Myanmar is a fast changing country with a difficult political and economical situation. In the last couple of years, the military governement started to move towards a more democratic system and, although some area are still off limits for tourists, is now possible and completely safe to visit the country.
The tourism industry and development of the country is growing very fast, to the point that Myanmar has been nominated destination of the year in 2014.
This is why paper guide struggle to keep up to date with the changes and, by the time they reach the book shelfs, they are already too old.
My trip to Myanmar was very last minute, I didn’t have much time for planning (as usual) and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. A couple of days before leaving I bought the last and most recently updated Lonely Planet guide that ended up being accurate enough. I didn’t adventure into the more remote areas, I sticked to the most touristic path: Yangon, Bago, Bagan, Mt Popa, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin. Of course, the information that I will give you refers to those places.
In all the well known places and big cities, banks for cash exchange or withdrawal are widely available and easy to find. I had US dollars with me and some of them were folded and not very well kept, but I didn’t have any problem using them. You can’t pay by card but most of the hotels, bus companies and a few food and souvenir places accept both kyat and dollars. No money problems then.
It’s well known that most of the accommodations in Myanmar are overpriced for what you get, especially when compared with the rest of Southeast Asia. If you’re budgeting for a $5 dorm, you can forget getting even close to something decent if you can find it at all. I‘ve been trying different kinds of accommodations, from hostels to slightly more expensive hotels, and I have to say that small family runned guest houses are definitely the best value for the money and a more pleasant experience.
All the prices that I will list include free WiFi and breakfast and in all the places you can check in as early as 5 am when arriving with a night bus for no extra charge (as long as they have a room available of course).
- $18 per night for a 4 bed dorm
- Book through Agoda or contact them through Facebook (same price)
- They can organize and long distance transport or day tour
It gets busy so you should book in advance. The place is just a few months old, run by a local family and a french guy, both extremely helpful and friendly. They have private rooms or dorms, all with air conditioning. I stayed in the 4 bed dorm and it was spacious and clean, with a comfortable bed. They even made the bed!
It’s a $3 taxi drive from the downtown area, but you will easily find someone else that wants to go so you can share a ride. The taxi driver that works with them is super nice and helpful and will assist you in whatever you need to find in the city. There’s a nice garden area with a big table where you can eat all together and share a couple beers. The food is delicious. For $1 you can have the best Shan Noodles in all of Myanmar.
- $48 per night for a double room
- Booked through Agoda
- Electric bicycles available for $7 per day and they can book day trips or long distance busses
The hotel is nice and clean, although the bathroom badly smelled of expired eggs. The service is great; after making the room they always left a couple of bananas a snack and some jaggery (the typical candy from myanmar). Those are the extra points for the place but it’s definitely not worth almost $50 a night! The listing on Agoda says that there’s a swimming pool but it’s actually under construction and not ready yet.. The food is overpriced and not very good.
I was in Bagan during their holiday time, a couple days before the lights festival, so many places were sold out. I couldn’t find many cheap options online, but I think there are if you just walk in.
- $32 a night for a double room
- Booked through Agoda. The walking rate might be cheaper
- Bicycle available for $1.50 per day and they can organize boat trip and long distance buses
I had a room on top of the river from where the boats were leaving and arriving and it was way too noisy! The boats start to run around 4.30 am and, from that point, will be absolutely impossible to sleep. The room was very basic with just a fan and no aircon and wasn’t very clean. The place has potential; there’s a beautiful rooftop terrace and the breakfast is delicious but I would never stay there again, the noise was driving me crazy! I met a couple of people that stayed at the Joy or the May and they were pretty happy with that choice.
- $10 for a dorm, $20 private room and shared bathroom $25 for ensuite
- Book through Facebook, email or phone. They are not on any booking site
- They can organize any transport and tour in or out the city
This was the highlight of my accommodations. The owner is the sweetest, most adorable person on the planet. A few of the people that work with her come from very poor villages and have been living with her for years. Now that she opened the guesthouse, they have the possibility to learn English and have a job. The guest house is brand new and all rooms have air-con. Again a simple place but super friendly.
I stayed in the dorm and the private room and they were both very good, although the 6 bed dorm it is a bit too tight. It’s out of the city but it’s easy to get there with a pickup truck or a motorbike taxi. It’s in a really local and non-tourist area of the city with plenty of food options around. It’s better to book in advance because it can get busy.
- $30 for a private room (through Agoda), $25 if you walk in
- I don’t think that it gets super busy so you probably don’t need to book
- Bicycle available for $3 per day and they can organize any transport you need.
Accommodation wise it’s definitely not the cleanest and the bathroom was the worst compared to the other experiences but the room is big, comfortable and nicely decorated.
The family that runs the place is super nice, speaks perfect English and will welcome you with a map in which you will find all the information that you need. They will tell you where to eat and how to get around; they really go the extra mile. The breakfast is the best I had in Myanmar: lots of food, always different and always really good. Really, not bad for the price.
The lack of English can sometimes make things complicated when it comes to ordering food but whatever I got was very good, even though sometimes I wasn’t sure of what it was. The price of the food is one of the things that varies the most; often there are no prices so they improvise them for the tourists. For Shan Noodles, for example, you can pay anything between $0.5 and $2. You will find lots of stands on the street selling snacks but all of them are fried. The Burmese kitchen, in general, is a bit oily but very good and not spicy, which can be a nice break from the rest of Southeast Asia.
The curry tomato based and wonderful, but my favourite thing ever was the green tea leaf salad—I was obsessed with it! Every dish comes with a small bowl of soup and sometimes with other things like vegetables, always different and always good. On the tables there’s always green tea and you can help yourself to it. Western food isn’t that common but you can still find places where they serve it.
The majority of guesthouses offer an internet connection. It’s spotty and the maximum that you can get is probably about 0.8 Mbps download and 0.2 upload. Sometimes the server can be down for a day so really don’t count on it too much.
Now it’s pretty easy to get a SIM card with Ooredoo and the signal is okay but it has coverage just in Yangon and Mandalay. It costs $2 to get the card and $5 for 1 GB of data, which you can get at the airport as soon as you arrive or along the street in places like Yangon or Mandalay.
Ah, the buses…my personal nightmare. If you get motion sick, like me, Myanmar will be tough for you. You might want to consider flying between destinations, especially if you are short on time.
I was traveling by night busses everywhere to save time and a hotel night but then it would take me half a day to recover so I didn’t save that much time. There are all kinds of busses and they’re starting some VIP companies, which are actually really good. The JJ is the most common one but you have to book it one day earlier. Don’t listen to people that say to book it in the morning for the evening because when I did it, it was fully booked and I ended up in an old crappy bus for 10 hours!
JJ bus is like traveling in business class on an airplane with extra turbulence: the seats are large, comfortable, they recline almost completely and you get a blanket, water and a free meal. Unfortunately there’s nothing that the bus can do for the bumpy and partially unpaved roads.
JJ Bus travels between: Yangon and Bagan (about 9 hours and $20); Inle Lake and Mandalay (7-8 hours and 15$); and Yangon to Mandalay through a new and very fast road, but I’m not sure about the time and price, I think about 11 hours and 22$.
There are other non-VIP buses that are more or less good but, in general, if it’s really cheap it will be really bad.
The best trip was between Bagan and Inle lake. I made it during the daytime because I wanted to see the landscape and it was absolutely worth it, do It! The bus ride was about 8 hours and $12 with the Shwe Man Thu bus company, which was ok: aircon and decent seats. The road crosses the mountains and is bumpy, but the driver was going so slow that I didn’t feel sick.
The minivans drive like maniacs! I spent 2 hours between Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin hanging onto the roof handle trying to not fall from one side to the other while the guy close to me was vomiting the meals from whole week into his plastic bag—what a joy!
If you think that Myanmar isn’t safe and it’s better to go there with an organize tour, you couldn’t be more wrong. First of all, Myanmar people are naturally welcoming, nice and friendly. Second of all, the government wants to give a very good reputation to the country, which is why there are regions where tourists aren’t allowed: they have to see just the good parts.
Sure, Myanmar has its political and religious problems, but they are internal and they don’t affect the tourists. Another really important point is that going to Myanmar with an organized tour means giving your money to the government, which is the worst thing that you can do for the country’s economy and for its people. There are already many tourist fees that go straight into the wrong pockets, let’s not add more to them.
Include the extra fees in your budget because they can add up quickly. In many temples you will have to pay an entrance or camera fee, or both. The camera fee is normally between $0.3 and $0.5 and you will find it in most temples. There’s an entrance fee of $9 with the camera for the Shwedagon Pagoda, $15 for Bagan, $10 for Inle Lake, $10 for the archeological buildings of Mandalay and $10 for the archeological park of Bago.
Traveling Myanmar isn’t as complicated as it was few years ago; everybody can and should do it.