Planning a trip to Myanmar but unsure where to start? Most visitors to the country only make it to Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay.
While these destinations should all be on your Myanmar bucket list, if you make it off the tourist trail even a little you’ll be rewarded with a country largely untouched by the hordes of tourists seen in neighbouring countries.
You’ll see men in longyi chewing betel nut and women and children painted with thanaka, a natural sunblock made from bark. Burmese cuisine is distinctly different from food you’ll find elsewhere, and you might grow to love it. You’ll be amazed by the kindness of strangers, and be in awe of the diverse landscapes and pagodas you’ll stumble across on your travels.
This Myanmar backpacking itinerary will show you the best things to see and do and what to budget to make your trip an epic one!
Is now the right time to go backpacking in Myanmar?
Ethically speaking, is now the right time to go to Myanmar?
When I went I wasn’t overly aware of the charged political climate in Myanmar. I only knew there were remote areas where tourists weren’t allowed due to fighting between the government and Shan and Kachin separatists.
But it’s only really in the time since I went that more information has come out about the persecution of the Rohingya. A Muslim people in Rakhine state, they have been denied citizenship by the government and forcefully removed ‘home’ to Bangladesh. The attacks by the government have been described as ethnic cleansing and even genocide. Numerous villages have been destroyed, thousands of people massacred and nearly one million Rohingya made refugees.
So, should you cancel your trip to Myanmar?
I don’t think so. Since the international boycott on tourism lifted in 2010 the tourism industry has grown significantly, helping many people find work. To stop tourism in Myanmar would seriously affect the local people and local businesses, most of whom have nothing to do with the crisis in Rakhine.
Instead, you can help practice responsible tourism by doing your best to stay in family run guesthouses, eat at local cafes, and travel on local transport. For more information on ethical travel in Myanmar check out this article.
THE BEST TIME TO GO BACKPACKING IN MYANMAR
In Myanmar May to October sees heavy rain. From March to May the country gets hot with Bagan and Mandalay often seeing temperatures in excess of 40°C. The best time to visit is from November to February when temperatures are more manageable and there’s less rain. We went in February and saw clear blue skies and temperatures ranging from 28°C-32°C.
BACKPACKING MYANMAR ON A BUDGET
Myanmar has a reputation as being more expensive than neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. While accommodation in particular is slightly more pricey, it’s still an affordable country to visit on a backpacker’s budget. We stayed in private rooms in hostels and hotels and spent 791,700 kyat ($521 USD) for 16 nights; an average of 49,386 kyat ($32.50 USD, $16.30 each) per night. You could definitely do it cheaper if you were staying in dorms in hostels.
Transport is pretty cheap; a 5-6 hour bus trip could cost you around 12,156 kyat ($8 USD).
Food is affordable and tasty; look to spend around 3000-4500 kyat ($2-$3 USD) for a local meal.
Budget’s depend a lot on your travel style, but you could travel comfortably in Myanmar on a daily budget of $35 USD.
Most visitors to Myanmar will have to apply for an eVisa. Luckily, it’s a quick and easy process. Go to the Myanmar eVisa website, apply for your visa online (it should be approved within 3 days) and get it stamped upon arrival. Tourist eVisas cost $50 USD.
BACKPACKING MYANMAR QUICK TIPS
Currency: The Burmese Kyat (MMK) is the offical currency of Myanmar. USD is accepted at some hotels and larger chains, but kyat is the preferred currency. 1 USD is equivalent to roughly 1420.72 MMK.
Language: Burmese is the offical language in Myanmar, though many other indigenous languages are also spoken. You’ll find that English is commonly spoken in bigger cities like Yangon and Mandalay, but in smaller towns like Pyay or Kalaw its less common.
Credit Cards & ATM’s: Back in 2012, when Myanmar had only recently reopened to tourism, there wasn’t a single ATM machine in the country. Today, however, most major cities and tourist destinations will have ATM’s. I’d recommend carrying cash with you in more remote areas. While in Kalaw we couldn’t find a working ATM, and you don’t want to get caught out.
Plugs: In Myanmar power plus are type C, D, F and G. The standard voltage in Myanmar is 230 V and the standard frequency is 50 Hz.
Safety: If you stick to the tourist trail in Myanmar safety shouldn’t be too much of an issue. However, there are some areas in Myanmar where, due to political unrest and ethnic tensions, it can be unsafe for tourists to go. Always check with your local travel advisory before you go. Myanmar can be more conservative than neighbouring countries so dress appropriately to respect local customs.
Backpacking Myanmar Itinerary: Where To Go & What To Do
- Yangon: 2 Nights
- Pyay: 2 Nights
- Bagan: 4 Nights
- Kalaw: 2 Nights
- Kalaw to Inle Lake Hike: 2 Nights
- Inle Lake: 3 Nights
- Mandalay: 3 Nights
Yangon: 2 Nights
Your Myanmar adventure will likely begin in either Yangon or Mandalay. Once the capital of Myanmar, Yangon is crazy, colourful and chaotic. It’s a fun city to explore, with market stalls lining the streets, crumbling old buildings and traffic that will give you serious anxiety. No joke, I almost got hit by a bus.
Make sure to check out Shwedagon Pagoda. Said to contain some of Buddha’s hair, this gem-encrusted golden temple is spectacular. If you’re lucky you might be met by a man called ‘Uncle’ who for a small fee will show you the best photo spots, teach you the pagoda’s history, and explain your Burmese zodiac sign. FYI, I’m a fire-breathing dragon. Time your visit for sunset and watch the light dance over the stupas.
Sule Pagoda is also worth checking out; it’s just as golden and jewel encrusted, if a little smaller. Craving a bit of nature in this buzzing city? You should head to Kandawgyi Park for a peaceful few hours by the lake.
Eat: For dinner check out the famous 19th Street. Lined with barbecue stalls you just grab a table, point to which skewers you want and end up with a cheap and delicious meal.
Pyay: 2 Nights
Most tourists will hop on a bus from Yangon straight to Bagan, but if you do you’re missing out. Instead break up your journey and spend a day exploring Pyay.
Pyay is a town on the Irrawaddy River with a population of roughly 900,000. Tourist population: 3 (when we were there). In Pyay you’ll find some of the nicest Burmese people around, bustling local markets, beautiful pagodas and a town as of yet largely untouched by tourism.
There are some towns where you can just relax, meander slowly through the streets and soak up the atmosphere. Honestly, Pyay is not one of those places as it’s a sprawling town and the main attractions are quite far apart.
Luckily for us we had organised a private tour with a local man called Ko Tin Win – he goes by the name “Scott Yoghurt”. In the morning Scott arrived at our accommodation with another guide and two motorbikes, and we were off.
Our day with Scott was one of the highlights of our time in Myanmar. He took us to the ‘Buddha with Glasses’, a local market where we got to try on thanaka paste, various pagodas, and an orphanage (he volunteers there) where we got to play with the local children. He’s one of the nicest people you could meet, and a day touring with him will make your time in Pyay unforgettable.
Bagan: 4 Nights
Next up on your Myanmar backpacking itinerary you’re heading to Bagan, one of the most incredible places I’ve ever visited. Similar in scale to Angkor Wat but largely without the crowds, the city is home to over 2,200 pagodas scattered across the landscape.
The most famous pagodas will likely be crowded with tourists who shuttle in on their tour buses. Instead, rent an e-bike for roughly 5000-7000 kyat ($3.30-$4.65 USD) per day and head away from the crowds to feel like a real-life Indiana Jones.
Do see the main sites like Ananda and Dhammayangyi Pahto, but equally take time to just get lost amongst the ruins. It’s a highlight of any trip to Myanmar.
For a unique perspective of the temples get up at sunrise and ride a hot air balloon over the city. It’s pricey, but seeing the sun come up over a temple-strewn landscape below is one of the most magical things I’ve done in my life. If you ride a hot air balloon anywhere make it Bagan.
Stay: We stayed at Sky View Hotel. For 33,893 kyat or roughly $22 USD per night we found the hotel to be clean, comfortable and in a quiet area. The hotel offers a rooftop restaurant – great for viewing hot air balloons in the morning – a continental breakfast and bicycle/e-bike rental.
Eat: While you’re in Bagan check out Sanon Training Restaurant, a social enterprise aiming to get disadvantaged Burmese youth into the hospitality and tourism industry. Not only will you be helping young people gain valuable skills, you’ll get to try some amazing modernised Burmese food.
Read More: The Ultimate Southeast Asia Bucket List
Kalaw: 2 Nights
Next, take the long way to Inle Lake and make a stop in Kalaw. Located 50kms away from Inle, for many people Kalaw is just a jumping off point before they begin their 3-day hike.
Instead, stay for a day and explore this beautiful mountain town. Founded during colonial rule as a hill station by the British (they loved the climate), Kalaw is a perfect place to relax and wander. There’s not any must-see tourist sites so take the opportunity to admire the views, eat some delicious and diverse food, and enjoy the cooler temperatures.
Stay: Railroad Hotel. Located on a quiet street within easy walking distance of town, Railroad Hotel offers clean, basic yet cosy rooms. We paid 25,911 kyat (roughly $17 USD) for a double room. Free breakfast is included.
Eat: While in town check out Everest Nepali Food Centre for some delicious and well-priced Nepalese food.
Kalaw to Inle Lake Hike: 2 Nights
The Kalaw to Inle Lake hike is undeniably on the well-trodden tourist trail, but it is a great walk over spectacular countryside.
During your hike you’ll get the chance to stay in rural villages where the conditions will be rustic (bucket showers and no electricity), but the hospitality will be incredibly warm. You’ll get to spend time with local people and play with the children, giving you a great opportunity to learn more about Burmese culture.
The hike itself is reasonably challenging and a moderate level of fitness is needed. On the first 2 days you’ll hike for 7-8 hours with a 4 hour walk to Inle Lake on the last day. There is also the option to do the hike in 2 days instead of 3.
We booked our hike with Eagle Trekking. We had a small group of only three couples and were led by two fantastic guides. The price varies depending on how many people are in your group but it ranges from $50-$70 USD. You’ll also have to pay $10 USD for the Inle Zone entrance fee
Inle Lake: 3 Nights
Inle Lake is one of the most anticipated tourist destinations in Myanmar. While it wasn’t my favourite place, it is incredibly picturesque and you can (and should) spend a day on the water admiring the view and snapping endless photos.
The main town for accommodation and transport is Nyaung Shwe. It’s not the prettiest place but you can have a fun day exploring the town and surrounding area.
Do check out Mingalar Market, a traditional daily market that sells a variety of fresh produce, household goods, and clothing. Shop for any souvenirs here as they’ll be a fraction of the price of souvenirs on the lake.
In the afternoon rent a bike and cycle out to Red Mountain Estate Vineyards for some Burmese wine and a panoramic view of the countryside. This is the perfect place to unwind and relax after a 3-day hike, unless like me you realise you’ve come down with food poisoning and need to rush back to your hotel…
While in Inle you can’t miss hiring a boat to take you out for a day on the lake. To do so head towards the boat jetty and you’ll be met by numerous men who will come up to you and ask if you need a boat or guide.
We didn’t get to see all of the famous Inle sites such as the Jumping Cat Monastery, but we did get to see a traditional leg-rowing fisherman (not one of the ones putting on a show for tourists), go to a less famous Monastery and paddle through the floating gardens. I would have loved to smoke a cheroot!
Mandalay: 3 Nights
If I’m being completely honest Mandalay was my least favourite city in Southeast Asia. I found it to be dirty, dusty, and uninviting, but if you do plan to go to Mandalay there are a few interesting sites to check out.
A lot of the main tourist attractions are outside the city so you’ll need to hire a motorbike or a taxi to get around. If you opt for a taxi tour you’ll probably head out to Mingun to see the Mingun Pagoda, Mingun Bell and the Hsinbyume Pagoda. Tours also include surrounding sites like Amarapura, Sagaing and Inwa.
One of the top things to do in Mandalay is catch the sunset at U Bein Bridge. Believed to be the longest teakwood bridge in the world, you can grab a beer (and a baby), sit back, and watch the sun go down over the water. It’s an enchanting sight.
I’m not joking about the baby. On the bridge we were approached by a young Burmese couple who explained that they wanted a photo of me with their baby. Uh, ok. While in Mandalay you can also head up Mandalay Hill for another great sunset and views of the city.
Stay: We stayed at Hotel A1 which was clean, comfortable and within walking distance of restaurants nearby. We paid 41,865 kyat (approximately $7 USD) for a double room with surprisingly comfortable beds.
What If I’ve Only Got 2 Weeks in Myanmar?
I spent 18 days in Myanmar on my backpacking trip, but you could easily shave a few days off to make a 2-week Myanmar itinerary. Still, I’d recommend that two weeks is the shortest amount of time you should spend in Myanmar. Try this route:
- Yangon: 2 Nights
- Bagan: 4 Nights
- Kalaw: 1 Nights
- Kalaw to Inle Lake Hike: 2 Nights
- Inle Lake: 3 Nights
- Mandalay: 2 Nights
Start planning your Myanmar backpacking itinerary now!
Backpacking Myanmar is the ultimate adventure. The country offers a plethora of striking landscapes, friendly people, affordable prices and the chance to step off the tourist trail. While there why not ride a hot air balloon in Bagan? Maybe you could hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake, or explore hidden gems like Pyay. Whatever you choose to do you’ll likely have an incredible trip. Go on, start planning your Myanmar adventure now!