Two Weeks in Myanmar: The Best Itinerary for a Taste of Burmese Life
We spent 2 weeks in Myanmar. This is our itinerary, what we liked, and what we regretted.
- Inle Lake -- Hotels To Do Restaurants
- Mandalay -- Hotels To Do Restaurants
- Naypyidaw -- Hotels To Do Restaurants
- Yangon -- Hotels To Do Restaurants
Getting a Visa for Myanmar
Unless you’re from Brunei, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam or Thailand — you’ll need a visa. The easiest way to get one is to buy it online at the official government operated eVisa site. The cost is $50 (pay by Visa, Mastercard, or JCB). You’ll need a color photo (cell phone photo will do), and a passport that’s valid for 6 months. You’ll be emailed a letter that you print off and bring to the airport. The visa is for 28 days, but the letter you’re sent has to be used within 3 months. Basically, don’t use the service earlier than 3 months before you go to Myanmar or your approval letter will be expired. The eVisa is only valid if you fly into Yangon, Mandalay, or Naypyidaw.
You can save some money by applying for the visa at a Myanmar embassy/consulate. The cost is usually around $20. It takes from 1-5 days. It all depends on which embassy you go to. I’ve heard that the easiest is Vientiane, Laos — 1 day, $20, no hassle.
Getting In and Out of Myanmar
When booking flights to and from Myanmar there are a few things to consider. Most importantly, where you’re coming from and where you want to go after. If you’re backpacking Southeast Asia, you’ll probably want to book 2 separate flights rather than a return trip from one city. Transportation in Myanmar is slow. Taking a bus from Yangon to Mandalay takes 12 hours, so any flights you can take to cut that bus trip down is well worth it. If it’s possible, consider starting in Mandalay and traveling across land to Yangon (or ending in Mandalay and starting in Yangon) where there are plenty of flights out. Unfortunately, there aren’t many international options when it comes to getting to or from Mandalay. Another way to cut down bus travel time is to book a quick domestic flight within Myanmar. Recently, quite a few airlines have popped up that are decent, fairly inexpensive, and usually quite empty, so you can buy your tickets last minute at the airport if you have to.
List of Airlines serving Myanmar
- Myanmar Airways International -- International flights from China, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Taiwan, and Bangkok. Flights between Yangon and Mandalay. They also have a rare flight into Mandalay from Kunming, China.
- Myanmar National Airlines -- International flights from Singapore and Bangkok. Also has many domestic flights.
- Air Asia -- probably your best option if you are flying from Kuala Lumpur. They have international flights from many spots across Southeast Asia, but a lot of them will stop in Bangkok. From Bangkok, Phuket, Kuala Lumpur, and Bengaluru (India) you can fly into Mandalay (all stopover in Bangkok though). Worth checking no matter what city you are starting in/flying to. A great option for getting to Mandalay from Bangkok.
- Jetstar -- Most likely the cheapest option from Singapore. Other international destinations are served, but most of them stop in Singapore (even Bangkok) with a sometimes lengthy layover. They only go to Yangon in Myanmar.
- TigerAir -- sometimes cheap flights from Singapore, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, and other parts of Asia. Worth checking.
- Nok Air -- definitely worth a look if you are coming from Thailand. Only serves Yangon. They also do some pretty cheap international flights from China.
- Silk Air -- A Singaporean Airline. Usually more expensive than Jetstar, but check for deals. They will fly from Mandalay directly to Singapore, but the flight from Singapore to Mandalay stops in Yangon, so you might be able to find a cheaper option by combo-ing a domestic airline and Air Asia or Jetstar.
- Bangkok Airways -- Most of their flights stop in Bangkok, but they have some international destinations that you won’t find with Air Asia. For example, Mumbai, Bangladesh, the Maldives. The prices aren’t bad, but cross check with an Air Asia combo to see if you can find it cheaper.
- Thai Smile -- Flights between Bangkok and Yangon for decent prices.
- Malaysia Airlines -- You might be able to find a deal between Yangon and Kuala Lumpur (or other cities in Malaysia), but Air Asia is likely cheaper. They offer direct flights from Singapore, so that’s worth checking as well. Also, any unusual international flights will stop in Kuala Lumpur, but could be a cheaper option if you don’t mind the stopover.
- Vietjet -- The cheapest way to get between Myanmar and Vietnam. We booked a return flight for $150 each, but you can even get a one-way flight for about $50. The flights are direct. They only serve Ho Chi Minh City and Yangon.
- Mann Yadanarpon Airlines -- We flew with these guys are were quite pleased. Our short 1 hour flight to Heho had a small meal. It was also the latest flight north that I could find (since most airlines operate out of Yangon, the flights out are in the morning and the flights to Yangon are in the evening). Their website also claims that they will eventually be flying to Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Phuket.
- Air Bagan
- Air Mandalay
- Asian Wings
- Air KBZ
- Yangon Airways
- Golden Myanmar Airline -- I think these guys are no longer operating.
- FMI Air -- Only goes to the capital Naypyidaw or the coastal town Sittwe
Note: When private firms were allowed to own airlines in Myanmar, a bunch of small-scale domestic airlines popped up. Sadly, not all of them will survive. This list may be outdated by the time I click POST. In fact, I don’t think Golden Myanmar Airlines is still operating. Also, many of these sites mention flights to/from Chiang Mai, but they don’t appear to still be flying this route. The prices, and unfortunately the schedules, are all pretty similar, but some are different and some flights will involve multiple stops. For example, Yangon Airways flies from Yangon to Heho but it stops in Naypyidaw and Mandalay first. Also, the websites are terrible.
Yangon Airport is currently under renovation. We found it easy to navigate, but it is pretty small and I could see how it could become packed with people, so I’m sure the expansion is needed. The domestic terminal is directly beside the international one. When you leave the international terminal, turn left.
There are a few services at the airport, but nothing much. If you are planning to exchange money, make sure you count it, and check the rates. We had a bit of a problem when we arrived. We tried to exchange money in the Ho Chi Minh City airport, but they didn’t carry the Burmese currency kyat. When we arrived in Yangon we were in a rush to make our next flight, so I hurried to a money exchange booth. The first 4 I asked didn’t exchange Vietnamese dong. I found one guy that would, but his rate turned out to be horrible — like, take half of my money horrible. I actually went ahead with the exchange, because I had no idea what it should be (since I had planned to exchange it in Vietnam, I figured I’d just look it up on my phone, but my 3G stopped working when we got to Myanmar). Anyways, I checked the rate later, realized how much he had taken, and went back to his booth to sulk. Without any hassle, he gave me the money back. I’m not sure if he was trying to scam us or not, but it turns out you can’t exchange Vietnamese dong in Myanmar. We tried several places in a few different cities. No one would do it except that guy at the airport. With the money he would have made off of us, he could have probably flown to Vietnam to exchange it for USD.
One more airport tip, you can get a sim card and data plan at the airport. Look for the Ooredoo sign just inside the international terminal. The lady was quite helpful. I told her how long I’d be in Myanmar, and that I only really needed the data. She set it all up for me and the cost was about 12000 MMK ($10) for 2 GB, which easily lasted me the 2 weeks. Internet in Myanmar isn’t great, so even if you only want to use the internet while in the hotel, you might want to consider getting a sim card. A few hotels we went to had much slower internet than my phone’s 3G.
Crossing by land
Because this guide is only for 2 weeks in Myanmar, I don’t recommend crossing by land. It just eats up too much time. That being said, for information about crossing to or from Thailand (which is currently the only country you can cross into without a special permit) have a look at this page.
Inle Lake: Day 1-3
I could type away with a ton of fluffy words to describe Inle Lake. It’s breathtaking. It’s magical. It’s a must-see. But all you really need to know is that it’s worth going to. We have a love-hate relationship with the tourist industry. If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know that we often skip heavily touristy areas in favor for something more authentic culturally. We pondered Inle Lake. I read about the boat tours -- being taken to small factories with large gift shops. I pictured a small town being overwhelmed with tourism. Suddenly there was a way to make a month’s wage in a day. It worried me, but I’m glad we decided to go. The fluffy words beat out the frustrations of the tourism industry. Nyaung Shwe is a relaxing town, and if we had more than 2 weeks in Myanmar, we may have stayed longer.
Getting in -- Inle Lake
When we arrived in Yangon, we immediately took a flight to Heho, the closest airport to Nyaung Shwe, which is the closest town to Inle Lake. The taxi from the airport costs 25000 MMK ($19.30). It’s non-negotiable, and it ended up being one of the more expensive things on our trip, but it was a long ride and the taxi-driver was a local that worked another job. I didn’t feel bad giving him some money — I almost felt happy to do it. This became a bit of a theme in Myanmar. Whenever you can give a local entrepreneur your money, rather than a company, be glad. Unlike other countries I’ve been to, the locals aren’t just trying to skip a middle-man in order to make more money, they’re just looking to make enough money to live. A lot of businesses in Myanmar are either controlled by the government (aka the military), or have support from them (in exchange for money). I could go on-and-on about this, but I’m hoping to have a future post that talks about the ethics of traveling to a country that is butt screwing it’s people, but in the meantime this article (How to Visit Burma), although a bit outdated, is very interesting.
Conveniently, that brings us to our arrival into Nyaung Shwe and our first butt-screw tax. Right before entering the town, your car is stopped at a check-point and all the foreigners must pay an entrance fee of $10 or 13000 MMK. This money is going to the government. It’s not for the locals. It’s not going into conservation. We ran into a lot of these foreigner fees. Apparently, the fees change, but check this site for up-to-date costs.
Where to Stay in Inle Lake and Nyaung Shwe
We lucked out and got a good deal at a new hotel. Hotel Maine Li was perfect. It felt like a very high-end hotel, but it only cost us 35,000 MMK ($27) per night. That included breakfast and daily bicycle rentals. The location is great — about a 5 minute walk to the main street. The bed was comfy, and the shower was hot and powerful. From the upper floors (there’s a patio on the roof) the views across the town were great.
A more basic option would be Sweet Inn. The rooms are simple, but clean. The location is a 10 minute walk to the main market, but it’s on the river where you can eat your free breakfast and quickly jump on a boat to tour the lake. The cost is around $20 for a night, which is cheaper than most places in the area.
If you have the money and you want a relaxing setting, the Villa Inle Resort and Spa cannot be beat. Their lake view villas are the epitome of tranquility. They have a new pool, and the location is on the lake, away from everything that is not complete serenity.
What to Do in Inle Lake
Of course, the number one attraction is the lake, but don’t forget about the country-side area around it. There are also some pagodas (there are pagodas everywhere in Myanmar), and cool spots around town that are worth walking through.
Bicycling Around the Country-side
This turned out to be the highlight of Inle Lake, and possibly the entire 2 weeks in Myanmar. You can rent bicycles from many places along the main street, but check with your hotel, because it may offer one for free. If you want a high quality bicycle Active and Authentic Travels and Tours rents them for $14/day. This includes a well maintained foreign-made bike, plus an on-call mechanic that would ride out and help you if you got a flat or something. We were fine with our 6 gear free bicycle, but check the map below if you want to head to AAT Tours.
Heading west on the main road, we crossed the bridge and rode out of town (the route is marked on the map below). The straight road that runs west is lined with trees and is quite shady. Along it, there are woman selling rice cooked in bamboo — a snack that I had tried in Cambodia a few years prior, and didn’t particularly like, but I bought a couple anyways. We rode for about 20 minutes and decided to detour down a side road where there is a monastery. We weren’t really interested in the monastery, but we thought it would be good to get off the bikes every half hour or so. That stop ended up being an unforgettable moment. A couple water buffaloes were in a nearby stream cooling off. We watched them for a few minutes when a kid sneaked up with the rest of the herd. He guided them into the water and jumped onto the back of one, riding across the 20 foot wide stream. When he was on the other side, he hopped off and guided the animals into a pasture using calls and a slingshot. With the mountains in the background and the sun still low in the sky, it felt almost unreal. A glimpse into this kid’s life. A moment that you can’t plan, you can’t bottle up and sell tours to. It had only been an hour into our first day and Inle Lake was winning.
After the west-bound road, you’ll be riding on a busier street. On the left hand side you’ll see a sign for the hot springs. We decided to skip them — the cost is $10 for the concrete-lined foreigner ones, or $5 for the local ones that are uni-sex. There are a few places to stop along this road to get a cold drink, or some food. We had a couple fruit juices, played with some kids, and watched the locals for 30 minutes or so, before getting back on the bikes and finding a ride across the lake. Well, actually, the ride found us. There are guys who sit along the highway and wait for bicycles to come along. They will direct you where to go and hook you up with a boat guy. We negotiated a little bit. I think it ended up costing 8000 MMK ($6.20) for the 20 minute ride across the lake (another cost that I was happy to pay). This was actually our first view of the lake. I think we were both taken aback at how amazing it was. I’m from Canada, so I know lakes. I grew up 15 minutes from one of the great lakes. I’m a lake connoisseur. Inle lake has this mystique about it that’s hard to describe, so hard that after typing and back-spacing for the past 5 minutes, I’ve decided to give up and just let some photos do the talking.
When we arrived on the other side, we were let off at the end of a very long wooden pier. I couldn’t wait to bicycle across it, but a local man approached us asking if we wanted to come to his restaurant for lunch. He pointed across the road-like waterway that separated the pier and many stilted houses, to a little restaurant coming out of the water on narrow poles. There were quite a few people there, and they looked like there were having a good time, so we agreed and he ferried us over to the restaurant in his canoe-like boat. It ended up being a perfect place for lunch, with delicious food, and an atmosphere that was calming and interesting. Our bill came to 10,500 MMK ($8.11).
After bicycling across that super-cool pier, we headed back towards the town along a fairly quiet road that was mostly lined with farm land. About 15 minutes away from Nyaung Shwe we detoured down a side road to Red Mountain Estate Vineyards & Winery.
After climbing a bit of a hill, we grabbed a seat on a pretty backpacker-filled patio that overlooked the lake and surrounding land. The view was great. We ordered a flight of their wines (14,000 MMK for the flight and 2 full glasses of our favorite). Sip. Taste. Comment. Enjoy view. This repeated for about an hour. The sun was coming down, and the place was filling up with tourists looking to have a sunset dinner, so we rode back to the town, completing our loop in just under 7 hours. Without all the stops, it would have only taken about 4, but why rush it?
Boat Tour on Inle Lake
In Nyaung Shwe, on the west side of town, you’ll find plenty of eager boat drivers that will offer up tours of the lake. They usually cost from 15,000-20,000 MMK ($12-16) depending on how long and where you go. The boats can hold up to 5 people, so if you get a group together you can save lots of money. The boat drivers make commission from any souvenirs you buy, so they’ll want to take you to about 6 workshops, plus a couple pagodas, a quick tour through the floating farm, and maybe a floating market. If you want to skip the shops, it will cost you more.
When doing research, I saw some photos of tourists pouring onto boats, with drivers spasm-ing for business. We wanted to avoid this, so we agreed with a driver to take their boat from the wooden pier (you know, the one that I was all excited about bicycling across?). That involved riding our free bicycles for about 45 minutes before getting on the boat. We didn’t think about how sore our asses would be from riding around the day before. Other than the uncomfort, the morning ride was pleasant. We met our driver and headed out onto the glass-like lake.
Our stops included:
- Lotus weaving workshop -- They show you the procedures. Somewhat interesting. Very expensive to buy though.
- Silver-making workshop -- 5 minutes of instruction on how it’s made. 10 minutes of browsing a shop.
- Boat-making/Cigar-making workshop -- The boat-making was not all that exciting and the girl telling us about it couldn’t really answer any of my questions, but I enjoyed the cigar-making and even enjoyed the taste of the no-tobacco ones.
- Cat Jumping Pagoda -- Cats don’t jump anymore, but the name didn’t change. It should now be called the Cat Napping Pagoda.
- Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda -- Not all that impressive. You have to take your shoes off before walking around the grounds, which is covered in pigeon shit.
- Floating gardens -- Pretty interesting, and great for a photo or two if you get close enough to someone who’s working.
That took us about 4 hours. I was mostly disappointed. In fact, I feel like our first venture onto the lake, when we ferried our bicycles across it, had all the highlights. The fishermen, the birds, the stilted villages, the floating gardens.
If I were to do it again, I’d either:
- Skip the boat tour and just take a boat out for a sunset cruise. This can be arranged by the river in Nyaung Shwe. The cost is about 6000 MMK. Sunset is the best time to see the lake, even better than early morning when it’s a little too foggy.
- Find a boat driver the day before and negotiate a very specific tour. Ask the driver if he is in fact the driver (sometimes there will be someone doing the talking and hooking you up with a driver that doesn’t speak English very well). Tell him when you want to leave — the earlier the better if you want to beat the rush. Tell him exactly where you want to go. I’d probably start with the floating market (the locals clear out pretty early), then head to the ruins of In Dien for a couple hours of wandering. After that, head to the tofu making workshop. Hardly any tourists go there and there is no pressuring to buy something. Follow-up with a visit to the cheroot (mini cigar) workshop, and end with a quick tour through the floating gardens. If you get hungry on the way, ask the driver to take you to one of the stilted restaurants. They are reasonably priced and are a great place to watch the community float by.
This tour may cost 20,000 MMK… maybe more, but it’s worth it. Better to pay more for a great day, than less for ‘meh’.
Restaurants in Nyaung Shwe
Our first taste of Burmese food made us very very happy. I read a bit about the food ahead of time, but I didn’t really know much. You could say that it’s a combination of Indian, Chinese, and Thai, but that doesn’t really tell you much. We loved the fact that Burmese meals would come with a table-full of extras. They were kind of like condiments, but you could eat them on their own. Almost like a Korean-style meal. At this point in my life, it’s amazing to come across a flavor that I’ve never experienced. This happened a few time in Myanmar.
I’m sure I’ll get more into food later, but for now, here’s the list of our favorite restaurants around Inle Lake (all are marked on the Inle Lake map below):
- Linn Htet -- Typical Burmese food. I got the sense that this place was cooking up meals before the tourists showed up. It’s in a traditional-style shop house. Lots of customers including locals. 2 curries and beer -- 10,000 MMK
- Everest 2 Restaurant -- Nepali food, which is similar to Burmese. The restaurant is quaint. 2 curries with chapati and beer -- 10,500 MMK
- Inle Heart View -- We ate here on our way back to Nyaung Shwe from our boat tour, but it would also be a great place to stop if you are doing a bicycle tour. When riding along the main road, watch for a sign pointing you down a dirt road. It’s not too far from there, although you might have to get off your bike and push it up the hill part ways. The view from the bamboo stilted hut is awesome. The owner grows most of his ingredients on site, so you know the food is fresh, and you get to look over the field of whatever you are eating. The avocado salad was the best I’ve ever had. We also ordered deep-fried marrow, sweet and sour chicken, a fish dish that came with a stellar sauce, and a couple fruit drinks. As a bonus, we were brought some caramelized bananas and some tea. It cost 14,000 MMK ($10.75) for everything. In our opinion, this is the best restaurant in Inle Lake area, and may have been the best meal overall during our 2 weeks in Myanmar.
Getting out -- Inle Lake to Mandalay
Next stop, Mandalay. Order your tickets at least 1 day ahead of time. Most of the travel offices will sell tickets for around 12,000 MMK, but it’s possible to get them a bit cheaper. The first few places I talked to tried to get me a seat with a company called Elite-something-or-other. They ended up being sold out, and I was actually worried that we would be stuck in Nyaung Shwe for another night, but after shopping around I found a travel office that could sell me tickets for a different company. I’d recommend going to the spot I marked on the map below. It’s the main office of the company that took us. I unfortunately don’t have the company’s name (I kept the ticket so I would have it, but I see now that it’s all in Burmese), but they had decent minibuses and didn’t over-pack them. If you want to travel during the day, you have to take a mini-bus. The full-sized buses are only available for night trips. The journey takes about 8 hours, and it’s actually quite nice, so I’m glad we didn’t do it in the heart of the night. There are some beautiful switchback roads that run along steep valleys. You’ll stop for a 30 minute lunch break. We were picked up from our hotel at 8:30AM and I believe we arrived at the Mandalay bus station at about 4:30PM.
There’s also the option of taking the train to Mandalay, but it requires a lot more time (an extra day) and you’ll have to make your way to Shwenyaung by pickup (covered pickup truck). Getting to Shwenyaung is the easy part, there are several pickups running there from the westside of the market. The train leaves Shwenyaung station at 8AM. You have to go to Thazi, which is only about 150 km away, but the train is slow. You’ll arrive in Thazi at around 7PM. Apparently, the ride is gorgeous though. Perhaps it’s worth it, but you’ll have to spend the night in Thazi and get the train to Mandalay at 4:55AM (or wait until 6:15PM). It’s only a 3 hour ride from there, but it really eats into a 2 week trip. More details on this trip here (the Man in Seat 61 -- Myanmar).
Inle Lake Map
Mandalay, Myanmar: Day 4-9
While Mandalay itself only warrants a couple days, there are plenty of day trip opportunities that are worth taking. The city doesn’t have much of a history, it’s hardly pretty, and you’ll find more interesting places to hangout in Yangon. It is however, an authentic Burmese city, and it will give you a pretty good idea of city life in Myanmar. We allowed a total of 6 days: the arrival day (which is only really the evening), a day to tour Mandalay, 3 days for day trips, and an extra day for rest or whatever you feel like doing.
Getting in -- Mandalay
If you’ve flown into Mandalay, you’ll have to spend about $12-$15 for a private taxi downtown (it’s about 45 km away). To save money, ask to share a taxi. The drivers will put you in the car and run around looking for someone else to share it with you. The cost usually drops down to about $5 per person. You might have to wait a while, depending what time of the day it is. If you are flying with Air Asia, they have a free shuttle bus. The buses leave shortly after the flights from Bangkok arrive. If you miss the first one, there will be a second 15 minutes later. They drop you off close to the palace (see map below). If you are flying out with Air Asia, you can also get the bus to the airport at 9AM or 9:15AM (about 4 hours before the flight leaves).
If you happen to arrive by train, the station is right downtown, so you may be able to walk to your hotel.
We took a minibus from Inle Lake, which conveniently dropped us off at our hotel. Other buses will go to Chan Mya Shwe Pyi Highway Bus Station, which is about a 7000 MMK taxi ride to the city center. You can also try and get a pickup for much less, but you’ll have to walk to the main road (west of the station), and maybe walk more once you’re downtown.
Where to Stay in Mandalay, Myanmar
We actually stayed in 3 different hotels in Mandalay -- each of them offering something a little different, but all of them good. I feel like there are two sides of town: east and west of the train tracks. When we stayed on the east side, we didn’t go west of the tracks. When we stayed on the west side, we didn’t venture east. This is mainly because it’s difficult to cross the tracks. There are only a few roads and, if you’re walking, they’re somewhat far apart.
- Tiger One Hotel -- Located close to the Diamond Plaza Mall and it’s supermarket (which is very good). Many beer and BBQ places around. I believe we booked a standard room but they upgraded us to the superior room, which had a bathtub. There were a couple hours early in the night that were extremely noisy because of a party, but it only lasted til about 9PM. Overall, the neighborhood isn’t as nice as the other 2 hotels on this list, but the hotel itself was clean, and very accommodating. Booking through Agoda, we paid 38,000 MMK ($30) per night including breakfast.
- Royal Pearl Hotel -- We stayed here for Christmas and Christmas eve, so it was a bit of a splurge. Nevertheless, I think it was a good deal. The superior rooms are very nice. They’re at the front of the building and your entire wall is a giant window. On the upper floors, you get a great view. We spent a fair amount of time just sitting by the window and watching the city. The service is okay. Our first night we had a twin room instead of the double that we booked. The second night we were moved into the proper room. The computer in the lobby didn’t work, but the internet in the rooms is decent. The location isn’t bad. Breakfast was good and the views from the breakfast area are fantastic. I preferred this neighborhood to Tiger One, mainly because it’s quieter and a bit quainter. For the superior room we paid 50,000 MMK ($38.85) per night, but the standard rooms are a couple bucks a night cheaper. Personally, I think the view and the tub that you get with the superior make it worthwhile.
- Hotel A1 -- A fairly basic hotel that has a bit of charm. The staff was very friendly and even arranged a take-away breakfast for us when we had to catch an early bus. The breakfast area is up on the top floor, so you get a decent view while you eat. Our room had an unpleasant mothball smell. This place was a bit further away from most the tour attractions, but there were some restaurants around, a supermarket, cafes, and more. It was also very close to the area where all the bus ticket offices were, so it was convenient to book your onward ticket. The cost was ok for what we got -- 43,000 MMK ($33.50)
What to do in Mandalay
As I said before, day trips are the highlight of Mandalay, but you can have a pretty nice day seeing the sights in the city. Getting around is a bit of an issue. You can take a taxi up to the palace and walk to a few places from there. It’s possible to rent a bicycle (about $2/day), probably from your hotel, but I can’t imagine it being a very pleasant ride. We ended up renting a motorbike from a man on the street. It cost 14,000 MMK ($11) for the day. The bike was absolute garbage, but it got us around. If you can’t find anyone willing to rent you their motorbike (try asking taxi drivers), you can also try your hotel, or a go to 83rd st between 25th and 26th. There are a few rental shops along there. You can also contact Zach, an American guy, from Mandalay Motorbikes. He offers tours, can suggest destinations, and rents out quality bikes. Your last option is to rent a motorbike driver for the day. This costs about 10-12,000 MMK for the day, but if you are more than one person, it’s probably cheaper to just get a taxi from place to place.
Note: Myanmar, especially Mandalay and Yangon, has terrible air. The vehicle pollution and the lack of burning laws makes it difficult to breathe around rush hours. If you are walking the streets, bicycling, or motorbiking, I recommend bringing one of those face masks. We couldn’t find any for sale in Myanmar, and we wish we had brought some from Vietnam.
A Day in Mandalay
- Mandalay Palace -- You’re bound to see the giant walled area with the moat around it. Inside of it is a small town that’s home to important military people (and a golf course). At the very center is the Royal Palace, where the king once lived. Most of it was destroyed during World War 2, but it’s been rebuilt and is still a nice place to visit. You must enter through the east gate. The cost is 10,000 MMK ($7.75) per person, but the ticket includes many of the other attractions on my list (Mandalay Zone admission fee). This cost is another one of those butt-taxes that the government takes to add to their fortune. If you’re a good person, if you care about the people, if you really want to help Myanmar, you’ll skip this and pretty much all the attractions on this list. That being said, we waltzed in like a couple of assholes and walked the road that runs from the wall to the palace. Foreigners are limited to only that road and the palace once you enter the walls. It’s about a 15 minute walk, but you can also rent a bicycle for a couple bucks. The palace is nice, and fairly large, so you can easily find a quiet area. When it was rebuilt, they used metal instead of teak, so it’s not exactly authentic. The best part for me was the watch tower, which you can climb via a spiral staircase that wraps around it. The view overlooking the palace grounds are great. I recommend finding a shady spot and sitting down with some information about the palace. It’s a great way to break up the walking, and the stories about the kings are pretty entertaining.
- Sandamuni Paya -- I thought this place was pretty cool, but apparently I was liking it for the wrong reasons. Most people come here because it contains the largest iron Buddha. Frankly, the Buddha wasn’t that big. The part I liked most about this temple was the many white stupas that were perfectly lined up. In each one there’s a giant marble slab with text explaining Buddha’s teachings. Price: included in the Mandalay Zone admission fee.
- Kuthodaw Paya -- The home to the world’s largest book! Kind of. This site is quite similar to Sandamuni, but there are more tablets, which if put all together (which has never been done) would make the world’s largest book. Boo-urns. I was picturing a giant book. I mean, that’s like going to a cemetery and proclaiming it the largest obituary column. I actually preferred the layout of Sandamuni more. If you zoom into the satellite images on the map below, you can see the differences between the two. Also, Kuthodaw is more touristy and they charged me for parking. On top of that, after wandering around Kuthodaw for 15 minutes looking for a giant book, I felt a little bitter when I was told it was the 1000s of tablets that surrounded me. Price: included in the Mandalay Zone admission fee.
- Shwenandaw Monastery -- Are you templed out yet? We were. We didn’t actually make it to this place, but it’s probably worth going to because it’s the only original teak building that survived the war. Price: included in the Mandalay Zone admission fee.
- Mandalay Hill -- We also skipped this one, but I’ve heard it has great views, specially around sunset. The guy who rented us the bike actually asked us not to go up the hill because it was difficult to drive. If you get to the base of the hill, you can actually take a pickup up for next-to-nothing. Also, there are motorbike taxis that will take you for about 1000 MMK. On the hill there are various temples that may charge a couple kyats for entrance, and a couple more for your camera.
- Mahamuni Buddhist Temple -- This is the most important religious site in Mandalay. Inside the temple there is a 4 meter-high golden Buddha that you can actually make larger by buying a gold leaf and placing it on him. Only men are allowed in the room with the Buddha. I felt a little bad abandoning Sara, but it’s worth seeing the statue up-close. If you come at 4:30AM, you can watch the ceremony of washing Mr. Buddha’s face. I won’t even wake up that early to clean myself. While we were checking out the temple, a monk approached us and asked us if he could show us around for free. Knowing that monks aren’t allowed to ask for money, I figured we might as well let him. He gave us some information about the temple, showed us a few interesting corners, and taught us a bit about the superstitions that Buddhists have. In exchange for the tour, he asked to take a photo with Sara (but not me). Admission is free but there is a small camera fee.
- Sunset from Ayarwaddy River View Hotel
Rather then wading through the tourists on Mandalay Hill, why not sit with a proper drink and catch the sunset over the Ayarwaddy River. Arrive early to get a good seat. You can also eat dinner here. The drinks are obviously going to cost you more than most places, but the view is what you’re really paying for. Sunset hour is also happy hour at the hotel, so you’ll get a free cocktail. We ended up spending 13,000 MMK for an espresso, a frappuccino, and 2 beers (plus the 2 free drinks).
Day Trips from Mandalay
Day Trip 1: U-Bein Bridge, Inwa, and Sagaing
The best way to do this trip is definitely with a rented motorbike. On the map below I’ve outlined the route we took. I highly recommend it. It was carefully planned and gives you a little sample of everything. If you don’t feel comfortable on a scooter, now is not the time to learn. You could hire one for the day (maybe about 16,000 MMK or $12.50), or think about heading into Sagaing and staying for a couple nights while you do day trips around the area. There are also organized tours, but they are pricey and you’re actually better off just hiring a taxi for the day and making your own itinerary (about 45-50,000 MMK). Just make sure you outline exactly what you want to do ahead of time, be as specific as possible. Get a map from your hotel to show the route if you have to. Try and book a taxi off the street — an independent one that doesn’t have the government’s hands in its pockets. If all that sounds too difficult, know that this was one of my favorite days in Myanmar. We didn’t go to Bagan (more on that later), but I feel like this was a nice alternative. Also, this day could easily be broken up into 2 or 3 days. Perhaps you want to combine the Mahamuni Buddha Temple with the bridge, or some other combination. Even with only 2 weeks in Myanmar, you shouldn’t rush your vacation too much. Leave time in your itinerary for sitting at cafes, strolling the streets, and visiting local markets.
- U Bein Bridge
The longest teak bridge in the world. Your camera will love it, and you’ll have fun walking across it. There were quite a few tourists on it, but most of them didn’t walk the entire bridge. It’s a bit rickety. Sometimes I felt like I was going to fall through it, and there are no railings, so don’t be one of those doofuses that walks around with their giant iPad in front of their face. The bridge is 1.2 km long and takes about 30 minutes to walk (including the several stops we had to make to pose for photos with Burmese tourists). Instead of walking back, we hired a boat driver to take us across the river. It offered a different view, and a nice breeze. We negotiated a fair bit -- I actually pulled out the walk-away method -- but it ended up costing 6000 MMK ($4.50) for the 5 minute boat ride. I almost felt guilty negotiating this hard with the boat guy, but then I remembered minimum wage in Myanmar is about 35 cents an hour. If you’re here at sunset, you probably won’t see anything more beautiful in all of Myanmar. Just Google some photos and see for yourself. There are also many cafes along the riverbanks where you can get a quick cup of tea for less than a dollar, and sit back to soak in that magnificent view. The bridge is free for now. Get there before the government decides to add a butt-tax.
- Inwa aka Eva
Many people reach this former capital by taking a ferry (2000 MMK) across the Myitnge River, and then taking a horse drawn cart (6000 MMK) around to the different attractions. If you are arranging your own private taxi or motorbike taxi, consider having them drive the long way around as Inwa has a lot more to see than the areas that the horse drawn carts go. We slowly motorbiked through it passing by ruins of temples, along roads lined with ornately carved railings. We missed the Bagaya Monastery, an all teak wood building from the 1830s, but we did stop at the main attractions of the area: the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery (a beautifully preserved brick building erected in 1818), and the watch town, which is somewhat cool to see, but you can’t actually climb it. There are plenty more pagodas in the area, but if you want to be home before dark, you can’t spend too much time in the area. After grabbing lunch at Ave Maria (a classy place along the river), we took the ferry across the river. While loading the bike on it, the other tourists looked at us like we were crazy, but the locals looked at us like they were thinking, “why is this guy taking so long to get his motorbike on?”. Cost: included in the Mandalay Zone admission fee.
- Sagaing -- Southwest of Mandalay, on the opposite side of the Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy, or Ayarwaddy) river is Sagaing, one of Myanmar’s most religious cities. I highly recommend crossing the river on the old bridge. The views are better and the bridge has more charm. If you can, stop on the bridge and look out over Sagaing. Try and count the stupas that peak out from the city.
Originally, we were planning on taking the steps up Sagaing Hill, but we couldn’t find the entrance. As our day ticked away, we decided to just drive the bike up to the top. It was probably best that we did, because it allowed us to see an extra pagoda. Of course, the views from the top of the hill are worth the trip alone, but the two temples are some of the best we saw in Myanmar. We went to Oo Hmin Thone Sel Pagoda, aka U Min Thounzeh Pagoda, first (take a left when you get to the top of the hill). The crescent-shaped room that is lined with Buddha statues, is one of the most colorful and photographic Buddhist images you’ll capture. The temple seemed to go forever, up steps, across paths, and so on. But other than the view, there really isn’t much else to see. Admission is free.
The other temple is more popular with tourists. Many guided tours from Mandalay will drop people off at the bottom of the steps for a mini-pilgrimage to Sone Oo Pone Nya Shin Pagoda aka U Ponya Shin Paya. When you first enter, you’ll be greeted by a giant Buddha along with a bunch of worshiping Buddhists. Exiting that part of the building to the left, you can walk around the outside and take in the amazing view of the city, the river, and so much more. Of course, it would be great to watch the sunset here, but riding the bike back in the dark is definitely not a good idea. We did sit for a while though, watching people, reading about the area, and feeling at peace. The admission is free, but there is a camera fee.
There are a ton more temples in Sagaing, but we didn’t have time to see anymore. We drove back to Mandalay, this time taking the new bridge, and got back just as the sun crept down. The day was great, but we had a layer of dirt on our skin, and our white blood cells were getting ready to go to war.
Day Trip 2: Pyin U Lwin aka Pyin Oo Lwin aka Maymyo
We thought about going to Pyin U Lwin for a night, but ultimately decided it only needed a day trip. This could have been a good decision, if it had went as planned.
It’s possible to take a bus there (about 5000 MMK) from Mandalay’s eastern station, Pyi Gyi Myet Shin, or a taxi for around 35,000 (negotiate hard), but the more adventurous will catch a pickup from the corner of 82nd and 27th. A pickup is basically a pickup truck that has a covered back with benches. You’ll see plenty of them driving the street all over Myanmar. They’re the most popular form of public transportation and they’re quite cheap (although you’ll pay a slightly higher costs than the locals). The pickups to Pyin U Lwin (the locals usually call it Maymyo) leave every 30 minutes or so. When we arrived, there was no one else waiting, but the truck was packed with sacks of something. The sacks took up all the floor space, meaning my long legs that already don’t have enough space, would be crunched up even more. We decided to ride up front with the driver, which costs more, but actually allows you to see more. We paid 2000 MMK ($1.50) each. The ride was interesting and beautiful. Before, and during, our ascent we had to stop to spray the engine down with water. This wasn’t an unusual thing. Everyone seemed to be doing it. There were little stations every 500 meters, or so, that consisted of a little hut, a chair, and a hose. Bikes, pickups, cars, and buses were all stopping to cool down their engines. I had never seen that before. The ride took about 2 hours.
Pyin U Lwin was built up by the British colonials as a cool place to escape to for the weekends. A British military base was eventually built there. It very much has a British-feel to it. In fact, I’m going to write the rest of this section as if I was from Britain, and I expect you to read it in a British accent. The streets are lined with proper British-style shops, and there’s even a clock tower that reportedly chimes the Big Ben melody (although I didn’t hear it). There are a few golf courses in the town, and a huge botanical garden. There are more Indians in the area than British now, so this is a good place to sample some Indian sweets. The area is also famous for strawberries, dairy, coffee, and fruit wines. After being let out at a roundabout, we had to walk 5 minutes down the road to the main part of town. By that time, we were a bit peckish, so we found a nice Burmese restaurant that was packed with locals. The food was great.
Click here for my map of Pyin U Lwin
After the meal, we moseyed over to a milk bar, had ourselves some pudding (dessert), and sipped their special milk coffee. It was quite pleasant, jolly good, if I do say so myself. The central market in Pyin Oo Lwin is rather nice. I could have spent hours taking photos. It’s clean, colourful, and has some ace souvenirs. Next, our plan was to find a taxi to the Botanical Gardens, but we could only find motorcycle taxis and horse-drawn carts. Sara doesn’t trust people who aren’t me to drive her around on a motorbike, so that option was out. The horse drawn carts could be a nice way to get around, that is, if you like watching animals struggle for you. After wandering around for a bit, we decided to plant ourselves in an ice cream shop with a milkshake. Upon tasting the creamy strawberry drink, I totally forgot about the botanical gardens. Why walk around looking at colourful flora, when you can blend them up with ice cream and suck them through a straw? Actually, I regret that we didn’t make it out to the gardens. They’re suppose to be first-rate. We could rented have bicycles, or a motorbike, and made our way over there. If we had stayed overnight, I would have really loved to play a round of golf at the Pwin U Lwin Golf Club, or had a gander of one of the waterfalls outside of the city.
We waited for 30 minutes at the clock town for a pickup to show-up. As we started to get worried, a man approached us and we chatted for a while. When we told him we were from Canada, he was pleased and insisted that he could tell. He then went on about how Sara looked like a Native American, telling us that many helped build the town back in the late 1800s. I don’t know if that’s true. Perhaps he was getting mixed up with the British and the Indians. Nevertheless, Sara is actually from England, so he was way off. He did however, tell us to walk up to the roundabout, because we’d have a much easier time getting a pickup back to Mandalay. He was right about that one. We were immediately shoved into the back (the front seat was full), and we made our way down the mountain as the sunset. The first hour was actually pretty amazing. The sun rays slicing through tree-lined streets, packed into a small space with only locals, I actually got one of those dumb smiles on my face — the ones you have to fight off so you don’t look like a moron. Then the sun went down and it got pretty parky (cold). The traffic and the fumes got thick and intolerable. By the time we got back to the hotel, there was no stopping it. The sickness was coming, and I immediately regretted consuming an udder load of dairy that day.
Day Trip 3: Mingun
Full disclosure, we didn’t make it to Mingun. We traveled to Myanmar during Christmas, so a couple of our days were spent being jolly (ie. eating chocolate/cheese, and drinking beer/rum & cokes). Although, I can highly recommend this activity, it would have also been nice to take a day trip to Mingun and see the ruins of Mingun Pahtodawgyi. There are a couple ways this can be done, but the most popular, and I’m sure a pleasant one, would be to take the boat from the banks of the Irrawaddy River (see Mandalay tourist map below). It leaves at 9AM and returns at 1PM. That doesn’t give you much freedom, but it is a good amount of time to see everything (3 hours when you take into account the 1 hour travel time up the river). The cost of the boat is 5000 MMK ($3.85). When you arrive you’ll find yourself overwhelmed by hawkers, but the Mingun Pahtodawgyi is an impressive sight, and well worth having to turn away some persistent people. Unfortunately, you can’t actually go up to the temple anymore, although I read that people do anyways and no one seems to care. At any rate, ‘the Taj Mahal of Myanmar’ is still impressive from any angle. It’s actually an unfinished pagoda that was started way back in the 1790. If it had been completed, it would have been the largest in the world at 150 meters. That being said, at 150 meters it might have toppled back in 1839 when the area was hit by a large earthquake.
Mingun is also home to the largest un-cracked bell. Up until 2000, it was the largest ringing bell, but the Chinese have since made a bigger one (as they tend to do).
There is also a rare all-white pagoda that is definitely worth a gander if you’re in Mingun. Hsinbyume (aka Myatheindan) Pagoda’s design is based on Mount Meru, a mythical mountain that plays a large role in the history of Buddhism.
Restaurants in Mandalay
- BeerZone -- I might be wrong about the name of this place, but it’s something like that. You can find it’s exact location on the map below. This is a typical beer and BBQ place. The food was pretty good, and the service was excellent. We fell in love with our waitress who’s smile was contagious. We had ribs, fries, some vegetables, and 5 draft beers for 15,000 MMK ($11.50).
- Aye Myittar -- I know this is a hard name to remember, but trust me, it’s worth the brain power. This place makes authentic Burmese food, complete with all the little extras. It’s highly recommended in all the guide books, and for good reason. It was probably the best Burmese food we ate, and the restaurant is clean, the wait staff was very helpful (I was asking all kinds of questions), and the prices are reasonable. We had 2 curries with rice, plus a couple drinks for 10,000 MMK ($7.70). It was actually a ton of food.
- Ya Thar Mon Laphet -- Again, I’m not certain that I got the name of this place right, but it’s marked on Google Maps under this name right where I thought it was. There wasn’t really a name on the outside, but the place was plastered with Myanmar Beer signs. We really loved the atmosphere. It was packed with locals swigging back draft beer and watching English football. At one point, a presumably drunk man bought some cigarettes off of a cigarette girl (yes, they have those in Myanmar). We watched him pop one into his mouth backwards and light the filter. At first, I giggled at the mistake, but he persisted, lighting it again and puffing it over and over trying to get it to stay lit. Eventually, he gave up, throwing the cigarette down like it was broken. Sara and I were laughing our faces off. Aside from top-notch entertainment, this place also has great food. We were there for a while, shared three dishes, and drank a bunch of beer for 12,000 MMK ($9.20).
- Aung Lin Chinese Restaurant -- For whatever reason, I have a Christmas Eve tradition of eating Chinese food. This place worked out well for us as it was close to our hotel and the food was good. At the time, the power was out, but they have a generator. The interior isn’t much to look at, but the owner was very friendly. His young daughter was doing a great job helping out, and was excellent at being gosh-darn cute. We paid 15,000 MMK ($11.50) for some roast pork belly, a chicken tofu dish, a nice mix of stir-fried vegetables, plus white rice and beer.
- Rainforest Thai Restaurant -- After reading some great reviews, we were excited about trying Marie Min, Mandalay’s most popular vegetarian restaurant. Imagine our disappointment when we arrived to find out they were closed for Christmas. The owner directed us to the place directly across the alley, Rainforest. Even after feeling a bit let down, we were able to enjoy the Thai food there. It was a little on the expensive side, but the food was top-rate, as was the restaurant’s second floor terrace. A curry, a pad thai, 2 fruit drinks, and an order of spring rolls came to 17,000 MMK ($13).
Getting Out -- Mandalay, Myanmar
Mandalay’s airport is about 45 km away and will cost about 13,000 MMK ($10) for a taxi to it. If you fly out with AirAsia, you can catch their free shuttle bus (see Mandalay map below).
We took a bus to Naypyidaw. The buses can be booked at the corner of 32nd and 83rd. JJ Express is a popular options for foreigners. We went with Shwe Mandalar Express which costs 5500 MMK ($4.25) each, and left at 8AM from the Chan Mya Shwe Pyi Highway Bus Station. The bus ride was fine, with enough leg room and only 1 half hour break at a decent rest stop.
If you’d rather take the train, they leave at 6AM, 3PM, and 5PM — arriving in Naypyidaw about 6 hours later. The price is about 3700 MMK ($4).
Tourist Map of Mandalay, Myanmar
Naypyidaw, Myanmar: Day 10
The strange, and disturbing capital of Myanmar. Naypyidaw is worth a day, mainly because it breaks up the long bus ride from Mandalay to Yangon. There are a few things to do there, but the main attraction is the city and its vastness.
Getting in -- Naypyidaw, Mandalay
When you arrive in Naypyidaw, you’ll be overwhelmed by the taxi drivers. Not only is the city much different than the rest of Myanmar, the people seem to be as well. Up until this point, we had only ever seen happy Burmese, but there’s something about Naypyidaw that brings out the worst in a person. After choosing a taxi driver based on who had the least amount of betel spit in their mouth, we headed to our hotel, which was about 25 minutes away. The majority of hotels are in this area, because it’s the hotel area — that’s how this place works. The taxi cost 8000 MMK ($6.20).
While you’re at the bus station, you might want to consider buying your onward ticket. Not that it will likely sell out, but better safe than sorry.
Where to stay in Naypyidaw, Myanmar
There are a lot of big empty hotels in the city. They’re all located in one of two hotel districts. The southern hotel district is a bit more convenient to some restaurants and attractions, but you won’t be able to walk anywhere. Everything is just too far spread out.
We stayed at Jade City Hotel, because we read that their guests have access to a free motorbike. It was true, but the bike was a hunk of junk and they didn’t have any helmets. Luckily, the roads are humongous and there isn’t any traffic, so we didn’t feel too unsafe without helmets.
The rooms at Jade City Hotel are fairly basic, but the complex is somewhat grand. At least that’s the idea. Like the rest of the city, the hotel felt like it was trying to be more than it really was. Out of 141 rooms, only a few were taken. When we ate in the restaurant, they had to turn the lights on and call the cooks to come to the kitchen. Dinner was actually pretty good. The free breakfast was just ok. The location isn’t great, but no where in the city is. Overall, I think it was a fine choice, but only because I think the rest of the giant silly looking hotels were about the same, and Jade City was cheaper at 37,000 MMK ($28.52) per night.
If you’re not going to take advantage of the free motorbike, you might want to try booking a room at the Great Wall Hotel, mainly because it’s kind of funny. The outside of the hotel is suppose to look like a hunk of the Great Wall of China. Their rooms look nice though, and they have a pool. It might be possible to get a room for $30 a night, but you’ll have to catch a deal (probably by booking last minute).
What to do in Naypyidaw, Myanmar
Your first step to enjoying Naypyidaw, or at least understanding it, is to learn about it.
- Read this article: Burma’s bizarre capital: a super-sized slice of post-apocalypse suburbia
- Watch this video: Naypyidaw | Exploring Myanmar’s bizarre empty capital by drone
That should give you a pretty good idea of what you’re dealing with.
We only spent about 3 hours looking around the city. That time was split between driving the large empty roads and wandering around the Naypyidaw Water Fountain Park. The park was okay — not really anything much to see, but we did happen to be there when the 6PM water, music, and light show started. It was pretty entertaining. Water was shot up from a fountain — the sprays timed with songs that I hadn’t heard in a long time. We spent about an 1.5 hours seeing the 13 different fountains, and having a drink at a cafe.
By the time we reached Naypyidaw, I was feeling like a load of crapola. Otherwise, we might have went to see these attractions as well (please keep in mind that all the attractions in Naypyitaw are run, and profited, by the government).
- Nay Pyi Taw Zoological Gardens and Safari Park -- These are two separate attractions, but they are next to each other. The zoo is the largest in Myanmar. 80 different species. The Safari park lets you ride around in a little car and look at zebras, lions, rhinos, and more. Zoo: $10, Safari Park: $20
- Parliament Building -- Worth a look, even if you just drive by. The huge empty highway leading up to it is said to have been built that large so planes can land and take-off (in case a quick escape is necessary).
- National Herbal Park -- The government set this park up to preserve and protect the traditional herbs that were/are used in Burmese medicine. There are 700 species on display. Entrance is free.
- Uppatasanti Pagoda -- a replica of Yangon’s Shwedagon pagoda. A fantastic symbol for the city, because it’s hollow, unlike the capital’s version. Nevertheless, it’s impressive to look at, and offers some great views.
Restaurants in Naypyitaw, Myanmar
We only ate at the hotel, so I can’t really recommend any specific place, but I did see a couple restaurants that were busy with locals and seemed like a good place to eat. The area is marked on the map below. There are also a few places to eat around the bus station.
Getting out of Naypyitaw, Myanmar
Buses leave for Yangon throughout the day. 9AM and 1PM are probably your best times to leave, as there are a few companies that have buses scheduled for Yangon at that time. We went with JJ Express at 1PM, which let us sleep in, and let me nurse my sickness that had just started taking a hold of Sara as well. The tickets cost 9000 MMK ($7). The hotel was happy to get us a taxi to the bus station, but I had kept the card of the guy who dropped us off the previous day. His rate was a couple bucks cheaper than what the hotel quoted us, so I got them to call him instead. You should also note that there is a government owned taxi company that’s operated by the military. It’s best to avoid them and go with local independents.
It’s also possible to take the train to Yangon. They leave at 2AM, 8AM, 11:54AM, 8PM, 8:30PM, and 10:50PM. The ride takes 8-12 hours depending on what train you take, but your best best would be the 8AM train, which arrives in Yangon at around 5PM, or the 11:54AM that arrives at 9PM.
Naypyitaw, Myanmar Tourist Map
Yangon, Myanmar: Day 11-14
That takes us to Yangon, the former capital on paper, but the real capital when it comes to culture. Yangon is surprisingly modern, with some skyscrapers and western chains. It’s big in area — over 230 miles squared, and packed with over 5 million people. Which, of course, means that it takes a long time to get anywhere. There are, however, plenty of quiet spots, even downtown, that are great for watching the city do its thing. The most obvious landmark is the Shwedagon Pagoda, which will certainly wow you when you first lay eyes on it. The narrow north-south running streets are where you’ll probably feel Yangon’s good vibrations the most. The larger east-west running streets are more chaotic. I feel as though Yangon has changed a lot over the past few years, and I doubt the rate it’s changing will slow down. Maybe it will get better, or maybe you should get there now in case it only loses its charm.
Getting in -- Yangon, Myanmar
After a typically long Burma bus ride, we arrived in the city. Then we sat in traffic for a bit. Then, an hour later, we finally pulled into the bus station. By then, it was dark, which probably wouldn’t have been much of an issue, but the power was also out. The taxi drivers anxiously waited for us to announce where we were going, but we took our time and got our luggage. When it was obvious that we weren’t going to be able to navigate the bus station in the dark, we hooked up with a driver and started negotiating. I got him down to 10,000 MMK and we were loaded into a car. Just before the door closed, the driver said, “Wait 5 minutes.” It was obvious that he was looking for someone for us to share with. That’s fine, but 5 minutes became 10, and we eventually just paid him 15,000 MMK so we could leave. The bus station and the airport are both a good 30-45 minutes from downtown, so the $11.50 is still a pretty good deal.
If you want to avoid the long taxi ride, the train might be a better option. It’s bumpy, loud, and slow, but at least it’s located right downtown.
Where to Stay in Yangon, Myanmar
Don’t expect to get the deal or the quality that you did in other Southeast Asian countries, or even in other cities in Myanmar. If you aren’t into windowless boxes or dorm rooms, you’re going to probably have to drop at least $40 per night.
We ended up picking the ‘master bedroom’ at Royal Star Guest House, which was in a good location, had very clean rooms, and a nice family atmosphere. The mother and daughter that ran the place were very helpful. At one point, I wanted to know where I could get a shave and I was taken directly to a barbershop, instead of just being given directions. The mother also offered to make us chicken rice soup when she found out we had colds. This is the type of place you remember, even more so than a hotel packed with 5 star luxury. It took us a long time to pick this place out. We did our research, and I think we made the right choice. However, here are the other places that we thought could work:
- Family Treasure Inn -- Located close to Chinatown, which is very convenient for late night eats. A 19 room hotel with some good rooms, and some windowless boxes. The extra $3 a night is probably worth having a window.
- Queen’s Park Hotel -- A large hotel that’s well managed. On the east side of downtown in a decent neighborhood, but not really close to any attractions. The upper floors have great views, but the elevator has apparently been broken for a long time.
- Good Time Hotel -- A long-running hotel that’s in a pretty central location. Overall, it’s pretty basic, but you’ll likely save a few bucks per night staying here.
What to do in Yangon, Myanmar
- Shwedagon Pagoda
The largest and most popular tourist attraction in the city. This giant 2500 year-old pagoda is one of the most important Buddhist symbols in all of the world. Its 99 meter golden stupa can be seen from all over Yangon. It’s definitely impressive, but I also have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the attraction. It’s beauty cannot be denied, however, the butt-tax admission is a bit outrageous at $8. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider it all goes to the corrupt military junta, and that the average Burmese citizen lives off of $200 a month, you start to feel a little shitty for paying it. On top of that, there’s a dress code. I hate dress codes. In general, I hate being told what to do. I can understand not wanting people to dress in skimpy revealing outfits, but not being allowed to wear shorts? C’mon. No one is actually offended by my shins. Anyways, we had to pay another 5000 MMK each for a couple longyis (the traditional skirts that they wear). Your ticket includes a map with some good information about the various things in the pagoda. We spent about an hour walking around, taking photos, and reading the pamphlet.
- Sule Pagoda -- This glowing stupa is best enjoyed from a distance, at night. If you go inside, you’ll be treated to a hair of Buddha. Perhaps that’s worth the $2 admission, perhaps not. Unfortunately, when we were there the pagoda was being renovated, so we weren’t able to get any stunning shots of it.
- Chinatown -- As always, Chinatown is one of the most exciting and lively parts of the city. The street food here is probably the best, and most varied, in all of Myanmar. If you’re looking to sit and take it all in, get a cup of warm milk and some fried dough for dipping.
- Kandawgyi Lake
This artificial lake is located just east of the Shwedagon pagoda. The road between the two is actually a great walk. The lake itself isn’t spectacularly beautiful, but the boardwalk that goes around it, is nice to stroll. It’s a bit rickety in places, but we did see two workers hand-sawing boards for patch-jobs — a daunting task considering the boardwalk is about 5 miles long. There are a few restaurants and cafes that you can stop at, the fanciest (and most expensive) being the Karaweik Hall, a replica of a former king’s royal barge. You also get some great views of Shwedagon pagoda, specially at dusk. Apparently, there is an entrance fee of 2000 MMK, but no one was in the booth when we went there.
- Theingyi Market -- Yangon’s largest market. You can buy all kinds of things here, but just walking around for 30 minutes will probably be satisfying enough. If you want to see it all, you’ll need need to devout a few hours. The building is five floors and spans a couple blocks. The most interesting items are those used for traditional Burmese medicine. This includes herbs and animal parts.
- Maha Bandoola Garden
This park is located right next to Sule Pagoda, as well as City Hall and the High Court. It’s a lively place where you can sit in the grass and hangout with Burmese locals. When the shit hits the fan, this is the area the Burmese come to protest. This includes the 8888 Uprising, when the military killed thousands and Aung San Suu Kyi became a national icon.
- Take the ferry to Dala -- Unfortunately, the Yangon river isn’t much more than a form of transportation. If you’re like me and love to be on the water, you can spend $2 to take the local ferry across the river to Dala. The ferry is large and offers a nice glimpse into the local-life. Many of the people using it are poor, and live on the other side of the river because it’s much cheaper. When in Dala, you can hire a tricycle (about $4 per person) to give you a bit of a tour, including a pagoda that has a mummified monk in a glass case. Or, you can just jump back on the ferry and head back to the city. The boats run every 30 minutes or so.
- Sit at a local cafe
Burmese love their tea. It’s probably because it’s friggin delicious. Find a corner spot, try to avoid a place that’s polluted with car fumes, and have a tea or two. Most places will also serve appetizer-like snacks. This is a cheap activity that could easily kill a couple hours. It’s also probably the most authentic Burmese thing you’ll do.
- The circular railway -- Built by the British in colonial times, this railway is a popular form of transportation for locals living in the outskirts of Yangon. There are 39 stations. The loop takes about 3 hours to complete. That’s a long time to sit on a rickety train, but the local life will entertain you (almost as much as you’ll entertain them). One of the more interesting areas is around Da Nyin Gone Station, where the train goes through a market. Unfortunately, this is only a couple stops away from the halfway point, so getting off here and heading back downtown isn’t really worth it.
The trains run every 60 minutes or so (schedule). You can buy your ticket from platform 7 at the central station. The cost is barely worth mentioning — 100-200 MMK (8-16 cents) for non-A/C, and 500-800 MMK (38-45 cents) for an A/C coach. Not all trains have A/C coaches though.
Restaurants in Yangon, Myanmar
We ate a lot of good food in Yangon. Unfortunately, we were feeling ill for most of our time there, and we weren’t able to push our appetites as far as we would have liked to. At any rate, we had some great meals and here are the restaurants that I can recommend:
- BBQ Street -- 19th street in Chinatown is packed with BBQ restaurants that serve cold draft beer, and an assortment of meat on a stick. We went to one called Winners, but any of the 20 or so restaurants will probably work. We ended up spending 9,100 MMK ($7) for a couple beers and a whole lot of meaty goodness (plus some veggies on a stick). BBQ Street’s atmosphere is like no other. Smoke and fire pours out of street-side grills. People are happy, socializing with friends, piling up sticks like trophies.
- 999 Shan Noodle Shop -- This is one of those places that every guidebook recommends, which is usually a recipe for boosted prices and a touristy environment, but 999 managed to keep its charm and it’s quality. Consistently serving up cheap, but delicious, bowls of noodles in a clean environment (which is rare in Yangon). Two noodle soups, a plate of fried tofu, and a drink was only 4500 MMK ($3.50). I also got takeout one day, delivering it to my sick sweetheart in bed. The takeout containers make it easy to eat anywhere and a bowl of chicken noodle soup was only 1900 MMK ($1.50).
- Nilar Biryani -- We tried a couple Indian restaurants in Yangon — there are a few of them along Anawratha Rd. Nilar was my favorite. The Biryani was as good as expected. A paratha that was stuffed with chicken made us smile with satisfaction. The samosas are flaky and come with a tasty mint chutney. All of this, plus 2 banana lassis, was only 8300 MMK ($6.50). It was a lot of food for two people to pack down in one sitting, but we managed because it was so delicious.
- Super Wonder Bowl -- I went here because it was close to my hotel, and I didn’t have enough health in me to make it much further. I ended up having a good lunch here though. They serve an array of Asian food. I got the ma po tofu, a Szechuan dish. Recently, I’ve been getting into Szechuan food, and I had read about the healing powers of the pepper, so I thought I’d try it out. The dish was delicious, but I doubt it had enough Szechuan peppers to do much healing. I paid 1900 MMK ($1.50) for it plus a fruit smoothie. The staff was extremely accommodating.
For more food in Myanmar -- Gallery: Myanmar Food
One of our biggest regrets after our trip to Myanmar, would be that we couldn’t eat as much of the food as we had planned. Yangon was going to be our food city — we had planned out a bunch of meals that we wanted to try, but suffering from a brutal cold forced us to slow things down. A word of warning, you’re likely to get sick in Myanmar. Almost every blog I read and almost all the people I talked to, ended up getting sick in the country. I did my best to power through my cold, but I ended up feeling its effects for 20 days. Sara was the same. It was a total beat down — worse than Rousey vs Holm.
Getting out -- Yangon, Myanmar
Yangon’s airport is quite far from the city center. The distance can be covered in 30 minutes, but give yourself an hour, because the traffic in Yangon can be a total jerk-off. A taxi will cost about 8000 MYK. If you have the time and the urge for adventure, you can take the circular train that loops around the city. The closest station to the airport is Mingaladon. You’ll have to take a taxi from there, but it will only be a couple bucks. There is also a bus that goes from downtown past the airport. Again, you’ll have to take a short taxi ride to actually make it to the airport, but you’ll save money. The details are all here.
Map -- Yangon, Myanmar
That’s it. That’s a full 2 weeks in Myanmar. There are a couple of extra days in the itinerary that you’ll likely need for relaxing (or being sick), but if you follow this plan you’ll be busy and you’ll get a great feeling for the country.
That being said, you might think to yourself, “What about that really cool temple city that I’ve heard so much about?”
Why no Bagan?
Just looking at photos of the ancient city of Bagan and you’ll be putting it at the top of your itinerary. The place looks majestic, specially if you have a high quality camera and can take a balloon ride. We were back-and-forth about Bagan. Of course, we wanted to see it, but the travel time there would basically cut out a day and a half. It’s also one of the most heavy places on the butt-tax. One guide I read said not to travel to Myanmar at all if you’re going to go to Bagan, because it would only be contributing to the corruption. We read a lot about the activities there — renting a bicycle and riding around the multi-templed areas. We talked to like-minded people who had traveled there. They said they enjoyed it, but it didn’t feel like the rest of Myanmar. That’s exactly what I was worried about. Those amazing images that you see when you search for images of Bagan are all taken from above. When you’re on the ground, it much less inspiring. A hot air balloon ride above Bagan costs about $300 per person. It would absolutely be an unforgettable 45 minutes, but it would also boost the cost of our trip 33%. Ultimately, we decided to skip it. I don’t know if it was a good choice — a German Christoph Waltz-looking guy said we were crazy to have missed it. If you definitely want to include it on your itinerary, this guide to Bagan has the information you need and the photos that will get you pumped about it. In order to have enough time, I suggest cutting out Pyin U Lwin and only spending 4 days in Mandalay. Then skip Naypyidaw by taking a night bus from Bagan to Yangon.
Let me know in the comments below if this guide was useful to you. If you’d change anything. If you just want to tell me how handsome I am.