Myanmar: Where to Go & What to Do

By Pamela MacNaughtan on October 20th, 2015
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If you’re expecting to see dead bodies in the streets of Yangon, you will be disappointed, but if you’re expecting to see stunning landscapes and interact with curious and friendly locals, you have come to the right place.

Myanmar is magical in its innocence. Over the years the country has experienced its fair share of turmoil. Military junta rule resulted in plenty of bloodshed and the Burmese people suffered greatly. Dead bodies laying in the street were commonplace, so much so that the locals would simply walk around them; the bodies not being removed until a wagon appeared to take them away, and in Asia there was no way of knowing when that wagon would be rolling by.


“Myanmar, in many ways, it still new, and therefore more untouched than other Southeast Asian countries…”

In 2010 things began to change when the military junta was removed from power, and replaced with a somewhat functioning government. Stability is a very slow process, but the difference between Myanmar today, and Myanmar five or six years ago is promising.

Myanmar, in many ways, it still new, and therefore more untouched than other Southeast Asian countries, making it a new favourite destination choice among backpackers. Myself included.

My plan for Myanmar was simple, fly into Yangon from Bangkok, then spend twelve days travelling from Yangon to Inle Lake, Bagan, and finally Mandalay.

Unaware of what I would experience in Yangon, and desperate for a break from hostel living in Bangkok, I decided to begin my trip with a little luxury, staying at Sule Shangri-La for a couple nights. It’s extravagant, but worth every penny for a decent shower and cozy bed – occasional luxuries while travelling are important for my sanity.

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Yangon


myanmar, yangon
Yangon is a large bustling city, and my hotel was located in the heart of it. Over the last year or so several hostels have started popping up, and the city now has about six. In Myanmar it’s a good idea to read reviews, and to trust those reviews. It’s also a good idea to ask to see your room before checking in and paying money.

“Yangon has an emerging café scene which I find rather exciting”

Street food is easy to come by in Yangon, and quite cheap. I found myself noshing on samosas for K100 a piece (7 cents US), or these little fried breads in the shape of lotus pods. There are also plenty of restaurants serving Burmese food, as well as Indian, and a few that do European and American. In fact, Yangon has an emerging café scene which I find rather exciting.

Top 3 Activities

Shwedragon Pagoda – if you’re staying downtown, you’ll need to take a taxi, but it’s worth it. The cost to get into the pagoda is K8,000 ($6.21 USD). Shoes are not permitted, so leave them at the desk, or put them in your bag for while you’re walking around.

Myanmar has a very strict dress code for visiting temples and pagodas. No shorts or short skirts, no tank tops or spaghetti straps. If you show up wearing inappropriate attire you’ll be given a longyi (traditional Burmese skirt) to wear, or turned away.

Yangon’s Circle Line – One of the best ways to experience local life in Yangon is to take the city’s circle line, which travels to the outer edges of the city, passing through country stations – some of which turn into chaotic outdoor markets.

The round trip will take about 3 hours, and costs around K300 (24 cents US). There are air conditioned trains available, but if you really want to get a glimpse of local life, opt for a local commuter train instead.

Bobyoke Market – Located near the Sule Pagoda, the Bogyoke Market features vendors selling everything from gems to longyis to antiques. As a foreigner children will be drawn to you and feel the need to sell you a fan, or postcards, or show you to shops with good prices. You can simply tell them no thanks, about a million times, and they will eventually disappear.

Inle Lake


myanmar lake
You’ve probably seen the photos of fishermen with pointy straw hats, big round basket-like nets, and small wooden boats, and you’ve thought, “Damn I want to go to Inle Lake too!” While Inle Lake is superb, and beautiful, these fishermen are more for tourists. Don’t fret though, there are plenty of traditional fishermen who perch on the end of their kabang (a small wooden boat), drawing in their fishing nets by hand, or rowing with one leg wrapped around the oar, moving in a slow circular motion.

“”Damn I want to go to Inle Lake too!””

Many backpackers will travel to Nyaung Shwe, a town located 10 minutes up river from Inle Lake, by overnight bus from Yangon. A VIP bus (JJ Express) will cost K18,500 ($14.50 USD) and take anywhere from 10-14 hours. It’s a magical ride, one that will have you wishing North America would invest in decent buses. The bus I rode on had in-seat entertainment with English movies, an attendant, free bottled water, air conditioning, and seats that reclined so far back it was hard to believe I was on a bus.

Nyaung Shwe is relatively small, but there are plenty of guesthouses to choose from. As with accommodations in Yangon, ask to see your room first. Generally you’ll be given the option of paying in USD or Myanmar kyats (pronounced jh-ats).

Finding yummy Burmese food won’t be hard in Nyaung Shwe, but if you’re craving something a little more Western or European the newly opened One Owl Grill on the main road is delicious. I’m still dreaming of their fries and creamy garlic sauce.

Top 3 Activities

Sunrise boat tour – you can hire boats through your hotel, and these trips will generally be with one of the tour companies in town. Your other option is to go to the boat jetty and bargain with a local. A long tour will be about K20,000 ($15.50 USD) and last half a day.

If you do the sunrise tour, make sure you ask them to go to Ywama market after the sunrise. If it’s not the day for the floating market, don’t worry, there is a wonderful local market that happens before all the tourists arrive, and if you’re early enough the souvenir stalls will still be setting up.

The one annoying part of this trip will be the stops at shops. You don’t have to buy. This is the downside to hiring a local, instead of going through one of the tour companies.

Go hiking – there are a few companies in Nyaung Shwe who will offer hiking trips. I didn’t go hiking as I was too busy exploring the lake, but I spoke to a few backpackers who did, and they were quite impressed.

Rent a motorbike and explore around town – you can rent motorbikes fairly cheap in Nyaung Shwe. It’s a small town, but not too small. I love riding around on a motorbike, it offers such a unique view of the town and the locals.

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Bagan


myanmar bagan
I’m going to put it out there, Bagan is the tourist mecca of Myanmar. The ancient temples are famous; everyone has seen the photos of ancient temples with hot air balloon floating through the air. It’s one of the reasons why people go to Bagan.

“I’m going to put it out there, Bagan is the tourist mecca of Myanmar.”

Bagan is comprised of three different towns/cities, Nyaung Oo (Nyaung U), Old Bagan, and New Bagan. Hotels in Old Bagan can be quite pricey, but there are some good guesthouses in New Bagan and Nyaung Oo, with decent prices.

There is also a fabulous hostel in New Bagan called Ostello Bello Bagan, which I highly recommend. It’s an Italian hostel brand (random, right?), and one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in while travelling in Asia. The staff speak pretty good English, they have an impressive, and yummy menu, wifi is free and good, and you’ll be surrounded by like-minded travelers. It can be a nice break when traveling solo.

Top 3 Activities

Get up at 4:30 a.m. for sunrise – everyone who goes to Bagan gets up at least once to watch the sunrise over the ancient temples. Most fall in love with the experience, and some will get up for sunrise every day.

Rent an E-Bike and Explore – There are several places in Bagan that rent e-bikes (electric bikes), allowing you to explore Bagan on your own timetable. The bikes usual run K5,000 for the day for regular bikes, and K7,000 for the larger bikes.

Take the boat from Bagan to Mandalay – okay, this is not an activity in Bagan, but I highly recommend the boat vs the bus. That being said the boat will take about 11.5 hours, where the bus is about 5 hours. The boat is also about K41,600 in cost. Alternatively, you can also take the boat from Mandalay to Bagan, but this trip is slightly more expensive. I’m not sure why.

Other Destinations


myanmar other
Depending on your travel schedule, there are several other destinations in Myanmar that are worth a visit. Most of these places are away from the cities. While Yangon and Mandalay have their advantages, the best way to experience Myanmar, its people and culture, is to leave the cities behind.

Kalaw


If you’re into trekking, go to Kalaw and do the three-day trek to Inle Lake. The cost will be about K40,000 for the three days and comes with a guide. This is a backpacker favourite and I have yet to meet one who hated doing this trek.

Hsipaw


Quite possibly the most epic train ride experience in all of Myanmar, a trip to Hsipaw is worth the 4:30 a.m. departure time from Mandalay railway station. A laid back town, gorgeous, and an excellent choice for anyone wishing to do some trekking.

Pyin Oo Lwin


Also north of Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin has a wonderful night market, bontanical gardens, and plenty to see and do. Pyin Oo Lwin is one of those places where you plan to stay for a night or two, and end up staying for a week because you love it so much.

“Myanmar is such a different country now, and hopefully after the elections this month, it will continue to improve.”

Myanmar is such a different country now, and hopefully after the elections this month, it will continue to improve. Things like VIP buses, hostels and ATM machines are still relatively new for Myanmar.

While there are things to see and do in the cities, you will get a better understanding of the country, people, and customs by leaving the city behind and exploring small towns and villages. This is where you meet the soft spoken and curious locals, who will be fascinated by your presence. And unlike many countries, the locals are not trying to scam you all the time, they are actually quite genuine and kind.

So open your eyes and your heart, interact with the locals, sit in a roadside tea shop and watch the world go by. Myanmar is a fascinating country. You’ll love it.

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