Backpacking Route in Myanmar (Burma)
Myanmar or Burma if you prefer is Southeast Asia’s fastest growing backpacking destination since the government decided to relax a lot of the restrictions on travel a few years back. It’s still a comparatively more difficult and frustrating place to visit when compared to its welcoming neighbours in Southeast Asia but it also has a special charm that often grips first-time visitors. The country certainly offers a greater sense of stepping into the unknown than some of the increasingly commercialised backpacking towns and destinations in the region.
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 travellers it is unlikely to do so soon, so for those sick of the whole youthful party scene this will certainly be a welcome relief.
TIME NEEDED – 3/4 WEEKS
It can be done in more or less time but travel in Myanmar is quite slow and unreliable so it is possible some days will be spent mostly on buses or trains so you may require more time than you initially think. 3 or perhaps 4 weeks should be a reasonable amount of time for our backpacking route for Burma.
You can find a longer route including Myanmar and 6 other countries in our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia (Ebook).
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £530 | €610 | $650
These figures are calculated on January 2017 prices and exchange rates. Other prices in this article are from 2015.
Budget Travel in Myanmar is more difficult than the rest of SE Asia but it’s still a fairly cheap country to visit. A possible shoestring budget for a backpacking trip in Myanmar might be in the region of $25-30 per day but could be done on slightly less or plenty more depending on your preferences. The figures above are based on staying in cheap places and travelling, eating and drinking like a proper shoestring traveller. It doesn’t include the cost of flights in or out of the country or a visa.
Read more on the cost of travel in Myanmar.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR MYANMAR
Only people from other Southeast Asian countries can visit Myanmar without a visa. E-visas and ‘Visa on arrival’ are now available for almost everyone else and has made visiting the country that little bit easier. There is some handy info on the visa policy of Myanmar here.
Essential for backpacking trips in Southeast Asia. Healthcare isn’t terribly advanced in Myanmar and if you get ill or injured World Nomads can help and are as experienced as anyone at providing cover for backpackers.
Myanmar Backpacking Route
Getting to Myanmar:
Getting into the country is a challenge in itself with land crossings limited and few international airports. The easiest way in is to fly in to Yangon which you can do from many cities across Southeast Asia with Air Asia typically offering the cheapest fares.
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 history. It is the perfect place to start your time in Myanmar with lots of wonderful pagodas and religious sites as well as the home of Aung San Suu Kyi where she spent years under house arrest.
MFT RECOMMENDS – 20th Street Hostel, Yangon
Air-con dorms and excellent staff make this one of the best hostels in town.
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 about $1 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.
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 285km 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. It takes about 9 hours to get from Yangon to Pyay by train and around 7 by bus. It’s very cheap though at around 4,000-5,000 Kyat ($4-5) either way.
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 costing in the region of 10,000-13,000 Kyat ($10-13). It is worth forking out a little extra for the only slightly more expensive air-con buses.
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 daytrip to nearby Mount Popa (pictured at the top of the page) 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 go in the opposite direction and others go via Mandalay. From Bagan you can get a bus to Shwenyaung which is on the highway just north of the lake. You can take a night bus at 7 or 8pm which will see you arrive at dawn or take a morning bus at 8:00am which gets you in at 6:00pm the same day. These buses cost $22 which is a little more than the very cheap ones but they are small, slow and not really suited to large foreigners! There are also reports of an AC bus to Nuang Shwe which is closer to many of the Inle Lake guesthouses and leaves Bagan at 7:30. Times and prices are prone to slight changes though so check the current situation when you are there.
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 20km long shallow lake and is home to many different tribes who live on the lake itself so it is an uniquely fascinating 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 and costing around 15,000 Kyat. They again leave from Shwenyaung which is about 15 mins by taxi from the Lake. 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.
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. Trains leave Hsipaw at 9:40am and arrive in Pyin Oo Lwin 4:05pm.
Pyin Oo Lwin
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 5:40pm and roll into Mandalay, which is only 70km away, 5 hours later.
Mandalay is the natural concluding point to your backpacking route in Burma although it is possible to do the trip in reverse and start from here. This is the Second City of Myanmar and although there is not quite as much to do as in Yangon, the city has a famous Royal Palace and is known for its cultural diversity and 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.
MFT RECOMMENDS – Four Rivers, Mandalay
Certainly one of the best budget options in Mandalay. Modern facilities, good wifi and sizeable common areas, none of which are that easy to find in Myanmar.
Getting from Mandalay to Northern Thailand
This is the most popular and obvious way to link a trip to Myanmar in with a longer stint in Southeast Asia. You can fly from Mandalay to Chiang Mai for about £65 with Bangkok Airways. Note that travel in certain areas of Myanmar is still highly restricted and it’s hard to cross by land into Thailand so flying is your best bet. The rules do change every now and then so perhaps check on the current situation when you come to travel but in all likelihood you will find yourself flying in and out of Myanmar. You can easily combine this route with our backpacking route for Thailand.
Extending your trip
You could easily combine this trip with our main backpacking route for Southeast Asia or sections of it. You could for example do this instead of travelling from Bangkok to Chiang Mai through Thailand.
If you like being away from the tourist crowds then our Indonesia route may also appeal as it features a few more destinations which aren’t so popular and by going further off route, you can really discover the real Indonesia.
As for Myanmar itself, this route covers all its main sites of interest. Some of the other areas have travel restrictions in place so it’s not always the best country to go off the beaten track but if you like a challenge then there’s usually a way.
Budget Accommodation in Myanmar
Many of the budget places have no online presence with the internet not great in the country, certainly outside Yangon so booking online isn’t really a necessity or even a wise idea here. Small backpacker areas are developing with a few budget options but expect to pay slightly more than in other parts of Southeast Asia.
This article was published in March 2015. Some of the prices and train/bus times quoted in the article may have changed.