to go in the low season to avoid the absolutely scorching heat and the crowds.
- Bagan Nova: a small and modern guesthouse with comfortable A/C rooms and a daily breakfast. Electric motorbike rental available for a good price.
- Ostello Bello Bagan: You guessed it – the same hostel chain if of course present in Bagan – not once, but twice!
- Ostello Bello Bagan Pool: same as above – but with a pool! An amazing thing to have in the scorching hot plains of the archaeological area. Take advantage of this after a day of pagoda-hopping! (non-guests pay $5 entry to use the facilities)
Inle Lake is a stunner. A giant body of water comfortably nestled among impressive mountain ranges, surrounded pretty much on all sides. The ride to Inle can be a bit of a stomach-turner, but the result will be without a doubt worth it. Explore the lake with a boat tour, visit a local market, go for a trek, or rent a bicycles and explore the nearby villages. When you’re done, pop into some of the local massage parlors for a foot massage or treat yourself with some choice eats at some of Nyaung Shwe’s up-and-coming hip eateries.
- Sweet Inn: a truly sweet place to call home for a couple of days. The friendly staff will help our with anything and whip up a delicious breakfast for you! Take a room further from the water to skip on the tour boat sounds 😉
- Ostello Bello Nyaung Shwe: Another iteration of the popular Italian-owned hostel chain. Great for solo travelers looking to meet other like-minded folks; varied selection of tours and activities, and free locally-made cigars up for grabs!
Myanmar Transport and getting around
Getting around Myanmar is fairly easy due to two facts: Myanmar’s transport options along the typical tourist points of interest are on the up and up, while there’s already a decent existing system for both short and long-distance routes to satisfy local demands. Many small to mid-size companies cater to backpackers with bus routes that pass through popular tourist destinations in Myanmar. If you’re on a backpacker budget, you can expect air-conditioned long-distance buses and sometimes-aircon-sometimes-not mini buses. Locals use many of these transport options as well, so don’t be surprised with frequent stops. These might quite often be just to pick up goods to transport across cross-country routes.
As an alternative to using online booking portals such as Bookaway to arrange your trips, you can also typically organize your long-distance travel by talking to a travel kiosk or arranging trips through your guesthouse. Even for locals, it’s quite common to use travel agencies to organize bus trips and even flights, since these give you a quick and easy way to secure a seat.
The good thing about booking Myanmar transport in person is that you can shop around and snatch up the best price. Additionally, hotel pick up is usually included, so you don’t have to worry about separate cab rides. Your cab, however, might sometimes be a former pickup truck that works as a collective rideshare within cities or municipalities. Outfitted with benches on either side of the truck bed and an awning, it’s a comfortable enough ride to get you, for instance, from your hotel to the bus depot.
Getting around cities
Site-hopping within a city is likewise extremely easy in Myanmar – and you can make use of some budget-friendly options. For instance, take advantage of ride-sharing apps like Grab or Oway to score a cheap and hassle-free tuk tuk or taxi ride. No need to haggle on the side of the street or worry about being ripped off! Alternatively, some destinations (for instance Bagan) make good use of motorbike and bicycle rental. Again, you can shop around for a good price by comparing a handful of offers. Though there are certain benefits of renting directly from your guesthouse (i.e. mitigate the risk of a scam, compared to renting from a random person on the street).
Myanmar Travel Budget: Something for every level
If you’re trying to be a thrifty traveler, you’ll be happy to see lots of budget options while backpacking Myanmar. Of course, prices differ from place to place. For instance, we have found Mandalay and Bagan to be slightly more expensive in terms of accommodation ($15-25 for a double room with aircon and breakfast), but with excellent options to eat and get around on the cheap. On the other hand, Inle Lake has a variety of affordable options (from $10 for a double room with breakfast), either in small, local-run guesthouses or busier hostels. So there’s a bit of give and take.
Food-wise, you can also expect a variety. Local eateries (big-ish halls with plastic chairs and a couple of glassed-over counters) will serve up a curry with a handful of side dishes and a soup for 1,500 (around $1)-2,500 kyat, depending on the place. With standard (i.e. non-fancy) restaurants you’re likely looking at 4,000-7,000 kyat per meal ($2.50-4.50). Obviously there’ll be more expensive options as well, should you want to take a break from watching your finances. Drinks are not really proportionately priced, though. A large bottle of beer will likely set you back about 2,500-3,000 kyat. You can, however, find happy hour offers in more backpacker-frequented areas.
Myanmar Travel Tips wrap-up: Travel local
Though there is slightly less tourist infrastructure here than in, say, Thailand, Myanmar is by no means difficult to travel. At the same time, you might hesitate to support a country that’s been struggling with human rights issues – especially in the last years with the Rohingiya muslim crisis, and the government’s disawowment of an entire ethnic group. I was torn about this too, actually. However, in the end Flo and I both decided that visiting the country and supporting local economy would ultimately be a good thing – despite us not seeing the actions of the Burmese government in a positive light. But by staying at local-run guesthouses, eating locally, and taking advantage of local-run tourist resources (which can be as little as renting a motorbike from the guy next door, or hiring a local fisherman to take you on a lake tour), you will ultimately inject money into the communities that need it the most. Take a look at Paw Paw Restaurant at Inle Lake for an example of a community-based approach to tourism, and way to help improve local groups’ livelihood by visiting this beautiful country.