2017 Guide: Backpacking Myanmar
Edit 9/17/2017: It has become clear now that Myanmar's government has launched a violent campaign against the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in Myanmar. The rapes and killings have been denounced by the international community as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing," with more than 400,000 Rohyinga fleeing their homes into Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to speak out against the violence. I loved the time I spent in Myanmar, but I am horrified at the human rights abuses that continue to take place in this country. If Myanmar is on your bucket list, please think long and hard about how you can be an ethical traveler in this country. I'm not sure it's possible, given the current state.
Information about backpacking Myanmar - on the internet and in travel guides - is sorely outdated. I rarely buy travel guides, but I picked up Lonely Planet's guide so that I would have some historical background and context for this mysterious country. The guide was published in 2014, which meant it was written in 2013, and so much has changed since then when it comes to traveling Myanmar.
I visited Myanmar in May 2017 and this is the most up-to-date information on the internet.
Oh -- and the time to visit Myanmar is now! Not later. Doubtful? Check out my post, Why the Time to Visit Myanmar is NOW.
- You must apply for a visa before you enter the country.
- Most nationalities can apply for a tourist e-visa on the Myanmar government website: https://evisa.moip.gov.mm/.
- The fee is $50USD. I received my visa email confirmation 20 minutes after I applied for it. Make sure you print it out at your hostel before leaving!
- When you arrive at the airport, simply take your e-visa to the immigration counter to have it stamped.
- The visa is good for 30 days.
- You do not need US bills! I entered the country with no USD and never had any problem paying for items in Myanmar's local currency. Information online stating that you need crisp, brand new USD is outdated.
- There are ATMs in the largest towns and cities. There are three ATMs at the Yangon airport. I withdrew 300,000 Kyat without a problem the day that I arrived.
- Many hotels take credit card with a 3% surcharge. My hostel accepted credit cards. Most local restaurants, however, will only take cash.
- Break your largest bills at your hostel. Local restaurants and shops have a hard time breaking large bills.
- Myanmar does not use coins - less weight in your pocket!
- **Make sure you exchange all your Kyat bills before you leave the country! Kyat is not a recognized currency outside of Myanmar, so you can't exchange it anywhere once you leave (unless you're able to exchange it with a backpacker who is heading to Myanmar). Don't make the same mistake I did!
- I was in Myanmar for 10 nights / 11 days.
- On average, I spent $38USD/day in Myanmar, which was close to estimates that it would cost $35USD/day.
- The biggest cost was accommodation, adding up to $101USD even though I took three overnight buses.
- Bagan and Inle Lake both have mandatory entrance fees, which are collected by the government.
- Food: $51, Alcohol: $5, Activities: $46, Transportation: $51, Misc: $75, SIM cards: $8, Visa: $50
- I did not do the trek from Kalaw to Inle because of time, but budget around $60USD for that activity.
When To Go
- The best time of the year to visit Myanmar is Nov-Feb during the warm, dry season. You may have trouble finding accommodation.
- Visiting in the shoulder season (October or March) brings fewer crowds with still decent weather.
- I visited in May and the heat - especially in Bagan - was especially unbearable. Temperatures were often 40C / 100F. It was cooler in Inle Lake, where the region was more mountainous.
- Rainy season can be difficult due to roads becoming impassable. However, two girls I met backpacking went to Myanmar at the height of rainy season (June and July) and they still managed to enjoy the country despite the weather.
- Just be prepared for the weather! This is a good overall resource: https://www.selectiveasia.com/myanmar-holidays/weather
- Bus travel is well established in Myanmar at this point. You can easily get between Myanmar's four major cities by bus, which is the most affordable option.
- There are two bus options: Normal or VIP. I took both for overnight journeys. Normal is not a chicken bus - it is a very comfy coach with 2X2 seats, with at least two rest stops and bottled water provided. VIP coaches have 2x1 seats and a bag of snacks. Both buses come with blankets, in my experience. I found both types of buses to be comfortable. I was fine with the Normal-type of bus for shorter journeys (8-10 hours), but purchased a VIP-type bus for a 12-hour overnight trip.
- JJ Express is the most popular VIP option.
- Be aware that the bus station from Yangon is 45 minutes away without traffic and 1.5 hours with traffic. You should leave 2.5 hours before your bus departure time just to be safe. A taxi from downtown Yangon to the bus station should be between 10-12,000K.
- The main problem with Myanmar's overnight buses is their extremely inconvenient schedules. Buses leave in the early evening and arrive at 3am. It makes for very long, exhausting days because you cannot check into your hostel until 2pm.
- The buses are cold. Wear layers, bring a sweatshirt, wear socks, and make use of the provided blanket.
- I did not find theft to be a problem on overnight, but you should still take your valuables out of your big backpack and keep your purse / day bag close to you while sleeping.
- If you are traveling alone and taking an overnight bus that arrives at 3am (most of them do), try to meet other backpackers on the bus so you can haggle for and share a taxi together.
- Taxi from bus station to Bagan should be 7,000K total and is 15 minutes (you will have to haggle hard - they drivers will insist that it is 7,000K a person). Taxi from bus station to Inle Lake is nonexistent because it's a five minute walk to any hostel in town, but you can get a tuk-tuk. Taxi from bus station to Yangon is 45 minutes to 1.5 hours depending on traffic.
- Flights from Bangkok or KL to Yangon or Mandalay are often very affordable ($30-40 one-way if booked one week in advance). Entering Myanmar by air is easier and is much more common than crossing by land.
- Most backpackers either make a loop - flying in and out of Yangon - or fly into Yangon and fly out of Mandalay (or vice versa).
- You do not need a flight booked out of Myanmar to enter the country. Many backpackers I met had open plans.
- You can fly between the four major cities using Myanmar Airways or Golden Myanmar, but flight prices are upwards $100.
- Train travel is also an option, but the trains are notoriously slow, delayed, and uncomfortable.
- You do not need to book accommodation in advance for shoulder season and low season. There will be availability in hostels and guesthouses.
- You should book accommodation during high season - accommodation is still limited in Myanmar and the number of tourists during high season maxes out Myanmar's lodging availability.
- Hostels are affordable in Mandalay, Yangon, and Inle Lake (avg $10/night for dorm room).
- Ostello Bello Hostel in Bagan, which is the only hostel in that area, charges an outrageous $20/night for a dorm room during low season. They had a lot of free activities, including a great guided tour, but the price is steep. You could split a guestroom for less.
- I had wifi access in all the hostels I stayed in, sometimes even in my room. The wifi was decent - enough to check emails, upload a few pictures with patience, and buy flights. Don't expect to stream / download movies, though.
- I got a Telenor SIM card at the airport for 11,500K. It had 3G coverage in most areas.
- Ooredoo and MPT are the two other mobile networks.
- Signal can be sluggish at times in the city and nonexistent in rural areas, but it works in general.
- I felt extremely safe traveling in Myanmar as a solo female traveler and truly enjoyed the experience.
- I was never harassed or felt uncomfortable on the streets in any city.
- Myanmar is a modest country - you should take care to dress modestly and respectfully. Many female backpackers wore long skirts in Yangon simply because it's not common to see females show their knees.
- Locals in the hospitality sector spoke decent English. Many locals in the city know basic English. I never found the language barrier to be an issue.
- The locals enjoyed teaching basic phrases to foreigners - ask them how to say thank you, hello, and goodbye.
Myanmar is a sensitive country, culturally and politically. Tourists should dress modestly and respectfully, in accordance with the local customs. Tourists should not sleep, party, or trespass onto any of the sacred temples in Bagan.
Myanmar's military also continues to have a strong influence within the government. A recent report revealed that the Myanmar government collected $4.1 million in USD from Bagan's entry fees, yet less than 2 percent of those dollars actually went to the preservation of Bagan's temples. The rest was funneled back into Myanmar's government coffers. It was really important to me to try to spend and put money directly into the hands of locals, but the government has a hand in almost every business, hostel, and hotel. Do your research before heading to Myanmar and try your best to support the locals directly.
- Accommodation: Lil Yangon Hostel | 12,500K / $9USD
- Places to see: Shwedagon Pagoda ($8USD entry fee), People's Square and Park, Saint Mary's Cathedral, Sule Pagoda, Inya Lake
- Things to do: stroll the afternoon markets, get a skirt tailor-made, take the circular train around the city, check out the nonprofit shop Pomelo
- Blog posts: Taking the Circular Train through Yangon
- Accommodation: Ostello Bello Bagan | 25,700K / $19USD
- Entry fee: All tourists must pay 25,000K / $18USD before they are allowed in Bagan's city limits.
- Places to see: the 2,200 temples and pagodas of Bagan
- Things to do: catch the sunrise and sunset at the temples, scooter around on an e-bike, take a tour of the temples
- Accommodation: Ostello Bello Nyaung Shwe | 16,700K / $12USD
- Entry fee: All tourists must pay 13,600K / $12USD before they are allowed in Inle Lake's city limits.
- Places to see: Inle Lake...
- Things to do: rent a bicycle, cycle a loop around the lake, visit the winery, visit the pagodas, do a boat tour, hike 2-3 days from Kalaw to Inle Lake, visit the floating gardens and handicraft markets, visit the hot springs
- Blog posts: Inle Lake: A Peek at Burmese Life, A Girl's Trip to Myanmar's Only Winery
- Getting to Know Myanmar - Selective Asia
- Backpacking in Myanmar - The Broke Backpacker
- Myanmar Backpacking Route - My Funky Travel
- Best of Myanmar Travel - HostelWorld
- Myanmar for Budget Backpackers - Goats on the Road
*Make sure you're getting the most up-to-date information; some of these sources may be outdated.