With its UNESCO listed Buddhist temples, friendly locals, dirt cheap prices and idiosyncratic street food, Myanmar ranks among the best destinations for a backpacker in Southeast Asia.

Much like nearby Cambodia, the country was once considered off-limits for western tourism because of its turbulent political history.

However, since 1992, when the country officially opened to the outside world, tourism has been growing with over 7.5 million international tourists set to visit the country in 2020.

Despite this, the country is much less traveled than the Southeast Asia favorites of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

But all of this is rapidly changing. Take a quick scroll through Instagram and you will be captivated by all the beautiful images of this colorful and vibrant country.

From soaring hot air balloons over Old Bagan to the wonderfully acrobatic fishermen of the Inle Lake, it's hard to believe this undiscovered gem will stay a secret for much longer.

So if you are planning a trip to Myanmar as we enter the 2020s, what questions should you ask beforehand to ensure your trip runs smoothly? 

How much money should you budget? What should you pack beforehand? How long should you spend in Myanmar? How do you pronounce Myanmar? Do the locals still call it Burma?

Even if you are the type of traveler that likes to travel without a fixed itinerary or set plans, a little research before you book your flights can make all the difference. 

Here is a guide for everything you need to know about backpacking Myanmar.

Should you go backpacking to Myanmar?

The truth is that Myanmar is known for its troubled history as well as more recent political issues. The country used to be run by a military dictatorship while the democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi spent a significant amount of time under house arrest.

There is also the issue of racially-fuelled violence against the country’s Rohingya Muslim population. About 625,000 refugees from Rakhine, Myanmar were forced to leave their homes and cross the border with Bangladesh during the 2016–17 crisis.

Whether you feel this is a reason not to visit Myanmar is ultimately a personal decision. There’s been plenty of debate on this among travel bloggers, with many people passionately arguing for both sides. In this post, I’ll stay neutral in this matter, while respecting both perspectives.

However, safety is not an issue for tourists. In 2012, the international bans were pulled and foreigners started traveling to Myanmar. Authorities don’t allow tourists anywhere near any danger and despite all the negative coverage, most people in Myanmar have nothing to do with the politics and the country itself is very safe to travel.

During my visit to Myanmar, I discovered that petty crime and scams are very rare. Due to having been fairly isolated for many decades, there is generally a very welcoming and uncynical attitude towards tourists.

Why go backpacking to Myanmar?

Myanmar is definitely one of the least visited countries in Southeast Asia, but maybe that’s what makes it so special and unique. If you wish to get a break from hyper-touristy destinations in Asia like Thailand, you’ll be happy to hear that Myanmar is a relatively unexplored destination. There are no overcrowded beaches here, everything (except hotels) is dirt cheap, and the locals don’t treat you as an ATM.
While backpacking Myanmar, you will have an opportunity to visit dozens of seriously awesome places!

From Inle Lake which is one of the most stunning lakes in the world to the temple complex of Bagan where you will find over 2,000 Buddhist pagodas and temples, there are plenty of interesting destinations in Myanmar just waiting to be explored.

Get lost in the chaotic streets of Yangon and admire the capital’s cool golden temples or pay a visit to Kyaikto which is home to a unique Buddhist pilgrimage site. If you wish to get away from it all and find some peace, I recommend spending a few days in the quiet town of Hsipaw or visiting the small beach towns of Chaungtha and Ngapali.

Is it Myanmar or Burma?

Let me start by saying that no one’s going to give you the stink eye for using these country names interchangeably. This South Asian country had its share of ups and downs, so it comes as no surprise that all that leads to a bit of a dual identity.

On paper, the country is called Myanmar, but many people still refer to it as Burma.

It was back in 1989 when the military pushed aside General Ne Win’s government and decided to change things and rename the country from Burma to Myanmar. While they were at it, they also changed the name of the capital city of Rangoon to Yangon. Why? They wanted to give a national identity to other ethnic groups apart from Burmans and to get rid of the British colonial influence.

Nowadays, there is not much fuss about all of this, and most people use both names.

Suggested itinerary – A 4-week plan

Planning a backpacking trip in Myanmar can be a difficult task as there is less information about it and budget travel facilities are nowhere near as widespread as what they are in Thailand for example. The Banana Pancake trail has yet to fully hit Myanmar and despite an influx of travelers it is unlikely to do so soon. Therefore, for those sick of the whole youthful party scene, this will certainly be a welcome relief.

Yangon (3/4 days)

Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar and main economic centre although it is no longer the capital. It’s a bustling city and an intoxicating introduction to Burmese life. British, Chinese and Indian influences are all also clearly evident in a city with an intriguing past. It is the perfect place to start your time in Myanmar with highlights including numerous pagodas, religious sites as well as the home of Aung San Suu Kyi where she spent years under house arrest.

Getting from Yangon to Bago:

Buses from Aung Mingalar Bus Terminal go to Bago while all Mandalay bound trains stop here and it is only the equivalent of a couple of dollars or so for a ticket. If there is a group of you, consider hiring a taxi for the day (260km round-trip) as you will probably need one in Bago anyway as the sights are quite spread out.

Bago (1 day)

Lots more pagodas and reclining Buddhas! You could do this as a day trip from Yangon or stay overnight. Either way you will need to head back to Yangon to continue your journey and catch the train north. If you’re not massively into the Buddhist/religious aspect then you could skip it altogether as Bagan is far more impressive.

Getting from Bago to Pyay:

First head back to Yangon which shouldn’t take long. It is 285 km from Yangon to Pyay but is a lengthy journey, most pleasant by train. Trains leave at 7:00am and 11:00am from Yangon Kyemyindine station and at 13:00 from the main station in Yangon (fastest option). It takes about 9-10 hours to get from Yangon to Pyay by train and around 7 by bus.

Pyay (1/2 days)

It’s possible to take a night train from Yangon all the way to Bagan but it’s a long trip so you may wish to break it up by stopping in Pyay, a small town on the Ayeyarwady River halfway between the two. There’s not a great deal to see but that in a way is part of its appeal given the few parts of Myanmar that have opened up to tourism have done so in quite a big way. There’s little chance of you falling into tourist traps here because there aren’t any. This is a nice spot to grab a bike or hike and explore a rarely visited part of Myanmar.

Getting from Pyay to Bagan:

It is about a 10-hour bus journey from Pyay to Bagan with no train links. It is worth forking out a little extra for the only slightly more expensive air-con buses.

Bagan (3/4 days)

Perhaps the most iconic image of Myanmar. It has the largest and most extensive collection of Buddhist temples, pagodas and ruins in the world and is a truly incredible sight. As well as visiting the temples, you can witness monk and monkess initiation ceremonies and hire a boat out and explore the river. You can also do a day trip to nearby Mount Popa which is an extinct volcano but very green and a bit cooler than the hot plains that occupy much of the country.

Getting from Bagan to Inle Lake:

The trip from Bagan to Inle Lake is one that many travellers in Myanmar do although some do the country in the opposite direction and others go via Mandalay. Again there are no trains, so the buses are the best budget options. As of 2019, they cost in the region of $10-20 with various class options, taking 8-10 hours. It’s advisable to avoid the crowded minibuses and shuttle vans.

Inle Lake (3 days)

This is another essential stop on almost every backpacking route in Myanmar. It’s quite touristy by Burmese standards here but is one of the four main travel highlights of Myanmar (along with Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan). It’s a 20 km long shallow lake and is home to many different tribes who live on the lake itself, so it is a pretty unique place.

You can take a day tour of it although it’s advisable to try and speak with other travellers before booking one because some are major tourist traps where you are taken to a range of workshops/shops and repetitively encouraged to buy things.

Getting from Inle Lake to Hsipaw:

Another long journey here with daily AC buses taking 12-15 hours. They usually stop in Pyin u Lwin too so you could go there first and just take the train all the way from Hsipaw to Mandalay later on.

Hsipaw (2/3 days)

It is another long journey from Inle Lake to Hsipaw but in Myanmar you will soon get used to that! This town has one of the best markets in Myanmar and situated in a valley has some nice hiking opportunities. It is the start of one of the world’s most spectacular rail journeys down to Pyin u Lwin.

Getting from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin:

The train ride down is stunning and this is easily the most pleasant leg of this Burma backpacking route. At the time of research (February 2019), trains leave Hsipaw at 9:30am and arrive in Pyin Oo Lwin 3:55pm.

Pyin Oo Lwin (2 days)

The train ride down from Hsipaw is the main highlight but Pyin Oo Lwin has plenty to offer too. From the town you can visit some of the local Shan villages and some spectacular waterfalls. The town itself has a weird British vibe with horse and carriages and colonial houses.

Getting from Pyin u Lwin to Mandalay:

Another very pleasant if frustratingly long train journey. Trains depart Pyin Oo Lwin at 4:40pm and take over 4 hours to roll into Mandalay, which is only 70 km away.

Mandalay (2/3 days)

Mandalay is the natural concluding point to your backpacking route in Burma although it is very possible to do the trip in reverse and start from here. This is the Second City of Myanmar although there is not quite as much to do as in Yangon. The city does have the famous Royal Palace though and is known for its cultural diversity. It is also home to half of Burma’s monks.

Besides Yangon, this is where the only other remotely major international airport is and there are flights to Northern Thailand where you can continue your travels.

Places to visit in Myanmar

Yangon

Among the main attractions in Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a huge gold-roofed Buddhist temple. Sunset is an excellent time to go as the dome will be gleaming beautifully in the orange sun.

Apart from the pagodas, some people might feel that Yangon is not particularly rich in major ‘sights’ or museums, but I think there’s plenty to experience. You can have a wander through the streets and markets, or sit down in a tea house and watch people go about their business. Chinatown is a great area for street photography or to sample some very yum street food.

Interestingly, motorbikes are outlawed in Yangon. According to rumor a well-placed individual in the army had once been in a motorbike related accident, and then decided the city could just as well do without them. I am not sure if this is exactly how this law came to be, though it has resulted in the streets of Yangon having a relatively quiet and pleasant character.

Mandalay

Mandalay is the second largest city, and it’s mainly a great base for daytrips to various sights in the area. You can take a taxi or rent a scooter and make your way to the U Bien Bridge, Myanmar’s iconic 2.5 km long teak bridge across a lake, which is also the cover image of many Myanmar guidebooks. Another popular sight is Mandalay Hill, which has some great viewpoints where you can see the entire city below.

With lots of motorbikes and many power generators set up outside of buildings (as backups for use during power cuts), Mandalay is not quite as walkable or as tranquil as Yangon. Still, there is a lot of interesting city life to see here, and you’ll find various markets with great Burmese street food.

Bagan

With over 200 temples dotted around the landscape, Bagan is quite the sight. You can explore the area on your own by foot or by renting bicycles, or get a guide with horse carriage to ride you around.

A few of the temples you can climb on top of, and these make for perfect viewing points at sunset. Don’t miss this spectacular panoramic view! (It’s easiest to ask your guide or hostel where these particular temples are.)

Seen as a whole the temples of Bagan are especially impressive, though it’s maybe worth saying they’re fairly identical when exploring up-close, and many of the temples are essentially empty inside. By the time you’ve seen your tenth temple you’ll probably be ‘templed out’, but I’m only saying that to temper expectations slightly. You can easily spend a full day exploring the area.

Lake Inle

Lake Inle is the second big attraction in Myanmar after Bagan, though unlike the rest of the country things can feel decidedly inauthentic here. If you go on one of the boat tours, you’ll likely be dropped off at various tacky souvenir shops. Some of these shops have a member of the long-neck Karen tribes almost as a kind of human display. While the lake is beautiful, it’s becoming full of noisy longboats and there have been alarming reports about the ecological impact of tourism on the lake. Maybe these boat tours can be skipped. (They’re not so special anyway.)

The town of Nyaung Shwe is the main travel hub in this area from which to go on excursions. A worthwhile trip is to Inthein, a sort of mini version of Bagan. The hundreds of small crumbling temples and stupas here are overgrown with gnarly trees and foliage, giving these ruins a bit of an Indiana Jones feel.

A good way to see the beautiful nature near lake inle—and much less tacky or invasive than the boat tours—is to go on a trek. I did a 2 day trek from the town of Kalaw to Nyaung Shwe which was very enjoyable.

Train to Hsipaw

Riding a train in Myanmar is quite the experience! If you find enjoyment just in the act of traveling itself, I recommend taking a train in Myanmar at least once.

A popular route is the circle line in Yangon and you can read a great report about this on the blog Borders of Adventure.

Another recommended journey is the one between Mandalay and Hsipaw. You can get a minivan or taxi to the town of Pyin Oo Lwin first and then get on the train in the early morning, so you can catch the best part of the route.

It can be an uncomfortable journey though. If you are prone to motion sickness, the extreme swaying from side to side could easily trigger it.

The train crosses a canyon via the Goteik viaduct which was built during British colonial times. While crossing this bridge was not quite as thrilling as the guidebooks made me believe, this journey is more about seeing the beautiful landscapes passing you by.

It might also be just about the physical experience of being on a super old train. When it picks up speed you will surely be bouncing around the cabin, and you do have to watch your head if you’re near an open window as the trees and bushes get very close. At certain points during my ride, the train basically turned into a giant hedge trimmer cutting through the jungle, spraying leaves and branches into the carriage through the open windows.

Hsipaw is a great base for hikes in the area east of Mandalay. Since it’s at a higher altitude, it’s pleasantly cooler here compared to Bagan or Mandalay.

Kalaw

Located just 50m km from Inle Lake, Kalaw is a lovely town and serves as an ideal base for the famous Kalaw-Inle Lake hike. Check out the local market where you can try the traditional shan noodles and purchase a bottle of local wine. There is also a nice spa and wellness center located just a short walk from the train station. They offer everything from massages to foot scrubs and manicures at a fair price.

Many backpackers spend only one night here before going on a three-day hike to Inle Lake. The trek has become popular over the last couple of years and allows you to admire the beauty of the surrounding mountains and see the small picturesque villages along the way.

Ngapali Beach

If spending a couple of days on stunning beaches in a tranquil environment sounds like something you would enjoy, I recommend paying a visit to Ngapali Beach. You can go on fishing trips from the beach or join one of the boat tours.

The only downside is that accommodation can be expensive here, but you can always go down the coast to places like Ngwe Saung where it’s easier to get better deals. Keep in mind that from May to October it’s not recommended to visit the beach because of the monsoon season.

Kyaikto

A part of the Kyaikto Township in Thaton District, Kyaikto is an ideal base to see the Golden Rock which is one of the most famous landmarks in the country. You can climb the mountain in about 45 minutes to see the Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo Pagoda), a well-known Buddhist pilgrimage built on the top of a granite boulder.

Kyaiktiyo Pagoda - Golden Rock Myanmar

Mount Popa

Rising about 1,500 meters above sea level, Mount Popa is a great place to visit while backpacking through Myanmar. Located in Mount Popa National Park, this place is actually an extinct volcano with a lovely monastery on the top.

There are 777 steps to climb to reach Mount Popa. Luckily, the stairway to the top is covered and along the way, you will come across many locals selling everything from flowers to wooden handicrafts. There are also many monkeys along the staircase and what’s even better; you can see them in the monastery itself. The views from the top are breathtaking. If the weather is nice, you can see the Irrawaddy River from the top of the mountain.

Myanmar backpacking cost

You will be happy to hear that backpacking Myanmar is not expensive at all. The accommodation is affordable, the food is cheap, and the transport is reasonably priced.

Typical backpacking cost in Myanmar

Accommodation costs

Expect to pay around $15-$20 a night for a dorm bed, while basic private rooms can set you back around $30. Of course, the price depends on which part of the country you are visiting. In tourist destinations like Ngapali beach, accommodation is a bit on the expensive side. If you are visiting small towns, you can even get a dorm bed for as little as $10 per night.

Accommodation tends to cost a bit more in Myanmar than other neighboring countries. One reason for this is that the country was so isolated for so long, that there just wasn’t much need for that many hotels or hostels. Myanmar had to play catch-up, so prices are a bit higher.

Transportation costs

The cost of traveling from town to town in Myanmar is relatively cheap. Expect to pay around $6 for a bus ticket from Bago to the Golden Rock, while a ride from Mawlamyaing to Yangon will set you back $9. If you wish to go with a car from Sittwe to Mrauk U, expect to pay around $50 which is not that expensive if you find 2 or 3 other travelers to share the cost.

Costs for admission

Many historical sites have charge admission in Myanmar. For example, the entrance to Shwedagon Pagoda costs $8 and for the Golden Rock $6. Small temples usually charge a $1 fee. To enter Bagan, you will need to set aside $15.

Food costs

Street food in Myanmar is extremely cheap. You will pay around $1-$2 for a basic meal. In local restaurants, the meals are usually around $3. I liked the fish soup with rice noodles that they call Mohinga. Burmese curry is also delicious and usually comes with chicken, beef, or pork. Make sure to try the deep-fried stuffed tofu which is made in a special sauce and served with cabbage and chilies.

Suggested backpacking budget

How much does it cost to visit Myanmar? Not a lot! It’s a super cheap place to travel. If you’re backpacking Myanmar, you’ll spend around $25 USD per day. This will get you a dorm room (or even a private hostel room in some cases if you lower your other costs), food from the street stalls, a few drinks a day, a few tours day tours, and local transportation around the country. If you stay in dorms, you could travel for even less.

A mid-range budget of $40 USD will get you a budget hotel room with air conditioning, some sit-down meals at nicer restaurant, as many drinks as you want, and any tours and excursions you want too! This amount goes a long way in Myanmar and you really won’t have any problems doing anything you want. You still won’t be in the nicest digs or eat the fanciest meals but you’ll want for nothing.

On a “luxury” budget of $65 USD or more a day, the sky is the limit! You can stay at nice, chain hotels, full apartments, resorts, eat world-class meals, or opt for private tours! This country doesn’t cost a lot of money and $65 a day or more can get you whatever you need! The more you want to spend, the nicer things will get!

Here’s a suggested breakdown of your daily budget:

Type Accommodation Food Transportation Attraction Average Cost
Backpacker $5 $10 $10 $10 $35
Mid-Range $15 $15 $15 $20 $65
Luxury $46 $20 $25 $50 $141

 

Money in Myanmar

Whilst it IS now relatively easy to find ATMs pretty much anywhere in the country the ATM fees can be as high as nine dollars a pop so I recommend bringing cash and changing it instead. If you are bringing in cash, you need perfect US dollars or Euros.

As of July 2020, the current rate of exchange is between 1366 – 1446 MKK to the USD. The exact rate you get depends on the size of the note you are changing (100 dollar bills get the best rate) and where you are changing it (rates in rural parts of the country are not as good as the cities).

Top Tips for Visiting Myanmar on a Budget

Myanmar is one of the cheapest countries in Southeast Asia. There really aren’t any big money saving tips here unless you go out of your way to find the most expensive things to see or do. Food, accommodation, and transportation are all dirt cheap here but, if you really want to pinch some pennies, here are a few tips on how to save extra money in Myanmar:

  • Minimize your drinks – Every drink is a dollar and before you know it, you’ve spent more money on beer than on food and accommodation. There’s no reason this country should cost you more than $20 USD per day but if you drink a lot, you’ll need a slightly higher budget.
  • Stay put – You can usually negotiate a discount at a hostel if you stay for a week or longer.
  • Book tours and day trips as a group – You have more negotiation power when you are with a group of people buying multiple things. Traveling alone? Meet a friend at a hostel and see if they want to join the same tour as you.
  • Don’t book in advance – Don’t book any tours or activities before you get to your destination. They will be much cheaper when you arrive as you’ll be able to negotiate a lower price. Anything you see online is going to be more expensive than you need to pay!
  • Eat on the street – You can pick up tasty local fare for cheap! Street side snacks, soups, and noodles will keep your wallet fat! Markets are your best bet for finding seriously cheap and delicious food. Street stalls are the staple diet of locals in the region and should be your staple too. The food is the best too.
  • Bargain hard – Nothing is ever at face value here. Bargain with sellers as most of the time, the price they have quoted is way higher. There is a haggling culture in the region so play the game and save some money. You’ll never get the local price, but you might come close!
  • Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier will come particularly in handy in Myanmar since you can’t drink the tap water. Save money and thousands of plastic bottles and get a bottle that can purify the tap water for you.

Must-try experience in Myanmar

Meet the People in Myanmar

Most Burmese people are very very nice and genuinely friendly. The majority of locals refer to the country as Myanmar and prefer this to Burma as the old name only referred to the dominant ethnic group. Hitching, especially short distances, is easy and often people won’t ask for money, however, I think it’s only fair to offer as gas is pretty expensive by local standards.

Be sure to be a decent human being and don’t ruin Myanmar… The people are probably the main reason that Myanmar is such a special place.

Thanaka Face Paste

An unforgettable part of the Myanmar travel experience is trying out the local Thanaka face paste.

Considered a Burmese beauty secret, Thanaka is made from the pulp of the eponymous tree and has been proven to have natural anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and sunscreen properties making for excellent and truly organic skincare.

Most of Burmese women use to protect their skin and for beauty purposes. Traveling around the country, Thanaka paste is a common sight and such an ingrained part of Burmese culture that teachers will even apply Thanaka to young children at school to protect them from the harsh sunshine. Many people paint simple circle shapes, while others make more sophisticated designs with flowers and leaf patterns.

Thanaka is made from roots and timber covers of Thanaka trees after an easy process, being soaked in water and ground in a mortar. It is smooth and smells good. Burmese women love this natural cosmetic and even bring a small mortar along with them when they travel.

What to Eat in Myanmar

  • Burmese Curry – You can’t go backpacking in Myanmar without trying a proper Burmese curry. The curry is usually serviced with pork, fish, shrimp, beef or mutton. It includes rice, a salad, a small dish of fried vegetables, a small bowl of soup and a side of fresh crunchy vegetables and herbs-  a pretty wholesome meal I would say!
  • Local Tea Shop Snacks – Apart from serving tons of milk tea, local tea shops serve baked sweets as well as meaty steamed buns and dim sums. Enjoy a cheap snack with your tea, cause why not!
  • Shan Style noodles – The dish is a combination of thin, flat rice noodles in a clear, peppery broth with marinated chicken or pork and pickled vegetables. Yummy, healthy and bloody cheap!! Backpacker gold…
  • Shan Rice – Also known as fish rice, this Shan dish is one of the most typical Myanmar food and you can find it in most local places. The Burmese usually pair it with leeks, garlic and pork rind.
  • Deep Fried stuff – The Burmese love frying up stuff!! You get fried samosas, spring rolls, fritters, sweets, bread, noodles topped with deep-fried crispy garnishes. Sinful but delicious!!
  • Nan gyi thohk – Popular with tourists, this dish has rice noodles with chicken, thin slices of fish cake, bean sprouts and slices of hard-boiled egg. Pretty light on the stomach if you’re not feeling so great…
  • Mohinga – This is the favourite breakfast dish. It is made from rice noodles in a tasty herbal broth. And of course it has to have some crunchy stuff, in this case, it is banana pith that adds the crunch.

Trekking in Myanmar

Myanmar is a fantastic place to head out on a trek and the sky really is the limit… You can head off on extremely ambitious two week treks around Shan or Chin state and the Chinese Himalayas, which require special permits, are one of the last backpacker frontiers in South East Asia offering a whole bunch of unclimbed peaks…

Most people opt to do the very easy trek from Kalaw back to Inle Lake, although Pindaya to Inle is a better trek. Trekking in Myanmar is a fantastic experience and you can expect to crash out in local monasteries and homestays which will give you a great chance to interact with the very friendly local people.

Shan state is also a popular place to go trekking and there are some great hikes to be had around Kachin state as well… There are definitely plenty of off the beaten track adventures in Myanmar which have never been written about, go and find them! It is well worth taking a tent, especially if you are on a budget.

Backpackers’ accommodation in Myanmar

Myanmar’s backpacking accommodation is still fairly poor compared to the rest of Southeast Asia. There are a few cool hostels popping up in places like Bagan, Inle and Mandalay but you only have to take one step off the beaten path and your options rapidly dwindle.

This can actually be kind of cool as you will often end up staying in ‘Mom and Pop’ family run guesthouses where you will be welcomed into the family. I very rarely endorse booking accommodation in advance as my own travel plans change so frequently that I prefer to wing it, however, in Myanmar, if you don’t book accommodation in advance, you may well not be able to find a place to crash…

All of the half-decent, half-affordable, accommodation sells out weeks in advance and I strongly recommend that you book your rooms (especially for Bagan and Inle!) before you travel.

Location Accommodation Why Stay Here?!
Yangon Little Yangon Hostel Awesome hostel, clean, cozy, a great place to meet people and comes with free wifi!
Kyaikto Kyaik Hto Hotel A prime place to crash in Kyaikhtiyo, make sure you book it in advance as it gets booked out real fast!
Hpa-an/Kayin Little Hpa An Hostel Centrally located, this is an excellent choice for broke backpackers who are looking for a cheap place to stay.
Mandalay Ostello Bello Mandalay Currently one of the best backpacker friendly hostels in Mandalay, they have free breakfast and wifi!
Hsipaw Red Dragon Hotel Even though this is not a hostel, it is ridiculously cheap AND they offer free breakfast!
Lake Inle Ostello Bello Inle The Ostello Bello chain just started a brand new funky hostel here and they have great deals on happy hours!
Bagan Ostello Bello Bagan Clearly, these guys are killing it in the backpacker market! Can't recommend them more!
Mrauk U Mrauk U Palace Resort It is a bit difficult to find backpacker style properties here. So splurge a little and enjoy this chilled out resort.
Ngapali Beach Ngapali Banyan boutique Hostel Again there are no backpacker friendly options. This is the cheapest we could find there!
Mergui or Myeik White Pearl Guest house This is currently the cheapest property around. Again they offer free breakfast. Make sure to load up on that before you start your day!
Pyin Oo Lwin Orchid Nan Myaning Hotel  This is a cozy little hotel at a cheap price and it has dorms! It has a great common area where you can meet a ton of other travellers.
Kalaw Railroad Hotel This is where most of the backpackers stay when doing treks to/from Inle lake. The private tent room is great value for money & you get free breakfast.

Best time to go backpacking to Myanmar

The dry season in Myanmar runs from October to May. It starts to get real hot between March and June so the high season (when accommodation often runs out) is between November and February. I’ve travelled in Myanmar during June and would not recommend it; it was unbelievably hot. If you want to try and catch Myanmar without the crowds; consider rocking up early on in March.

Staying Safe in Myanmar

For the vast majority of visitors, travel in Myanmar is safe and should pose no serious problems. The political situation is stable and tourism is now actively encouraged.

In off-the-beaten-track places, where authorities are less used to seeing foreigners, local officials may ask you what you are up to. Saying you're a tourist normally satisfies them but be extra aware that you will attract additional attention in areas where tourism is less common.
While not unheard of, crimes such as mugging are rare in Myanmar. Locals know that the penalties for stealing, particularly from foreigners, can be severe.

The poor state of road and rail infrastructure plus lax safety standards and procedures for flights and boats means that traveling can sometimes be dangerous. Proceed with caution when crossing any road, particularly in cities. Do not expect drivers to follow road rules.
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots:

Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Myanmar

Myanmar people love to drink and good quality beer and rum is available very cheaply meaning there is always a party happening somewhere. Myanmar is part of the infamous Golden Triangle and produces a huge amount of opium but almost all of this is exported.

Despite being part of the Golden Triangle I was never once offered drugs of any kind whilst travelling in Myanmar – which goes in stark contrast to backpacking in India. The growing expat scene in Yangon are fond of crushing up Ritalin (which can be purchased without a subscription in some parts of the country) and snorting it – the effects are very similar to speed.

It is possible, but extremely difficult, to find low-quality marijuana in Myanmar but without a reliable connection (make friends with expats) your chances of scoring are practically zero. Rumour has it that one backpacker hid a small geocache amongst the temples of Bagan with a few tabs placed inside… Happy treasure hunting amigos!

As for dating…

In my humble opinion, Myanmar boasts the most beautiful women in all of Southeast Asia. Yangon has a growing party and rave scene and it’s possible to meet up with local girls in bars and clubs (most of which close at 3am). Bear in mind that this is a fairly traditional country and whilst Myanmar is opening up to the West, many girls are pretty shy, especially around Westerners.

Travel Insurance for Myanmar

A wise man once said that if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t really afford to travel – so do consider backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure! Traveling without insurance would be risky. I highly recommend World Nomads.

I have been using World Nomads for some time now and made a few claims over the years. They're easy to use, offer the widest coverage, and are affordable. Also, this is the only company I know of that lets you buy travel insurance after leaving on a trip.

If there’s one insurance company I trust, it’s World Nomads. Getting an estimate from World Nomads is simple - just click HERE, fill out the necessary info, and you are on your way!

Myanmar for solo female travelers

Myanmar is actually pretty safe for solo female travel, or at least as safe as anywhere else in Southeast Asia. 

For those especially concerned about safety while traveling its good advice to stick to the more traveled itineraries and partner up with a companion when exploring late at night.

You are unlikely to encounter any problems but should adhere to the dress code of this deeply Buddhist nation. Cover your shoulders and avoid revealing blouses, short skirts or shorts.

As Myanmar becomes better developed as a backpacker tourist destination a number of hostel chains have sprung up in the country catering specifically to solo travelers including the very popular Ostello Bello which has hostels in Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake.

Getting in and around

Backpacking Myanmar has exploded in popularity and with increased international flights and relaxed border crossings, it is now quite easy to get into Myanmar. Yangon is served by numerous airlines and you can easily pick up cheap flights from other backpacking destinations in Southeast Asia.

It’s also easy getting around Myanmar. There is a wide selection of buses, trains, vans, and open-trailer trucks to utilise. You just gotta know what you are doing!

Arriving in Myanmar

Most backpackers flying into the country start their adventure in Yangon but you can also fly into Mandalay (which puts you closer to Bagan) if you’re travelling from Thailand.

There are four border crossings between Myanmar and Thailand…

1. Mae Sot – Myawaddy (central)

This is the easiest way to get from Bangkok to Yangon and by far the most popular crossing due to its proximity to various places of interest in Myanmar. Ignore any advice that says this crossing is one-way only; this is not the case anymore since a new road was completed in 2016.

2. Phunaron – Htee Kee (central)

Buses go from Kanchanaburi in Thailand to the small border town of Phunaron. It’s a small and remote crossing (you can’t find it on Google Maps) and on a slow mountain road, though it’s fully accessible.

3. Mae Sai – Tachileik (north)

You can cross here into Myanmar from Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, but you’ll get stuck if you don’t have a permit to travel further overland which is rarely issued. This crossing is, broadly speaking, not usable for independent travellers intending to go into Myanmar overland without restriction.

4. Ranong – Kawthaung (south)

This crossing lets you enter Myanmar from the far south. The roads here are reportedly rough, and in bad weather conditions, overland travel to Myeik may not always be possible. This is, however, THE place to enter if you want to check out the stunning Mergui Archipelago.

The border crossing between India and Myanmar has been open for about eighteen months at the time of writing and, finally, makes it possible to travel overland from Europe to Southeast Asia without having to go through China.

It is currently not possible to bring a vehicle from India unless you agree to have a Myanman government tour guide with you for your entire time in Myanmar at a cost of $100 a day. It is, however, possible to drive a motorbike up to the border, sell it, cross the border and then buy a cheap Chinese bike on the other side for around $300.

Some reports indicate that you need a permit to be able to cross the India/Myanmar border but this information is outdated. Be aware however that on account of the escalating situation in nearby Rakhine State, the India/Myanmar border rules are subject to change without notice.

It is not currently possible for backpackers to travel overland to Bangladesh (and I doubt it will be for many years) or Laos (this will probably change soon) from Myanmar. Onwards overland travel to China is only possible with relevant permits.

Entry Requirements for Myanmar

Over one hundred nationalities can now apply for an e-visa online through this website. E-visas can only be used if arriving by air or crossing overland from Thailand. I have heard some mixed reports that it is possible to cross from India with an e-visa if you have some additional paperwork.

Visas typically cost around fifty dollars and are valid for thirty days. They can be overstayed by 14 days at a charge of three dollars per day plus an additional admin fee. If you’re not on the e-visa list and are from say, Iran, it’s still possible for you to get a visa – you just need to go to a Myanman consulate.

I secured my Myanmar visas from the Bangkok and Chiang Mai consulates and on both occasions, it took just a couple of days – be sure to take passport size photos with you! If you do need to acquire a visa I suggest checking out iVisa for assistance.

How to Travel in Myanmar

Travel costs, in general, are more expensive in Myanmar than other countries in Southeast Asia but it’s easy to hitchhike in Myanmar if you’re low on funds. Trains and long-distance buses are plentiful with the buses normally working out faster than the trains.

I took a few buses in Myanmar and always travelled at night (to save having to pay for accommodation). Travelling in Myanmar by bus is getting more organised. Rather than just rocking up at the bus stop in the hope they will have space to fit you on, you can now book tickets in advance for most of South East Asia using 12Go.

Internal flights are relatively cheap, according to Skyscanner – I didn’t fly whilst backpacking Myanmar. In some parts of the country, you can travel by boat and this is a really unique way to get around – the slow boat between Mandalay and Bagan is well worth doing if you have the time.

Local buses are very cheap but can be very crowded and uncomfortable – if you’re familiar with local transport in India or Central America then this won’t be anything new to you but if you’ve only travelled on ‘tourist transport’ before then you might find it a bit of a shock!

For the really long distances, if you’re not going to travel by hitchhiking, I recommend spending a bit more and going with a half decent bus company – JJ Express are relatively affordable and are clean, comfortable and reliable. Avoid travelling in the ‘private’ mini-vans.

Travelling by Motorbike in Myanmar

Motorcycling Myanmar is definitely the best way to get around and a recent relaxation of rules governing foreigners driving around has made things a lot easier. It’s possible to buy or rent a bike in Mandalay and other cities and from here you can embark on an epic loop of the country… I intend on returning to Myanmar via India by motorbike, watch this space.

Useful Travel Phrases for Myanmar

Not many people know this but the Burmese speak a total of 111 different languages. The official language is Burmese and some of the most important secondary languages are Shan, Kayin, Rakhine, Mon, Chin and Kachin.

Burmese is a Sino-Tibetan language and is one of the most widely spoken in the world. It was first spoken by the Bamar people and related ethnic groups. Today, Burmese is the primary language of instruction, and English is the second language taught in schools.
Here are a few useful phrases in Burmese for your backpacking Myanmar adventure:

  • Hello – kyaosopartaal
  • How are you? – Shin ne-kaùn-yéh-là?
  • Good Morning – Min-ga-la-ba
  • I don’t understand – Nà-m?leh-ba-bù
  • How Much – Blau leh?
  • Stop here – Dima seh meh
  • Where Is the Toilet? – Ein tha beh meh lay?
  • What Is This? – Da ba lay?
  • Sorry – Wùn-nèh-ba-deh 
  • No plastic bag – a bhaalsuu myaha m palauthcatait aate
  • No straw please – kyaayyjuupyupyee koutroe a bhaalsuu myaha m
  • No plastic cutlery please – a bhaalsuu myaha m palauthcatait meehpo hkyaungg sone kyaayyjuupyupyee
  • Help! – Keh-ba!
  • Cheers! – Cha Kwa!

Gear & Packing List

If you’re heading to Myanmar, knowing what to pack and the kind of backpack to get can be a little daunting. In this section, I’ll give you my suggestion for the best travel backpack and tips on what to pack.    

What to Pack for Myanmar

Clothes

  • 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 6 T-shirts
  • 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
  • 1 pair of flip-flops
  • 1 pair of sneakers
  • 8 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
  • 7 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
  • 1 toothbrush
  • 1 tube of toothpaste
  • 1 razor
  • 1 package of dental floss
  • 1 small bottle of shampoo
  • 1 small bottle of shower gel
  • 1 towel
  • Deodorant

Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)

  • Band-Aids
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Antibacterial cream
  • Eyedrops
  • Earplugs
  • Tylenol
  • Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)

Miscellaneous

  • A key or combination lock (safety first)
  • Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
  • Plastic bags (great for laundry)
  • Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
  • LifeStraw (a water bottle with a purifier)

Female Travel Packing List

Below is the list of what a woman needs as an addition to the basics above:

Clothing

  • 1 swimsuit
  • 1 sarong
  • 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
  • 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
  • 2-3 long-sleeve tops
  • 2-3 T-shirts
  • 3-4 spaghetti tops

Toiletries

  • 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease free in between washes)
  • 1 hairbrush
  • Makeup you use
  • Hair bands & hair clips
  • Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)

Volunteering in Myanmar

Looking to volunteer in Myanmar? You aren't the first person to do this! There are many travelers out there who have done what you're dreaming of, and better yet, who are doing it right now!

Long term travel is awesome. Giving back is awesome too. For backpackers looking to travel long term on a budget in Myanmar whilst making a real impact on local communities, look no further than Worldpackers.

Backpackers can spend long periods of time volunteering in amazing places without spending any money. Meaningful life and travel experiences are rooted in stepping out of your comfort zone and into the world of a purposeful project.

Worldpackers opens the doors for work exchange opportunities in hostels, homestays, NGOs, and eco-projects around the world — including in Myanmar.

A brief history of Myanmar

Myanmar, or should I say Burma, has a turbulent history… Run as a ‘province of India’ under the British Raj, Burma has seen numerous invasions and battles over the years. The Japanese occupied Burma during WWII and the country saw some of the fiercest jungle fighting ever recorded.

The Japanese rushed across the country, quickly overwhelming poorly equipped British forces and threatening India with an invasion. Hoping that the Japanese may bring change, Burmese nationalistic groups came together under the leadership of General Aung San to fight against the British. It didn’t take General Aung San long to realise that the Japanese were even worse than the British and towards the end of the war General Aung San switched sides and helped advancing British forces kick out the Japanese.

General Aung San fast emerged as a national hero and is often referred to as ‘the father of the nation’. He penned an agreement with the British for Burmese Independence within a year but in July 1947 he was assassinated along with several other prominent figures by political rivals. Burma went into mourning and a few months later, on 4 January 1948, the country gained its independence.

From here, things spiralled rapidly out of control. For ten years, the government struggled to contain ethnic uprisings by groups who wanted to stand apart from Burma.

Communist and other insurgencies kept the army busy and many atrocities were committed as the country slid further into bankruptcy due to poor management and the ravages of WWII. In 1958, General Ne Win announced that he would govern the country in a ‘caretaker’ position. Two years later he solidified his dictatorship with an army coup.

Ne Win’s new revolutionary council suspended the constitution and began authoritarian military rule. Tens of thousands went ‘missing’ as the army waged numerous wars against insurgencies on every front from groups determined to live in a free Burma.

The countries economy withered further and international visitors were limited to a handful of major cities which could only be visited with some serious paperwork. In 1988, Ne Win announced he was retiring and hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand fair elections. The army intervened and fired blindly into crowds of protestors, killing an estimated ten thousand civilians.

Thousands of student and democracy groups fled to the border regions which were largely under Ethnic militia group control and began to plan. At this time, as if a sign from the God’s themselves, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the father of the nation, General Aung San, returned to Burma after many years of absence and threw herself into the political fray.

Myanmar in Modern Times

In an attempt to quell international condemnation for violence against civilians, the military announced it would hold multi-party elections. After much convincing by student groups, Aung San Suu Kyi and like-minded colleagues founded the National League for Democracy.

The new party swept across Burma gathering more and more support. In the final hour, when victory seemed imminent, Ne Win orchestrated another army coup from behind the scenes and the country was thrown backwards once more.

Although committed to non-violence, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in July 1989 for “endangering the state” and kept there for the next six years.

Desperate to improve their image and generate foreign investment, the generals held the multi-party elections they had promised. Despite the army’s severe repression against members of opposition parties and the complete lack of freedom of expression throughout the country, Suu Kyi’s NLD party swept to victory with 82% of the vote.

Surprised and outraged, the army refused to acknowledge the election results and has retained its repressive grip on power ever since. In a bid to promote unity amongst the country, Burma was renamed to Myanmar in 1989 so that not only the Burmese people were reflected in the name of the country. In a further bid to protect their grip on power, the capital was moved from Yangon to Naypyidaw – a ghost-town in the middle of the jungle…

In 2002, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and the political situation began to thaw as her party was given some minor powers. The first tourists began to trickle into the country and slowly but surely word got out about Myanmar… An incredible, beautiful country with a dark history, filled with some of the world’s kindest people and an uncertain path ahead of it.

In 2007, violence erupted again as the army turned on peaceful protests by thousands of monks across the country campaigning for improved human rights and a proper democracy. The Monks protests became known as ‘The Saffron Revolution’ and Myanmar was, once more, a scary place to be a civilian.

Many army units refused to use force against the monks. Sadly, this was not the case across the whole army and an unknown number of civilians and monks were killed in clashes with riot police and army units.

Since 2007, Myanmar has emerged blinking into the light and more and more backpackers have rocked up to explore this truly incredible country. I wanted to cover the history of Myanmar here because if you really want to understand Myanmar it helps if you understand some of the challenges that the nation, and its people, have had to face over the recent years. Hopefully, the future is bright for Myanmar.

Books to Read about Myanmar

The Piano Tuner

The story of an unlikely soul sent on a top secret mission to Burma to tune the piano of an eccentric British officer living deep within enemy territory.

Myanmar Lonely Planet

It’s sometimes worth travelling with a guidebook and despite Lonely Planet’s history of selling out and writing about places they haven’t been to, they’ve done a good job with Myanmar.

War in the Wilderness: The Chindits in Burma 1943-1944

During WWII, The Japanese were an almost unstoppable force in Burma. The British, desperate to inflict some damage and postpone an inevitable invasion of India, dropped special forces soldiers far behind Japanese lines with orders to disrupt the Japanese War Machine and create havoc.

These unique jungle soldiers were known as ‘The Chindits’. War in the Wilderness is a comprehensive narrative of the human aspects of the Chindit war in Burma. It has heartfelt interviews from the veterans of the Chindit expedition – normal men who experienced the very worst of WWII and battled through starvation, jungle warfare and illness to strike a blow at the Japanese Empire.

Burmese Days

This book by George Orwell is a portrait of the dark side of the British Raj – of an individual trapped in the larger system.

The Glass Palace

This book by Amitav Ghosh is a sweeping story of Burma over a span of one hundred years. The picture of the tension between the Burmese, the Indian and the British, in this rendition is excellent.

Letters from Burma

In these astonishing letters, Nobel prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi paints a vivid and poignant picture of her native land. She also writes about the time when she was placed under house arrest in Rangoon in 1989- an account of one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners.

The Lizard Cage

This book talks about Teza who once electrified the people of Burma with his protest songs against the dictatorship. Arrested by the Burmese secret police, he was cut off from his family and contact with other prisoners

Closing thoughts

Being a Responsible Backpacker in Myanmar

Reduce your plastic footprint: Perhaps the best thing you can do for our planet is to make sure you do NOT add to the plastic problem all over the world. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, the plastic ends up in landfill or in the ocean. Instead, pack a tough travel water bottle.

Go and watch A Plastic Ocean on Netflix – it’ll change how you view the plastic problem in the world; you need to understand what we are up against. If you think it doesn’t matter, it is not you to travel.

Don’t pick up single use plastic bags, you’re a backpacker – take your daypack if you need to go to the shop or run errands.
Bear in mind, that many animal products in countries you travel through will not be ethically farmed and won’t be of the highest quality. I’m a carnivore but when I’m on the road, I only eat chicken. Mass-farming of cows etc leads to the rainforest being cut down – which is obviously a huge problem.

Recently, my gear-venture, Active Roots has started to sell water bottles. For every Active Roots water bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an awesome initiative aimed at educating people on the risk of single use plastic and helping to clean up our oceans. Help save the planet, whether you take an Active Roots bottle or not – TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for your plastic footprint, don’t be a dick.

Be Good to Myanmar

Writing your name in black marker on temples, chugging beer while shirtless, swearing loudly and visiting unethical animal attractions? You Sir, are a twat. Luckily, most backpackers don’t fall into this category but, when you’re out and about and have had a few too many drinks, it can be easy to embarrass yourself.

It’s easy to get carried away in South East Asia, everything is so damn cheap and so much fun. I’m in no way the perfect traveller; I’ve been the drunken idiot on the street. I know first hand just how hard it is to be the one person in a group to say no when somebody comes up with a stupid idea that, for some reason, everybody is down for.

By no means am I telling you not to drink, smoke and party. Do it and love it. Just don’t get so drunk you turn into an imbecile your mum would be ashamed of. If you can’t handle drinking buckets, then stick to beer.

If you want to see Elephants, then go and see them but do your research first. Look up ethical animal sanctuaries such as The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, who treat and care for animals properly. Don’t ride elephants.

If you’re not into seeing the temples, no worries but don’t be disrespectful, inappropriate or deface them – certainly, do not try to wander in shirtless.

Wear a helmet when you hop on a motorbike in Asia. Despite being an experienced driver, I’ve had a total of three crashes in South East Asia over the last ten years. On the one occasion, I wasn’t wearing a helmet, I split my head open and had to go to the hospital. It was an expensive mistake. The local people are sick of scraping foreigners off the road and, trust me, you don’t look cool for not wearing a helmet.

Humans are humans; treat people you meet along the way with the same respect you would show your friends and family back home. You are not superior to anyone including the girls/guys walking the streets. Sex workers in South East Asia are people like you and me; they may enjoy what they do, or they may be on the darker side of it.

Regardless of your beliefs and thoughts on prostitution, remember this is another person with thoughts, feelings and a life outside of the sex industry too. You are not superior to these people, you just happen to be from a more privileged background.

Go to Asia and have the time of your life, do the things you’ve dreamed of but be respectful along the way. Travelling the world makes you an ambassador for your country, which is awesome. We can make a positive impact on people when we travel and get rid of any ugly stereotypes that may be associated with your country…

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Hello, my name’s Jordan and I’m obsessed with travelling overland. Seeing how cultures change while travelling slowly captivates me; and doing so in an eco-friendly way, preserving the cultures and landscapes that so many travellers yearn to explore, has given me my travelling purpose.

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