Imagine visiting a place where the locals smile warmly when they see you, where you can freely explore beautiful and well preserved ancient temples, and where you can live like royalty on a modest budget. Where you can visit bustling cities, pristine beaches, and remarkable floating villages. Where as soon as you leave you begin dreaming of going back.
You can stop dreaming because this place does exist – it is the country of Myanmar, formally known as Burma. And out of the 50-ish countries we’ve visited to date, it remains our absolute favorite. We originally visited in 2013, then made a return trip in 2018, and found that not all that much has changed since we’d been gone.
We’re sharing our favorite destinations in the country to help you plan your upcoming vacation!
Myanmar: The Basics
Know Before you Go
- The currency of Myanmar is the Kyat and at the time of writing (May of 2018) the exchange rate was 1,346.30 Kyat to $1 USD.
- You’ll need to apply online for a visa prior to arriving in Myanmar. The cost is $50 for a standard 28-day visa and $56 to get express approval within 24 hours. They require that you upload a color photo that you can easily take yourself. Be sure to print your visa approval letter and onward flight itinerary prior to departing for the airport!
- Learn a few Burmese phrases to help you get around! “min-ga-la-ba” is “hello” and “thank you” is “chay-tzoo-bah”.
- Land crossings into Myanmar are limited for foreigners. You can cross from Thailand but will need to obtain a permit to cross from India. The crossings from Bangladesh, Laos, and China are not permitted. The Mae Sot/Myawaddy crossing is the most popular since it is close to two popular tourist destinations – Golden Rock and Hpa-An.
While in Myanmar you’ll notice that many Burmese people, especially elder ones, have red-stained teeth. This is the result of a lifetime of chewing Beetlenut. It is a stimulant and is used for much the same reason as chewing tobacco. Unfortunately it results in a dark red saliva that stains not only your teeth but pretty much every surface in Myanmar due to people spitting constantly.
Beetlenut is prepared by wrapping areca nuts in betel leaves and slaked lime paste, ‘chunnam’ is used to stick it all together – the resulting bundle is referred to as ‘paan’ – confused yet?
It’s impossible to miss the yellow designs on everyone’s faces in Myanmar. Thanaka is made by grinding the wood of the thanaka tree into a powder and then adding a small amount of water to create a yellow paste.
Burmese women have been wearing thanaka for over 2,000 years due to both it’s cosmetic appeal and many additional benefits. It has a pleasant smell somewhat akin to sandalwood, serves as sun protection, and provides a cooling sensation on the skin which is quite welcome in the intense heat.
Is it Safe?
Not only is the country incredibly safe, but you’ll find the people willing to help without expecting anything in return. They are just genuinely happy and helpful as a culture and we found that most did not request a “tip” for being helpful as many people in other countries have become accustomed to.
Sadly there has been deadly conflict going on in the north of Myanmar for decades. It’s a complicated religious war that involves Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh. The fighting has worsened recently and it is the most intense that it’s been since the 1960s. However the conflict is concentrated to one specific area and foreigners are not allowed to visit the area so you should have nothing to worry about in terms of safety.
Some people feel that by traveling to Myanmar you’re supporting a government that is involved in ethnic cleansing and has a poor humanitarian record. We believe that the people of Myanmar are good-hearted and boycotting tourism has a much bigger impact on the individuals living in the country than it does on the government officials or military involved in the war.
Preparing for Your Trip to Myanmar
Best Time to Visit
Myanmar has a tropical monsoon climate and has three seasons; cool, hot, and rainy. The rainy season lasts from June until October although the period of June to August experiences the heaviest and most consistent rainfall. The hot season is from March until May with average temperatures around 100 F. The cool season of November to February is the most pleasant time to visit but also the most popular with tourists.
Budgeting for Your Trip
The tourism infrastructure in Myanmar has been steadily increasing and you can find food and hotels that fit any budget. Hotels range from $20 USD per night for very simple, no frills rooms, up to over $100 USD per night for luxury resorts. Similarly you can stick to eating street food and eat for less than $10 USD per day or you can find very expensive, upscale restaurants that cater to foreigners.
What to Pack
Regardless of the time of year that you visit, Myanmar is going to be hot and humid. Pack lightweight, breezy pieces that cover your shoulders and knees so that you have no issues entering the pagodas. Plus Burmese men and women wear “longyis” which are essentially floor length skirts, and women rarely show their shoulders, so you’ll get less stares if you cover up.
A few of my favorite Myanmar staples:
Getting There and Around
More than likely you will fly into Yangon to begin your Burmese adventure. Mandalay has an international airport as well but it is smaller and flights are generally more expensive. Domestic flights are a cheap and easy way to get around if you are short on time.
While the buses have improved over the years, it can be difficult to figure out what buses are truly “VIP”. You’re better off booking directly at the bus station to confirm that the bus has air conditioning and that they won’t be putting stools in the aisles to squeeze more people in.
Must Visit Destinations in Myanmar
Yangon (formally Rangoon) is the largest city in Myanmar and the one that has changed the most since the country opened it’s doors to foreigners. Boutique hotels, rooftop bars, and gourmet restaurants are popping up all over the city. It is also the most popular spot for expats to take up residence as it is a hub for commercial business and has the largest international airport in the country.
Three days in Yangon is enough time to see the highlights of the city but you may enjoy yourself so much that you want to stay longer. Be sure to spend an evening wandering around the Shwedagon Pagoda, not only because of how beautifully it is lit up at night but also because you won’t have to worry about scalding your bare feet on the pavement in the afternoon sun.
Make sure you spend an evening on 19th street in China Town – the local hot spot for street food and cheap draft beer!
The actual city of Mandalay is not nearly as interesting as the area surrounding it. If you do decide to stay in town you can head to the Mahamuni Buddha Temple at 4:00am to witness the ceremonial practice of a monk lovingly washing the face and brushing the “teeth” of Buddha.
You can also check out the Snake Pagoda which is the home of 3 divine pythons that are walked and bathed every day at 11:00am.
And the most popular spot to watch the sun set over the city is from atop Mandalay Hill where hordes of Burmese children will gather around you to practice their English.
Once you’ve had your fill of city life, check out the surrounding area. Hire a driver to take you the two hours to Dat Taw Gyaint waterfall.
The hike to the falls is downhill and will take you about 45 minutes. The hike out is a steep and sweaty climb back to the top. But that, as well as the ladies who will follow you to try to take you to 4 nearby waterfalls, are both totally worth the hassle once you catch of glimpse of this magnificent waterfall. Spend a few hours wading in the swimming hole with the locals.
You can also hire a driver to check out the beautiful white Hsinbyume Pagoda and the massive unfinished stupa, Mingun Pahtodawgyi.
Both are on the western bank of the Irrawaddy River, about 6 miles northwest of Mandalay. Arrive around sunrise to avoid the hordes of tourists that descend on the area via boat every day around 10:00am.
Check out our other favorite things to do in and around Mandalay here!
Ngapali is the most popular beach in Myanmar and has plenty of accommodation and restaurant options to suit any budget. You can find a variety of stunning bungalows that open right up to the beach and the best seafood in the entire country is here.
Spend your days relaxing on the beach or by the pool, and your evenings watching sunset at one of the many restaurants while munching on the fresh catch of the day.
And when you tire of lounging, hire a boat and a guide to take you on either a snorkeling or spear fishing trip. You’ll leave early in the morning and they’ll provide you with all of the gear you’ll need. The water is warm so no need for a wetsuit. If you manage to catch something while spearfishing there are plenty of beachfront restaurants that will fry up your catch and serve it with yummy sides!
And if you happen to visit Ngapali during the Thadingyut Festival of Lights (the date changes every year), you’ll find all of the pagodas in town are lit up with hundreds of candles and the streets are filled with fireworks!
If you are looking for a less populated beach with equally as soft sand and warm water, then head 6 hours west of Yangon to Ngwesaung. It’s not nearly as developed as Ngapali so hotel and restaurant options are limited but there are several small gems in this quaint town that are anxiously awaiting the arrival of electricity! (Ngwesaung currently runs entirely on generators)
Rent quad bikes and cruise down the beach to Lover’s Island where you can wander around this small, jungle-like landmass (that is sadly littered with trash from locals picnicking). And be sure to enjoy sunset at Kyauk Maumghnama Pagoda which are twin pagodas that are sitting atop massive boulders right on the beach.
Spend your days lounging by the pool and your evenings watching kids play soccer while the sun sets over the ocean. You’ll never want to leave this tranquil paradise!
Located about 170 miles east of Yangon is the small town of Hpa-An that is just starting to gain notoriety among the backpacking circuit.
A popular activity is to climb Mount Zwegabin where a monastery and a large golden pagoda sit at the very top. In the recent past the monastery allowed foreigners to spend the night, sleeping on a mat among the monks. But unfortunately that practice is now strictly forbidden.
The hike is extremely difficult, especially in the heat of the day, so it is best to start early in the morning. Plan on spending about 3 hours climbing to the top if you take the “scenic route” from Lumbini Garden and then take the shorter but steeper way down. And expect your knees to take a few days to recuperate. The monastery also has a restaurant selling vegetarian food, snacks, and water which believe me, you’ll need.
There are a few lovely day trips you can take during your stay that aren’t nearly as grueling. You can either rent a motorbike for a small fee, or hire a driver to take you on a tour of the caves in the area while waiting for you to explore each.
Sadan, Yatae Pyan, Yathaypyan, and Kawgon Caves are the most popular to visit as they are filled with Buddhas and pagodas. Bring your shoes with you in Sadan Cave as you can walk all the way through and take a small wooden boat under the mountain and walk the remainder of the way back to the entrance to create a loop.
Take another short trip outside of town to check out Kyauk Kalap, a pagoda set at the top of a very unusual rock in the middle of a man made lake. Sadly it is usually under construction due to it’s instability but it is still a beautiful and unique area to spend an hour wandering around.
The 26 square mile area that was once the capital of a powerful ancient kingdom filled with over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries, is now one of Myanmar’s top destinations for tourists to visit. These beautiful structures were constructed between the 11th and 13th centuries but due to various natural disasters, only about 2,200 temples and pagodas have survived to this day.
The best way to get around Bagan is wake up before sunrise (as the sun reaches scorching temperatures by midday and shade is minimal), rent an electric motorbike, and cruise around the interweaving dirt roads, stopping at every pagoda that catches your eye.
If you want the best bird’s eye view of the region, book a sunrise air balloon ride but keep in mind that they don’t operate year-round.
As of January of 2018, visitors are not permitted to climb the temples of Bagan. Formally this was the most popular way to watch the sun rise and set over this expansive and beautiful landscape. There are still a few places where you can get high enough to get a nice view.
As of May of 2018 the best places we found for sunrise and sunset in Bagan were:
- Temple 843 (GPS: 21.1547353, 94.8807665) appears to be officially open as there was even an official-looking person there checking for Bagan Archaeological Zone Tickets
- A temple with a narrow staircase leading to the roof at GPS 21.148057,94.871913
- 2nd temple with a narrow staircase at GPS 21.156784, 94.867959
- An old monastery with easy access to the roof at GPS 21.1865945, 94.8827724
- A tall mound surrounded by temples at GPS 21.1820687, 94.8697476
If you have a bit of extra time in Bagan and grow weary of viewing ancient pagodas every day, hire a driver to drive you an hour and a half to a slightly more entertaining pagoda. Mount Popa is an extinct volcano and the popular Popa Taungkalat monastery sits on a rocky outcrop on the slopes of the volcano. The views from the top are incredible but it’s the journey to get to the top that is the most entertaining.
There are 777 steps to get to the top and in Myanmar tradition you must leave your shoes at the bottom and make the climb barefoot. But these particular stairs are filled with pesky monkeys that are pooping all over the floor, jumping on people, and trying to steal anything that you aren’t clutching tightly.
Locals are working hard to clear the poo with wet mops which actually turns it into a slippery, sloppy mess. Witnessing all of the visitors getting attacked by monkeys while sliding around in wet poo is worth the trip all on it’s own.
Mrauk U (pronounced “mrau-ooo”) is the second most famous archaeological site in Myanmar so it is similar to Bagan but without the hoards of tourists. It is also far more difficult to get to as it is located in the northern Rakhine State.
The lack of tourists isn’t the only difference between Mrauk U and Bagan, the pagodas are also quite different. Those in Mrauk U have thick walls built of stone, rather than brick, to withstand fierce winds. And they are also smaller and newer than those in Bagan.
The landscape is also different between the two. Mrauk U has small villages, rice paddies, and many grazing animals interspersed between the old pagodas. You’ll more than likely have the entire enormous area all to yourself with far less hassle than Bagan.
Another must-see visit while in Mrauk U is the Chin Village where there are a still a few remaining tattoo-faced women. You can easily find a guide to take you on a day trip and they will take you to several of the villages where you will see the women going about their daily chores.
Many of them will stop what they’re doing to chat with you (via your guide translating) about their tattoos and why they have them. Some will be selling their wares and others may ask for a small donation. If you feel so inclined, bring medicine or soap or simply give cash, they really appreciate it.
Kyaiktiyo Pagoda or as it is more widely known, the “Golden Rock” is a giant rock covered in gold leaf, precariously balanced on the top of a hill in Southern Myanmar. It is so precarious, in fact, that you can actually gently rock it back and forth (if you are a male that is). Buddhists believe that a single hair from Buddha’s head is keeping this massive rock from careening down the hill and into the village below. It is the most sacred site in all of Myanmar.
There are two ways to get to the Golden Rock. The first is to catch a ride in the back of a crowded pickup truck that transports people up and down the steep mountain road from Kinpun. The second is a 7-mile religious pilgrimage hike that is far less popular (and far more scenic). You’ll pass by plenty of small tea shops selling snacks as well as friendly locals who will point you in the right direction if you get turned around.
There are several hotels near the pagoda and we recommend booking one so that you can see how spectacular the rock looks when it is lit up and glowing gold at night. The area is busy with people praying or milling about until the wee hours of the morning.
Inle Lake is located about 210 miles west of Bagan and is probably the second most popular tourist destination in Myanmar. The lake is known for the men who use their feet to paddle fishing boats. Although it is now mostly done as a show for tourists, it is quite a balancing act. Expect to give them a small tip if you snap any photos.
The lake is home to approximately 70,000 local Intha people who live in floating villages and tend to floating gardens. The most popular attraction in the area is to hire a private boat driver for the day to tour the lake and the surrounding area. Your boat driver will take you to all of the main attractions in the area so no need to plan your route in advance. But plan on leaving before sunrise for the best light.
If you have extra time in Inle Lake you can also try a cooking course or rent a bicycle and cruise around the countryside. Red Mountain Winery is a popular stop along the way. Your guesthouse can provide you with rental information and a map of the highlights of the area.
Don’t miss the Kakku Pagoda nearby which contains over 2,000 stupas!
Want more info? Check out our favorite travel guides and books about Myanmar!
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