A Backpacker’s Guide to Myanmar

Temples, tea shops, and treks galore.

Myanmar: the land of friendly locals, awe-inspiring pagodas, and untouched culture. Before I dive into what to see, where to go, and how to get there, I wanted to give a bit of a background on Myanmar to give you some important context. Although Myanmar is becoming a more and more popular place to visit since it has opened for mass tourism in 2012 after being ruled by an oppressive military socialist system until 2011, I urge you to do some research on its history to be aware of what is happening today, as it is still one of the most corrupt and censored countries in the world. Before visiting Myanmar, I highly recommend reading the book “Finding George Orwell in Burma” by Emma Larkin. I wish I could have read this informative and fascinating book before I went, but I am glad I have this additional context now and hope to pass it along to others who hope to visit!

Historically, Myanmar has struggled politically, socially, and economically for hundreds of years and has experienced countless strikes and uprisings throughout the years. This is due to multiple changes in political power (particularly during the 20th century), corruption, and oppression, particularly of ethnic minority groups. Many authors and leaders in politics have been sentenced to prison or house arrest, interrogated, and accused of false crimes, which has led to a hush-hush atmosphere and a sense of paranoia throughout the country. In 1990, the opposition, National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won the elections by a landslide, but the military ignored these results. Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the many political prisoners and a pro-democracy leader, is a significant political figure who was put under house arrest for 15 years over the course of 21 years ultimately being released in 2010, and you can even visit her house in Yangon today. Before 2011, you would never see anyone, even tour guides, openly talking or writing about politics or the government in Myanmar, but luckily, thanks to Freedom of the Press, you can read about it here and other sources online J. A gradual shift to liberalization has been underway since 2010, but significant progress is anticipated now that the government changed hands in April 2016. According to BBC, in 2012, the government lifted pre-publication censorship of the press and allowed privately-owned daily newspapers to publish. In recent years, Myanmar has also unblocked international news websites, as well as sites like YouTube.

A Few Important Facts:

  • In 1886, Britain made Burma a province of India, but ruled the country from 1885 to 1948, which is why you will see a heavy British colonial influence in many parts of Myanmar today.
  • In 1997 President Clinton issued an Executive Order for U.S. Sanctions on Burma because “the Government of Burma (then ruled by a military junta) had committed large-scale repression of the democratic opposition in Burma…” These sanctions prohibited new investment in Burma by any U.S. persons.
  • In 2005, the capital city was suddenly moved from Yangon to the central city of Naypyidaw, which I’ve heard is eerily empty even though highways were built in anticipation of more people.
  • In 2016 President Obama issued an Executive Order lifting the 1997 sanctions due to the tremendous progress towards democracy.

Myanmar vs. Burma?

The official name changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of the student-led uprisings in August of 1988. The name remains an issue in the country as some do not recognize the legitimacy of the ruling military government, nor their right to rename the country. This is also when the city of Rangoon was officially renamed Yangon. I hope that clears up any confusion :).

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Myanmar has plenty more to offer besides its political issues and depressing history, so not to worry! There is a huge tea shop culture in Myanmar, which I found particularly interesting. You can find tea shops on every corner, and this is where locals often come to congregate, having conversations on topics ranging from politics to books to family life to current events. You can always find groups of men hunched around small stools in a tea shop, looking extra secretive. Myanmar is a surprisingly literate country, and you will find streets full of used book stalls in Yangon particularly. In fact, this is where I bought “Finding George Orwell in Burma”, which after reading it, holds much more significance to me.

Now, onto the fun stuff!

Recommended route for two weeks:

Yangon -> Bagan -> Kalaw -> Inle Lake -> Mandalay (-> Yangon if necessary)

This is what I did and the timing was perfect for seeing the highlights of Myanmar. However, if you are wanting to see a bit more, I would recommend three weeks and adding on Pyin-oo-lwin, Hsipaw, and Hpa An to your itinerary. If you read the book I recommended, you will understand the historical significance of Pyin-oo-lwin (previously known as Maymyo).

How to get there:

Although you can now enter Myanmar via land from Thailand, I would recommend flying into Yangon or Mandalay and going from there. If you do want to enter over land, there are only certain places this is allowed, so make sure to do your research beforehand.

Visas:

There are two options for 28-day tourist visas for Myanmar, but know that no matter what, you MUST have a visa arranged in advance.

  • Option 1: E-Visa. Now that tourists are permitted to apply for visas online, it has become quite easy to get one in advance. However, the cost is $50 USD, so keep that in mind.
  • Option 2: Embassy. I personally chose this option because I was already near an embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the time, and it saved me $30. For $20, you can easily apply and obtain your visa within a few days. Just look online to see where your nearest Myanmar embassy is.

Money:

There is a lot of outdated information online about money in Myanmar, so I thought I would set the record straight. Yes, there are ATMs. Yes, you need to bring crisp U.S. dollars in large denominations if you would like to exchange money. Yes, you should check with your bank to make sure Myanmar is not a blocked country for your debit card, because some people’s cards do not work there. The exchange rate is approximately 1000 kyat to $1 USD. That’s all :).

Getting Around:

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your preference, the main way to get around Myanmar is by night bus. The pros: save on accommodation, relatively inexpensive, more time to explore and less travel time. The cons: uncomfortable, little to no sleep, lots of waiting around, arrive at odd hours in the night. Buses are very easy to book the day before you travel, which allows you to be flexible when traveling through Myanmar. If you are traveling to a place only a few hours away, there are also day buses available, but generally, journeys six hours or more are via night bus. Most hostels and hotels can book them for you, or you can visit any tourist office to book. Helpful hint: some bus stations like Yangon and Inle Lake are far outside of the city, so be prepared for an extra taxi or van ride to your final destination or to the bus station from your hostel or hotel.

Food:

Must try food: tea leaf salad, mohinga (fish noodle soup served at breakfast, don’t ask just try), Shan noodles, curry, samosas, and whatever other local dishes you feel inclined to try!

Yangon:

In 10 words or less: tea leaf salad, cinemas, tea shops, Shwedagon, Chinatown, circular train

Where to stay: Backpacker Bed & Breakfast (best location) or Four Rivers, Agga Youth Hostel is also popular

Don’t miss: 999 Shan Noodle House, Rangoon Tea House (splurge meal), Independence Monument Park, Chinatown (19th St.) for Chinese BBQ street food, Shwedagon Pagoda, take the circular train all the way around (3 hours), drug eliminating museum (hilarious government propaganda)

Top tip: ask a monk at Shwedagon Pagoda to show you where the tiles are to stand on at sunrise or sunset when the light hits the diamond at the peak of the pagoda perfectly. If you time it right, you can see blue, red, green, yellow, and orange colors individually depending on which tile you stand on. It was amazing!

Side note: Thanaka, a watery, yellow paste made from tree bark, is used as both decorative makeup and sunscreen and you will see mainly women and children wearing it throughout Myanmar, typically in swirls on their cheeks. I’ve tried it and it also has a refreshing, cooling feeling on your face to help you beat the heat!

Bagan:

In 10 words or less: pagodas on pagodas, history, untouched, e-bikes, sunrise

Where to stay: Ostello Bello is probably the most popular hostel in Bagan, but it is also expensive (for a reason! It’s really great). Another alternative is Bagan Central Hostel ($9 USD/night), which is right around the corner and perfect for me. Besides the plumbing issues, it has a great breakfast, beautiful property, and is very conveniently located.

Don’t miss: this should be obvious, but don’t miss the sunrise in Bagan. You can explore the temples (almost 3,000 of them, some as old as 9th century) on your own, so don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path. Also, you can visit several local villages and get to know the locals, so grab a group from your hostel and go!

Top tip: when you rent an e-bike to explore the temples, shop around because you can get it down to 3000 kyat (less than $3 USD) per day. Also note that you will need to pay 25,000 kyat for entrance into Bagan. Most hostels or hotels will ask you for your ticket and some temples require you to show your ticket to enter, so this is pretty unavoidable. Your taxi from the bus station will most likely stop at the ticket area to have you pay.

Kalaw:

In 10 words or less: gateway to Inle, mountain town (Tbh, I wasn’t here long enough to tell you more about it!)

Where to stay: The Golden Kalaw Inn was a fantastic place to stay for the night before beginning the trek to Inle Lake. The owner is SO nice and helpful and I can’t say one bad thing about this place.

Don’t miss: Ever Smiles trekking company is the best! You can sign up for a two or three day trek to Inle Lake with them, and the two day trek is ~$32 USD. Highly recommend!

Top tip: make sure to wear long pants (brush and mosquitoes) and pack light for the trek. Although it is not a rigorous hike by any means, you will definitely be glad you brought only the necessities. Don’t worry, the trekking companies have a porter to bring your bags to meet you at Inle Lake.

 

Inle Lake:

In 10 words or less: canoes, fishing, handicrafts, touristy, sunsets

Where to stay: I stayed at Shwe Pauk Pin, which I had no issues with, other than that there was no WiFi as advertised. Free breakfast, communal area, air con, cheap bike rentals, we didn’t need much else. A popular new hostel at Inle is called Song of Travel, so I would recommend staying there if you are looking for a more social vibe, as I have heard great things about it!

Top tip: be prepared for little to no WiFi at Inle Lake!

Don’t miss: hire a boat to take you on a tour around Inle (15,000 kyat), bike to Red Mountain Winery (great views for sunset but don’t expect much for the wine), walk around the town.

Mandalay:

In 10 words or less: dusty, hot, markets, palace, Mandalay Hill, big city

Where to stay: I stayed at A1 hostel because it was cheap, which was fine because I was with friends, but there is no social atmosphere there whatsoever. I didn’t do much research on accommodation for Mandalay, so there may be some better hostels out there!

Don’t miss: Mandalay Hill (long hike up, but incredible views and pagoda at the top), check out all of the markets, visit the famous palace

Top tip: Although I only spent two days in Mandalay, this would’ve been the place to skip if I was more limited on time.

 

Originally written by Brooke Abel via www.travelingwillingandabel.com