Myanmar was off the itinerary for most travellers for decades because of the restrictions placed on travel by its repressive military governments, but the controls have been relaxed in the last 10 years and adventurous travellers are flooding back to discover the charms of old Burma. This Myanmar destination guide is just a taste of what you can expect to find in this amazing country.
But first a word or two of caution because we don’t want you to be disappointed.
If you’re expecting to find the comfort, organisation and tourist infrastructure of Thailand in Myanmar you’re going to be seriously disappointed. Myanmar is still emerging from the wilderness as far as western travellers are concerned and a lot of the tourist infrastructure is still being rebuilt or renovated. The standards tend to be much lower than neighbouring Thailand and the prices can be quite high by comparison even for basic accommodation. Compare hotels online before your travel and book ahead.
If you’re a foodie traveller, try to avoid eating in the hotels. Although the hotel food is OK, it’s mostly just a weak and often watery version of the real Burmese food you’ll find at street stalls, in markets and in the small restaurants that are popping up everywhere the tourists go. Burmese people love their food and care about the taste of it, so let them show you what it should be like! But be aware that a lot of the street food is deep fried and very oily. Also the streets tend to be dusty places to eat during the day.
The best time to visit Myanmar is in the cool, dry season that lasts from November through to February because after that it starts to get pretty hot and humid and you don’t feel like doing very much. Then the rains come from May through to October.
There’s no one place to go to in Myanmar. Each location has its own interests and attractions and you really want to see as much as you can while it’s still in a mostly original state. You’ll most likely begin your trip in Yangon and you’ll definitely want to go to Mandalay, but don’t stop there. Think about the ancient spiritual capital of Bagan that ranks alongside Angkor Wat and Borobodur among the world’s most significant archeological sites. Take a river tour up through the north and east of Myanmar to see real village life.
Oh … and plan to take some cash when you travel to Myanmar (see our guide to Myanmar travel money for more details). There are ATMs popping up all over the country now but sadly most don’t support foreign cards so you’ll find it hard to get money out while you’re there. Banks will exchange US dollars and Euros quite happily and you should plan to always have enough cash (Kyat) to last you for then next 4-5 days. The money you bring in with you should ideally be a mix of small notes you can use to bargain with and 50/100 notes to get the best exchange rates. Bring new notes to get the best rates as some money changers will discount torn, dirty or creased notes (seriously).
Oh … nearly forgot to mention that Myanmar throws a public holiday every time there’s a full moon (seriously). The banks and money changers stay closed along with many government offices and some businesses because full moon means religious ceremonies and commitments and this is a very religious country. So plan ahead!
Here’s our Myanmar destination guide to what you won’t want to miss when you visit Burma.
Yangon (more commonly called by its colonial name of Rangoon) is the commercial capital of Myanmar and the place you’re most likely to land in on an international commercial flight to Myanmar. As Rangoon, this city was the capital of British Burma in the 19th century.
The major attraction for travellers in Yangon is the incredible Shwedagon Paya pagoda, said to have been built in the time of the Buddha himself. A village has existed here since the 5th century and Yangon seems to have grown up around the pagoda.
The crumbling facades of the colonial buildings in Yangon have a certain olde worlde charm but mostly you’ll go into this area for beer and barbeque in Yangon’s Chinatown.
The only area to stay in Yangon is north of the river around Sule Paya, although you might be attracted to the shores of Kandawgyi Lake but there’s not much tourist infrastructure there (yet). There are more than 100 hotels and 120 guest houses to choose from in Yangon.
Cheap places to stay in Yangon
SleepIn Hostel in Lanmadaw Township is a good location in the city centre and easy walk to a big shopping centre where you can buy almost anything you need. There are also lots of good places to eat nearby and it’s a short walk to Chinatown for even better options. This is definitely a backpacker hostel but it’s clean with decent rooms and bathrooms and they include a free breakfast. The staff are genuinely friendly and they run a bar in the downstairs area that’s a great place to meet and mingle with other travellers. It’s air-conditioned but can run pretty cold at times. You can get a bed here for as little as US$10 per night in a 10-bed dormitory but you’ll pay around US$25 a night for a double room.
Hninn Si Budget Inn on Botataung Pagoda Road is a simple but clean and cheap hotel on the east side of the downtown area. The staff are friendly and helpful and the owner (Mike) speaks good English. The rooms have air-con and range from 1-5 beds with shared bathrooms. The hotel has good wifi (but it doesn’t work all the time) and a good breakfast is included in the room rate. There are lots of good places to eat nearby (walk out of the hotel, turn left and left again at the end for good street food).
Good mid-price hotels in Yangon
Alamanda Inn, located in Bahan Township, is a boutique hotel in a quiet residential neighbourhood in the embassy district of Yangon. The colonial-style hotel is spotless and very nicely furnished with fans (better than air-con for sleeping in the tropics and free wifi. The room rate includes a healthy and complete breakfast. French style food is also available for lunch and dinner in the covered outdoor restaurant. Room rates start around US$70.
Classique Inn is located on Golden Valley Road in Bahan Township, right in the centre of Yangon. This boutique colonial style hotel with well furnished rooms is located in the embassy district and is decorated with teak and traditional Burmese lacquerware. The neighbourhood is quite up-market but there are not many choice around for restaurants but the hotel does have a nice terrace area where they serve French style food and coffee. Room rates start around US$85.
Luxury hotels in Yangon
Belmond Governor’s Residence is the hotel you want to choose for the most luxurious experience of Yangon. Located in Dagon Township, this colonial style hotel still offers a colonial style guest experience from the cool lemongrass-scented face washers on arrival to the Myanmar set lunch in the dining room and club sandwiches on the terrace. The hotel is almost 100 years old but it has been well maintained and wears its age like a badge of honour. The rooms are very well appointed with king size beds, double vanities, robes and slippers in the cupboard and nice products in the bathroom. There’s also a bottle of delicious Prosecco and a tray of fruit in your room when you check in. Room rates are around US$285 per night.
The Strand is a five-star colonial hotel built by the Sarkies Brothers in 1901 that has been meticulously restored with huge airy rooms with vintage fittings, teak flooring and furniture, a cafe and bar. Its location in Strand Road tells a story and the elegance it portrays starts right from the moment you’re picked up from Yangon airport and checked in by the hotel’s butler. Your huge room has a king size bed, a sitting area and a washroom and each floor has its own butler. The shower is a bit small but this is an old, remodelled hotel so you have to expect some limitations. Good wifi and a great breakfast served from 4 AM round off the amazing experience of The Strand. Room rates start around US$285 per night.
Just the name “Mandalay” conjures up an image for most people, even though they probably don’t know why. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “On the road to Mandalay”? Or Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay”? What ever the reason, it’s a place you have to visit if you manage to get to Myanmar.
Unfortunately the old Mandalay that inspired Kipling is pretty much gone, levelled by bombing raids on the Japanese in Burma in 1942 and replaced by a modern city with heavy traffic dominated by a huge military base, but there are still good reasons to visit including climbing up Mandalay Hill from 10th Street to watch the sunset, exploring the Inwa where Burma’s ancient capital was located, or heading out to Sagaing, once the capital of the Shan kingdom, to see the Soon U Ponya Shin Paya hilltop pagoda.
Most travellers to Mandalay stay south and south-west of the old Royal Palace where there are lots of guest houses, bars and small restaurants to choose from. Unfortunately the narrow streets are usually choked with traffic much of the day but they are worth exploring all the same, especially after dark.
The south and west of Myanmar has only recently recovered after being ravaged by a big cyclone in 2008 but it is back in business and accepting tourists again. Most travellers go the Delta Region for the beaches like Chaung Tha, Ngwe Saung, or the most popular Myanmar beach destination of all, Ngapali Beach. You have to be a die-hard traveller to get as far as Ngapali because it’s a long haul in dodgy buses on bad roads and when you get there the hotels are a bit too expensive for comfort.
But if you do make it as far as Ngapali Beach (and cheats like us can do it on a 50 minute domestic flight from Yangon) you’ll be rewarded with beautiful white sand beaches, incredible seafood and some amazing snorkelling. There are some good hotels in Ngapali for less than US$100 a night, but make sure to book ahead.
South Eastern Myanmar
Not many travellers make their way into South Eastern Myanmar but there are an increasing small number attracted by sites like the holy pagoda at Bago which was once one of the most important Buddhist shrines in Asia and is still an easy day trip out of Yangon, 80 km away.
Another unusual attraction pulling travellers to South Eastern Myanmar is Kyaiktiyo Paya, another very holy and ancient Buddhist shrine built on top of a rock (Golden Rock) which is itself sitting on top of another rock (supposedly held in place there by a hair from the Buddha’s head). It’s not an easy place to get to though, requiring a 10 km hike from the small town of Kinpun which takes about four hours unless you hitch a ride (in which case you still need to walk for an hour or so). Note that women cannot go close to the shrine and even then must be covered up!
Further south is the old British capital of Lower Burma from the 19th century colonial period. Moulamein, now known as Mawlamyine, was the port that carried British trade in and out of Burma but these days it’s a pretty neglected and crumbling town visited mainly for the war cemetery. But there are some good markets along the Strand Road and along Upper Main Road and you can see some beautiful sunsets from U Khanti Paya pagoda or further up around Kyaiktanian Paya and Mahamuni Paya.
Most visitors go to Inle Lake to see the stilt-houses of the local Intha people and it’s usually done as a day trip out of Yangon on a long-boat. The lake itself is huge and although you’ll be there with lots of other tourists in their own long-tail boats, you’ll hardly notice them until you pull up at one of the popular craft workshop villages where everyone ends up at some point.
Bagan and Central Plains
If you’ve taken the time to explore places like Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Borobodur in Indonesia, you are the sort of traveller who will also want to see Bagan (once called “Pagan”) which is an ancient religious city of a similar scale scale and beauty on the banks of the Ayerarwady River (once known as the Irrawaddy River). Covering 60-70 square kilometres and with more than 2000 separate structures, Bagan is accessed from the regional town of Nyaung U.
There are two parts to Bagan – the old part built from around the 1oth century which has a walled palace and most of the best pagodas and temples and is easy to walk around; and the new part the sprung up in the early 1900s when the government made the old part a tourist attraction. The new part is not much to see but there are some nice newer temples.
Around sunset you’ll see all the tourists heading for the higher temples like Shwesandaw Paya and Pyathada Paya to get a good vantage point to watch the sunset. If you want to get away from the crowds and still see a nice sunset, try Buledi pagoda.
There are some reasonable hotels and guest houses in the new part of Bagan if you decide you’d like to stay for a couple of days.
Heading east from Bagan up into the Shan hills there are lots of other temple ruins to explore, some dating back beyond known records. One of the most interesting is called Thayekhittaya and can be found near the town of Pyay, dating back possibly to the 5th century. There’s only one hotel in Pyay and a handful of guest houses.
Unfortunately it’s pretty hard to get permission to travel into Northern Myanmar these days because of ongoing conflict in Kachin State, but there are a few destinations still open and well worth visiting if you can.
One way to see a fair bit of Northern Myanmar is to take a boat trip up the Ayerarwady River from Mandalay to see life in the parts of Myanmar that have not yet begun to change forever because of tourism. Take some time out to explore Katha, a small town on the river that became famous as the fictional town of Kyauktada in George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” novel – it still has a lot of the colonial charm that attracted Orwell. Or head north-east up to Bhamo near the Chinese border to explore the old Buddhist complex at Tain Pha and walk over the scary 500m bamboo bridge to Wa Thatar.
Katha has only one run down guest house, so make sure to book ahead if you decide to spend a night there! Bhamo is not much better off with three hotels, only two of which are worth talking about – the Friendship Hotel and the Hotel Paradise.
Have you recently visited Burma? Would you like to share your stories and photos? Are you planning to visit Burma and would like to ask some questions. Use the comment system below to let us know.