‘2011’, The year when a wish to travel to Myanmar was manifested into thin air. ‘December of 2019’, when I fulfilled it.
Why was I fascinated with Myanmar? It sounded offbeat to me. From India, not many people travel to Myanmar. This made me even curious.
If India is the land of palaces, then Myanmar is the land of Pagodas; gilded, rustic, broken or gigantic, they are everywhere. Previously known as Burma, Myanmar is a country with unexplored travel gems and exotic Burmese culture.
Myanmar Travel Guide: KOLKATA TO YANGON, MYANMAR
I had already decided that I will enter Myanmar from India by road via the Tamu-Moreh border. My plans soon crashed when the border situation in north-eastern states of India wasn’t favourable in December last year. I then got my e-visa done and when it arrived, I booked round flights from Kolkata to Myanmar.
I was joined by other two friends of mine. Earlier I had plans to do this trip all solo. We figured out everything on the go. I collected some maps from the street to figure our route and a sketch a rough plan.
Chalking down of plans happened prior to once we were mentally ready to soak in the cultural vibes of Burma and when our pockets were full of Burmese currency.
IT STARTED WITH YANGON
Yangon resembled with an Indian city. The chaos reminded me of Kolkata but the grid planning affirmed me that we were not in India anymore. We ventured out in the evening after keeping our luggage at the hostel.
It was officially our first day in Myanmar as travellers and we wanted to take it slow. Yangon’s Circular Rail Route was a perfect start. We went about seeing the outskirts of the city.
The next day, I made it to the Shwedagon Pagoda, a 2500-year old gold-plated Buddhist temple. There is an interesting legend behind the temple. It states that two merchant brothers met Buddha in India and received his relic to be enshrined on a hill top where this Pagoda is currently built.
I then explored local cafes, eateries and the Bogyoke Market in Yangon.
Read about my detailed experience in Yangon here
THE MOST TOURISTY SPOT OF MYANMAR: BAGAN
Bagan is majorly composed of thousands of pagodas that look like peaked mountain silhouettes during sunset. The hovering hot-air balloon magics happens during the sunrise time which we were lucky to witness. Rest of the days were spent aimlessly driving around Old Bagan on our e-bikes to discover stupas and pagodas. This UNESCO world Heritage is truly composed of dreamy vistas.
Other spectacular places to visit are Mount Popa, thousands of nameless pagodas, river cruise at Kyauk GU U Min, Ananda temple, Dhammayangyi Temple, Sulamani temple and many sunrise-sunset spots.
- There is a mandatory archaeological fee of 25000 kyat that is charged to roam around in Old Bagan.
- Flying over the stupa landscape in hot-air balloon ($275 per person) is once in a lifetime experience. One can prioritise their budget as per that.
THE VAST INLE LAKE IN SHAN STATE
This beautiful region of Shan state is perfect to interact with the local ethnic tribes that sit and work at various points of the lake. The picturesque corridor of a huge lake surrounded with walls of mountains, makes the Inle boat ride soothing.
For one whole day, we did the boat ride to discover local weavers and craftsmen, circulating markets and on the other we hiked till Loi Kaw village.
Maing Thauk village and the Red Mountain Estate Winery are worth a visit too.
- Half-a-day boat ride gave us an opportunity to enjoy the cold morning breeze and the sunset silhouettes.
- Do hand-out a few Kyats to the one-legged fishermen for posing in front of the camera. Internet sources mention that traditional fishing is a scam and these men stand only to pose. This isn’t true.
- There is a mandatory Inle development fee of 15000 kyat which is to be paid as soon as you enter the Inle region.
- Kalaw to Inle trek is also an interesting trek of 1-2 days.
Read about my detailed experience in Inle here
KAYAH: AN OFFBEAT EXPERIENCE
Once Myanmar got opened to tourism in 2011 and the travel boycott got taken down by Aung Song Su Ki, travellers have started exploring destinations beyond the usual Bagan-Inle-Mandalay triangle.
Here, a Myanmar-based travel company, Beyond Boundaries Myanmar came to our rescue.
They suggested us to visit offbeat destinations like Kayah, Hsipaw and Hpa-an.
In Pan Pet village, we heard the stories of the long-neck tribe women (Padaung people), learnt about other body modification traditions in Hta Nee La Le village and explored the ghost cave.
Read about my detailed experience in Kayah here
MANDALAY: STRING OF HERITAGE
Mandalay has a good mix of natural spots and ancient temples. From both perspectives, a good look at history can be cast with experiential stories.
Our half to full-day excursions included a visit to world’s largest book- Kuthodaw Pagoda, Shwenandaw Monastery- part of the royal palace, sunset at U-Bein bridge and Atumashi Kyanugdawgiand Schwenandaw Kyaung- teak temple.
We also saw sunrise by climbing onto Mandalay Hill one morning. One can also go to Sandamuni Pagoda which is nearby.
From Mingun jetty point in Mandalay, we crossed Ayeyarwady river to see Hsinbyume/Mingun Pagoda and the Mingul bell.
- One way to take half-day to full-day tours in Mandalay is to hire an auto which generally offers various packages. We got a good deal of 12,500 kyats for 8 hours.
- Even way better than autos is renting an e-bike for 10,000-12,000 kyat/day ($8).
- There is a mandatory archaeological fee of 10000 kyats that is charged to see Mandalay temples and other sights. This fee is different from 5000 kyats that will be charged at Mingun.
- Do visit Dee Doke Waterfalls, a spot with bluest natural pools.
Read about my detailed experience in Mandalay here
HPA-AN, KAYIN STATE: INTO THE WILD
Hpa-an felt up and above from all the touristy spots of Myanmar, especially from Mt.Taung, a 40 minutes sunrise hike. From here, we saw how Hpa-an is laid out around the sacred mountain Zwegabin.
We ended up exploring Hpa-an on rented e-bikes and hitchhiking modes. Our sightseeing included Saddan cave, Kawk Ka Thaung cave, Kyaut Ka Latt pagoda and Htone Village.
- Rent an e-bike or cycle to cover Hpa-an. It is pleasant to drive while having scenic mountainous views on both sides of a perfectly tarmacked road.
Read about my detailed experience in Hpa-an here
MYANMAR 16-DAY OR 2-WEEK ITINERARY
YANGON – BAGAN – INLE – KAYAH – MANDALAY – HPA-AN
This was our net 16-day itinerary where we spent 2 to 3 days in each state. (Slow travel is much sustainable)
MYANMAR 7-DAY ITINERARY
- YANGON (1/2 to 1 day) – BAGAN (2 days) – INLE (2 days) – YANGON/MANDALAY (city of departure)
- YANGON – BAGAN – KALAW to INLE via trek – CITY OF DEPARTURE
- YANGON – BAGAN – MANDALAY – INLE – CITY OF DEPARTURE
- Avoid including places like Rakhine state, a few parts of Chin, Kayah, Kachin and Shan state, since those are not open to foreigners due to civil unrest.
USEFUL PHRASES FOR MYANMAR
Burmese people aren’t habitual to English speaking tourists They try to help but end up nodding most of the times if they are unable to communicate in any other language than Burmese.
These everyday phrases will help you with the basic communication.
Min ga la ba- Hello
Ce-zu tin-bah-de (Jezuba)- Thank You
Neh kaun la? – How are you?
WHERE TO STAY IN MYANMAR?
Hostels in Myanmar
We stayed in some of the coolest hostels in Myanmar.
Hostel 9, Yangon
Tribe Theory, Yangon
Little Yangon Hostel
Ostello Bello, Mandalay
Baobabed, Nyuang U, Bagan
Hotels in Myanmar
We opted for a luxurious hotel stay only in Inle and Hpa-an region.
BURMESE CUISINE – WHAT TO EAT IN MYANMAR?
Followed by Indian and Italian, Burmese cuisine instantly became my third favourite cuisine. Delicious noodles cooked in peanut oil is my most favourite dish type from Myanmar.
The delicious Shan noodles toasted in sesame and garlic oil
When I never expected tea leaves to be eaten, I was relishing the innovative tea-leaf salad (Lahpet thoke) and green tomato salad almost every day.
Other tasty dishes that we had included fried rice, fried vegetables, fried tofu, various kinds of noodles (Mohingar – a rice noodle soup), avocado salad, sticky rice and chickpeas, tempura, kidney bean soup etc.
We indulged in a variety of street food available at night markets in every city that we went to.
The vegetarian Burmese platter that we had in Kayah state
- To add more flavours to the food, do ask for vinegar, soya sauce and chilli flakes by showing some internet images.
MYANMAR CURRENCY AND MONEY EXCHANGE
Myanmar is a budget destination where tourists can enjoy overnight VIP bus journeys, stay in some of the best hostels, enjoy Burmese cuisine and also indulge in night life.
We got 1/3rd of our Indian currency exchanged in Yangon. For a few Indian rupees, we had ten times the cash to carry and take care of. (1INR=21kyat) (1dollar= 1500kyat)
We got a good price after trying at various local shops. In places like Inle, Bagan, Kayah and Hpa-an, the exchange rate will differ.
One can also withdraw cash from ATMs (avoid ATMs outside hotels or hostels) at a certain fixed price which is applied on every individual transaction. (6000 kyat)
TRANSPORTATION IN MYANMAR
In cities like Yangon and Mandalay, city bus services are well regulated. And in places like Inle and Hpa-an, we mostly enjoyed hitchhiking. For Kayah, we had to hire a local taxi to commute easily. And in Bagan, we hired an e-bike on both days of our sightseeing.
Intra-city travel is best covered in VIP Volvo buses which are affordable and. We used to book buses online or through our hostels.
BEST TIME TO VISIT MYANMAR
One has to choose between good weather or less crowd for the best experience in Myanmar.
We did this trip in early December of 2019. The weather was decently humid in each state that we went to with sunny afternoons. But December is usually the onset of the touristy season thus giving us an advantage of encountering less crowd. Thus, November to February is the best time to visit Myanmar.
Rainy months from June to early October is an offbeat duration to travel to Myanmar. During this period, you will find almost no tourists thus giving you an advantage of having empty temples, bridges and hills. Due to the wet season, many places like Ngapali closes off due to inaccessible roads.
PEOPLE OF MYANMAR
Most people would be busy in their daily chores and will be found discussing life in Burmese. I saw men and women smoking giant rolls of tobacco, the Burmese cigar. Males and females both can be seen draped in a clothe on the lower half of their body.
Ladies apply a mustard paste called ‘thanakka’ on their faces to prevent sun burn and keep their skin moisturised.
Burmese try to help tourists in the best way possible even after a language barrier. Their friendly nod is followed by a brimming smile wishing you a good day ahead.
IS IT SAFE TO TRAVEL TO MYANMAR?
Like any other new country, I was suspicious of a few areas In Myanmar first. But as soon as I got to know its people candidly, I found the country to be fairly safe for female travellers. We had a shady man following us once during our evening stroll in Yangon but we smartly dodging him. Apart from this, we never had any bad experience from Myanmar.
HOW TO GET A VISA TO MYANMAR FROM INDIA?
Currently, visa on arrival facility is not available to Indian tourists coming to Myanmar. But eVisa makes the process easy. We spent 3600 INR (48USD) on a tourist visa which had a 28-day validity.
HOW TO TRAVEL TO MYANMAR FROM INDIA?
IMPHAL (MANIPUR) – MOREH BORDER (INDIA) –TAMU BORDER (MYANMAR) – MANDALAY
Indo-Myanmar border crossing is an experience that is meant to be taken for a backpacker but due to unstable border condition in December 2019 at Manipur side, we chose flights as an alternative.
The other border crossing that is open from Indian side is RIHKHAWDAR -ZOWKHAWTAR in MIZORAM.
Both passport and e-visa will be required while crossing by road.
We got a good deal at 12000 INR (160 USD) for Kolkata (India) – Yangon – Kolkata flight. Mandalay as a landing city from Kolkata seemed expensive in comparison to Yangon.
For other countries, flying till Bangkok and then crossing the Myanmar border by road is the cheapest option currently.
THINGS TO REMEMBER
- Myanmar has a conservative culture. At a lot of pagodas, you will be asked to cover your arms and legs thus making you rent full sleeves shirts. Avoid running into such situations by dressing as per the place.
- Stay in hostels, homestays and hotels only. Couchsurfing isn’t allowed.
- Haggling for local transportation prices is common in Myanmar.
- Keep cash handy, Myanmar isn’t a digital transaction friendly country.
- Burmese cuisine is cooked in peanut oil. Make sure to ask for an alternative if you suffer from a peanut allergy.
- Download Grab Taxi app on your phone. One needs to have a Burmese sim card for the app to be operational.
- Don’t carry slippers to religious sites and don’t even think of climbing stupas and pagodas in Bagan which seems to be a common practice amongst insensitive foreigners.
- Many internet sources cite that the international sim in Myanmar costs you more than 100 USD which is not true. I bought an MPT sim for 1500 kyat in which I kept adding data every 3 days through scratch cards available at almost every shop.
- Some areas are banned for tourists due to civilian and military conflicts. We had plans to cover Hsipaw during our visit but had to cancel later.
- Motorbikes are banned in cities.
- This is the only country in the world where people drive on the right-hand side with right-hand driving. It will look like chaos to you at first but it dawns upon you gradually.
- If one wants to take their car for a road trip covering India-Myanmar-Thailand, a Carnet De Pass (extremely expensive) and an International Driving licence would be required.
- Our everyday backpacker budget came down to 20,000-29000 kyat (12 USD-18 USD). This may vary as per day-to-day.
From trying to figure out where to go on my first day in Yangon to making it so many offbeat places, the returns have been more than expected.
Some hyped places turned out to be disappointing while a few hidden gems made me content. The expectations were none yet I was hyped all throughout because I wished to visit this country for many years.
The land of Golden Pagodas and kind people gave me a bag full of experiential memories.
(‘Thanks’ in Burmese)