How many days should you allocate to your Myanmar backpacking itinerary?
The intrepid traveller will tell you that it takes weeks, months, even years to truly get under the skin of a country. Yet, most of us, particularly these days, are strapped for time – and short on money!
Myanmar is a country which, until recently, was one of the most undiscovered countries on the planet, not to mention the least visited country in Southeast Asia. Recent democratic changes, however, have encouraged backpackers to visit the country in much greater numbers than ever before.
With little outside influence over the years, great swathes of the country remained untouched. Deserted beaches, crumbling pagodas, forgotten mountain tops and ancient cultures were left untainted by modernisation. Up until a few years ago, there were no ATMs in the country and the internet was practically non existent. Transport has also improved with domestic flights across the country.
Now, however, things are changing fast. If you want to catch a glimpse of the old Burma, the time to go is now! If you’re short on time and money, then here’s what you can fit in during a 10-day or 2 week trip to Myanmar!
First off… Should you go to Myanmar?
With Myanmar hitting the headlines recently for its controversial treatment of the Rohingya people of Eastern Myanmar, many travellers decided to boycott travel to the country on moral grounds. We look at the argument for and against boycotting Myanmar in this article. Even if your mind is made up to travel to Myanmar already, it’s good to be informed and we recommend that you keep up with local news whilst you travel.
Day 1: Yangon
Arrive in the old capital of Yangon and hit the ground running! As you’ve only two days day here, you better get moving as there’s lots to see, explore and eat! Start your day with a typical Burmese breakfast of Mohinga, steaming fish noodle soup. Then, make your way by rickety taxi to our first stop of the day, Bogyoke Aung San Market, where you can browse a myriad of items from food, to souvenirs to clothes.
In the afternoon, head to the old quarter of Yangon and wander around the crumbling colonial buildings that are being slowly overtaken by nature. During the evening, stop off at a street food stall and try as many Burmese delicacies as you can handle! There are several notable places to sample street food in Yangon, notably the Mahar Bandula Park Street Market or the Yangon Street Food Night Market. In the evening, stop off at a bar (any bar) and catch up on the football with the locals. The Burmese people love football and will be glued to the television drinking a bottle of Myanmar Beer watching matches back to back!
Where to stay in Yangon? Top 3!
- Top Pick! We recently stayed at Thanlwin Guesthouse in Yangon and loved it. Read our review of Thanlwin here.
- The Backpacker Bed & Breakfast also gets awesome reviews.
- BaobaBed Hostel is also a popular option with beds from $8 US.
Day 2: Yangon
In the morning, head to Inya Lake to relax in a shady café overlooking the lake and spot the home of national heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi, where she remained under house arrest for 20 years. Relax by the lake, grab a bite to eat at the lakeside café and watch the local life go by. Kandawgyi Lake is also a nice spot to take a break and breathe in some green space.
As the sun starts to set, make your way to the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda, the most famous temple in the country to take photos of the 2,600-year-old dazzling ‘mountain of gold’ against a darkening sky. You’ll almost certainly also be asked (like we were) to have photos taken with other Southeast Asian tourists too! As the top header of this guide features the Shwedagon Pagoda, we thought we’d add a photo of us here below instead! For the evening, 19th Street is a good place to mix with locals and expats and enjoy some authentic street food.
Day 3: The Golden Rock
Rise early and head two and a half hours east by car or bus to the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (or Golden Rock). You can go independently by local bus or take a local tour package. Travel in Myanmar is an experience in itself and if you’re travelling by local bus, you’ll be sure to encounter some friendly and curious locals and make friends along the journey!
The Golden Rock is perched 1,100 metres on the top of a hill overlooking the Eastern Yoma mountains. You can follow the foot path up the mountain past various granite boulders, before arriving at the truly spectacular sight of the Golden Rock, a giant boulder precariously balanced on the side of a cliff, seemingly defying gravity, as it looks about to fall off at any moment. Legend has it that the boulder is perched on a strand of Buddha’s hair!
In the evening, head back to Yangon where you’ll be taking the overnight bus to Mandalay, leaving at 6pm. Or there’s the option of flying to Mandalay from Yangon. Check domestic flights through FlyMya.com.
Day 4: Mandalay
Arrive in Mandalay in the morning and get ready to explore the city. Take a river ride on the Ayerwaddy River the original ‘Road to Mandalay’ or go old style and ride through the city on a unique trishaw or horse drawn cart. In the afternoon, you could head to the nearby Mahagandayon Monastery to catch a glimpse into the world of the maroon robed monks of Myanmar and help them to practise their English! In the evening, climb Mandalay Hill from the town for an amazing view of the city as the sun sets!
Where to stay in Mandalay? Top 3!
- Top Pick! We recently stayed at Ma Ma Guesthouse in Mandalay and really enjoyed it. Read our full review of Mama Guesthouse here.
- Yoe Yoe Lay Guesthouse has a friendly, homely atmosphere and an indulgent breakfast!
- Smart Hotel is one for flashpackers. What it lacks in atmosphere it makes up for with a great location.
Day 5: Bagan
From Mandalay, it’s only around three hours to the spectacular site of Bagan, land of over 4,000 temples built between the 11th and 13th centuries. An archaeological paradise and a photographer’s dream – you can spend days getting lost amidst 1,000-year-old stupas, climbing to the top of one of them to take in the sunset. Unlike Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, you won’t have to share the enormous temple complex with millions of other tourists! Wander around the ancient ruins stopping to chat to some of the locals who still live among the crumbling temples.
Where to stay in Bagan? Top 3!
- Top Pick! Myanmar Han Hotel – We stayed at the amazing Myanmar Han Hotel which is pure luxury on a budget! With a large swimming pool, beautiful rooms and amazing breakfast all for $30 US/night, it’s definitely worth splashing out for a night or two. Read our full review of Myanmar Han Hotel here.
- Ostello Bello is a popular option with travellers to Bagan with dorm beds around $13 US per night. They have dorms and private rooms, plenty of areas to socialise and a swimming pool!
- Nanda Garden is another great option if you prefer a private room (doubles start at $20 US). The hotel sits on the river amongst temples and local life in a tranquil spot. Good value for money.
Day 6: Bagan
One day just isn’t enough to explore Bagan! But today, why not try a different form of transport to marvel at the world’s largest concentration of Buddhist temples anywhere in the world! In the scorching Burmese heat, renting an electric motorbike is one of the best ways to explore the temples, costing around $5 US per day to hire!
If you want to go old school, you can also rent a horse cart with driver for a full day, or if you feel like doing something different and splashing out, take the once in a lifetime opportunity for a hot air balloon ride at sunset over the temples! In the evening, catch the overnight bus to Kalaw or fly from Nyaung U Airport to Heho.
Day 7: Kalaw
Your next stop is Kalaw, the start of your Burmese trekking adventure! You are now in the Shan district and Kalaw is an old hill station, 1,320 metres above sea level, surrounded by amazing mountain scenery. Many people leave Kalaw as soon as they get here, but that’s a big mistake – it was one of our favourite places in Myanmar and the cooler temperatures make it a very pleasant place to relax for a while!
Day 8: Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake
Book yourself on a two-day, one-night trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, which is one of the most popular treks in Myanmar (yet still uncrowded, this is Myanmar we’re talking about!) Your local guide will take you through unspoiled countryside, passed local agriculture and hill tribe villages. Spend the night in a tribal village with a local family, where you’ll be cooked a homemade local meal – likely the best food of your entire trip! There is also a one-day biking trip for those of you who are feeling energetic!
Worried about your luggage? Don’t be. The trekking company can carry it in a van to Inle Lake for you so it will be waiting for you when you arrive.
Day 9:Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake
The next day, continue your trekking voyage towards the famous Inle Lake. On the second day, the walk is practically down hill all the way! You can stop for a Burmese lunch at one of the villages surrounding the lake and take in the beautiful scenery, whilst learning more about the culture in this area.
Finish your journey at the tourist-friendly ‘Nyaungshwe Township’ by taking a canoe boat on the lake for around an hour and a half. Here, you can book yourself in a guest house, grab a beer and a bite to eat and just relax after your trek!
Day 10: Arrive at Inle Lake
Inle Lake is like a mirror, it’s glassy water reflecting everything around it and creating a somewhat dreamy atmosphere. Framed by mountains all around, sprinkled with pagodas and dotted with bamboo houses on stilts – one thing is for certain, you’ll be wanting your camera here!
Take a boat trip on the lake to see the famous ‘leg rowers’, fisherman who have taught to row using their legs so that they can see above the high reeds on the lake. Visit one of the floating restaurants on the river or head to the local market to barter for souvenirs and locally handmade goods.
Day 11: Inle Lake
If you’re feeling energetic, Inle Lake is a great place for trekking in the surrounding hills, which are home to a variety of ethnic minority villages, each with their own language and unique culture. As you’ve only got one day, you won’t be able to book yourself on one of the overnight treks, but even just getting up into the hills will offer a spectacular panorama of the lake and encompassing area. You could also rent a bicycle and explore some of the local pagodas and nearby villages, or visit the nearby Red Mountain Winery and treat yourself to an inexpensive wine tasting experience! (Burmese wine is surprisingly pretty good!)
Day 12: Ngapali Beaches
Although your Myanmar trip is nearly over, you may be craving some well deserved beach time! You can either take a 14-hour bus ride to the beaches of Ngapali or you can fly from the nearby airport of Heho to Thandwe, the nearest airport to the coast. Ngapali beach (rumoured to be named after the Italian city of Naples) is located on the Bay of Bengal and is Myanmar’s most popular beach destination, complete with white sands, palm trees and traditional fishing villages. Relax on the beach, or if you’re feeling adventurous you can try kayaking, snorkelling, fishing boat trips or even scuba diving.
Day 13: Ngapali Beach
Why not spend another day relaxing at the beach or have a wander or cycle to the nearby fishing villages which offer a more authentic slice of the local way of life in seaside Myanmar. Of course, make sure you try the delicious local seafood including fish curries, fried squid, king prawns and barracuda – all at great prices!
Day 14: Yangon
If you can bear to drag yourself away from the beach, head back to the city of Yangon, by bus or by plane, where we end our spectacular journey in Myanmar…
Optional Add On: Hpa An
If you’re heading to Thailand and you’d like to avoid flying out of Myanmar, why not make your way to the Myawaddy/Mae Sot Border via the gorgeous town of Hpa An. The town is home to some spectacular mountain scenery, hiking opportunities, enormous caves and an authentic local way of life and was one of our favourite spots in Myanmar.
Hpa An is 8 hours by bus from Yangon. From Hpa An, you can then travel by local bus or car a further three hours towards the border of Thailand, where you can cross at Myawaddy into Mae Sot, Thailand. Mae Sot is around five hours from Chiang Mai.