An Introduction to Backpacking in Myanmar
- EAT! – Burmese Tea Leaf Salad: In Burma, beloved tea is eaten as well as drunk. Try this national delicacy made from fermented or pickled tea leaves, flavoured with lime, fresh tomatoes, peanuts, garlic, chilli and dressed with fish sauce!
- DRINK! – Burmese Tea of course! Dark and rich black tea sweetened with as much condensed milk as you can handle – tea drinking is a social institution in Burma… supped daily in tiny cups one after another as you while away a pleasant day chatting with friends. Or, if you’re wanting something a bit stronger, Myanmar Beer is by far the most popular brand and can be found everywhere from roadside beer stations to bars and restaurants. It’s a decent beer for refreshing after a hot day exploring.
- WEAR! – The Longyi: Worn by both men and women, the longyi is a traditional piece of cloth wrapped around the waist reaching ankle length. The cloth comes in many different patterns and is a key item for keeping cool in Burma’s sweltering heat.
- BEWARE! – The political situation: It’s no secret that Myanmar has had more than its fair share of political “issues” over the last many many years. Safety is not an issue for tourists. (Authorities don’t allow tourists anywhere near any danger.) Many people are likely, however, to have ethical uncertainties over whether or not to visit. Read our article and decide for yourself if travellers should boycott Myanmar!
Check out our travel guides to the best places to visit in Myanmar below! Scroll further down and you’ll find some important travel info (visas, the best time to visit etc.) as well as an overview of each region and a clickable map! Also see our Myanmar Backpacking Itinerary.
Should you go?
Burma is one of the least visited countries in Southeast Asia and for obvious reason. A few years ago, the question was ‘is it OK to visit whilst a military dictatorship is keeping the country’s democratically elected leader under house arrest?’. More recently the question has been ‘Is it OK to visit in spite of the racially-fuelled violence going on in the Rakhine State against the Rohingya?’.
It’s possible to put forward good arguments in favour and against. It’s possible you won’t even know the answer till you get there. If you are going to visit though, be prepared to form an opinion, or at least try to. You may very well get asked to justify your visit by indignant friends when you get back!
What’s travel in Myanmar like?
Many people who travel to the country say that it is unlike any other country in Southeast Asia. (I’ll resist the urge here to add in Kipling’s overused quote, and not only because he actually only spent 3 days in the country before he wrote his famous poem!)
However, it’s true. Burma was isolated for so long, a visit can be like stepping back in time into a world that has been cut off from the rest of modern society. Rickshaws, crumbling colonial remains, people wearing the traditional ‘longyi’ with thanaka bark smeared on their faces, and skinny cows roam the dusty streets in towns where electricity is sometimes only available parts of the day.
Incredible vast temple complexes, a rich and varied cuisine, a fascinating culture, warm, welcoming people and wild landscapes… add up to a place that oozes exoticism, making you understand why writers of the past have been so mesmerized with Burma.
Visit Inle Lake and the witness the incredible leg-rowing Inca people, watch the sunset in the land of three thousand temples, Bagan, or wander around crumbled colonial buildings and temples in the atmospheric old capital, Yangon. (The brand new Nyapidaw is in fact, Myanmar’s official capital – which is a very strange place indeed and receives very few visitors. If you love ghost towns and weird tourist destinations, read this!)
Practical Info for Travellers Heading to Myanmar:
- Currency: Kyat
- Capital city: Formerly Rangoon (Yangon). Became Naypidaw in 2005
- Main religion: Buddhism
- Main Language: Burmese
- Telephone code: +95
- Time: GMT + 6.5 hours
- Emergency numbers: Ambulance (192) Police (199) Fire (191)
- Language essentials: Hello: Min gala ba | Thank-you: Che zu beh | How are you? Nei kaun, ye la | Excuse me: Thi: khan ba | Good Luck: Kan kaun ba zei | How much? Be lau’le?
1. Book a flight
You can fly direct to Yangon from major hubs such as Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong and Doha – but by far the most popular route, with the most flights, is Bangkok (both Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang). Yangon also has direct flights to Chiang Mai in Thailand. Check out airlines, Air Asia and Nok Air and Bangkok Airways.
Mandalay is the only other significant international airport in Myanmar, with direct flights to Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand, as well as Singapore and Kunming (China).
2. Apply for a visa
Getting a visa to Myanmar used to be a lengthy process that could only be done in person at a Myanmar Embassy. Some people got rejected, particularly if they were journalists or writers of some sort. These days, however, it is now really easy for travellers to get a visa online. Check out the official Myanmar eVisa website here.
Until recently, you could not enter Myanmar overland with this evisa, it could only be used when flying into Yangon, Mandalay or Naypyidaw Airports. However, since September 2016, e-visas can be used to enter from the Thailand/Myanmar borders: Tachileik (Mae Sai), Myawaddy (Mae Sot) and Kawthaung (Ranong).
Fees for the e-visa are:
- Tourist visa for 28 days – $50 USD.
- Business visa for 70 days – $70 USD.
The entire process is done online by filling out a form and uploading a digital passport photo. You can pay by Visa, MasterCard, Amex or JCB and the processing time is three days, although you can pay more if you would like a visa urgently.
3. Money business
Things have changed a lot in Myanmar over the last few years! There are now ATMs that accept Visa, Mastercard, China’s Union Pay and Japan’s JCB at all major cities and tourist destinations around the country, and even some of the smaller ones.
You will typically be charged 5,000 kyat for an ATM withdrawal, plus whatever your own bank charges you back home.
The local currency is kyat (pronounced ‘chat’) and comes in 10,000, 5,000, 1,000, 500, 200 and 100 bills. You will use it to pay for almost everything – it is no longer the case that US dollars are used, in fact, it is now technically illegal for domestic companies to charge in US dollars.
You will pay for almost everything in cash – there are some point of sale card machines at stores and larger hotels, but not many.
If you do bring US dollar bills to change, then they must be in mint condition, with absolutely no blemishes or folds. Higher denomination notes will also get a better exchange rate (i.e. $100 is much better than $5).
4. Transport – Getting around Myanmar
For those on a budget, the best way to get around is by bus. Some buses to more remote areas can be a bit rough, but all major destinations are served by ‘VIP’ or ‘Express’ buses, which usually have big, comfy, reclining seats in a 2+1 layout. They are inexpensive and often run through the night, allowing you to save time and accommodation money on your trip. (The night buses are the comfiest in Southeast Asia!)
You can get flights to most destinations around the country, and of course this is the quickest way to get around – in fact for some places such as Mrauk U or Ngapali Beach in the west, or parts of the farther-flung north and south, flying is by far the best option as the buses are uncomfortable and can take several days to get to your destination. Air tickets usually range between US$70 and $150.
Taking the train can be great fun, but it is incredibly slow and bouncy! Classic routes include the train to Kalaw in the Shan hills and the trip across the gigantic Gokteik Viaduct between Mandalay and Hsipaw.
You can hire motorbikes in many places around Myanmar, but they are illegal to ride in Yangon and Bagan (Mandalay is a great spot to start exploring from by motorbike, and you are free to go on big multi-day trips). Around Inle Lake, one is not allowed to hire a motorbike, only a bicycle, we heard rumours that this is because the authorities don’t want you to see the heroin growing in the hills nearby – but we couldn’t possibly confirm that.
Another area of big change: you can now get SIM cards for K1,500 (around US$1) and they are freely available around the country, including at international airports. Data packages are also available but don’t expect network coverage to be good outside the big cities and tourist spots. The network that we recommend for travellers is Ooredoo. Read about SIM cards in Myanmar.
Internet is now readily available around the country, and many restaurants and hotels have WiFi. No websites are blocked, but speeds can still be slow away from the cities.
6. Climate/Seasons: When to go?
October marks the beginning of wet season and April is the peak of the dry heat. There won’t be any transportation obstacles arising from season changes, but it can get much colder, especially in Shan State and Sagain Division (You’ll need a permit along with a real good reason to get into Kachin State). Most of Myanmar is more north than any other Southeast Asian countries!
Most cheap accommodation in Myanmar comes in the form of guest houses, where you will typically pay US$10-$20 per night and breakfast will be included. Due to lack of competition, accommodation can be more expensive across the whole of Myanmar.
There are now hostels with dorms in Yangon and Bagan, but don’t expect to get the deals that you would in Thailand!
You can find hotels throughout the budget range around Myanmar, including right up to the last word in luxury (in the top spots). Prices are generally higher than they would be in neighbouring countries, but things are improving as more hotels are being built and competition increases.
Check out two of some favourite stays in Myanmar on our Best Hostels List here.
9. Where can you go?
Another area in which Myanmar is changing fast is the access that foreign visitors have – in the past things were restricted to the central regions (the big 4 as it was called: Inle Lake, Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay). Nowadays, however, you can travel to many of the fascinating, often mountainous border regions and deep down into the south to tropical Tanintharyi, with its stunning beaches and also the vast Myeik Archipelago (in the south).
Some parts are still not possible to access because of ongoing conflict (although there is no danger of accidentally ending up in these places, you would be turned back long before you get there) and you still need a permit to access some parts, such as eastern Shan State.
Overland border travel from Thailand is now free, but you need a permit to cross from India or China, which should be applied for at least a month in advance.
8 Interesting Facts about Myanmar:
1. On the hillside of Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, the Shwedagon Pagoda is said to hold eight hairs of Siddartha Guatama. (the Buddha) The actual structure is a solid gold bell-shaped structure encrusted with 4000 diamonds and a 76-carat diamond perched on the top.
2. Burmese Days is a novel written by George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984. Set in 1920’s Imperial Burma, it is a story about the waning days of British rule after World War One. Set in the nominally fictional town of Kyautada, it was in fact closely based on Orwell’s experiences as a policeman in the remote northern town of Katha, on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. (It’s a great read for anyone travelling to Myanmar!)
3. Mandalay was immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in his 1892 poem ‘Mandalay’ and later in the 1935 song ‘On the road to Mandalay.’ Kipling’s captivation with the country and a beautiful Burmese woman, in particular, is the central theme of the poem. Did you know, the scoundrel actually only spent 3 days in the country and he never even visited Mandalay!
4. The great Irrawaddy River dissects Myanmar from North to South before opening up into the Andaman Sea. Due to monsoonal rains, the water level varies greatly throughout the year. With a drainage area of over 400,000 kilometres, the river is an important life source for the people of Myanmar.
5. Myanmar boasts an amazing 1,903 kilometres of coastline. Ngapali, Ngwe Saung and Maungmagan are some of the highlights, but much of most of the coast is made up of totally untouched, underdeveloped white sand, palm-fringed beaches.
6. Lethwei (pronounced la-way) is a unique and traditional form of martial arts, similar to kick-boxing, which originated more than two thousand years ago during the reign of King Okkalapa. It was a compulsory specialisation of royal princes in ancient times.
7. Bagan, in North Central Myanmar, is home to over 4,400 ancient temples scattered across the valley, dating back over 800 years. At sunrise and sunset, the view is a substantial rival to Cambodia’s Angkor Temples for South East Asia’s most unforgettable panorama.
8. In Myanmar, you will notice that the local women wear a pale yellow paste on their cheeks and foreheads. The paste is made from the ground bark of the ‘Thanaka tree’ and is used for sun protection and as a moisturiser.