If you haven’t already thought about a trip to Myanmar, you should – now. It’s an amazing country that is still much less popular than its southeast Asian neighbors, but I doubt it’ll stay that way. While you could explore the country for weeks, if you’ve only got one, here’s a Myanmar itinerary that’ll take you to the main spots!
I flew in to Yangon from Bangkok, a short 1 hour trip on Airasia that cost maybe $50. You can also get there by bus, although it’s a lengthy (maybe 18-24 hr) journey and only a bit cheaper.
Be sure to get your e-visa before you arrive! You can get them online from the official government website for a small fee – mine only took a few days, so no need for more expensive visa services. Don’t forget to print the visa! You won’t be allowed on your flight without it, and no, just showing it on your phone isn’t allowed.
First: a few days in Yangon
Yangon is the capital and main city, and almost certainly where you’ll first arrive. It’s crowded, chaotic, and hot, and has none of the tourist infrastructure of Bangkok or even Ho Chi Minh City. Lots of people are tempted to skip it and head straight to the Bagan temples – but don’t make that mistake! There is tons to do here, from amazing food to the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda, a massive, 100 meter tall, bright gold temple that is a major part of the Yangon skyline.
A highlight of the city is the circle train, which is a full railroad system that goes (you guessed it) in a circle around Yangon. Locals take it for cheap transportation, and you can take it to get a tour of the city which, sadly, isn’t all that walkable.
Even though you might frequently be thwarted by massive, impenetrable highways, as usual on my trips I had the most fun just strolling the side streets, looking at the food options and endless motorbike repair shops. You can spend hours exploring Bogyoke Park, check out the Aung San market, see the national museum, and stumble on hundreds of other impossibly bright gold pagodas scattered around the city.
Just a few years ago there weren’t many backpackers here, but that’s changing quickly. There are more and more hostels, guesthouses, and restaurants targeting foreigners popping up, which has definitely made travel easier (if less authentic). I stayed at the Little Yangon Hostel, a small hostel off a side street and near parks, temples, and an infinite choice of tasty restaurants and street stalls. There are lots of other hostels, hotels, and Airbnbs to choose from, and they’re at least as cheap as in Southeast Asia – hotel dorms are less than $10/night!
Next: check out the temples of Bagan for a couple days
After a few days in Yangon, head north to the famous Bagan temples for 2-4 days. Bagan is a 12-16 hour night bus ride from Yangon – it’s super cheap, but if you’re only in the country for a week, it might make more sense to just take a 45 minute flight to Nyaung U, the small town nearest to the temples. There are a few airlines that fly from Yangon for about $100.
This area is pretty rural, and there aren’t a ton of housing options. I stayed at the Ostello Bello Bagan, which has a great location but is annoyingly expensive ($25-30 for dorm beds!). But even if you’re on a tight budget, I’d probably recommend staying here, as at least when I was there it was the closest hostel to the temples.
Bagan is best explored by e-bike, and there are tons of shops that will rent you a little battery-powered scooter for a few dollars a day. The temples are scattered around, and you’ll need to ride a few km to get between the main complexes.
NOTE: you should really get up in the morning to see the temples. The sun rises around 6, and you want to be sitting up on top of a temple by then! Sunset is good too, but it’ll be crowded. If you go in the morning you’ll be all by yourself!
But be careful on the scooters! Some of them are not in great shape (one guy’s back tire blew out immediately), and the pot holes on the street can send you flying. While I was there two people crashed their bikes and came back to the hostel with fairly nasty injuries – and they had to fly back to Bangkok to get medical care!
Other than the temples, there’s not much to do in the surrounding town. It’s fairly touristy for Myanmar, with western restaurants and souvenir shops – but nothing like Thailand.
Finally: go to the famous city of Mandalay
From Bagan, the former capital city Mandalay is a short 4 hour bus ride away – my ticket was less than $10. The buses are pretty comfortable, and there’s a short stop at a restaurant along the way. It also seems to be pretty common for the buses to drop you off right at your hostel/hotel, which is convenient.
NOTE: most bus companies will pick you up at your hostel in a truck and drive you to the main bus station. So if a pickup truck shows up and you’re told to get in back, don’t worry! You’ll get a real bus for the trip to Mandalay. Although if you want to ride in a pickup the whole way you can, and it’ll be bumpy and cheap.
Mandalay looks run down when you first arrive, but there’s lots to see and do here. There really aren’t many tourists, though, so housing options are more limited than in Yangon – I stayed at the Ostello Bello Mandalay, which was one of the few hostels in the city when I was there (not sure why the Ostello Bello chain has a monopoly on hostels in Myanmar!).
The first thing you should do is head to Mandalay Hill, which towers over the otherwise flat city. You can walk along the road to the top, which takes about 45 minutes, or hop in a pickup or on a motorbike taxi for $1 or less. At the top you’ll find Sandamuni Pagoda, an elaborate complex with small food stands, the temple, and a large area where you can look out over the city and the surrounding rice fields. Don’t miss it!
There’s also the Mandalay Palace, and the famous U-Bein bridge, which is beautiful at sunrise or sunset. Most of these sites are pretty far apart, but the city is actually pretty walkable. There are fewer highways than in Yangon, and there are tons of cafes and small restaurants where you can stop for a coffee along the way! But if you’re tired of strolling, you can get super cheap taxis (negotiate in advance of course), or you can rent a bike or motorbike for a few dollars.
That’s it! If you have more time in Myanmar there are tons of additional places to see, in particular Inle Lake. And you can also take a boat trip from Bagan to Mandalay, which is my top thing to do if I manage to get back to Myanmar!
Been to Myanmar? What was your favorite place? Let us know!
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