The first stop on my solo backpacking tour of Southeast Asia was a 10-day stint in Myanmar, historically known by the British as Burma. I’d heard amazing things from other travellers who had visited, especially of the stunning Bagan temples at sunset and lively Yangon.
I did a few double-takes at my guidebook, which was unfortunately five years out of date, as a lot has happened to the country in that time and is happening right now. I found lots of information online to help me out with budget and travel tips, but things are progressing so fast that I’m now adding my voice to the mix to help others prepare for their experiences in Myanmar on a backpacker’s budget.
My Itinerary: I spent roughly 10 days in total in Myanmar counting my travel days, four of them in Yangon (where I flew in and out of the country), three in Mandalay and three in Bagan.
Disclaimers: Prices are listed in Burmese kyat and US dollars (plus some Hong Kong dollars and British pounds sterling where appropriate), which are often both quoted in Myanmar. Note that at the time of my visit (October 2016), the exchange rate was roughly 1,200K to US$1, and that I am terrible at haggling.
Also, though I may wish that someone would fund my travels (sigh), nothing about this post or my trip were sponsored. Therefore all recommendations are honest and I paid for everything off my own back on my own teeny-weeny budget.
To read a more personal account of my adventures in Burma, read my previous travel diaries blog post.
How much time do I need? I only had around 10 days so I regretfully skipped Inle Lake and also I wish I’d had a little more time in Mandalay and Bagan. Based on my experiences, I would recommend that you spend at least two weeks in Myanmar to comfortably squeeze in all of the top sights.
Visa: Most passports need a visa for Myanmar and you must get it before you go. Mine was HK$180 (US$23) from the Myanmar Consulate General in Hong Kong for my UK passport. However, research tells me it would have cost a lot more in my home country at around US$50. I read in several places that there was a US$10 airport tax to be paid upon leaving the country as well, but when I flew out of Yangon airport I didn’t have to pay anything.
Vaccinations: I had vaccinations against diphtheria, polio, tetanus, hepatitis A and typhoid, all of which were recommended for Myanmar as well as other places I was visiting on a longer Southeast Asian trip. Altogether these cost HK$2,000 in Hong Kong, with less than two weeks to go until my trip (you can get them cheaper if you book with the Travel Health Service around six weeks in advance), but all of them would have been free on the NHS back in the UK. Make sure you go three or four weeks before your trip, and don’t go by my bad last-minute example.
There are some high-risk malarial zones in Myanmar, but I didn’t want to take malarial tablets as I’ve had bad experiences with them before, so I purposefully didn’t visit the high-risk zones to avoid having to take them. Mosquitoes are still buzzing around everywhere though, so bring your bug spray.
Insurance: I use World Nomads as they are the only company I can find that will cover me once I’m already abroad (which I usually always am) and don’t sting my wallet too badly. I selected the Explorer plan (worldwide) for a period of two and a half months for the countries I was visiting. At £176.23 (US$215) it is slightly more expensive than the basic version, but covers a lot more.
Money: IMPORTANT! You can’t get Burmese kyat outside of Burma. Instead, you should bring US dollars with you, and keep in mind that ATMs don’t accept foreign cards. Taxi drivers will take US dollars for your transfer to your hotel (see below for how much, haggling gets the best price). After that it’s easy to change your money once you’re in the city. Yangon has better exchange rates than other places.
Don’t change your currency at the airport when you arrive, or at any government-sponsored currency converters, because they will give you a ridiculously bad exchange rate. Instead, ask at your hotel where they recommend or where is close. I changed currency twice in Yangon and the exchange rates were almost exactly what I’d seen on xe.com. Also note that the higher the denominations of your bills the better the exchange rate you get, so just bring 50s or 100s to get the best deal. My trusty Lonely Planet told me that only new crisp bills would be accepted, however all of the scrappy one dollar notes that I had were exchanged no problem.
Awareness and Safety: At the time of my visit (October 2016), the political situation was improving in Myanmar; the country is taking baby steps towards democracy after years under an oppressive military regime. However, this doesn’t mean that corruption or the regime are over. Many travellers, including myself, were wary about paying entrance fees to certain attractions such as museums that are state-run, as your money supposedly goes straight to the government and essentially funds the regime. Lonely Planet and World Nomads have lots of information about ethical and responsible tourism in the country if you want to learn more.
Myanmar is generally quite safe, but as a solo female traveller I am always extra careful. I always held my bag very close or used a backpack with a lock, especially in Yangon and Mandalay. Then again, it could just be my own paranoia as all the locals I spoke to were friendly and helpful, and seemed to relish the chance to practice their English. Taxi drivers were chatty and if someone sees you looking a bit lost on the street they won’t hesitate to approach to help you find your way (though they will often hint that they have a taxi driver friend/bus driver friend/tour guide friend that can sell you tickets for something).
Long Bus Journeys: I travelled between my destinations (Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan) by bus. I booked my buses online through Star Ticket as you can choose your buses and bus companies like a price-comparison website, and they were really helpful when I sent emails with some questions. I paid online in US dollars and Star Ticket charge US$1 extra as a booking fee. Below are the prices of the buses and the companies I travelled with. They were all much of a muchness, so I would recommend all of them.
All the journeys were absolutely fine, smooth, I felt completely safe and I didn’t experience any motion sickness at all. Water, a wet wipe and (for overnight buses) a toothbrush, toothpaste and a blanket were provided. The latter was important because those buses can get cold when they crank up the air-conditioning so wear your warmest clothes!
- Yangon – Mandalay (overnight bus) US$9.51 with Elite, leaving at 9pm from the Aung Mingalar bus station in Yangon. I was told the journey would take a bumpy 12 hours, but in fact it was a smooth 9 hours and I arrived in Mandalay before sunrise.
- Mandalay – Bagan US$8.16 with OK Express, including pick-up from my hostel in Mandalay at 8am with an arrival in Bagan around 2pm. I was first on and last off this bus, and there were a lot of pick-ups plus some rest stops, so the journey took a lot longer than the 3 or 4 hours that I thought it should have. Also, it was really hot travelling by bus during the day.
- Bagan – Yangon (overnight bus) US$13.33 with Mandalar Min, leaving at 8pm though I was picked up at my hotel around 6.30pm and taken to the bus station, which was included in the bus ticket price. The journey took around 9 hours and I arrived in Yangon before the sun came up. I was also impressed by the Dora the Explorer neck cushions!
Accommodation: Around US$10 per night. I stayed at Traveller’s House (two nights) and Backpacker Bed & Breakfast (one night before my flight), and would recommend them both as clean, with good facilities and good locations. Most cheap digs are in the ‘Chinatown’ area, a short walking distance from the Sule Paya.
Meals: Street food and teashop grub went for 1,000-2,000K (US$1-2) for a meal with a drink, whereas in restaurants I paid around 6,000K (US$5). I mixed it up and ate some Western food some days (just so my stomach wouldn’t freak out), which obviously cost more. The hostels I stayed at also had a free basic breakfasts (toast, egg, instant coffee), so I mostly just ate that, a snack in the afternoon because it was too hot for a full meal, then a larger dinner in the evening.
Transport: Taxis were super cheap. When somewhere was too far to walk I flagged one down easily and everywhere central was around 2,000-2,500 for a single journey (US$2). My taxi from the airport was US$10, but back to the airport was only 8,000K (US$6-7), which shows off my appalling haggling skills at their best. A taxi to the bus station from my hostel cost 10,000K (US$9). Local buses are old Japanese and Korean models that should have been taken to the dump around 50 years ago and are packed with people. Ergo, I did not go on one.
Best restaurant: Nilar Biryani & Cold Drink, 216 Anawrahta Road. I ate dahl, rice, tandoori chicken masala and a banana lassi for 5,000K (US$4). It doesn’t look like much from the picture, but it was one of the best curries I’ve ever had outside of my curry-mad hometown of Birmingham! Only discovered this place on my last night, which may actually be a good thing because otherwise I would have eaten there every night.
Best teahouse: Thone Pan Hla, 454 Mahabandoola Road. Yangon is famous for its teashops so I visited this one, which is only a stone’s throw from the Sule Paya. I ate ‘Shan Noodle’ with chicken and a classic milk tea for a bargain 1,200K (US$1).
Best attraction: Shwedagon Paya, 8,000K (US$6.5) entrance fee. Also, make sure you have something to cover your knees and shoulders or you will be asked to purchase a 5,000K (US$4) longyi (skirt). This money goes to the government. If you’d rather not pay, you can still see the surrounding temples and take gorgeous photos of the paya from the outside for free.
Best snack: Sugar cane juice. You see the wind-up machines on the streets everywhere. The sugar cane is pushed through the machine several times (sometimes with a wedge of lime too, which is even more refreshing), and a glass goes for only 500K (US$0.5).
Give it a miss: The circle train. I didn’t mind the three-hour journey to be able to watch Yangon go by and see how the locals live, plus it was a super-cheap 200K (US$0.2) for a ticket, but it wasn’t the hop-on-and-off tour I had heard about. There was nowhere I would have hopped off and there was no map given to indicate what was in each place anyway.
Accommodation: Around US$12 per night, plus I had to put down a 5,000K deposit on my room. I stayed at Four Rivers B&B Mandalay (two nights) and they were pretty much perfect. Their staff are helpful, knowledgeable, and the hostel organises trips to the surrounding areas of the city, which are the main things you want to see.
Meals: I had a nightmare trying to find food in Mandalay. Gone were the lines of street food vendors as was in Yangon and everywhere I tried to go to that was recommended by my guide book or on the hostel’s detailed map didn’t exist, was closed down, or was not where it said on the map. I did manage a dodgy-looking 1,000K (US$1) lassi at Nylon Ice Cream Bar, which actually wasn’t bad and didn’t make me sick but… is yoghurt supposed to fizz when you put it in your mouth?
After failing to find any of the local food places I wanted to go to, I caved and ate Western at NOVA Coffee (37th Street, between 79th and 80th Street). The meals I had cost around 10,000K (US$8) with a drink and that’s expensive for Myanmar, but they were so delicious! The portions were big so I got half my meal to take out for lunch the next day, which saved me some money.
Transport: I rented a bike from my hostel at 2,000K (US$1.5) for 48 hours. You definitely need a pair of wheels to see the city. The bike wasn’t particularly fast, but I felt safer on it than I would in Mandalay traffic with a scooter. A lock was provided, though it stuck easily, and it was easy to leave my bike as I visited attractions. It was really beautiful cycling around the palace grounds; it was probably the highlight of the two days (and a great workout), though I winced every time a scooter whizzed past me.
Other costs: To visit any of the main attractions in the city and also the surrounding areas tourists must purchase a 10,000K (US$8) ticket. This money goes to the government.
Don’t miss: A trip outside of the city to the surrounding areas of the city like I did! Unluckily, the tour I was booked on didn’t have enough people on the day and I couldn’t afford to go by myself, so I missed my chance with only one full day left in Mandalay. However, if you get a chance then you should go and see Amarapura’s famous teak bridge and the beautiful city of Inwa.
For a laugh: Go and see the Moustache Brothers! Par Par Lay, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw have an amazing story: they were comedians making fun of the government at a time when it was incredibly dangerous to do so. Two of the brothers were arrested and were sentenced to hard labour for six years for jokes they made about the regime. However, they never stopped performing and were eventually allowed to continue but only in English and only to an audience of foreigners.
Unfortunately, Par Par Lay passed away a few years ago but Lu Maw (the only brother who speaks English) keeps the routine going every night. A ticket costs 10,000K (US$8), which you can pay on the door and the absolutely mad show includes traditional Burmese dance, slapstick comedy, a bit of background about the Moustache Brothers as well as a taste of the stand-up routine that made them famous.
Accommodation: Around US$16 per night. This was easily the most expensive place that I stayed at during the whole of my Southeast Asian trip. For some reason, cheap hostels haven’t sprung up in Bagan despite the popularity, so what happens is that regular hotels create ‘share rooms’ for the backpacker crowd. I stayed at the ultra-posh-sounding Royal Bagan Hotel, which had an outdoor pool and some really beautiful photos on booking.com. The reality was sort-of there. The place was nice, though it didn’t seem to know whether it was a backpacker’s hostel or a luxury hotel, and the pool was an unusable swamp. The cheapest places to stay and eat, like my hotel, are all in the Nyaung U area.
Meals: There wasn’t much street food around but restaurants were fairly reasonable (to be found on ‘Restaurant Street’ in Nyaung U), and you can still eat for under 5,000K.
Transport: You will definitely need a bike and it will be very much within your interest to get an ‘e-bike’ or electric bike because the temples are very, very far apart. My hotel rented one to me for 5,000K (US$4) for half a day. The roads were empty and the main road is straight so it was easy to just go straight down and hop into whichever temples took my fancy. If you haven’t used a scooter or e-bike before don’t worry because they are literally start-stop and even I could ride one! However, be careful going down the dirt paths if they are muddy, wet, or uneven, as my bruises will attest to.
Other costs: Upon entering the Bagan Archeological Zone all foreigners must pay a 25,000K entrance fee. There are apparently ways to get around this (the fee reportedly goes straight to the government), but it seems the rules are getting stricter and most buses are stopped on their way into town so it’s pretty much unavoidable.
Best restaurant: Aroma (2) on Restaurant Street is an excellent curry jaunt. I had a paneer curry with rice and naan, plus a banana shake for 7,000K (US$5.5).
Best sunset and sunrise spot: The best Bagan plan is to go out before sunrise, watch the sun come up, explore a bit, have a long lazy lunch or come back to your hotel for a dip in the pool and a nap, then head back out for sunset. The middle part of the day is just too hot and the light is too harsh for good photos. Avoid Shwesandaw Paya like the plague around sunset because it just gets so packed. A good place with fewer people is Pyathada Paya but ask around to discover other secret spots.
Other tips: Give yourself more time than you think you need in Bagan! With limited sunsets and sunrises over a couple of days, which are weather-dependent as well as get-up-at-4.30am-when-your-alarm-goes-off dependent, only one sunset was camera-worthy for me. Three days should be an absolute minimum and make the most of the time that you have by not missing a single dawn or dusk.
Inle Lake: People tell me this was the highlight of their trip to Myanmar, so make sure you schedule this in somewhere. I sacrificed it for extra days in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay but in hindsight I wish I had used those days at the lake instead or extended my trip slightly.
Boat from Mandalay to Bagan: I took the bus however other travelers recommended the boat from Mandalay to Bagan, which is slower but more picturesque.
Myanmar was definitely not what I expected. I thought it would be a sleepy Buddhist country, full of peaceful temples and echoes of colonial history. Instead, I was met with busy bustling cities with crazy traffic, animated street food stalls and lively market stalls lining the streets. It was a great atmosphere but next time I would choose to spend more time in the slightly more serene areas of Bagan and Inle.
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