‘Planning a trip to Myanmar’ isn’t a phrase one hears very often while talking to travellers. This isn’t surprising. Myanmar’s fraught political situation and harsh military regime led to the country being completely closed off to the outside world. As part of broader political and democratic reforms, tourism in Myanmar has been flourishing since 2010.
Tourism is on the rise in Myanmar. Hotels, roads, and airports are still being upgraded. But what the country lacks in infrastructure, it makes up in sights. Myanmar has so much to offer to the curious traveller who loves going off-the-beaten-path. We were spellbound by the pagodas, villages, and temples we saw during our trip to Myanmar.
Myanmar is unique and unlike any other Asian country we’ve visited. The commotion on the streets is very different from countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Tourists are fewer and the sights intriguing. Here’s a detailed itinerary and guide for Myanmar based on our experience in the country. We hope it encourages you to visit this li’l known corner of the world and discover its incredible wonders for yourself 🙂
Arriving at Yangon International Airport , Myanmar:
Citizens of most nationalities need to apply for a Myanmar visa but the good thing is that this can be done online. The visa costs $50/person. Application is fuss-free and it took just 2 days for us to get the letter of approval. Make sure you print the letter because you’ll need it at the immigration checkpoint at the airport.
Best time to visit
We visited Myanmar in April so we could attend the annual Thingyan water festival*. The country isn’t frequented by tourists during summer months, so it’s also possible to get some great deals on accommodation. However, in hindsight, it wasn’t the best decision. The water festival was a whole lot of fun but it was really really hot at that time. 45°C temperatures made it impossible to explore at any other time of the day except dawn and dusk. So many authors including George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, and William Somerset Maugham mention Myanmar’s oppressive heat in their memoirs from the country. They’re right. The scorching heat just isn’t conducive to exploring towns full of unpaved dusty roads (yes Bagan,I’m looking at you!). So we would suggest planning a trip to Myanmar during winter months (November – January).
*If you do decide to visit Myanmar during the annual Thingyan water festival, time your visit in such a way that you can attend a day or two of the water festival before it ends. The water festival lasts for a week and most shops, markets, and restaurants are closed during that time. Taxis charge more.
There are a number of ATMs at the Yangon International Airport. Make sure you withdraw money here as it’s hard to find functional ATMs in the city.
There is a taxi counter at the Yangon International Airport as soon as you exit the arrival gates. Booking a taxi here saves tourists the trouble of finding a cab and negotiating fare. Service is courteous and they even escort you to the taxi. The ride from Yangon International Airport to the city centre takes 45 minutes and costs approximately 8000 kyat (approx. $8/£6).
Burmese food is heavily influenced by Indian, Chinese, and Thai flavours. Now as you probably know we love experimenting with local food and relish it in most countries. But Myanmar is the first country where we didn’t quite relish the local food. We disliked the food here for the same reason we love it in Ubud, Bali. We love healthy food and most food, street food, and snacks in Myanmar are dripping with oil and laden with salt.
We tried a lot of local food – dosas, curries, salads, breakfast soups. But we didn’t really enjoy the food in Myanmar. I did like the flavours of a couple of the traditional salads but I took a cooking class and realised that even traditional salads including Lah Pet Thoke (Tea Leaf Salad) and Gin Thoke (Ginger Salad) use re-fried beans and ladles of peanut oil in every serving. I hate saying that Mohinga, a popular breakfast soup, was probably the only Burmese dish I truly enjoyed. But what Myanmar lacks in food, it makes up in sights and smiles. It’s a gorgeous country full of little historical and cultural gems at every corner.
Suggested Itinerary for a trip to Myanmar:
- Fly into Myanmar, spend 2 days in Yangon
- 3 days in Bagan
- 4 days cruising along Irrawaddy River with stops at Mingun and Ava (Inwa)
- 2 days in Mandalay
- 1-2 days in Yangon and departure from Myanmar
A few optional stops in case you have more time to spend in Myanmar:
- Inle Lake is famous for its floating markets, stilt houses, and the unique one-legged rowing style of local fishermen. It’s also the starting point for the hidden Shwe Inn Thein pagodas
- Ngwe Saung (Silver Beach), located in the Rakhine mountain range of western Myanmar is off-the-beaten track. Its white beaches are perfect if you’re craving a beach getaway.
- Ngapali Beach is more popular with tourists and boasts of a number of resorts and hotels.
- The Mergui Archipelago, just off the coast of Thailand, comprises a series of pristine Burmese islands, perfect for a romantic getaway.
That’s all the information you need to plan your trip to Myanmar out of the way. Now onto our adventures in Myanmar 🙂
Accommodation in Yangon:
There’s no shortage of accommodation to suit every budget in Yangon. Whatever your budget, we suggest staying in downtown Yangon, close to Sule Pagoda. That way you will be a short walk or taxi ride away from most prominent sites in Yangon.
We chose to stay at Sule Shangri La Yangon. It’s conveniently located – a short walk away from Sule Pagoda, Bogyoke Market, and hustle bustle of downtown Yangon. The rooms are spacious and well-appointed but I wouldn’t expect anything else from Shangri La. The extensive breakfast buffet comprises a host of Burmese specialities including curries, dosa, Lah Pet Thoke (fermented tea-leaf salad), Mohinga (rice noodle and fish soup), dosa (savoury crépes), and Burmese curries. The best part? We found the fastest wifi in Myanmar at Sule Shangri La Yangon (you know my love affair with fast wifi, so I’ll stop at that) ;-). You can book here.
Getting Around in Yangon:
We walked around a lot in downtown Yangon and took taxis everywhere else. If you’re staying in or near the city centre, then most tourist attractions are less than a $3 taxi ride away. Just make sure you bargain and fix a price BEFORE you get in the taxi.
Things to do in Yangon:
There is no shortage of things to do in Yangon, but here’s a few things you can do during the 3 days you spend in Yangon:
- Yangon’s streets are spilling with street food at every corner. Visit local fruit and vegetable markets and sample local delicacies on Anawrahta Road in Yangon
- Walk around Streets 26-32, home to China town and India town. These offer the perfect introduction to the myriad influences that have helped shape contemporary Burmese food and culture.
- Stand at the feet of one of the largest reclining Buddhas in Asia at the little known Chaukhtatgyi Temple in Yangon.
- If you want a respite from the hectic rhythm of the city head to Kandawgyi Lake. The surrounding park is full of idyllic lotus ponds, overlooking the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda.
- The glistening Sule Pagoda stands tall at the centre of downtown Yangon. It’s possible to go inside the pagoda but you could skip it. This is because the activity surrounding Sule Pagoda – colourful buses ferrying locals, pedestrians rushing to work, fruit vendors peddling their wares – makes it special.
- You can’t visit Yangon and not see the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda. The elaborate gilded structure is probably one of the most impressive and underrated historical monuments in the world. Legend has it that it’s the largest Buddhist stupa in the world. The complex is intriguing and it’s easy to spend a few hours exploring it. Large parts of Shwedagon Pagoda are made of gold and bejewelled with diamonds and rubies. If you’re in Myanmar during summer, then visit Shwedagon Pagoda during the evening or early morning because you have to explore it barefoot. Entry is 8000 kyat ($8) and you can enter and exit the pagoda multiple times in a day. Cover knees and arms or take a sarong along. Make sure you take a plastic bag to put your shoes so you can carry them with you instead of leaving them at the entrance – this is handy if you enter from one gate and exit from another.
- If you love exploring little known parts of cities or chatting with locals, hop on to Yangon’s Circular Train. The local commuter train goes around the city in a loop and stops at 39 stations along the way. The journey takes 3 hours and costs $1. If you feel bored or think the ride is getting monotonous, just jump off the train and hail a cab.
- If you do plan your trip to Myanmar during the Thingyan water festival, then make sure you visit the central stage in downtown Yangon. The area is swarming with locals, street-food vendors, and tourists. The stage lends a carnivalesque air to proceedings and gets the party started. Just get a water gun or a hosepipe and join the revelry 🙂
Whoever knew that deep within Myanmar’s countryside lies an offbeat archaeological site that is bigger and much less crowded than the Angkor temples in Cambodia?! There are over 2200 stupas, temples, and pagodas in Bagan – no wonder every sunset and sunrise seems special here. Bagan is the focal point of tourism in Myanmar and it delivers. It was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to Myanmar.
Accommodation in Bagan:
Most accommodation in Bagan is either in New Bagan, Old Bagan, or Nyaung U (more backpacker type accommodation). All these places work well. This is because in both cases, you will need to rent a taxi or e-bike to explore the temples. There are a number of hotels, hostels, and guesthouses in Bagan.
Both of us wanted to stay at Bagan Lodge because it has great reviews online but it was fully booked during the time we were in Bagan. So we settled for Hotel Areindmar in New Bagan. To be honest, we didn’t expect much from it but the hotel was surprisingly good. The property is charming and rooms are spacious and well furnished. Our room was well equipped with bathrobes, slippers, and an electric kettle etc. The pool and breakfast area is charming and laden with flowering vines. However do be warned that breakfast at Hotel Areindmar is a bit lacklustre – there is a small selection of cheeses, local specialities, fresh juices, and bread. Additionally the quality of food is, at best, passable.
Getting Around in Bagan:
You can either rent a taxi for the day or ferry yourself around on an e-bike! We opted for the latter and paid $7/day for our e-bike (if you’re quoted a higher price, bargain). When renting an e-bike, make sure it’s been charged overnight. We had tons of fun going around Bagan on our li’l e-bike and would recommend it. There’s a e-bike rental place right opposite the hotel.
Things to do in Bagan:
Bagan is home to some stunning pagodas and temples. Expect to find gargantuan gold and terracotta Buddhas, intricate architecture and expansive terraces that look out to hundreds of pagodas and the winding Irrawaddy river. Most tourists frequent a fixed route that includes less that a dozen temples. Most other pagodas, stupas, and temples are left unattended. You must visit some of these little-known buildings if you have the time.
Here are some of our favourite experiences in Bagan. Make sure you put them down on your itinerary while planning a trip to Myanmar:
- Sunrise at Law Ka Ou Shaung – this tiny temple is a great spot for photography enthusiasts. There weren’t many people when we went which allowed us to enjoy the sunrise in peace 🙂
- Sunrise at Shwe San Daw. This is one of the most crowded and touristy pagodas, so expect a lot of tour buses and people. However it is worth the hype and the view at both sunrise and sunset is quite something.
- Sunset at Sulamani temple. This is one of the most popular Buddhist temples in the area but well worth the hype.
- Sunset at Tha Beik Hmauk Gu
- Sunrise at North Gu Ni
- Sunset at Thit Sa Wadi : We liked this best of all the temples we visited. Perhaps because it is off-the-beaten track and less crowded.
We also explored tons of anonymous/little known buildings in the area. Bagan’s stupas are solid cylindrical structures with no entrance while its temples have either 1 or 4 entrances and house impressive statues of Buddha. A couple of things to keep in mind while exploring Bagan:
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers or carry a sarong with you as you might be asked to cover up at some temples
- Carry a plastic bag for your shoes. Put your shoes in it and carry them with you. This is especially useful in larger temples with 4 entrances. You might enter using one entrance and exit using the other but you won’t have to go looking for your shoes 🙂
- Your feet will get very dirty as all temples and pagodas need to be explore barefoot. Make sure you book yourself a spa appointment in Bagan or on the cruise boat you will board from Bagan.
AVA, MINGUN, AND CRUISING ON THE IRRAWADDY RIVER
Imagine gliding on the Irrawaddy river as you sip on a chilled cocktail. A river cruise is one of the best ways of experiencing the countryside of Myanmar and seeing its little-known towns for yourself.
There are dozens of river cruises on offer. Boats offer varying levels of luxury – everything from bunk beds to luxurious cabins and fine dining is on offer. Just make sure you check all details including the size of rooms, food available on board, and excursions before you book a river cruise. This is because you will be spending the better part of a week on the boat. It’s best to be well aware of what lies in store. We chose The Strand Cruise, which is in a league all by itself. The boat boasts of ultra-spacious suites with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that open to the Irrawaddy river. Unique cocktails, comfortable excursions, and luscious three-course meals made it an extremely memorable experience.
Here are some cruise ports and experiences that should definitely be on your itinerary of Myanmar irrespective of the river cruise you book
- Mingun: Mingun’s unusual white temple Hsinbyume, with its seven concentric terraces is fascinating
- Ava aka Inwa: Imagine exploring an ancient kingdom full of mystical treasures. Going off-the-beaten path was never as rewarding as it is in Ava, the ancient capital of Myanmar. Monuments and nature are completely intertwined here – we just couldn’t get enough.
- Amarapura: This busy township of Mandalay is home to a host of attractions including the Amarapura Palace ruins and the U-bein Bridge that definitely need to be a part of your trip to Myanmar.
- A cooking class: Taking a cooking class is the best way to acquaint oneself with the culinary culture of a new country. Burmese cuisine boasts of interesting dishes with a mix of Thai, Indian, and Chinese flavours. Don’t forget to try your hand at making a local delicacy or two aboard your river cruise
- Understand the local way of life: Try to understand the importance of Thanaka, the yellowish cooling paste that is used as sunscreen all over the country. We saw it applied in hundreds of different patterns by people all over Myanmar. Vid and I tried our hand at grinding the ground bark and making the Thanaka paste. We were going for intricate patterns but ended up smearing it over our faces 😉 If that’s not for you, try to learn how to tie a longyi. The traditional Burmese garment resembles a sarong and is worn by both men and women around the country.
Planning a river cruise in Myanmar? Read our detailed review of The Strand Cruise
Accommodation in Mandalay:
We opted for a longer cruise and explored Mandalay while we were still on the boat. However we would recommend spending a night or two in Mandalay. There is no dearth of accommodation if you do want to stay in Mandalay. There are dozens of hotels to suit all budgets. We heard great reviews of Sedona Hotel from fellow travellers.
There are loads of options here. You could hail a taxi or a cycle rickshaw. Alternatively rent a cycle or a motorbike. We were in Mandalay for a short time, so we just hailed taxis to visit most sites.
Things to do:
We reached Mandalay towards the end of our trip in Myanmar. By this time, we were all templed out! Mandalay is home to some impressive temples and monasteries, but having seen so many of those in Bagan, Mingun, and Ava, we chose to skip some temples and visited the popular spots. Here are some of our favourites:
- Shwenandaw Monastery, a historic Buddhist monastery made out of teak wood is different from anything else we saw in Myanmar
- The Ubein Bridge in Amarapura is a long bridge made of teakwood. It seems popular with locals and is great for those sunrises and sunsets.
- Dee Doke Waterfall makes for a great day trip if you’re in Mandalay for a longer time. However this can get quite crowded.
- Visit Dattawgyaik Waterfall aka Anisakan Falls for a less touristy experience. This is located mid-way between Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin
- The scenic train ride to Hsipaw, a rural town located north of Mandalay is also extremely popular with tourists but we chose to skip this!
YANGON AND FLYING BACK FROM MYANMAR
If you have an international flight to catch out of Myanmar, chances are you will find yourself back in Yangon. We spent the final part of our trip at the iconic Strand Hotel in Yangon. The colonial gem has hosted so many of my favourite authors including Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, Somerset Maugham over the century. So I was really excited about staying at the hotel 🙂
The Strand Hotel epitomises vintage luxury. It boasts of uber-spacious suites with old-school bathrobes, traditional faucets, tons of fresh flowers, and luxurious toiletries in glass bottles. Little touches such as 24 hour butler service, starched white linen, and exquisite food amplify the experience. We spent our time at The Strand Hotel winding down from our trip across Myanmar. Think pillow nests, bubble baths, and breakfast in bed 🙂
Just like that it was time to say goodbye to Myanmar. The country surprised us in so many ways. We explored gorgeous historical sites, spoke to locals, sampled a new cuisine, and visited so many places we’d never heard of! Both of us were greeted with SUCH huge smiles everywhere we went in Myanmar – we’d definitely urge you to plan a trip to Myanmar while tourism is still in its nascent stages in the country and experience its charms for yourself.
*All costs true of April ’16.
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