By Isabel Clift (@Isabel_Clift)
Myanmar is hot on the Southeast Asian circuit, but a lot people still worry about travelling in Myanmar. There’s never been a better time to visit Myanmar. Take advantage of land border crossings from Thailand and more relaxed visa restrictions. By the time you’re done reading this guide to travel in Myanmar, you won’t have any more excuses for leaving this one-of-a-kind destination off your next trip around Southeast Asia.
Still don’t believe us? Here’s what Brenna Holeman, founder of travel blog This Battered Suitcase, has to say about Myanmar:
“Myanmar is ready for responsible tourism, and ready to shake its former regime’s reputation.” As for any fears about safety, she goes on to add, “Stay in local guesthouses, eat at family-run restaurants, and shop as locally as possible. Myanmar is a beautiful country, and one with such a unique culture; I really do recommend visiting, but only if you travel with an educated mind.”
So, if you’re ready to get educated and start planning your trip to one of the most intriguing countries in Southeast Asia, read on…
Myanmar itineraries and cool stuff to see
What should go straight to the top of your Myanmar bucket list? Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda is considered the country’s holiest Buddhist temple, and Bagan is home to the densest collection of 11th- and 12th-century temples, pagodas and ruins in the world. A hot air balloon ride over the breath-taking archaeological site is a must.
Inle Lake has popular boat tours stopping off at floating markets, stilt restaurants and craft workshops you can visit, while Myanmar’s second city Mandalay is home to the Royal Palace and beautiful views from Mandalay Hill.
How long have you got to visit?
- One week: Pommie Travels’ one-week itinerary starts in Mandalay and takes in temples in Bagan and a boat ride on Inle Lake, before finishing up in Yangon. A well-paced journey for seeing Myanmar’s most famous sites in a short space of time.
- Two weeks: My Hot Pink Passport’s two-week itinerary suggests a loop of the country starting and ending in Yangon, with a few more days’ exploring each in Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bago.
- Three weeks: The Adventuresmith’s three-week itinerary gives you more time to see the big sites, plus visit smaller destinations off the tourist track. The adventure-packed journey takes in Yangon – Kalaw – Inle Lake – Bagan – Mandalay – Pwin Oo Lwin – Hsipaw – Mandalay.
How to travel in Myanmar
Is Myanmar a safe place to travel?
Yes, Myanmar is safe. There is little history of violent crime directed at visitors, and British Foreign Office advice says “most visits are trouble-free.” Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan are no more dangerous to visit than any other popular tourist hubs around the world.
Several areas of the country are restricted from tourists by the government simply because there isn’t the infrastructure to support the influx of people, but there are other limitations to keep in mind. The FCO advises against all but essential travel to Rakhine State and Kachin State due to conflict between different ethnic groups – see the latest information here. However, neither of these are on Myanmar’s tourist trail.
How do locals react to visitors?
Lots of travellers are really positive about the welcome they receive in Myanmar.
Brenna Holeman says: “the thing that always stands out the most from my time in Myanmar was how incredibly welcoming and friendly the people were. I don’t want this to sound patronising, but the people were ultimately the kindest, most generous, and most helpful people I’ve come across in my travels around the world.
From only one week in Yangon I have countless stories of people inviting me into their homes for dinner, of people going out of their way to make my experience the easiest and the best it possibly could be, and of people just generally wanting to lend a kind and helping hand. I remember actually rubbing my cheeks at one point because I had been smiling so much, and my muscles were hurting.”
So right now Myanmar may be a local/tourist utopia – but bear in mind it’s changing really rapidly. As border restrictions ease up and more people visit every year, the relationship will probably shift naturally as visitors aren’t seen as such an interesting abnormality.
Always be respectful and do your bit to keep tourists’ reputation on the positive side.
Where can I get a visa to Myanmar?
Most travellers need a visa to visit Myanmar. This means getting a visa sticker on your passport in advance before entering.
Visas allow you 28 days of travel within Myanmar, and cannot be extended. Visas are only valid for 90 days after the date of issue, so make sure you account for your dates of travel when you apply. Basically, don’t be an eager beaver and apply a year in advance or your visa will be issued too early and won’t be valid when you actually get to Myanmar!
Option A: Apply for a visa from the Myanmar embassy in your home country
This will involve filling out a visa application form, including two recent photographs, proof of travel (airline ticket copies or receipt from your tour operator) and paying a small fee.
More info can be found here…
Option B: Apply for a visa in Thailand (or other parts of Southeast Asia and China)
In Bangkok, go to the Myanmar embassy in the morning to request a same-day visa: it will be issued by 15.30 and will be valid from the day of issue. You must show proof that you’re travelling the next day with a copy of your airline ticket or tour company’s travel itinerary. You can also get a next-day or two-day visa without proof of your travel plans.
Visa costs (as of April 2013):
- Same day: THB1260
- Next day: THB1035
- Two-day: THB860
Myanmar embassy address in Bangkok:
1 Sathorn Soi 3 South Sathorn Rd Bangkok 10120, Thailand 02-2340278
You can apply for a Myanmar visa in other Southeast Asian countries and China, too. Go to WikiTravel for a breakdown of the various costs and procedures – they’re all pretty similar to the Thai example above.
Option C: Apply online
Apply online for a visa on arrival (VOA) that you pick up at the airport on landing. At 75 USD, it’s the most expensive option.
Remember to check Myanmar’s Ministry of Immigration website and with their embassy in your country for the latest policy on visas before you travel, as rules are rapidly changing along with the rest of the country. As of February 2014, ASEAN citizens may not even need a visa to enter.
How do I get in to Myanmar?
Plane: At the moment, there aren’t any international flights to Myanmar from western countries. Fly in from Singapore, Hanoi, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. These airlines serve Myanmar:
- From Bangkok: Air Asia, Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways International
- From Singapore: Jetstar, Silk Air
- From Hanoi: Vietnam Airlines
- From Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia Airlines, Air Asia
Land: If you’d rather the more romantic notion of crossing the border on the ground – be prepared. It’s possible, but not nearly as straightforward as flying.
In Thailand, three towns offer international crossing to Myanmar. Once over the border, you must continue your journey by plane or bus. There are no trains from the border. Here’s where you can cross from Thailand to Myanmar:
- Mae Sai to Tachilek – continue via plane to Heho or Mandalay from Tachilek Airport.
- Mae Sot to Myawaddy – continue via bus to Moulmein (which has an airport served by domestic flights) or bus to Yangon.
- Ranong to Kawthoung – continue via plane to Yangon or Moulmein from Kawthaung Airport.
Why all the planes and busses, you ask? What’s wrong with renting a motorcycle and riding out into the wide blue yonder once you’ve crossed? Well, some areas around border towns are restricted from international visitors by the Burmese government. Also, road conditions are varied to say the least – some are fine, some are very poorly maintained and hard to drive.
A one-way road system also means traffic goes on the left or right side depending on whether it’s an odd or even-numbered day. This affects bus travel – find out ahead what days are ‘left’ or ‘right’ depending on the month of your arrival, and plan to arrive on a day when it’s possible to catch the correct connecting bus to your next stop.
Read more about the ins and outs of travel from border towns on Travelfish.
How do I travel around Myanmar? Is there public transport?
You can get around by plane or bus, hiring a car with a guide or by boat and train.
Delays and travel at odd hours are all a part of a typical long-haul journey. Factor in more time than you usually would and be prepared for unpredictability and sometimes a bit less comfort than you might be used to. But hey! This is all part of travel, enjoy the (bumpy) ride!
Domestic flights often operate on a circular route around the country (with planes stopping off at different airports on a set route within a single day) – you may have to go via a different airport to reach your final destination. You shouldn’t have to wait more than 15 minutes at the stopover, however.
“Domestic air travel in Myanmar is in general rooted in a past era, although things are beginning to improve,” says Marcus Allender, founder of travel bible Go-Myanmar.com.
“Planes in general are European propeller models from decades back that sometimes work on rather flexible schedules – it’s always best to call on the morning of your flight to check it is running. And while some processes could be described as quaint (paper tickets and little stickers the boarding staff put on you to indicate your destination), the lack of security can be a little alarming. But then, with the exception of Yangon, Mandalay, Naypyidaw and Bagan, most regional airports are basically just shacks.
“Also, with such archaic systems and little proper competition, prices are higher than in neighbouring countries such as Thailand.”
Many airlines run on a fluid schedule, meaning flights often don’t take off at their designated time, or at all, depending on how booked up they are. As Marcus says, check with your airline 24 hours before departure, and then again on the morning of departure, to make sure you’ll be able to fly.
Need to know
- Yangon to Mandalay and Yangon to Bagan are the most frequently-used flight routes within Myanmar.
- Check Go Myanmar for a full list of domestic airlines and destinations.
- Single journey ticket prices range from US$40 to $200 depending on the season and destination.
- You can check flight schedules on the airlines’ websites, but currently no online booking is offered.
- Book air tickets through a local travel agent or via your hostel in Myanmar – just ask at the reception desk.
With cheaper tickets than airlines and faster journey times than trains, buses are a reliable way to get around Myanmar if you’re on a budget.
Popular Myanmar bus journeys
- Yangon to Bagan (approx nine to eleven hours)
- Bagan to Mandalay (approx six to seven hours)
- Yangon to Naypyidaw (approx four hours)
“On the main ‘tourist triangle’ (Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake) and to larger cities such as Mandalay and the capital, Naypyidaw, you will find modern, comfortable air-conditioned buses. The so-called VIP or Express buses that serve these routes (and some others) have big reclining seats seats in a 2+1 layout – so loads of space and, given that most long-distance buses run overnight, chance for some decent sleep!” says Allender.
“However, on more provincial routes, things can get a bit hit-and-miss. Some of the regional buses are ok, and most do have air conditioning – but some are in a bit of a shoddy state.
“There are only really two price ranges – the more expensive buses should always be of a high standard; with the cheaper ones you are somewhat in the lap of gods. Of course prices depend on how far you are travelling, but you will never have to pay more than around US$20 even for the longest-distance VIP bus.”
Need to know
- Long distance tickets range from around US$6 to $20
- In larger cities like Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw, bus stations tend to be far from the centre of town. Buy tickets in advance to make sure you get a seat on your preferred journey – you can either do this online before travelling via a site like Go Myanmar or make inquiries through your guesthouse when you’re there.
- You can opt for different levels of luxury, dictated by the price of the ticket. VIP buses (sometimes called Express buses) are modern and comfortable with air conditioning.
- Many long-distance buses run overnight, leaving between 4-10pm in the evening. This means you may reach your destination very early in the morning.
- Conversely, buses can also depart very early, at 3 or 4am.
- Buses generally don’t have toilets, but at least one refreshment stop should be provided
- Take bottled water and a snack – there’s no guarantee these will be provided
- Bring ear plugs and your own music player – buses tend to show movies or play loud k-pop or rock throughout the journey.
- Bring your own blanket for extra warmth against chilly air-con.
Trains take a more scenic route than busses and give you a much better chance to mix with locals. They’re a bouncy ride, however, and rail lines are in a run-down state, with many shutting down altogether during monsoon season.
Poor track conditions mean top speeds are restricted – freight trains can run at no more than 12-14km/h (15mph), which suggests commercial trains could run as slowly as 12-14km/h (7.5-8.7mph). However…
“Train travel in Burma is an amazing experience,” says train travel expert Mark Smith, founder of The Man in Seat 61.
“The overnight sleeper from Rangoon to Mandalay speeds you past golden stupas and mock-Tudor signal boxes seemingly transplanted from Surrey, with the smell of the village fires wafting through your open window as night falls.
“Two wonderful slow and rural train rides are also highly recommended: first, the train from Mandalay to Pyin oo Lwin and on over the famous and dramatic Gokteik Viaduct to Hsipaw, the other ‘The Slow Train From Thazi’, from Thazi on the Rangoon-Mandalay main line to Kalaw and Shwenyaung (for Inle Lake). Both routes are a breathtaking amble up into the hills, both at one point using a ‘switchback’ to gain height, with stops at delightful village stations!”
It’s all about making the most of the journey rather than being impatient to get there. Expect a snail’s pace, bumps and delays as par the course… accompanied by absolutely beautiful scenery.
Popular Myanmar train journeys
Image of Gokteik Viaduct via Zellner Travel
- 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 sightsee 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.
Comprehensive information on train travel in Myanmar, including schedules and ticket prices, can be found on The Man in Seat 61.
Need to know
- 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.
Can I backpack and use hostels in Myanmar?
Hostel and guesthouse culture is growing, but it will take time for infrastructure to catch up with the number of new visitors. Always book ahead – this isn’t the same as Thailand, where you can rock up in any town with the confidence a bed for the night is only a few baht away. At the moment, demand for accommodation in Myanmar still outstrips supply.
6. What currency can I use in Myanmar?
You’ll need a mixture of US dollars and Myanmar kyat. Use dollars to pay for accommodation, domestic plane tickets, train fares and entrance fees. Smaller items like food, crafts and local bus fares can be paid for in kyat.
Myanmar first got ATMs in 2012, and there still aren’t a huge amount of them to rely on. It’s best to bring your entire travel money budget in cash, and work through it. Dollars need to be crisp and unmarked bills, with no folds, or they won’t be accepted.
Read How to Deal with Money in Myanmar for comprehensive information on getting the best exchange rate and using money in Myanmar.
When is the best time of the year to visit Myanmar?
Go in the dry season between November and February, when temperatures are a comfortable 25-35ºC. Temperatures can reach 40ºC between March and May, and climb even higher in Bagan and Mandalay.
Mid-May to mid-June sees the start of monsoon season, which peaks between July and September and tails off in October. Rakhaing State gets the most rain in this time, while the dry zone between Mandalay and Pyay sees the least.
So, are you ready to start planning your trip? Yes? Maybe?
We’ll leave you with Marcus Allender’s story of his favourite Myanmar trip to whet your appetite…
“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!”
We think we’re ready to go with now that you have a complete Myanmar Travel guide in your hands !
Have you been to Myanmar? Let us know your tips…