We explored Myanmar for the entirety of our 28 day visa after collecting it from the embassy in Bangkok. We relished in this beautiful country which reminded us of a calmer India and a world away from the rest of South East Asia. In particular, we loved just how friendly the local people are; always smiling, waving and eager to help without the ulterior motives of scamming and ripping off tourists. Although accommodation is expensive, everything else is incredibly cheap. We spent a night in Yangon drinking delicious Mojitos for 50p and the average meal will cost between 50p and £1. There's so much beauty to be found in this country with such a troubled history so for anyone short on time or stuck on where to visit, here's a list of our highlights and recommended must see's...
Collectively one of our favourite spots, it's a true taste of the real Myanmar and generally the starting point for most tourists as it is home to the largest international airport which serves flights to and from the likes of Bangkok and KL. In Yangon we did little but eat and drink, the food here is some of the best we've had so check out our guide on where to eat in Yangon here. The main tourist attraction is the Shwedagon Pagoda, its expensive to enter but if you head to Alpha Hotel around sunset, you can drink cheap cocktails and view the Pagoda from a distance in both daylight and nightlight when it starts to glow. Less of a tourist attraction but still a draw is the driving range located on the edge of one of Yangon's many large lakes, where you can spend an afternoon driving balls into the water trying to drop them onto platforms. There's a huge indoor market located in central Yangon which is also worth checking out. We stayed at 21 hostel which has good pod style beds with a private door, double and single beds are available and, like most accommodation in Myanmar, breakfast is included. We also recommend checking out the Yangon circular train for a taste of the local life, costing around 20p the train takes a circular route through Yangon as the locals transport and sell there goods. It takes around 3-4 hours and it gets pretty hot so take plenty of water but be aware that there are no toilets on board.
The only thing to during a two to three night stay in Bagan is rent some e-bikes and explore the temples. We stayed in Shwe Na Di guesthouse which is a good base and includes a delicious breakfast, the alternative is Ostello Bello which is a little more pricey but many would say worth it. We arrived into Bagan on the overnight bus from Yangon, it's a short taxi ride to the guesthouse from the bus station the usual bus station rip off merchants are circling as soon as you get off the bus. Signs say 5,000kyat but they claim that the price is per person! We were reluctant to be extorted but were tired after the overnight bus therefore we settled on 7,000kyat for 4 of us, not the worst we've every been scammed.
The cost for e-bikes varies, expect to pay around 6-8,000kyat per day, we rented ours from a shop next door to the guesthouse. They go for about 40km before they need charging, we saw quite a lot of tourists pushing bikes around that had run out, however ours lasted us for the full day. We saw some poor souls riding bicycles as well, trust us you don't want to do that in the heat. The best advice we can give is to explore the temples yourself and don't worry about seeing the recommended sights for sunrise and sunset, most are overcrowded with tourists and not enjoyable. By just riding around and exploring, you'll find your own little temple with perfect views and with no other people around. You may want to purchase a face mask or at least a scarf to cover your face as the dust is incredibly bad and hurts your throat and eyes. Generally, we awoke for sunrise and spent most of the morning riding around on our bikes and seeing the temples before heading back to the guesthouse for a siesta and headed out exploring again before sunset as it's too hot to move in the afternoon.
We travelled from Bagan to Mandalay by minibus booked through our guesthouse, it was a long and uncomfortable journey on a broken seat with broken AC and a driver racing on the bad roads. There's not much to do here and again we just enjoyed the delicious food and endless amounts of Myanmar tea. The purpose of our visit to Mandalay was to get the infamous train to Hsipaw, we stayed at Ostellobello for 2 nights and left at 3am on the last morning to catch the train for an early 4am departure, a good tip is to get a taxi to the train station as when we tried to walk in the early hours we were fended off by hoards of barking street dogs.
We wouldn't recommend visiting Hsipaw for anything other than trekking. We had been recommended Mitch Michael as our trekking guide company so we contacted him on Facebook prior to our arrival and he agreed to meet us the evening we arrived to discuss the next few days. The cost was 60USD for 3 days and 2 nights including meals and accommodation. The first night we stayed at Red Dragon and had breakfast there the next morning before being picked up to start our adventure. Be prepared to stay in the most basic of accommodation, sharing the floor with your trekking partners and only a cold bucket of water to wash with. The food was also pretty repetitive with breakfast, dinner and tea being rice and an assortment of vegetables and meat, the food in Hsipaw itself isn't up to much either. The trekking was pretty easy but some parts got very steep and our legs ached by the end of it. There is a very high presence of army around the hills and although the armies signed a peace agreement, the army did begin fighting on our second night in the village that we stayed at the night before. Unfortunately sixty people were killed in the cross fire including a young monk of 11 years old, for this reason we wouldn't recommend attempting this hike unguided.
Inle Lake is a beautiful, scenic and chilled our area of Myanmar but also the most touristy. You can rent a boat for around 20,000 Kyat for the day to see the sights such as the fishermen, the local villages and the factories and shops of all kinds. It was lovely to see everything but most of all we enjoyed the time just on the boat and taking in the scenery. We would advise you not to see the so called 'fake' fishermen who will do a little dance and then ask you for a tip. The genuine fishermen will just be going about there business as usual and they are great to photograph, just don't get too close and intrusive.
We would also recommend to hire bikes or if you stay at 'Song of Travel' hostel then they are free. Explore the area and take a ride around the other side of the lake and hop on a boat back, the route and map are also provided by the hostel. There are plenty of guesthouses to chose from, we recommend the afore mentioned Song of Travel, alternatives include Sweet Inn and Inle Star which are closer to the river although this does mean an early wake up call from the loud boats setting off to see sunrise!
Myanmar is not famed for is wine tasting however, it is a great afternoon out and fabulous views from the hills. It costs 5,000kyat for 4 samples of red and white wine but that was never going to be enough, we bought two or three bottle of our favourites and from around 10,000Kyat before the precarious cycle home.
The bus from Inle to Hpa An was a long and arduous 16 hours overnight but finally we made it to Hpa An. We recommend trekking to the monastery at the top of the mountain which is a steep hike up lots of stairs and takes about 2 hours up and then 1 hour down with very shaky legs. We paid 20,000 Kyat for a tuk tuk to take us there and wait for us before heading to a few other attractions. We also headed to the swimming pool in the rice paddies that we had seen online but it's not worth a visit, it's dirty and restaurants have been built all around it so the views aren't great either. We stayed at Soe Brothers 2, but we don't recommend staying there, the staff are miserable (the only time we will say it about Burmese people) and it is also the only place that doesn't include breakfast. We heard good things about Soe Brothers 1 and Galaxy Motel which are located closer into town but book well in advance as they were all sold out when we booked.
The best transport was the train from Mandalay to Hsipaw, you will need to book in advance and book upper class for a more comfortable journey and bigger windows to enjoy the views. Ordinary class is 1,700kyat (£1) or around 4,000kyat (£2.50) for upper class, we spent 12 hours on a hard wooden bench, hot, sweaty and crammed in with locals so it's definitely worth the small difference. We got a mixture of big coaches and mini buses around Myanmar, some were awful and lacking AC and the road conditions aren't good but trains aren't widely available across Myanmar and from what we've heard, the internal flights don't have a good safety record either therefore transport by road is the best option.
It started out quite difficult for us being vegetarian in Myanmar and a friend we made in a restaurant wrote us a little note to tell people we don't eat meat but thankfully we never had to use it! Once we learnt more about the food and knew what dishes we could eat, it became a whole lot easier, as well as hitting the most touristy places like Inle Lake and Bagan where the English is much better. Shan noodles quickly became a good favourite which you can ask for without meat and there is also a nice Indian influence in a lot of the food. For more food advice and information then check out our extensive food in Myanmar blog.
Unlike everything else in Myanmar which is incredibly cheap, accommodation is expensive and not the best for what you pay. There aren't many hostels, it is mainly guesthouses and homestays but be sure to book in advance as a lot get booked up. Ostellobello is a chain of hostels in Myanmar although only available so far in Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake they are quite expensive but clean, modern and a great way to meet friends if you are travelling solo! We only stayed at the one in Mandalay as you can generally find cheaper guest houses.