I don’t generally write travel guides, but I think there’s a dearth of information about Myanmar so here’s a post about my recent trip in the hopes that my experience is useful for others. This post will just cover the practical stuff, I’m not going to tell you where to go or what to see as I think that’s more timeless and well covered elsewhere.
In my experience, any information about Myanmar tourism that’s more than 3 months old is really old. Things are changing fast in Myanmar. So if you’ve got a guide book, consider it a very general guide and don’t be surprised when the prices and places have changed dramatically.
I was in Myanmar for 9 nights (and 9 days) in mid-February 2015. For this trip I spent a total of $350 (including about $25 on souvenirs) for the entire stay, not including my visa or my flights to and from the country, though on Air Asia those were quite cheap. I visited Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay, flying into Yangon and out of Mandalay. Lodging on this trip was what I consider middle-of-the-road nice; not backpacker cheap, even though I’m generally quite cheap. I ate lots, and very well, had plenty of beers and coconuts, paid for transportation when it made sense (i.e. we didn’t walk everywhere), rented bikes, e-bikes, boats, took a guided day trek, and traveled around using the tourist busses between cities. This was not a rough trip, but it was quite cheap, especially considering the quality and quantity of lodging, activities and food involved. It also wasn’t a luxury trip. Both are also possible in Myanmar but that’s not what I’m going to talk about here.
Before you go: get an e-visa. It’s easy and could save you a lot of time at the airport. There actually wasn’t much of a line at the visa-on-arrival desk when I arrived in Yangon. But still I was happy to have done it online to skip that step after my super long flight. It does cost more for the e-visa.
When to go: February was great! The weather was actually quite cool and nice, especially in Bagan and Inle Lake. And there were not many mosquitoes. I know it’s been a dry few months, and others have said that Myanmar was super hot and filled with mosquitoes in January so perhaps I was just lucky. But I can report a lovely week and a half of hot days and cool nights.
I was lucky to be traveling with a friend, not just for the company but also because lodging for one person in many places costs the same as lodging for two people. There isn’t a network of hostels with dorms in Myanmar, so bring a friend along and save some money.
My travel lodging of choice when traveling alone is a dorm in a hostel, so my standards aren’t very high. I do want a clean bed and reasonably clean toilets/showers. I don’t mind sharing the toilet/shower. In Myanmar we enjoyed what I think was mostly a step above my default travel standards. So I don’t agree with those who say it’s super expensive to get lodging in Myanmar. However, if you want the cheapest option, and you are traveling alone, it won’t be easy or necessarily very nice.
For about $35 per night we stayed in private rooms, half of them with private bathrooms, all of them with a nice breakfast included. In Mandalay this afforded us a very nice hotel, in Yangon it was clean and passable with a shared bathroom. Bagan and Inle Lake were in between these two, with Inle Lake significantly nicer than Bagan for the same price.
I’d suggest finding lodging on Agoda if you want to book in advance. We booked a day or two in advance and just selected the places that were cheap and had good reviews. The reviews were pretty accurate. We never booked more than one night, and when we liked the place we would just ask to stay another night at the same rate. Prices vary significantly on Agoda from day to day, but we never had a problem finding something acceptable in our price range. You can also ask your guesthouse/hotel to book you a place in the next town you are going to, but of course you relinquish control over anything but price when you do this.
You can get rooms for cheaper than what we paid. I know lots of backpackers are staying for $20 a night for a room, and sometimes fitting 3 or 4 people in these rooms. But I hear these are dirty places, often without sheets on the beds, and with shared (and unpleasant) bathrooms. I’m willing to pay a few dollars more for a much nicer place.
Note: you don’t need to book in advance. I met plenty of people who would show up in a town and negotiate lodging prices there. And they saved money. But they also spent a few hours after arriving searching for lodging, which is not something I want to do on a brief trip.
Food in Myanmar is cheap and there are plenty of options for various dietary requirements, including vegetarian (the friend I traveled with is vegetarian). The curries are generally quite good. And I really loved the Shan yellow tofu, in many different dishes. The Shan noodles with tofu custard was amazing. We had some really good meals in Myanmar, but it wasn’t consistent. Overall I found the food in Myanmar to be a bit greasy and not as flavorful as other countries in Southeast Asia.
Myanmar does produce a few local beers which are pretty good. I liked the Mandalay Strong beer the best. And Myanmar also produces some local liquors. I recommend trying the High Class whiskey. It’s super cheap and quite a nice whiskey.
Oh and if you want to get a waiter’s attention, you make a kissing sound. Seriously. Just a few kisses and they will turn around and search for the person who needs help. We were pretty shy about trying it, but after I did it once and it worked I unashamedly kissed at my wait staff in all the restaurants.
The people of Myanmar are ridiculously nice to tourists. And not in a way that seemed fake. I really believed they were happy to see me and say hello. Learn to say hello (Megalaba) and smile and say hi to people. They will respond with pleasure. The kids are delighted to have you wave and say hi. And many adults seemed just as excited to say hello to travelers. This is a country where tourists get stopped regularly for photos with locals. It’s still a novelty to them.
I really didn’t experience scamming in Myanmar. As a traveler I tend to be on guard for people trying to take advantage of me. But even in the most popular tourist areas I didn’t notice it. There were some people soliciting for tourists to buy souvenirs, or take taxis or boat rides in areas where tourism is common, but turning them down often just resulted in a nice conversation about where we were from.
Prices were a bit negotiable, but not much. In fact, sometimes we tried to negotiate taxis (motorbikes, ox carts, etc.) only to have the drivers lose interest when we weren’t willing to pay the price they asked. I recommend asking at your lodging for the price you should expect to pay for things like taxis and negotiating only if someone is overcharging. Similarly for purchases you can negotiate a bit, but if you try to undercut the price too much the seller may just walk away.
It’s really refreshing to travel in a country where people really want to say hello, and aren’t just trying to get business from you.
On the flip side, while everyone is very helpful if you have questions, need directions, etc, people sometimes don’t know what they are talking about and still they tell you something just to be nice. It doesn’t hurt to double check on information you are given, even when it came from the desk at your hotel. For example, in Mandalay we asked several people at our hotel which bus to take to U-Bein bridge. We got various responses including “just take any bus going north.” In the end a motorbike taxi driver who was soliciting business at the bus stop was the most helpful. After establishing that we didn’t want a taxi and were determined to take the bus, he confirmed which bus number to take, told us how much it would cost, and drew out for us what the bus number would look like.
There are tons of ATMs throughout the country, everywhere I went. My friend went to a beach for a few days before I arrived and she reported no ATM there. I’d recommend using ATMs, but taking money out in the bigger cities (Yangon, Mandalay) and being prepared for the possibility that they won’t work as well in places like Bagan, and won’t exist in super small towns and beaches.
I didn’t try using ATMs because I brought U.$. cash and exchanged it at the airport, but I wish I hadn’t. ATMs allow you to get current exchanges rates, as long as you have a bank that won’t charge you a fee. And then you don’t have to worry about carrying lots of cash around. However, the exchange rates at the airport and banks seemed quite good to me, so that’s not a bad option either.
There was wifi in every place we stayed and in lots of cafes, and even outside throughout the big pagoda in Yangon. It’s slow, but you can assume that you’ll have connectivity in Yangon, Mandalay and Inle Lake. And Bagan is likely to have wifi some of the time, although there the internet does just shut down sometimes for no reason, and it’s slower than anywhere else we went. The beaches and other smaller towns do not have wifi yet.
If you expect a bad connection, you will be delighted to find that you do actually have internet access in most places. Just don’t plan to do anything data-intensive. We did successfully make several skype/facetime calls, upload pictures to Facebook, and even book hotels online in every town we visited.
We took overnight buses from Yangon to Bagan, from Bagan to Inle Lake and from Inle Lake to Mandalay. Two out of the three were really nice (both were with JJ) and the third was fine. The VIP busses cost a few dollars more and really are worth the expense. For about $10 per person you get both transportation and lodging! JJ is a great bus company, though a bit creepy with their christian religious theme of tombstones on the side of the bus. I slept really well both times taking their busses.
Between Bagan and Inle Lake there is no VIP bus and we were unlucky enough to end up in the back row of seats which are quite uncomfortable and don’t recline. Try not to get that row, the other seats were much better. Also, if you tend to get car sick, the roads are a bit rough so you might want to take dramamine. I used it and considered the sleepiness a bonus.
Unfortunately overnight busses tend to arrive super early (4 or 5am). Take the latest bus you can get. But even arriving at this hour it’s ok to just show up at your guesthouse. They will welcome you in, and often let you check in to your room if it’s available. In Inle Lake our room wasn’t ready but the hotel let us sleep in a room they use for drivers, which just had basic beds. We were still quite exhausted and got a lovely 2 hour nap before heading out for a day of sightseeing. In Bagan arriving early is great: the sunrise is delightful and you have time to rent a bike and get to a good spot to see it.
Taxis at bus stations are a monopoly. Generally the bus will let you off at a bus station quite a bit outside of town, and you need a taxi to get to your destination. The drivers will be gathered around outside the bus and they won’t let you negotiate prices much. Your best bet is to find people on the bus before it arrives with whom you can share. In some towns there will be horse drawn carriage options that are cheaper, or maybe an open bed truck they will let you share with others for a reduced price. But if you want a regular taxi you have to accept that prices won’t be cheap. (Inle Lake was the exception: the bus people also ran a minivan taxi to town, it was close and they charged everyone just a small fee).
For those flying out of Mandalay on Air Asia (to Bangkok, right now the only option), there is a free shuttle that leaves from 79th street between 26th and 27th at 9:15am. It’s a great free offer since the airport is quite far away.
Myanmar was lovely. I had a great trip there, and I’m really glad I got to see it before it’s overrun with tourists. There is now enough tourist infrastructure that it’s reasonably easy to travel around. And the people are delightful. My favorite places were Inle Lake and Bagan, but I really enjoyed seeing the big city of Yangon, and the sights around Mandalay (U-Bein and Mingon).