Hot air balloons rising over a dreamy horizon of more than 2,000 pagodas, glowing in the gentle morning sun — if this isn’t a place on your bucket list yet, it may very well be a new addition from now.
Returning to Myanmar again for the 2nd time, we were curious to see how much has changed since 2014. Back then, intercity transport information was tough to find online, hotel receptionists weren’t used to handling foreigners and SIM cards for foreigners were a total hassle to purchase — needless to say, wifi was rare and even more rare when it worked. These factors made the country a little challenging yet fulfilling to travel through (when we eventually arrived at our destinations :P).
Fast forward to our recent trip, new western run accommodations have popped up in major cities, receptionists speak decent english and are well equipped to answer FAQs, bus tickets were hassle-free to purchase (most of the time), and data SIM cards are now easily available.
From opening its doors to tourism just a handful of years ago, Myanmar is slowly becoming a highly desirable destination for it’s charming landscapes without being surrounded by throngs of tourists. Though, the lack of tourist infrastructure may be a reason holding most people back from exploring the country on their own.
Here’s our Myanmar itinerary highlighting all the must-sees, the best intercity buses to catch as well as some handy travel tips below.
If you have 2 weeks to explore, we recommend the route Yangon – Kyaiktyo – Bago – Kalaw – Inle – Mandalay – Bagan (click to jump to a specific city). Many people choose to head straight to Bagan from Yangon but we like saving the best for the last :)
Leaving from Singapore, we caught the 6:40am Scoot flight and arrived in Yangon at 8:45am — plenty of time left to start the day. (Scoot flies to Yangon once everyday except for Monday & Wednesdays)
The airport looked newly renovated with currency exchange and 2 telecommunications companies right outside the gates — Ooredoo and Telenor. We decided to go with the 1.35GB plan for K8,500 with Ooredo.
Bracing ourselves for a hoard of hustling taxi drivers, we came out surprised to see none of it. When we approached and asked the driver, he quoted us the amount suggested by the hotel. Such a contrast to our previous trip!
Pro-tip: Email your accommodation to find out how much cab fare will cost from the airport. We were quite surprised to find that the cab drivers in Yangon didn’t hike the prices up nor hustle too much like in other Southeast Asian countries. But it’s always good practice to have this information on hand so you’ll know when you’re being ripped off.
Having brunch at the Circles Coffee cafe
Taking recommendations from the hotel staff, we stopped by Coffee Circles for brunch — a chic cafe-bar serving burmese-thai food, great matcha lattes and wifi, making it a popular hangout for digital nomads.
Shopping for a Longyi at the Aung San Bayoke Market
Here you can find hand painted art pieces of local scenery and lots of jewelry stores which you might quickly skim past. But a worthy stop may be at one of these colourful Longyi shops where you can get a basic piece for K2500 – 5000. These proved very useful throughout our trip (even for the guys) are they can be pretty strict about covering up till the knees.
Shwedagon — the famous golden pagoda
Arrived at the Shwedagon around 5pm as we heard it’s best seen at sunset but the best part is probably seeing the transition from day to night. Longyis are required even for the guys who are entering in shorts that reveal the knees.
Dinner at Chinatown, 19th Street
It’s funny that out of the many food stores down this street, we ended up at the exact same one we dined at 2 years back. You basically pick the items you want from a rack and they’ll cook it for you. Accompany your meal here with a bottle of refreshing Myanmar beer!
Circle Line Public Train
For just K1,000 (US$1) this train will bring you around Yangon and to the neighbouring countryside where you can interact with the friendly locals or just watch the world go by. The entire circle take 3 hours to complete but you can hop off at any time.
Pro-tip: Ride between 10am – 4pm to avoid the peak hour crowds.
The next morning, we got out early for a Burmese cooking class. They first bring you to the local markets where produce is fresh and shop owners are really friendly. Then you’ll be taken to their cooking “office” where the class begins. We learnt to make a 3 course dish of bean salad, a curry dish as well as a semolina cake which you then get to have for lunch!
Burmese Cooking Class
Later in the evening, we signed up for a walking street food tour by the same company and was introduced to many delicious street side snacks we probably wouldn’t have tried on our own. Surprisingly, the food handling was pretty clean and most snacks can be bought for K500 each!
Best pancake in Yangon
My personal favourite was this pancake which apparently serves up the best in Yangon! Fluffy at the center, crisp at the sides and you can either pick one with an extra egg or topped with a generous amount of nuts! I loved the nutty option most :D
Hendric loved this crispy indian dosa-like sandwich stuffed with an assortment of crunchy vegetables and chickpeas, which the guide called the ‘gangster bread’.
Winding down at the Yangon Yangon rooftop bar of the Hitachi building
Locally known as either the Sakura Tower or Hitachi building, this rooftop bar offers access to a really cool panoramic view of the Yangon skyline — you can even spot the unmistakable Shwedagon Pagoda in the distance. They play a mixture of english and pop burmese songs and the drinks are not too overpriced.
Merchant Art Boutique Hotel, US$40/night for 2 (Windowless room)
Getting around Yangon:
We mainly took the taxi which cost between K2,000 – 5,000 within the city.
Yangon – Kinpun:
Took the 8:30am bus to Kinpun city (3 hour ride) for K16,000.
D3-D4: Mt. Kyaiktyo (Golden rock)
Gravity defying golden rock stupa on Mt. Kyaikhto
After the 3 hour bus ride from Yangon, we arrived in the city of Kinpun. It didn’t look like there was much to see or do around the area so we headed straight for the truck station that brings you up to Mt. Kyaikhto — where the famous golden rock stupa is found.
These pick-up trucks are the only transport up the mountains so be prepared for the 30-minute bumpy ride! Regular tickets cost K2,500 and the front seats cost K3,000 (which sits 2 and will get sold out really quickly). The trucks run from 6am – 6pm and leave once it’s filled with about 40 people.
Watching the sunset from Mt. Kyaiktyo
Although a day trip to see the rock is definitely possible, we highly recommend staying a night in the mountain if you want to catch the sunset. The last truck down leaves at 6pm so you probably won’t catch one or the other without staying overnight.
There are 3 accommodation options on Mt Kyaikhto: Mountain Top Hotel, Kyaik Hto Hotel and Yoe Yoe Lay Guesthouse. Mountain Top Hotel is the furthest from the Golden rock but looks the nicest and is usually booked out — be sure to make reservations beforehand! We stayed at the Kyaik Hto Hotel which was in between the 2 and had a really nice look out spot. The rooms are basic but clean and didn’t smell musky like the rooms at Yoe Yoe Lay.
We had dinner at the A1 restaurant right outside the hotel which surprisingly wasn’t too overpriced considering it was the only restaurant amongst the hotels.
Kyaik Hto Hotel, US$65-85/night for 2 including breakfast.
Kinpun – Bago:
There are regular buses leaving Kinpun for Bago between 8am – 4pm (K5000). We had breakfast at the hotel, took the truck down and caught the 11:30am bus to Bago that took 3 – 4 hours.
*There’s a K6000 entrance fee to the Golden Rock
D4: Day Trip in Bago
Massive reclining Buddha statue at the Shwethalyaung
Bago is a small city that can be explored in a day. Most tourists arrive just for a stopover before catching a connecting bus to the other cities.
We stopped by the San Francisco Guesthouse for more information and the owners (2 sisters) were really nice! You can buy bus tickets, rent a bicycle (K2,000) or motorbike (K10,000) for the day and feel safe leaving your main backpacks behind.
Lunch at the Hanthawaddy Restaurant
A worthy food stop is the Hanthawaddy restaurant — a 2 storey, table clothed restaurant with 5-star hotel-like service and a surprisingly affordable menu. Each dish cost K3,000 – 5,000 on average and were all really delicious!
Getting around Bago:
Rented a manual motorbike from the San Francisco Guesthouse at K10,000
Bago – Kalaw:
We took an overnight bus that left at 8pm and arrived around 4am (K15,000).
D5-7: Hike from Kalaw to Inle
Myanmar’s trekking grounds are truly beautiful and a shame to miss if you love trekking! After a memorable trekking and village homestay experience in Hsipaw on the previous trip, we decided to take on another 2D1N trek from Kalaw – Inle.
Most tourists arrive in Kalaw just to trek. If you’re not one to have a good night’s rest on buses, there are plenty of accommodation options for an extra night too.
The trek starts at 8:30am so with 4 extra hours, we decided to check in at the Pine Tree Inn (US$10) for a couple of hours to wash up and pack our day bags.
If you’d prefer to skip booking a room, there’s a 24 hour cafe near the trekking offices called Yar Zar where you can order breakfast, hang out and even catch the monks morning ritual around 5am — queuing up for food contributions.
After 6 hours of trekking through endless green hills, we arrived at the village, soaked from the downpour in our last 1 hour leg of the journey — waterproofing your bag and valuables would be essential (i.e. keeping money in a ziplock bag)!
Our cosy room for the night in the village
Gorgeous starlit sky from the village
Despite the downpour earlier, the night sky cleared up and we caught sight of the milky way for bit.
The next morning, we continued our trek towards Nyaungshwe for another 5 hours with pit stops in between for snacks.
Eversmile Trekking Service
Contact: Ms Toe Toe
email@example.com / 08150683
Cost: K32,000/pax for 2D1N/ K40,000/pax for 3D2N (includes a guide, all meals, the village homestay and transport for your main bags to Inle, as well as the boat ride in Inle Lake*). Excludes the admission ticket into Inle (K12,500), paid on arrival.
*There was a top up of K1,000/pax since we wanted to make a few stopovers at the lake.
Pro-tip: The Inle tickets are valid for a week so you can sell or pass it on to a tourist in other cities who might be heading to Inle next.
Riding down Inle Lake
Included in the trekking fee is a boat ride from the southern part of the Inle lake up north to Nyaungshwe where the guesthouses, hostels and hotels are. But if you’d like to make pit stops at the other places such as the jumping cat monastery, the floating garden, or to stay for the sunset, there’s a small top up fee involved — the 5 of us paid K1,000/pax.
(Read in detail: Exploring Inle Lake)
Cats hanging out at the Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery
The Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery or also known as the jumping cats monastery is famous for its cats that are trained to jump through hoops. The cats we saw no longer jump anymore but still serves as a nice place to hide from the harsh afternoon sun, sipping tea with furry company.
Watching the sunset over Inle Lake
Perhaps the highlight of the entire boat ride really was watching the fishermen of the Lake. They have a pretty interesting way of steering the boat with one leg wrapped around the paddle while balancing their huge fishing nets and skilfully getting the job done. It’s also a great time to catch the sunset before heading back.
Having a traditional Burmese dinner at Lin Htett restaurant
Dinner at Lin Htett — a traditional Burmese restaurant — was hands down one of our favourite Burmese meals in Myanmar. For K3,000 you get to pick a curry (eggplant curry was really good) and it comes with 6 sides, a soup and rice. The place was really clean and food arrived really quickly.
Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival
If you’re arriving in November, look out for the Taunggyi Fire Balloon festival that happens in the week before the new moon that month!
We didn’t have time to stay a night but it’s probably worth staying to space out the activities and explore more sights. Here’s some places we would have stayed at.
- Lady Princess Hotel: K30,000/night for 2
- Song of Travel Hostel: K20,000/night for a dorm bed
Inle – Mandalay:
There’re 2 buses to Inle everyday. 8:30am and 7:00pm — K16,000 for the comfier VIP bus and K11,000 for the regular. We opted for the overnight bus and arrived in Mandalay at 4:30am, just in time to catch the sunrise :)
D10-12: Mandalay and around
Catching the sunrise on U Bien Bridge, Amarapura
Arriving in Mandalay at 4:30am, we dropped our bags off at the Four Rivers B&B hostel, rented motorbikes for K12,000 and went straight for the U-Bien bridge in Amarapura — the world’s longest teak bridge (30 minutes by motorbike). We heard from other travellers that the bridge can get pretty crowded during sunset so sunrise was a great option.
Invited for lunch at the Shwemotehtaw Mahatheindawgyi Monastery
As curious as we were to check out this monastery (with an unusually long name) just beside the U Bien bridge, we somehow got invited to sit in for a sumptuous lunch along with other tourists at our table. There were traditional burmese curries, soups, salads, even cakes, ice cream and fruits to end it off. Come around 11am if you’d like to check this out too.
Running up random ruins in Inwa
A 30 minute ride south-west of Amarapura brings you to Inwa, where you’ll see remnants of ancient ruins everywhere. Short stone walls by the side walk, intricately decorated (but unmaintained) with villages in straw houses behind. There were so many cool ruins and pagodas that possible aren’t even recorded on Google maps, like the one above! In case you’re interested, here are the coordinates: 21.844089,95.979372
OoHmin ThoneSel Pagoda on Sagaing Hill
Across the Irrawaddy river from Amarapura is Sagaing — another ancient city where you can see golden pagodas scattered around the hill. On the top of the hill is the famous OoHmin ThoneSel Pagoda which also translates to 30 caves.
Mantara Gyi Pagoda. Photo Credit: Stefan-loose
Ride 45 minutes up north from Sagaing and you’ll arrive at the 4th ancient city, Mingun. The most famous sight is probably this 50m tall, 72m wide Mantara Gyi Pagoda. The story is that this is only 1/3 of it’s intended size but construction had to be stopped due to a prophesy that the country would crumble once the construction was complete. Regardless, it still holds the records for the biggest pile of bricks in the world. You can climb to the top barefoot and catch a view of the Irrawaddy river.
Mingun Bell. Photo Credit: Myanmarvisiontravel.com
Standing at 3.7m, weighing 90 tonnes, this is the world’s largest functioning bell. It was previously knocked off by an earthquake but is now resuspended and working.
Mandalay Hill. Photo Credit: Sitthawit Treesinchai
Another great spot to catch the sunrise (or sunset) is at the top of Mandalay Hill. After a 30 minute climb up the stairs, you’ll arrive at the Sutaungpyei (wish-fulfilling) pagoda where you can also catch a panoramic view of Mandalay city.
Mandalay Palace. Photo Credit: Backpackerlee
Inside this walled fort surrounded by a moat is the super impressive Mandalay Palace. Most of it was damaged in WWII but rebuilt in 1990 with reference to old photographs, palm leaf manuscripts and the miniature model of the royal palace.
Moustache Brothers Comedy Show
Originally run by 2 brothers and their cousin, this show became famous in the 1990s for their jokes against the Burmese government. Since then, 1 of the brothers has passed away — suspected of lead poisoning while he was jailed — but the show runs on every day for the last 20 years. It’s a rather odd combination of comedy with random folk dance performed by his wife, sister and grand daughter and the performers do seem a tad tired, but probably worth stopping by if you’re in Mandalay anyway. Tickets costs K10,000.
Four Rivers B&B Hostel — K35,000/night for a twin private room
Getting around Mandalay:
Rented an automatic motorbike from the hostel at K12,000 for the day but you can also hire a private taxi that will bring you to all 4 ancient cities for K55,000 (up to 4 pax)
Mandalay – Bagan:
We took the 8am bus to Bagan and arrived around 12pm (K9,000)
To give you guys a bit of an orientation, Bagan is split into 3 areas:
1) Nyaung U – Where the main bus station, airport as well as railway station is located. Lots of options for budget guesthouses and restaurants.
2) Old Bagan – Where the bulk of the temples and pagodas are at. Also where you’ll find the more upscale expensive hotels.
3) New Bagan – Where our hostel, the Ostello Bello was located. South-west of the Old Bagan, it took about 15 minutes by E-bike to get to the temple area. (But also because the E Bikes are pretty slow)
*There’s a Bagan Archaeological Zone ticket all foreigners need to buy for K25,000 upon entering. The guy usually boards the bus to collect cash and issue the tickets as you’re entering Bagan.
Exploring Old Bagan on E Bikes
Bagan can really be explored entirely on bicycles or E-bikes (which only go as fast as 40km/h). Stop by any pagoda you find interesting and explore to your heart’s content!
Waiting for the sun to set from the top of a pagoda
Around 5:30pm, you’ll start to see the taller pagodas filling up with people waiting for the perfect sunset shot. But there’s really a lot of pagodas to pick to go a little further and you’ll find one that isn’t too crowded.
The star lit skies of Bagan
Watching the sunrise from the Hot Air Balloon
Needless to say, catching the sunrise in Bagan is definitely worth waking up early for. The hot air balloon rides are probably one of the most expensive in the world (US$340) but probably one of the best you’ll experience too. The flights can get cancelled on the morning of the flight if they have the slightest suspicious of a storm brewing. Be sure to factor in extra days in Bagan if this is something you’d really want to experience. And yes, I’d say it’s worth it :)
This Hogwarts looking temple sitting on top of a volcanic plug is home to the famous 37 nats. It takes 777 steps to get to the top where you’ll climb alongside lots of cheeky monkeys, nat (spirit) displays as well as the occasional monk. We hired a private car for K35,000 (you can split amongst 4 people) but there’s also a public bus that leave Nyaung U bus station at 8:30am for K3,000.
Ostello Bello Hostel (Ranges around K20,000 – 30,000/night for a dorm bed. Private twin rooms were US$40 on Hostelworld but probably cheaper over the counter)
Getting around Bagan:
Rented an E bike for K4,000 for a whole day (there’s one offering free laundry just opposite the hostel. Though we’ve heard some of it goes missing and others weren’t washed proper. So hand over clothes at your own risk!). Motorbikes are not available for rental to tourists in Bagan.
Bagan – Yangon:
We booked the 8pm VIP bus back to Yangon, which was one of the most inclined buses we slept on throughout the trip. The bus arrived in Yangon around 5:30am at the Aung Mingelar Bus station.
D14: Morning flight back to Singapore from Yangon
Our Scoot flight was scheduled for 9:45am — just the right amount of time to make our way to the airport from the bus station, wash up, grab some breakfast before checking in around 7:30am.
Although life is a lot slower here in Myanmar, these 2 weeks seemed to fly past really quickly! We can’t wait return again in a couple of years once more and see how the country has transformed.
Useful tips for travelling in Myanmar:
1) Visa for Singaporeans
Starting from 1st December 2016, Singaporeans can enter Myanmar without a visa for up to 30 days! But if you’re planning to travel before that, you’ll have to fill up this form, make an appointment on the website and head down to the embassy to get it done. It’s usually more crowded in the morning so go in the late morning before 12pm and you can collect it on the same day between 4-6pm. The visa will cost S$45.
Note: Visa on arrival is only available for business visas with a company letter for proof.
2) Money & ATMs
US dollars are widely accepted and preferred throughout the country. However, they can be super particular about the notes being crisp and perfect. Notes with tears or even folds will be rejected. They also have better rates for $100 & $50 bills so bring those to change for Kyats.
ATMs are also becoming a lot more common in major cities like Yangon and Mandalay — accepting Visa and Mastercard, and charges a transaction fee of K5,000 (US$5).
3) Data SIM cards for tourists
Get your SIM card at the airport. We got ours from Ooredo but some locals mentioned that Telenor‘s network is better in some parts of the country. Ooredo worked well for us and it was pretty easy to find top up options. We paid K8,500 for a 1.35GB SIM card. 2.5GB will cost K14,000.
4) Where to purchase intercity bus tickets
2 years ago, I remember us having to locate the bus station to buy the tickets and having lots of problems communicating where we wanted to go and what bus options there were.
Since the places we stayed at now were used to taking in foreign tourists, they would book the seats and issue the tickets to us over the hostel/hotel counters. We just paid them directly and could be assured that the bus was booked. Super fuss-free.
There’s actually a new Burmese startup, Starticket that created an online platform to purchase bus tickets. Although sometimes the tickets can be cheaper when booked from the hostel, the online platform is a great place for reference.
5) Basic Burmese
As with any other country, it’s always useful to know a couple of basic phrases in the local language so here’s a couple that will come in handy:
Hello: Min ge la bar
Thank You: Jay zu tin ba day/ jay zu bae (more informal)
Tea with less sugar: La peh yay chou paw
*La peh yay means red tea+A LOT of condensed milk and was often way too sweet for our liking so this would have come in super useful since they didn’t really understand ‘sugar’ nor ‘sweet’.
(Money) How much is it: (Paysan) Beh lau lay?
Good: Kaun Dey (to describe the food or their service — This was probably the most useful and is usually reciprocated with a wide smile)
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ENFP, fuelled by yoga, the outdoors, adrenaline and anything that spells adventure. Follow her adventures on Instagram @cheriesyw.