Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a country in Southeast Asia that is not yet as popular with tourists as it is with the other Southeast Asian countries. It opened its doors to tourists around 2012, after 50 years. It has got stunning temples, beautiful landscapes and rich culture that can easily match those of popular tourist destinations Thailand and Vietnam. I spent 10 days in this beautiful country and there’s just too much to see that 10 days isn’t enough. If you haven’t been to this country yet, I encourage you to visit it now, before it becomes a mainstream destination.
Myanmar has a tropical monsoon climate with three distinct seasons: the cold and dry season, hot and dry season and the wet season. The cold and dry season is from November to February, with average monthly temperatures that range between 20°C (68°F) and 24°C (75°F). The hot-dry season is from March to April with average monthly temperatures between 30°C (86°F) and 35°C (95°F). The wet season is between May and October with an average temperature between 25°C (77°F) and 30°C (86°F). (source)
The best time to visit is during the months of November to February when it is cold and dry.
Visa regulations are based on your passport/nationality. All visitors to Myanmar must hold a passport with a validity of at least 6 months. Ordinary passport holders from Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, and Vietnam do not require a visa for tourist visits of up to 14 days if entering and departing from Yangon, Mandalay, or Naypyidaw International Airports. Citizens from these countries need to apply for the appropriate e-Visa if they would like to stay in Myanmar for over 14 days or wish to enter or exit from any of the International Land Border Checkpoints.
Singapore passport holders can enter the country visa-free for tourist visits of up to 30 days and can enter and depart from all International Checkpoints. Visa exemption Pilot Program has been extended until 30th September 2020 wherein the citizens of Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China and Macau Special Administrative Region of China are allowed entry to Myanmar visa-free for tourist visits of up to 30 days and can enter and depart from all International Checkpoints.
There are 100 countries that are eligible to apply for a tourist electronic visa. The e-visa costs US$40 and allows a maximum stay of up to 28 days for tourists.
With the visa restrictions stated above, overland border crossing is a bit difficult to do. The easiest way to get to Myanmar is by taking a flight. Myanmar has three international airports located in Yangon, Mandalay and its capital Nay Pyi Taw, although only few airlines use it at present. Myanmar's international flag carrier, Myanmar Airways International, only serves destinations within Asia. To reach Myanmar from outside Asia, the cheapest way is to fly to a regional hub such as Bangkok, Hanoi or Singapore.
Burmese kyat (MMK) is the official currency of Myanmar. There are money changers at the airport as well as in the city center. Do not exchange all of your money at the airport. From experience, the exchange rate at the city center is way better. Exchange only enough Kyat to make it to your accommodation and to last for a day. The exchange rate at Yangon airport when I was there last June was US$ 1 = 1495 Kyats while at the city center it was US$ 1 = 1510 Kyats.
ATMs are available at the airport as well as the city center.
I recommend buying a local SIM card if you want to stay connected to the internet all the time. They are very cheap and you can buy a SIM card at the airport or at any phone shop in the city center.
The Ooredoo Tourist SIM card with 10 GB data plan costs 11,500 Kyats and is good for 30 days. Other plans available are 1 GB and costs 2500 Kyats, 2 GB costs 3500 Kyats, 3 GB costs 4500 Kyats, 5 GB costs 6500 Kyats, 20 GB costs 21500 Kyats and 40 GB costs 41500 Kyats.
Buses are available to get from one city to another. They are very comfortable and the most preferred bus company by foreign tourists is JJ Bus. It is a bit pricey but very luxurious to get around Myanmar. Do note that seats sell out fast especially for the 2+1 buses, so I advise booking ahead of time.
You can buy your bus ticket through your hostel/hotel, but it is cheaper if you book directly online on the bus company’s website. It is even cheaper if you book it at the bus station, however, the bus station in Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay are quite far from the city center.
If you have a budget, you can also take a flight. Myanmar has 4 international and 21 domestic operating airports with commercial flights.
I have only been to four places in Myanmar: Yangon, Mandalay, Inle, and Bagan so I can only share information about those four areas.
Taxis, Grab cars and buses are available to get around the city. As for motorbikes, only government-related officials may use motorbikes in Yangon Municipal area and they are not allowed to carry passengers. Motorcyclists from out of town ride are also not allowed to ride their bikes into Yangon. A good way of exploring Yangon is by foot if you want to check out Sule Pagoda and the colonial buildings near the Pagoda.
Nyaung Shwe township is where the famous Inle Lake is located. If you want to visit the tourist attractions in the lake such as the floating gardens, then you need to take a motorboat trip. To check out the town, you can either walk or ride a bike. There are hostels that offer free bike use for its guests.
Taxis, Grab car, Grab bike, Grab tuk-tuk and tourist vans (hotels/hostels arranges tours for the tourist attractions in the city) are available to get around the city. Driving a motorbike is allowed in Mandalay. I highly recommend using Grab bike to get around the city when you are on a limited budget and don’t have a license to drive a motorbike. It is cheap, fast and safe.
To explore Old Bagan, you can rent an e-bike for 5000 kyats. You can try walking to explore the area but you won’t see much if you do that because it’s a very big area. Driving a motorbike is also allowed in Bagan. If you want to visit Mt. Popa which is an hour’s drive from Old Bagan, you can book a join-in tour at your hotel/hostel and at tour agencies in Bagan.
Different types of accommodations are available in Myanmar. If you’re traveling solo, I recommend staying in a hostel to meet like-minded travelers and to save on costs.
The four cities that are most visited by tourists in Myanmar are Yangon, Nyaung Shwe, Mandalay, and Bagan.
Yangon used to be the capital of Myanmar until 2006 and is the largest city of Myanmar. It has the highest concentration of colonial buildings in all Southeast Asian cities. Myanmar used to be a colony of Britain from 1824 until 1948 and they made Yangon the Burmese capital in 1885. During that time they constructed a great number of majestic buildings in Victorian, Queen Anne, Art Deco, British Burmese, and Neoclassical style. Many of these structures now stand in a bad state because after the country’s independence, it was run by a military regime where no infrastructure improvements were made. Although Myanmar has three international airports located in Yangon, Mandalay and its capital Nay Pyi Taw, it’s easier to find cheap flights in and out of Yangon.
Shwedagon Pagoda is the most famous landmark in Yangon. According to legend, it was built more than 2600 years ago. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar. The pagoda is 326-foot-tall (99 m) and its very top is tipped with a 76 carat (15 grams) diamond. Locals say the best time to visit the pagoda is before sunset. It is nice to watch the sky change its color and when it gets dark the pagoda is lit up by spotlights.
Entrance fee: 10,000 Kyats (~USD 6.62)
Sule Pagoda is located at the center of downtown Yangon. If you’re staying in downtown Yangon, then you can reach this place by walking. According to legend, this pagoda was constructed before Shwedagon Pagoda. If you have very limited time, you can skip visiting this so long as you don’t miss Shwedagon Pagoda.
Entrance fee: 4,000 Kyats (~USD 2.65)
Maha Bandula Park is walking distance from Sule Pagoda. It is a very nice park with an obelisk commemorating the Burmese Independence from the British in 1948 can be found at the center of the park. It is surrounded by important buildings such as the High Court, Sule Pagoda, and Yangon City Hall.
Here you will find shops selling handicrafts, clothes, pieces of jewelry, foodstuff and many more.
This is a great way to experience first hand the local culture. The train ride is three and a half hours and will take you to local markets and neighborhoods.
Nyaung Shwe Township is where Inle Lake is located. Travelers with plenty of time usually do the trek from Kalaw in the western Shan State to Inle. The highlight of the trip to Nyaung Shwe/Inle Lake is the boat tour around the lake. Do note that they collect a 15,000 Kyats (~US$ 9.93) Archaeological Zone Pass fee upon entering Inle Lake. Although no one’s going to check the ticket afterward, keep the ticket just in case.
A fisherman in Inle Lake doing the traditional way of fishing: they balance with their one leg and they wrap their other leg around an oar and use it to maneuver their boats around while holding a net to catch fish
The boat tour is one of the must-dos when you visit Nyaung Shwe. It is the best way to explore the lake and to get a glimpse of the local life.
This is a good place to watch the sunset. It is 100% local producer of both red and white wine in Myanmar. For only 5000 Kyats (~US$ 3.31), you can have a wine tasting experience while admiring the nice view of the vineyard. The place is very relaxing and people who love taking pictures for Instagram will surely love this place.
The second-largest city after Yangon, it lies at the center of mainland Myanmar. Many say there is not much to see in Mandalay, that the better ones are the ancient cities around Mandalay- Sagaing, Inwa, Amarapura, and Mingun. I was not able to go to Mingun but I agree that Sagaing, Amapura, and Innwa have beautiful sights. But I’d say Mandalay has a lot to offer too.
The Mandalay Palace is the last royal palace built by the last Burmese monarchy. On the large complex are throne halls, audience halls, a monastery, a watchtower, a court building, a tooth relic building, and a library. It was built between 1857 to 1859 and was completely made from teak wood. It was built in the center of a large fort. The palace was destroyed by fire during the Second World War after a bombing raid. Only the Royal Mint and the watch tower survived the bombing raid. The palace was rebuilt during the 1990s following the original design but partly using modern materials like concrete.
Entrance fee: 10,000 Kyats (~USD 6.62) (They will also ask you to leave your passport. If you are not comfortable doing this, you can tell them you left your passport at the hotel and ask if you can leave them a valid ID instead.)
Mandalay Hill is a 240 meters-high hill. At the top of the hill is the Sutaungpyei Pagoda. The climb to the top is easy and takes around 40 minutes. It is mostly on a covered concrete staircase. What makes it hard is doing it barefoot, from the bottom to the top. The reward of climbing the hill is a panoramic view of Mandalay- the moat surrounding the Mandalay Palace, the temples and pagodas, Irrawaddy River, the buildings, the hills and mountain ranges.
If you are unable to climb the stairs, there is a one-way motor road that leads to an escalator and elevator to the pagoda at the summit. The reward of climbing the stairs is that there is so much to see along the way, such as the gigantic standing image of the Buddha with his right hand pointing towards the city, small stupas, and shops selling flowers and umbrellas for the Buddha.
Located on the foot of Mandalay Hill, Sandamuni Pagoda houses the Sandamani image, the largest iron Buddha image in Myanmar. It is made of almost 19 tonnes of iron and is now covered with a layer of gold. Surrounding the central pagoda are 1774 shrines. Each shrine houses a single marble slab, where the teachings of the Buddha consisting of Sutta, Vinaya and Abhidhamma commentaries and sub-commentaries are inscribed.
A short walk from the Sandamuni Pagoda is the Kuthodaw Pagoda. It is home to the world’s largest book. This “book” consists of 729 marble slabs inscribed on both sides in Burmese script. Each marble slab represents one of the “pages” of the book and housed with individual shrines known as a kyauksa gu. The texts inscribed in the slabs are from a page of text from Tripitaka, the teachings of the Buddha written in ancient Pali language. The shrines are lined in long organized rows around the complex.
U Bein Bridge is a wooden footbridge located in Amarapura that spans the Taungthaman Lake. It is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. This 1.2-kilometer bridge was built from wood reclaimed from the former royal palace in Inwa. Most people who visit Mandalay usually visit U Bein Bridge during sunset. And I almost did that too because that’s what I have read from blogs. But my guide in Mandalay told me it is better to go there at sunrise because at sunset the bridge is full of tourists. So we went there at sunrise and I’ve seen less than 20 people at the bridge. And these people are locals doing their early morning exercise. I enjoyed the early morning breeze as I crossed the bridge.
Two months after I visited the bridge, my friend visited it at sunset. He said it was too crowded so he didn’t stay long. Even the parking area was full.
Every morning at 4:00 in the morning, the most senior monk at the Mahamuni Buddha Temple performs the daily ritual of washing the face of the Mahamuni Buddha image with fresh towels and brushing the teeth with large brush. The ritual lasts for about an hour.
If you want to take a break from temple/pagoda visits, I recommend going to Dee Dote Waterfalls. It is more than one-hour motorbike drive from Mandalay, but it is worth it. You need to hike for about 20 minutes from the parking lot to get to the waterfalls. There are rock pools at the swimming area.
There are plenty of nice spots to visit in Sagaing, Inwa, Mingun and Marapura. Highly recommended places are Sagaing Hill and Sitagu International Buddhist Academy in Sagaing; Lay Htat Gyi Monastery, Yadana Hsemee Pagoda Complex, Win Ka Par Temple, Myint Mor Taung Pagoda and Inwa Fort in Inwa; and Hsinbyume Pagoda, Mingun Bell and Mingun Pahtodawgyi Temple in Mingun.
If you’re looking for an interesting experience, then maybe you should add this to your list. In this pagoda, there are three pythons living near the statue of Buddha. At 11:00 AM every day, they are bathed in a swimming pool.
Located in the outskirts of Amarapura, the Jade Pagoda is believed to be the first jade pagoda in the world. It is covered with over 10,000 long tons (10,000,000 kg) of jade and has a height of 75 feet 6 inches (23.01 m).
An ancient city located in Central Myanmar, it is home to more than 3,500 stupas, Buddhist temples, monasteries, and other structures with many dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. At certain months (usually from October to April), you'll see hot-air balloons soaring over the ancient pagodas early in the morning. Last year (2019), UNESCO inscribed Bagan as a World Heritage Site. Just like Inle Lake, they collect a fee for Archaeological Zone Pass upon entering Bagan. The fee is much higher, 25,000 Kyats (~US$ 16.56) for 5 days stay in Bagan. Keep the ticket with you because some temples ask for the ticket when you enter.
There are plenty of shops renting e-bike in Bagan. You can rent it for 5000 Kyats (US$ 3.31). I recommend starting early to catch the sunrise. If you still feel sleepy afterward, maybe go back to your room to take a nap or have breakfast then continue checking out the temples. You won't be able to check out all the temples so just try and visit the ones that are highly recommended.
One of the must-dos in Bagan. In the past, people were allowed to climb temples. So what they do is they choose the taller pagodas to watch the sunrise or the sunset. However, to preserve the temples, they no longer allow tourists to climb the pagodas. When you're in Bagan, many locals will approach you and tell you they know a temple that you can climb that is a good spot to watch the sunset.
Nan Myint Tower is an observation deck where you can have a panoramic view of the temples. There is a fee (I think it is around 5,000 Kyats (US$ 3.31)) but the view there is stunning.
Mount Popa Monastery/Popa Taungkalat Monastery is located atop a huge rocky outcrop on the slopes of the extinct volcano Mount Popa. To get to the monastery at the top, you need to climb 777 steps barefoot. At the top the view is amazing.
If you are afraid of macaques, doing this might not be a good idea because there are lots of them from the jump-off point all the way to the top. Do not wear a cap or sunglasses while there because they might grab it.
Try eating at local teashops. Try Myanmar tea, local soju, shan noodles, fried vermicelli and samosa. Try eating in local restaurants too where their menu is they show you dishes in small plates and then you choose which food you would like to have.
Also, when you visit Myanmar, you will probably see people with a white-yellowish thing on their face. It is called thanaka. It is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. They say that it provides protection from sunburn, and is believed to help remove acne and promote smooth skin. Try putting this on your face too, to have the complete Burmese experience.
And of course, the longyi. It is a piece of cloth worn around the waist, running to the feet. It is widely worn in Myanmar. You can buy one in the market.
1. You need to pay a fee when entering Bagan and Inle Lake. They collect the fee at a checkpoint upon entering Bagan/Inle. The entrance fee in Bagan is 25000 kyats and 15000 kyats in Inle. The ticket is valid for five days. Keep the ticket because there are temples in Bagan that ask for it upon entry.
2. You will be required to pay 10000 Kyats for Mandalay Archaeological Zone Fee when you visit Mandalay Palace. Also, you will be asked to leave your passport at the gate. My friend told me that he told people at the gate that he left his passport at the hotel so they asked for his driver’s license instead.
3. Don’t stay too long in Yangon. One or two days there is enough. Just don’t miss visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda when you are there.
4. Bring diarrhea tablets with you, in case you are not used to spicy foods. Some Burmese foods are very spicy and might cause you stomach trouble.
5. Burmese people are generally kind and friendly. However, there are some who would try to scam you, especially in touristy areas such as the Sule Pagoda (I experienced getting scammed here) and in Bagan. If someone approaches you and appears to be super friendly and starts following you and telling you stories about the place, be cautious because later on he/she might ask you to give him/her money as a fee for guiding you.
6. If you’re visiting Mt. Popa, be careful with the monkeys. There’s a lot of them. They might steal your cap or eyeglasses/sunglasses. Or they might jump on your back. (Happened to me on my way down. I got really scared haha).
1. Use footwear that is easy to take off. This is to avoid the hassle of taking it off and putting it back on. You are not allowed to use footwear, even socks when entering pagodas.
2. Bring a plastic bag or shoe bag. You may leave your footwear at the entrance of the pagodas (some have lockers for shoes). But if you are afraid of losing it (though I doubt if someone will steal it), then better keep it inside your bag. In some pagodas, locals will offer to look after your footwear but will charge you afterward. It didn’t happen to me because I always bring a plastic bag but I have read reviews of people who experienced it.
3. Bring wet wipes, lots of it. You’ll be needing it to clean off your feet. Imagine how your feet will look like after walking around the pagodas barefoot.
4. Dress appropriately. Wearing shorts (even for guys) and mini-skirts are not allowed inside a temple/pagoda.