Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a part of Asia that has only recently opened up to tourism. For this reason, the country doesn’t rely on the tourist dollar as much as other parts of Asia – so you’re not as likely to have “hello taxi?” yelled at you from every street corner. You can travel around and see the country in its natural, non-touristy state.
If you’re thinking of travelling to Asia and don’t want to see too many fellow travellers, then definitely consider Myanmar.
Departing from Bangkok on Air Asia, the check-in counters aren’t the fastest – so make sure you get there with plenty of time to spare. If you check-in online first, it could save you from missing a flight should you be running a little behind.
Mandalay airport was straightforward. There were two money changer booths – one within the bag pickup area, and one outside before you exit the airport. The rate was slightly better outside, and you can usually get slightly better rates for changing $100 notes. They don’t hold a huge amount of cash, so if you are arriving on a plane with lots of tourists – try to get in first, as there were a few people who missed out on changing money at the airport (don’t worry, you can always change money at your hotel too, and many places will accept USD if you are stuck).
They do check the money very carefully, so any creased notes, older serial numbers or monopoly money might be rejected. I had a couple of notes that were a bit creased that were rejected, but I was able to get these changed later at a hotel. Once you have changed your USD to Kyat, you can pay for pretty much everything in the local currency.
There were heaps of taxi brokers at Mandalay airport. They are usually friendly, young chaps who make conversation and try to get your business. They take the money from you before you get in the taxi (driven by someone else) – so you don’t pay the taxi driver when he drops you off. Seems strange and a bit dodgy, but was legit. It is about a 45km (1hr+) drive from the airport to central Mandalay. There’s not a lot to see on this journey other than roadworks.
It’s quite a nice walk around palace square. It’s scenic but a very long walk to get around the full square – make sure you are wearing comfortable shoes. There are exercise machines along the way – you’ll see locals jogging and using the machines. It is extremely clean around the palace with people sweeping up leaves, so there is very little rubbish on the streets. The same cannot be said for the rest of the city – it is very dusty and dirty in other areas – you’ll end up with a blocked nose and dry cough.
People seemed to stare a lot – and attractive western women seem to get a lot of attention – guys (and girls) would often try to take their photos (some would at least ask first).
GOLDEN MANDALAY HOTEL ★★★★☆
This hotel had friendly staff who greeted us at the entrance and took us to a river-hut in the garden for the usual sweet orange-cordial welcome drink. They also helped book a driver for the next day.
The setting was nice with cute gardens and stone landscaping. Despite being next to a river, there weren’t too many mosquitoes. Breakfast was good – an omelette, nice toast and fresh bananas.
A driver and vehicle for a full day was 35,000 Kyat (about US$40). The driver wasn’t all that friendly, but spoke good English and was relatively helpful suggesting places to visit.
We were approached by a “monk” at one of the temples we visited. He offered to show us around in return for us speaking English to him – a cultural exchange of sorts. This seemed like a fair trade, and he ended up joining us and our driver temple hopping for most of the day. The taxi driver didn’t seem that impressed, and at one point the monk and driver argued about where to take us. The monk wanted us to go back to a temple on the hill for sunset, and the taxi driver suggested we go to Ubein Bridge. We ended up agreeing with the taxi driver and went to Ubein Bridge (with the monk). It’s very scenic at sunset!
At the end of the day, the monk asked us for $100US – explaining it was for books for “the children” and a new robe. We told him it was great of him to show us around, but that he never said it would cost us money. He got a little agitated and insistent, but in the end settled for $30. He said it wasn’t enough, but wished us a happy trip anyway – then left with the $30.
When we returned to the taxi, the driver explained that the monk was actually a fake and had been in jail twice before for impersonating a monk. Apparently there are a few scammers impersonating monks to try and take advantage of tourists. We asked why he didn’t tell us, and he said even though he was not a real monk, he still does not like to speak bad of them, as he doesn’t want tourists to be suspicious of all monks. He was upset that tourism had had this kind of negative effect on his country.
In hindsight, there were a few suspicious things about him, such as him smoking brand-name cigarettes, tattoos on his arms, continually adjusting his robe (as if it didn’t fit him very well) and the argument he had with our taxi driver about where to take us.
I suggest if you are approached by anyone offering to show you around, tell them OK but you cannot pay them.
Our taxi driver was also very unhappy that we had stayed so long at Ubein Bridge (even though it was clear we were staying for sunset). He told us he had missed an appointment and seemed very upset, so we ended up giving him a little extra money for the misunderstanding.
MANDALAY VIEW INN ★★☆☆☆
On arrival there was a nice sign on a pin-board out the front, welcoming each guest by name (“Welcome Mr Kim and party”). However, the lady at the front desk was very unfriendly – quite a surprise after the friendly staff at Golden Mandalay Hotel. The younger staff at the hotel were extremely polite, but spoke very little English. They would open doors, say “welcome”, etc… but found it hard to answer questions.
The shower worked briefly but then lost all water pressure. It is in a very noisy part of the town – lots of dogs barking all night, and what I think was a generator turning on and off all night. There were quite a lot of mosquitoes.
The boat is about a 15 minute ride by taxi from central Mandalay. Organise it the day before, as it’s a 6.45am pickup and is used only by tourists (as far as I could tell).
I can recommend starting your boat journey on the top deck of the boat so that you can get sunrise photos – it’s very pretty with silhouettes of temples in front of the rising sun. It is very cold in the morning (even during warm seasons), so bring a jacket. Also bring sunscreen for when the sun comes out, and mosquito repellent for the lower deck (there were heaps of mosquitoes). The staff smoke often downstairs, so avoid sitting in a spot close to the bar if you don’t like the smell of cigarettes.
Your travel agent and hotel might advise you to take a packed lunch, however the boat provided free tea/coffee and toast/jams, as well as selling noodles or rice with egg, vegetable, roasted peanuts, tomatoes and chilli for 3,000 Kyat (about US$3.50) – which was really tasty!
You will become surrounded by taxi drivers as soon as you get off the boat – a mixture of horse and cart, cars and trucks. They want your business, so you can usually negotiate pretty hard on the price.
There are a few ways to explore the temples. Firstly, by bike. This is great fun, and quite cheap. A full day hire (with late drop off of around 8pm) will set you back 3,000 Kyat. There are lots of tracks to explore, some quite sandy so if you are not used to bike riding you might need to walk sometimes. I read reviews that people found the roads bumpy and the bike seats uncomfortable. It’s a bike… harden up 🙂
If you have an iPhone, a must-have app is City Maps 2 Go. You’ll be able to download maps of Myanmar regions in advance (when you have WiFi) to view later using GPS-only (no data roaming). This will allow you to view your location and plot your routes throughout Bagan, even the dusty sandy tracks. It even has Wikipedia articles about some of the temples. I can’t recommend this enough!
Definitely find a temple with stairs that you can climb up for sunset – it’s an amazing sight (although you’ll find yourself being surrounded by hundreds of tourists arriving on coaches).
You can also hire a horse and cart to explore the temples. This a good way to see the harder-to-get-to temples, but is more expensive – and not actually all that comfortable. From memory it was about 20,000 Kyat for the day. By the end of the day, you’ll be well and truly all templed out. I found two days more than enough.
Many of the temples have souvenir sellers. If you show any interest, they can become very pushy – they refer to “lucky money” a lot and can be hard to say no to (sometimes you just need to walk away). Note: if you tell them “I’ll come back later” just to get them off your back, they might actually come to find you later! While cycling back to the hotel after sunset, a guy on a motor bike pulled up waving an artwork that I had earlier suggested I would come back to buy (I ended up buying it to avoid any kind of confrontation… I got the feeling he’d had a bad day, and it was only $15).
BAGAN CENTRAL HOTEL ★★★★★
This is a really nice, quiet setting – rocks, ponds, garden bridges and outdoor areas to sit. Breakfast is quite small but nice enough. Friendly staff.
The bus company will pick you up at your hotel in Bagan in the late afternoon (day 5) – you’ll most likely be put in the back of a ute/truck with a bunch of other tourists, and dropped off at the bus depot. The bus was a standard air-con coach, no toilet on board – but it stops twice at markets where you can buy food and go to the loo. The air-conditioning is very cold, so dress warm on the bus. They have a TV playing very loudly for most of the night. The buses have more locals on them than tourists.
Half-way through the journey the driver swaps with another driver from a bus travelling in the opposite direction. The Inlay half was narrow and windy – and the buses were the fastest of all vehicles – overtaking trucks on blind corners, etc. It felt unsafe, but ignorance is bliss – so shut your eyes and try to sleep.
The whole trip is around 10-12 hours… the bus arrived in Inlay at around 3.30-4am – there were plenty of bike taxis offering rides to hotels. We obviously couldn’t check in yet, but the hotel allowed us to sleep in the lobby on the floor (and brought out blankets for us) – then allowed us to check in at 8am.
Nyaung Shwe is a town close to Inlay Lake – it’s where you stay if you are planning to spend time at Inlay Lake (from what I could tell, you can’t actually stay at the lake itself). Being a touristy area, there were a few internet cafés, bike hiring places and tour operators for arranging boat trips. There are also a lot of independent tour operators standing on street corners offering boat rides.
You can ride to the thermal springs (which is mentioned in a few of the guide books). It has a public pool (for locals and foreigners) where there is a separate pool for men and women (not mixed), then a private pool (for tourists which is mixed). I was imagining natural springs and waterfalls, but it’s actually just a hot swimming pool that has water pumped from springs. It was OK, but nothing too special about it – I probably wouldn’t recommend it really.
A few places mentioned a winery on the hill which is supposedly walking distance from the main part of the town. It’s not… it’s around 1-2 hours walk depending on how fit you are. I had a mild stomach bug, but after 2 hours walking in the sun found myself feeling so dehydrated and exhausted, ended up getting straight into a taxi to go back to the hotel. I won’t go into details, but the thought of then spending all night on an overnight bus with no toilet was horrendous, so in a slightly delirious state, managed to book an extra night at the hotel. The kind staff at Nanda Wunn Hotel also helped re-book a new bus ticket and notified the next hotel that we would be arriving a day later.
NANDA WUNN HOTEL ★★★☆☆
This hotel has friendly, helpful staff. The rooms are OK – clean but fairly dated with no air conditioning. We got stomach bugs and could book an extra night accommodation on short notice, and the hotel staff made calls for us to book new bus tickets for a day later.
We booked a boat ride at one of the small tour companies opposite the hotel. This cost 15,000 Kyat (about US$20) and the boat driver met us at the tour company in the morning (before sunrise), and we took a motorboat up the canal to the lake where we saw fishermen at sunrise. We then spent the rest of the day exploring the lake – went to a market, went through a few water villages and stopped at a number of craft places such as a blacksmith, cigarette maker and lotus silk producer. We went to a pagoda (however it wasn’t that interesting compared to the pagodas in Yangon, Mandalay or Bagan), and also visited the Jumping Cat Monastery. You won’t see any jumping cats here, however (in fact we only saw 2 or 3 cats), as apparently it attracted too many tourists (according to a monk we asked). Ironic as they have a huge souvenir section with people selling stuff. We had lunch at a café/restaurant on the lake, and were back at our hotel by 2pm.
Day 8 was supposed to be in Yangon… but due to stomach bugs, spent an extra day in Nyaung Shwe munching on dry biscuits and drinking rehydration fluids before getting the bus to Yangon. Fun!
This was another fairly straightforward, yet slightly scary bus ride. Firstly a taxi/truck picked us up from the hotel in Nyaung Shwe (afternoon of day 8) for the long, bumpy ride to the bus depot. Then it was another crazy bus ride – very bendy and mountainous (although it was nice to see a little bit of the mountains in the last hour or two of day light). There was the same couple of food/toilet stops as the coach from Bagan to Nyaung Shwe.
The bus arrived in Yangon before sunrise – and the bus depot was absolutely crazy! Hundreds of buses, hundreds of taxis, hundreds of taxi brokers trying to get you to take their taxi. Our first taxi driver was very young (maybe 15 or 16) and seemed to have no intention of leaving the bus depot (and sat in the driver’s seat playing with the stereo and the air conditioner for a good 5 minutes). Every time we said we would just catch another taxi, he said “no, I can take you now” (but still just sat there). Eventually we got out and another taxi driver came over to say he would drive the car (turned out it was his car anyway). Not really sure what was going on, but we got to where we were going eventually. After a long, sleepless bus ride, Yangon bus depot was very frustrating.
Because we arrived a day later than expected, we at least had a room to check in to straight away.
Would I recommend the night buses? Yes and no. They are probably just as safe as flying the domestic airlines and the train – and there is the benefit of arriving very early in the morning, so you don’t waste any of your daytime getting from A to B. The downside is that it is very hard to sleep. If I did it again, I’d probably pay the little extra to fly.
EASTERN HOTEL ★★☆☆☆
It took a while for our taxi driver to find this place – but we got there eventually. It is about 4km walk to Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s not very fancy – very tiny rooms that smelt of cigarettes, but a good shower. The staff were friendly, but it seems to be in a pretty dirty part of town.
Of the two bigger cities, I preferred Mandalay to Yangon. Yangon seems a lot busier and dirtier. There is, however, a nice area around the Shwedagon Pagoda and Peoples Park. Both of these are $5 entry and I believe this money goes to the government. There was also a $5 camera fee at the pagoda. Rather than paying for the Peoples Park, there is quite a nice park opposite the pagoda that is free and nice if you need to find some shade to rest in.
The pagoda is pretty speccy and worth visiting. Lots of pretty shiny things!
Late in the afternoon it was time to leave for the airport and back to Bangkok! Yangon was worth seeing briefly, but personally I’d suggest heading further south to the beach areas or Golden Rock if you have a bit more time.
Booking accommodation in Myanmar can be very difficult. People who do not book accommodation in advance can end up needing to find shelter in a monastery (for a “donation” of US$50-$80 a night) or on the floor of hostels (not to mention spending half their time on holiday trying to find accommodation). I highly recommend booking everything in advance so you at least know you have a roof over your head.
Many hotels and guest houses do not have email, so if you are booking everything yourself you will need to call them. I tried this at first, but found it very difficult to get through (the line kept cutting out, or I could not get hold of someone who spoke English). Of the places I could get in touch with, I found it hard to find vacancies even a month in advance.
I ended up using a travel agent in Yangon to book everything. You won’t pay any more for accommodation booking through an agent, as I believe they make their profit from getting wholesale rates from the hotels.
I contacted several travel agents in Myanmar, and one stood out from the rest – I can highly recommend Golden Rock Travel & Tours. Sashan at GRTT was extremely helpful – he had exceptional English, replied to emails quickly, offered advice on itineraries, found accommodation, booked bus tickets and boat tickets, etc. He also provideded contact numbers in Myanmar should anything go wrong.
You can also pre-book drivers/tour guides – but it is quite easy to organise this sort of thing on location (plus it gives you a bit more flexibility by not booking too much in advance).
Because Myanmar is becoming an extremely popular travel destination, there can be delays getting your travel visa (from Australia anyway). Apparently the Myanmar Embassy in Australia is inundated with visa applications. Mine took just over 4 weeks, arriving 1 week before flying out. I am told they process the visas in order of your departure, so if you send your visa application off (which means sending your passport) – you probably won’t get it back until about 1 week before flying out. Make sure you don’t need to use your passport in the meantime.
Another option is getting your visa in Bangkok. Apparently this can be done relatively easily – see this link for advice.
I am told there are Visa On Arrival options (and saw a Visa On Arrival) room at the airport in Mandalay – but it was unattended. If you are using a local agent, they may be able to help with visa applications.
Accommodation in nice guest houses/hotels tends to cost around $50/night on average (give or take $20 depending on the room type and hotel standard). The advantage of booking your accommodation through an agent is that your accommodation is all pre-paid, so you don’t have to take quite as much cash with you.
Transport costs vary. Overnight buses were US$15, the day-boat from Mandalay to Bagan was US$40. If you book these through an agent you may also need to pay a “ticket delivery to hotel” fee of $10 per delivery. It is quite easy to book tickets during your stay though, so it’s probably not necessary to pre-order – but it does mean taking less cash with you again. Taxi’s vary from 1,500 Kyat (US$2) for a short 5 minute trip to 20,000 Kyat (US$25) for a full day (including full day horse/cart or a full day boat tour). Bicycle hire was 3,000 Kyat (US$3.50).
Food costs anywhere from 2,000 Kyat (about US$2.50) for a meal in a village to 8,000 Kyat (about US$10) for a meal in a tourist hotel/restaurant. 1L water is anywhere from 200 to 400 Kyat (25-50 cents), softdrink cans were about 400 Kyat and local beer was around 600-2000 Kyat (75c to $2.50).
Souvenirs cost anything from US$1 for a pack of postcards to US$50+ for original artworks or silk products (with everything else in between).
For 10 days I spent around US$350* (most of it in Kyat) on food, transport, sightseeing and the occasional souvenir. Accommodation, overnight buses and the day-boat was pre-paid so this was extra. *Includes scam by fake monk.
If you’re planning a trip to Myanmar, I can highly recommend checking out the TripAdvisor Travel Forums – there’s a wealth of information there. Also check out the Smartraveller site, as there are areas of Myanmar that are unwise to travel to. Good luck!