Thinking about travelling to Myanmar? Don’t wait! The country formally known as Burma, is still new and enigmatic, but it’s growing fast and soon tourism will be the norm. You don’t wanna miss this place! There’s a lot to know about the best of Myanmar travel, so to help, here’s how to prepare for backpacking in Myanmar.
I’m a backpacker and travel photographer from Los Angeles, and have been cruising around the world since 2014. Thanks to a sort of gravitational pull, I always find myself somewhere in Southeast Asia. I had an incredible 3 weeks navigating this country and I would love to share my experience with you.
Getting a visa to visit Myanmar
First, apply for the visa. Tourist visas are valid for 28 days and cost $50 to apply. They say to allow 2 weeks to receive an approval, but I was approved the same day. It may vary depending on your passport. You can also get your visa at the embassy in Bangkok. I will say, the Myanmar visa situation is constantly changing, so check a government website before visiting just in case.
Will Hatton aka The Broke Backpacker advises: “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 is 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…”
You can fly into Yangon or Mandalay International Airports. The cheapest way to get there is usually to fly to a regional hub such as Bangkok or Singapore, and then fly into Myanmar. If you’re flexible on your date, I recommend checking out Skyscanner to see the best time to fly.
Preparing your travel money
They say to bring new, crisp US dollars, as there are no ATMs! You might have come across this while researching your trip. I remember reading about it while I was in the Bangkok airport, boarding my flight to Yangon. I freaked. But it’s totally no worries! As of 2015, this statement doesn’t really hold true anymore. Upon arrival into Myanmar, you can walk right up to an ATM and withdraw kyats (local currency) with your ATM card. Just make sure you don’t have any outrageous international charges.
As the country develops, the ATMs multiply. In tourist areas and larger towns, there are heaps!
For one person, I spent about $20-30 a day, though I was not actively trying to save money. I ate where the locals ate and spent freely on excursions and buses around Myanmar.
Finding Accommodation in Myanmar
This will be the bulk of your spending. Hotels are a bit expensive because of the lack of rooms to accommodate the influx of tourists. I never booked ahead of time, but most places asked if I had a booking (though it was never a problem). During high season, I would highly recommend booking in advanced to avoid any frustrations. Download the Hostelworld app to find the best hostels in Myanmar, guesthouses and hotels. You can also ask the receptionist at your current guesthouse to call and book you a room at your next destination. They are happy to do it!
The Broke Backpacker: “These days, backpacker hostels are popping up all over Myanmar, especially along the traditional backpacker triangle – Bagan, Inle and Mandalay. Gone are the days of slumming it in a guesthouse and travelling in Myanmar is really starting to get almost too easy!”
Transportation can be a money grabber as well. You can save on accommodation by taking over-night buses to your next destination. I was surprised how nice some of these buses were, seeing how underdeveloped the parts of the country are. There are VIP buses that are bit pricier (around $15-20 for a 12 hour ride), but they’re absolutely worth it for long journeys. If you take the VIP bus, you’ll have a comfortable reclining chair, AC, blanket, TV, and they’ll even provide dinner! I highly recommend taking at least one train ride and truly embracing the Burmese lifestyle.
A few tips on getting the train is Myanmar (courtesy of @Isabel_Clift):
- Mandalay to Pyin U Lwin and Hsipaw – a stunning 11-hour journey across the hill country of Shan State that crosses the Gokteik Gorge. An upper class seat costs US$9.
- Thazi to Kalaw and Inle Lake – forking off the main Yangon to Mandalay line, this ten-hour trip takes in more of Shan State’s beautiful hill scenes and ends at the beautiful Inle Lake (the stop’s called Shwe Nyaung). An upper class seat costs US$7.
- The Circle Line Train in Yangon – a fab way to sight see in Yangon, this commuter train rides a three-hour loop around the city, travelling through the urban area and out into villages in the surrounding countryside. Catch the train from Yangon Central Rail Station, one comes every hour and tickets cost around US$1.
- There’s no way to book train tickets directly online – Myanmar railways don’t have a website.
- You’ll need to buy train tickets at the station you’re travelling from. There is no central computerised booking system, and reservations are based on hand-written lists. Train tickets are also hand-written.
- To book, you can just show up on the day, but for extra security buy tickets for long-haul journeys a day or two in advance.
- You must buy tickets from the station you’re travelling from
- You will need your passport to purchase a train ticket, and your name, nationality and passport number will be copied on your ticket.
- Larger stations like Yangon will have English language information boards that show timetables and fares, more remote ones won’t – ask at the ticket office for help.
Comprehensive information on train travel in Myanmar, including schedules and ticket prices, can be found on The Man in Seat 61.
Food in Myanmar
Its cheap, tasty and there’s plenty of it! I was spending anywhere from 80 cents to $3 USD for a meal. Street food is the way to go in Myanmar. Most places give you free tea with your food, so feel free to pull up a plastic stool on the street and enjoy. Influenced by its neighbours, Myanmar cuisine is a mixture of Thai, Indian and Chinese food. One of the most interesting parts about Burmese restaurants is the way they get the attention of the server. They make a kissing sound with their lips! I thought someone was hitting on me the first time I heard this, but sadly no. Yangon is the only place in the world I’ve seen people do this.
The Broke Backpacker: “The food in Myanmar is probably some of the least known delicacies in the world and, if you eat local, it’s possible to have a banquet of about a dozen dishes for just a couple of dollars!”
Best things to do in Myanmar
The Broke Backpacker:“Myanmar is opening up super fast and although huge swathes of the country are still inaccessible there are now plenty of true off the beaten path adventures that can be attempted by backpackers in search of some real adventure. Crucially, it is now possible to explore large parts of Myanmar by motorbike – you can rent or buy a bike in the country and although some areas remain off limits (you cannot technically bring a bike into Bagan or Inle) it is now possible to explore large chunks of the rural countryside… If you have a tent, this makes epic backpacking adventures even more possible.
“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 un-climbed peaks… In Chin state, it’s possible to stay with communities who have never even seen a backpacker before – providing you’re willing to hike for several days to get there!
“The Myanmar / India border is now finally open meaning that it’s possible to travel all the way from Europe to South East Asia without having to go via China… With the relaxing visa situation in Iran and a stable security situation in Pakistan, the once bustling hippie trail to Thailand is showing signs of life once more and travellers who want to discover something a little bit different can overland it to India, Nepal, Pakistan and Iran via Myanmar from South East Asia… “
Top 10 Myanmar Travel Destinations
Yangon quickly became one of my favourite cities. The chaos was stimulating and exhausting at the same time. But if you spend some time walking around, chatting to locals and expats, you’ll find there’s a lot more to do than meets the eye. Visit the Shwedagon Pagoda at sunrise or sunset – it’s considered to be Buddhism’s holiest temple. Take a seat at one of the many tea stalls on the street. Hop in a taxi, head to 19th Street downtown to sit with a mix of people and have barbecue and cold beer. Spend the afternoon on the Circular Train, where locals are selling and trading goods right on the train. Or you can go get an awesome Burmese massage for $3.50, treat yo self!
Rent an electric bike and explore the ancient temples of Old Bagan. Bagan actually holds the largest collection of 11th- and 12th-century temples, pagodas and ruins in the world. I recommend staying in the Nyaung U for cheaper accommodation that’s still close to all the temples. If you’re not too picky, you could snag your own temple to perch on for sunset.
Take the train from Mandalay to Hsipaw. It’s absolutely one of the most scenic train rides in Myanmar so have your camera ready!
Trekking! All the guesthouses will book treks for you. Ask for the harder route with less foot traffic. They’ll take you to a village that not everyone goes to. It’s perfect for those who like to get off-the-beaten-path.
Probably the most touristy place in Myanmar, but it’s still amazing. Find a guesthouse and book the day boat around the lake the next day. The tours stop off at different floating markets and stilt restaurants. Tip: I’m sure you’ve seen the photos of the leg-rowing fisherman. Be aware, there are some “fisherman” on the lake who are only there to pose for photos. So if you take a photo, they may ask for money.
Internet connectivity in Myanmar
Wi-Fi is almost non-existent. Sometimes a hotel or restaurant will have it, but it’s frustratingly slow. If you need to be connected like me, I highly recommend getting a Ooredoo (a Myanmar carrier) SIM card at the airport when you arrive. Make sure your phone is unlocked and you can top it up as needed.
If you decide not to use a SIM, download the app maps.me. You can download and use maps offline. Super helpful for getting around and knowing where you are.
The Broke Backpacker: ” I first visited back in 2011 and found myself flung into the Asia of one hundred years ago. Unlike some other places in Asia I never felt like I was getting ripped off in Myanmar. In 2011, there was very limited accommodation, no ATMs and no WiFi… the situation is changing rapidly and now Yangon even has a bustling digital nomad scene, Chiang Mai eat your heart out! The internet is admittedly fairly slow in the country but it’s improving all the time and if you want to unplug for a few weeks, Myanmar is the place to do it.”
A little inspiration
Expert Myanmar adventurer Marcus Allender: “I’ve been lucky enough to travel to all the states and divisions of Myanmar over the last few years, and I’ve had a number of unforgettable overland trips. But the most enjoyable and eye-opening was probably the one from Yangon to Dawei in the Tanintharyi (otherwise known as Tenasserim) region in the south of the country. This remote area has only recently opened up to foreigners, having been shut off for fifty years, which made us feel like real pioneers! And when you go to less developed places like these it really is quite humbling how welcoming and generous people are – even more so given their poverty. People in Myanmar are known for the friendliness, but the way were treated there was something else.
“We took a mixture of pick-up trucks and trains, and the journey itself was both challenging and bone-jarringly uncomfortable at times – but that only added to the sense of adventure. It was best simply to avoid thinking about how dangerous it was sitting on the crowded roof of a truck, hurtling down rough roads at high speed (you can also get buses down there, but we were travelling during a holiday period when they weren’t running). And while trains in Myanmar can be bouncy and slow at the best of times, the railway line south from Ye to Dawei took things to another level: the tiny carriages twist and turn through the beautiful Tenasserim hills, literally pushing through the branches of the jungle, stopping at villages that look no different to how they would have done one hundred years ago.
“One of the wonderful things about Myanmar is that as peace treaties are signed with rebel ethnic groups, more and more previously closed-off areas are becoming accessible – and there is rich opportunity to discover and explore hitherto unseen places. Just be prepared for basic facilities and infrastructure!”
The Broke Backpacker: “My main advice for Myanmar? – Get out of the tourists traps of Inle and Mandalay (definitely still head to Bagan, it’s unreal) and go find your own adventure in the mountains of the North, the jungles of the South or along the Western Coastline…”
I hope this was helpful! Have fun, stay safe, and enjoy the adventure. Go Myanmar!
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