For years a pariah on the world political scene, Myanmar held elections and opened her doors to tourism, with Aung Sun Suu Kyi encouraging visitors to come and visit the Golden Land, as Myanmar, the former Burma, is called by its locals. It used to be a tremendous challenge just to get here and get a visa, but that has all changed, and ATM’s, internet access, and all sorts of other formerly forbidden things have put Myanmar firmly on the Southeast Asian tourist track.
While there still areas of the country where one cannot visit, and others that still cost a lot, most visitors are limited by time, rather than travel restrictions, as Myanmar is a large country with still slow road travel, and limited infrastructure to handle all of the recent arrivals. A bit of advance planning will make a trip incredibly rewarding, and there certainly are some of Southeast Asia’s most iconic sights to check out here.
Most visitors will fly into Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, caught halfway between a crumbling former British colonial outpost and a massively developing, chaotic traffic filled mess. The old colonial mansions of Yangon still remain for now, with the downtown filled with some atmospheric side streets, but overall, Yangon is not long on sights. However, no visit to the country would be complete without a pilgrimage made to Shwedagon Paya, the most holy and revered destination in all Myanmar. Glittering golden chedis and stupas and it stature as the center of Burmese Buddhism attract thousands, and a visit at sunrise or sunset is unforgettable. Myanmar’s best hotels can be found in Yangon as well, with places like the Belmond Governor’s Mansion or the Strand offering plenty of colonial charm and modern amenities.
A few hours out of Yangon and one can visit Bago, which has one of the world’s largest reclining Buddhas, or further down the road, Kyaiktiyo, where a giant golden rock sits on top of a mountain, teetering as if it will fall off, but supposedly held in place by one of the hairs of the Buddha, making it another major pilgrimage destination, one that has to be seen to be believed.
Mandalay is a popular destination, probably more so due to the famous Kipling reference than the actual place. The city itself is not inspiring, but there are plenty of nearby attractions like the teak wood U Bein Bridge, the giant golden bell at Mingun, or the monasteries around neighboring Amarapura.
The most popular tourist destination in Myanmar, and rightly so, is Bagan, a small village on the banks of the Ayeryawaddy River which is home to thousands of ancient temples. From the 9th to the 13th century, this was a thriving kingdom, and the temple ruins here rival Angkor Wat in both stature and atmosphere. Highlights here include flying over the temples in a hot air balloon at dawn, bicycling silent dirt paths to find empty temples in the middle of nowhere, and watching the sunset over both the temples and languid Ayeyarwaddy. While package tourbuses now firmly have Bagan in their sights, it is still possible to find tranquil and undiscovered gems here, merely by bicycling and walking, as the temples sprawl over a large area, which has not been overly developed.
Inle Lake is the next most popular destination in Myanmar. This large freshwater lake sits in the Shan Hills in the east of the country, and is home to not only a melange of ethnic minorities, but also to a large array of endemic marine species. Inle is most noted for its iconic “one legged” fishermen, as the local fishermen here have perfected the the art of rowing their dugout canoes with one leg, leaving their hands free to work their fishing nets and traps so vital for survival.
Travellers here can hire boats to go out and visit the lake and its communities, checking out the fishermen at work, and taking in a variety of interesting cottage industries that have sprung up, ranging from tobacco rolling to lotus flower cultivation to textile weaving. Additionally, for the more adventurous, there is great trekking here, as it is possible to hire a guide and head west from the lakeshore, passing through some magnificent scenery on the way up to the mountains of Kalaw, sleeping in monasteries and villages along the way.
For those who want to get even more off the beaten path, the formerly unaccesible Chin State has opened up to tourism. This mountainous area straddling the border with India and Bangladesh is noted for beautiful scenery, trekking opportunities on Mount Victoria, and even more so for its unique tattooed women, ethnic minorities who had a tradition of facial tattoos which are now dying out.
Finally, Myanmar also has beautiful sandy beaches, ranging from the pristine strip of sand at Ngapali Beach to the recently opened Mergui Archipelago down south, where one can sail on a live-aboard, combining diving with exploration of only recently visited islands.
Myanmar is changing fast, and now is the perfect time to explore it.
Myanmar can be visited year round. However, it does have seasons which travellers should consider when making plans. The most popular time of year is the winter or cool season in Myanmar, which runs from about November through February. During this time, daytime temperatures will be pleasantly warm, sunny, and dry, with evenings, especially up north in Bagan and at Inle Lake getting down to sweater weather at night.
From March through May is the hot season, when it is very unpleasantly dusty and baking hot, with temperatures everywhere exceeding 100 degrees, and very limited visibility due to slash and burn agriculture techniques. This is not the ideal time to come to Myanmar, although there will be far fewer tourists, not to mention that if you are here at this time you can experience Thingan in mid April, the Burmese New Year, which offers a water fight experience similar to Songkran in Thailand.
June through October is the rainy season, with the rain getting heavier later on, especially in September. It doesn’t mean that it rains all day though. Rain often falls in massive amounts hard and fast, followed by sunny spells. Other than Ngapali Beach and the Mergui Archipelago, most folks aren’t coming to Myanmar for a beach holiday, so visiting at this time can be quite nice, as everything is lush green. Additionally, the Bagan area is in an extremely arid zone, so it also doesn’t rain here all that much to disrupt temple sightseeing.
Visas in Myanmar are good for 28 days, and as public transport is slow and the country big, most folks will have to make choices as to where they want to go. In one week, spend a day in Yangon, fly up to Bagan for three days, and then make a pilgrimage to Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock. Fitting in both Inle and Bagan even with flying will be pretty rushed. If you have two weeks, this is optimal, as you can visit both Inle Lake and Bagan, spend a few days in Yangon, and even have time to get out to Ngapali Beach to relax for a few days. With three or four weeks, you have far more options. Do the usual Inle, Bagan, and Yangon triangle, as well as fitting in some adventure travel to the Chin State, up north to Hispaw, and even go south for some diving in the Mergui Archipelago.
High season in Myanmar is from mid-November through February, with very heavy tourist traffic in December and through the middle of January. Reservations, especially for accommodation in Bagan and Inle, are highly advised during this time. The European summer holiday times in July and August also sees an influx of visitors to Myanmar, so it can be crowded then as well. The quietest time of year is probably March through May, during the baking hot season, although everything will be booked solid during Thingan, the Burmese New Year, from April 13-15, with people returning home to their families or else travelling.
Myanmar has an incredible range of topographical extremes, with a climate to match. However, for the regular tourist, its climate parallels Thailand and most of the rest of Southeast Asia. It is a hot, tropical, monsoon destination, characterised by three seasons: the cool (which to most tourists will mean “less hot”), the hot, and the wet. November through February in the majority of the country means pleasant sunny days, with temperatures in the 80’s-90’s, and cooler nights. March through May brings the heat, arid and extremely hot weather of over 100 degrees often, with little relief at night. June through September or October is the rainy season, characterised by heavy monsoon rain, slightly lower temperatures, but high humidity. In the north of Myanmar or in the Chin State, this does not necessarily apply, as these areas are at high elevation. Winters or cool seasons are downright freezing, and even the hot season is quite bearable here.
Myanmar is not as cheap as neighboring Thailand. Due to the lack of infrastructure to handle the waves of tourists that have come since the country has opened up, hotels and guesthouses are at a premium, and you will pay more here for accommodation than in Thailand, Laos, or Cambodia, with the quality of lodging being far inferior. The winter months can be really tough, especially in Bagan and Inle, as places get booked up well in advance. Yet still, Myanmar is not an expensive destination. Street food remains cheap, and even sit down restaurants, especially local ones, shouldn’t cost more than around $10 per person.
The currency in Myanmar is the kyat (pronounced chat). There used to be a black market for kyat, but these days the government and market rate are the same, and ATM’s can be found in all major tourist destinations, giving you kyat at the current world rates against the dollar.
If you are a budget traveller, staying in guesthouses, eating street or local food, and travelling by bus, you can get by on under $40 per day. Throw in a few tours though, and this price goes up. Mid-range travellers can expect to spend $30-50 on a room, another $20 on food, and then extras like entrance fees or boat rides adding to the cost. If you stay in 5-star hotels, they will cost $150-200 per night and up, and if you fly domestically to save time, you’ll be spending close to $100 for each flight leg. Additionally, splurging on hot air balloon rides in Bagan will set you back another $100 plus plus.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in local currencies.
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The current rate of the Burmese kyat is just under 1200 for one US$. With the arrival of ATM’s and open banking, there is no longer a real black market anymore, and only licensed money changers, banks, and cash machines should be used for making transactions.
Domestic airfares inside of Myanmar are fairly high, with there being no real budget carriers unlike Thailand or Vietnam. That said, single leg flights from Yangon to Bagan or Inle cost around $100, and may be worth it to save time and avoid overnight road journeys.
Car rental is now allowed in Myanmar, but the car must come with a local driver, so it really isn’t car rental per se. Prices are also high, running from $50 as an absolute minimum, to more like $100 as the norm.
Make sure you have travel insurance before coming to Myanmar. Outside of Yangon, medical facilities are few and far in-between, and of very poor quality. Make sure your insurance will cover medical evacuation if necessary. Major emergencies will necessitate travel to Bangkok, Thailand.
The current rate of the Burmese kyat is just under 1200 for one US$. There are kyat notes of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 5000, and 10,000.
There are now ATM’s in all major tourist destinations in Myanmar, meaning Mandalay, Bagan, Inle, and Yangon. However, more off the beaten path destinations like the Chin State still don’t have facilities. The main town here, Mindat, has several banks, but they do not accept foreign cards, so plan accordingly.
Tipping is not widely done in Myanmar, but salaries are small, and most service workers have come to appreciate, as well as expect some tips in the tourism industry. As a rule of thumb, a 1000 kyat (just under $1) tip will do for porters, taxi drivers, bell boys, and waiters. For private drivers or guides, a $5 or $10 tip is appropriate.
Getting around Myanmar can be tricky. Domestic travel by air is the fastest way to go, eliminating long bus journeys on still fairly bad roads. Domestic flights go to Bagan and Nyaungshwe (for Inle Lake), as well as Mandalay, Ngapali Beach, and other tourist destinations. There are no budget carriers unlike neighboring countries though.
Bus travel is a popular option. The road between Yangon and Mandalay is well paved, but it is still a long overnight trip. The same goes for Bagan and Inle. Additionally, the trip between Bagan and Inle takes a full day. Train travel is even slower, but can be a nice way to experience the locals and the countryside. From Mandalay, it is possible to take a boat on the Ayeryawaddy River all the way to Bagan, another trip that takes a full day. Other than flying, most trips here anywhere will take a full day or night due to distances and road conditions.
In Yangon, taxis are cheap and plentiful, although they don’t use meters and tend to overcharge tourists. They are not as cheap as in Thailand. They are really the only way to navigate the city though, as the bus system is very confusing, all in Burmese, and horrifically crowded. Up in Bagan, you can get around by a wide choice of transport. Bicycles and electric scooters are available for rent, there are tuk tuk and private car drivers to take you where you want to go, and you can even hire a horse carriage to visit the ruins. In Inle Lake, you can hire longtail boats to travel around the lake.
Whatever you do for travel here, advance planning is essential.