I don’t know how many times I’ve heard if you have the chance, go to Myanmar now! Well it’s true, GO! So far in my trip is the country that still surprised me for being the most authentic, despite having a soaring tourist industry. People are fantastic, smiley, welcoming, kind and heart warming. And the country is beautiful, interesting and diverse. We stayed two weeks (this was the end of my solo travel as my bestie came to join me), and probably we only saw half of the things you could see in Myanmar. However I was really satisfied and happy I decided to extend my stay here and divert from my original plan of only staying 7-10 days.
There are many ways to do the trip, but this route makes sense if you fly to Yangon. Usually flights are cheaper to Yangon than Mandalay. A small piece of advice: flying is the simplest way in terms of visas. You can apply to the e-visa a couple of days ahead of your trip and get a visa on arrival at the airport. You can’t apply to the e-visa if you are doing a land crossing.
Yangon (2 days)
If you want to be in a city that gives you a sensation of being alive and good first impressions, this it. Or at least it did it for me. Arriving at night and seeing street food in every corner reminded me somehow of India. Yangon is a street city. Moreover, it is a city that still holds some of its charm from old colonial buildings in a mix of decay.
On out first night we headed to Chinatown where we had some great street food BBQ. Between the chaos it is a simple system, just choose your meat or veggies in a small basket and enjoy!
Next day we decided to check the famous pagodas and the market. There are two main pagodas, but you can check more if you have time. We ended up visiting 4 that day. We started with Sule Paya (as it was the closest to our guesthouse- many guesthouse are in this area). For our first introduction to a pagoda and the Buddhist world, we decided to get a guide to take us around and explain the symbols, the significance of Buddhism in Myanmar, and the details of the pagoda.
Make sure you know what day of the week you were born because that determines your character and your animal symbol that you can honor in the pagodas. Mine is Saturday.
From there we walked to the Bogyoke Aung San Market, the main market in town. If only I was not backpacking and had more space I would’ve bought so many things! Walk around, enjoy the colors, the people, and experience your first authentic Burmese meal. Despite language barriers, we had a great lunch! Make sure you try the tea leaf salad with rice and an egg on top! We saw some locals doing it that way and just pointed for two of the same.
The next pagodas are farther away so make sure you get a taxi. We first stopped in the Ngahtatgyi Paya (or the sitting Buddha pagoda) and the Chaukhtatgyi Paya (the reclining Buddha pagoda). These two pagodas are across from each other.
The wood carving work in the sitting Buddha is quite impressive and the size of the reclining Buddha will definitely surprise you. For your final stop of the day take another cab to Shwedagon Paya.
This pagoda is one of the most astonishing temples I have ever seen. Having understood the elements of a pagoda from our guided tour in the morning, it was nice to just walk around and enjoy looking at the people, the monks, and the tourists.
Make sure you stay here for sunset and just sit around and enjoy the color-changing Pagoda. It is really special!
For our second day, we decided to take the circle line train around Yangon. If you have the time I would recommend it. It is a nice way to see the city and its outskirts.
The ride begins really loud and crowded, changes into more green and farming lands and goes back to the bustling city life.
Another great thing from this 3-hour ride is that you are able to interact and watch the interactions of locals: food being sold in the train, markets out the window, monks, monasteries and more.
Since we were taking a night bus that day to Kalaw, we had to leave early to the bus station, so didn’t have more time to wonder. Make sure you leave with enough time as the bus station is quite far and the traffic is horrible.
Kalaw and 3 Day Hike in Shan State
Kalaw (1 day)
Let me begin this section by explaining night bus experiences in Myanmar. They are not bad at all! I had read some terrible reviews and was preparing for the worst, however I have to say I had worst experiences in other countries. You will arrive and buses have reclining seats (more than airplane seats), blankets and head pillows. You will receive a snack box, water, toothbrush and toothpaste. What else can you ask go for? They stop at least once for dinner (at these big restaurants) and twice for toilets. The only downside to them is that depending on the distance you might arrive in the middle of the night (3-5 am), which means you are better off finding a guesthouse that allows you have an early check in.
Although we didn’t know that our bus would arrive in the middle of the night at the time, we were lucky enough to find a place to sleep when we arrived to Kalaw. We stayed in the Golden Lily that allowed us an early check in and pay half the price of the room that night. We were able to sleep from 4 am on. If you are tight with time you could organize a hike for that same morning, however we decided to rest and booked our hike for the next day.
Kalaw itself doesn’t have much to offer, however I can recommend the two places we ate while there. For lunch we had traditional Shan Noodles at Pyae Pyae Shan Noodle restaurant. They were spicy, delicious and cheap. In fact this might have been one of the cheapest meals I had in Myanmar.
For dinner we tried Everest, a Nepali restaurant, with great curries! During the day you can also visit the market and some of the pagodas.
Trek (3 days)
After resting a bit and shopping around for agencies that will arrange our trek, we decided to do the trek with our guesthouse. It was one of the cheapest options. There are different options for treks (1 day, 2 days or 3 days) we did the 3-day trek and loved it!
Many people ask if the hike is very demanding, I will say it’s ok if you are somehow fit. You walk almost 60km in 3 days, so yes you will be tired at the end of each day but you will also be extremely satisfied with what you have seen!
Groups are relatively small; my group had only 7 persons. And if you are lucky enough to have a cool group and good guide you will definitely become close friends with these peeps! I did! After all you spend 72hr together!
The hike takes you through fields, mountains and small villages. We got to see plenty of chili plantations (it was in season), garlic, rice and sesame (beautiful white flowers).
You see local people working in the fields, stumble upon schools in the rural areas, and more important stay in a local village house and savor a little of what rural life in Myanmar feels like.
The tour includes your 3 meals, and our cook Don was great! Never felt hungry! I still remember a peanut curry he cooked for us, so so good!! On the second night we stayed in a Buddhist monastery. Which again is a unique and very local experience to have while in Myanmar.
More importantly make sure you bond with your guide as it will be the one who can give you the most insight on life there. If you decide to do the trek with Golden Lily, ask for Zao to be your guide, he was great!
As for some advice for the trek, prepare yourself with comfortable shoes, sports leggings, and a good rain jacket/ poncho (specially for the rainy season). We had two sunny days and one rainy day, and no matter how much rain, you will walk the daily 20km, so just be prepared to get a little wet.
Don’t expect hot showers at the end of each day, or showers at all, you can have bucket showers if you want. And finally, be prepared for squat toilets for the 3 days. So my tip is if you are not open to be outside your comfort zone then this hike might not be for you.
For me as I said, this trek was definitely one of the highlights of my time in Myanmar.
Inle Lake (2 days)
After 3 days of walking, the tour ends in the southern tip of the Inle Lake. As you finish the hike you will enter small villages surrounded by water.
From there the tour organizes boats for you to go through the lake to Nyaungshwe, a town in the northern part of the lake. A good option is for you to pay a little extra for the boat ride and ask them to take you to some of the sights in the lake which include a silver workshop, a tobacco workshop and a textile workshop.
Usually you can organize tours from Inle Lake to visit these sights, so why not kill two birds with one stone and take advantage of the boat ride. I found that some of these workshops are set up for tourists and are not very authentic.
However, it is nice to see there is a whole city set up on the lake, and there is life in the water! Also the views surrounding the lake are great.
After the trek, we decided to take two days to relax and chill in Inle Lake. The town itself is not too cute and has little to offer. However, you can rent bikes and go around town and near the rice fields.
We also had traditional Burmese massage at this little family run place called My Parents. They are similar to Thai massages with very little oil and hitting pressure points. Definitely good for our soar muscles from the trek!
I can highly recommend one restaurant in town not only because they had great food, but also because they were the most smiley and most attentive service ever. We ate in Sin Yaw restaurant twice. They offer a variety of Myanmar dishes! Make sure you try some of their dishes with a peanut sauce.
Despite, initially we were only going to stay one night, we extended a second night as there was a balloon festival in Taunggyi, the next town over. So decided to go watch it! This traditional festival happens every November around full moon. It is a huge fair, with a very lively environment and at the end of the night they burn hot air balloons with fireworks.
For me, the highlight of the fair was the manual ferries wheel. Yes, literally it was ferries wheel powered by human bodies, which climbed up and down and moved it with their body weight! Crazy but fun!
Mandalay (1 day)
From Inle Lake we took a night bus to Mandalay. Again as many of the night buses in Myanmar they arrive in the middle of the night. So make sure you have a hostel/guesthouse that allows you to have an early check in. Mandalay opposed to Yangon is a bigger city with less of a street vibe. I wasn’t too impressed by it. Still, there are some important sights to visit.
The main one is Mandalay Hill, which is a hill with a temple at the top of the city from which you get a great view. Be prepared to go up many, many flights of stairs! The temple is quite impressive as well.
It has some very nice mirror mosaics in the pagoda at the top. If you are not up for the climb, you can also drive almost to the top of the hill.
Besides this, you can also visit the Palace and the Mahamuni Paya (one of the main pagodas in town). We didn’t have enough time to visit them however, there were recommended to us.
Another cool experience in Mandalay is to visit the Zegyo Market, the oldest and biggest market in the city.
Since we only had one day, instead of checking the Mandalay Palace, on the afternoon we decided to go out of town and took a driver to Amarapura to see the sunset at the U Bein Bridge.
This bridge is the longest teakwood bridge in the world. The colors of an amazing sunset and reflections in the water are really worth it!
Although our stay in Mandalay was short I think it was good to have one day to visit the main sights. Some people tend to stay longer here as they fly into Mandalay. However, as I said as far as cities goes, I preferred Yangon to Mandalay.
Boat Ride to Bagan (1 day)
From Mandalay you can always just take a bus to Bagan, however another option is to take a boat through the river. The boat ride is quite pricey (for a backpackers budget) but overall it was worth the experience.
It costs 42 usd and although it includes breakfast and lunch, the food was definitely not good nor enough. So make sure to pack some snacks. They have some on the boat but they are extremely overpriced.
The boat ride takes almost 12 hours through the Ayeyarwady River. All this time you will sit down in the deck, relax and look at the view! It’s a different and unique way to see the country. You can see pagodas, farming fields and small villages.
We were really lucky that day and as we were arriving to Bagan, we not only had an amazing sunset over the river, but also had a super moon on the other side.
I thought it was quite special and also very relaxing which can be good if you are travelling for a long time.
Bagan (3 days)
Our last stop in Myanmar was Bagan. It is definitely a magical place. In Bagan you have two options of where to stay. We stayed in Nyaung U which has a great strip of restaurants and little shops for night and good budget accommodation options. I can recommend eating at the Weather Spoon’s Restaurant (not a chain of the British pub), but definitely one of the places with the best burgers, they even have a veggie one.
The other area is New Bagan. Less lively and a little more expensive in terms of accommodation, but still a good option.
The best way to visit the over 2000 stupas/temples is by renting an e-bike. You can ask your guesthouse to mark the most important sights and you can always wander off and take a look at some others you stumble upon. Each pagoda, has something different, they vary in structure, in size, materials, Buddha figures inside.
So despite there are many, you will still appreciate them all. Some of my favorites were: Ananda Pahto (with huge standing Buddhas inside and small niches on the wall with small Buddha figures), Shwesandaw Pagoda (it is very popular for sunset and sunrise, however if you visit it just before the crowds arrive for sunset, you get an empty beautiful white temple and an amazing views) and Dhammayangyi Temple (the largest temple in Bagan, its dimensions make it impressive).
The hard decision to make in Bagan is where to watch sunset and sunrise. Don’t ever doubt if to just choose one, do them both! We saw the sunset from Pyathadar Pagoda. Although you can expect huge crowds here, it is still quite special.
It has a huge terrace that gives you amazing panoramic views and the colors of sunset are amazing.
As for sunrise, we had less people on a smaller temple called Bu Lei Thi Pagoda. Get there early to have a good seating spot (and take a small jacket as its chilly at dusk).
Despite some people don’t like the whole hot balloon industry here, I thought seeing the balloons fly added a little more magic to the sunrise in this spectacular place.
I still think Myamar was top of my list in South East Asia. As anywhere in the world, half of the experience is its people. Definitely Burmese make such a special country. They are always smiling and helping you.
Crossing to Thailand by Land (1 day)
Many people might not recommend the land border crossing to Thailand, however I can tell you it is possible. Long but possible. So if you are trying to keep your budget low and have a little time to spare, it’s totally doable. At the time the northern crossing (Mae Sai), was not accessible so we had to cross at Mae Sot. We did it on one go straight from Bagan. However if you take a different route, the easiest way is to start in Yangon.
From Bagan we took a night bus to Yangon (10hrs). We waited there 2 hours (in the huge and chaotic bus station) and took our next bus to Myawaddy, Myanmar’s border town around 8AM. It is better if you just wait there as getting out and in of Yangon bus station is a hustle. After another 10 hour bus ride you will arrive just on time before the border closes. The border closes at 7pm. From where the bus drops you, catch a taxi (we took motorbikes) to the border (5-10 min ride). After getting a stamp out of Myanmar you will walk through a bridge called the Friendship Bridge to get to the Thai immigration office of Mae Sot. In Thailand, the crossing was very simple, just filing a form and go ahead (make sure to check your visa requirements for Thailand).
The only problem we had was that because it was almost closing time, there were no taxis on the other side or currency exchange places. Make sure you use all your Kyats as no one will want to exchange them in other countries. However, we were lucky and found a man in a little store that helped us to call a cab to find a hostel in Mae Sot. The total cost in terms of transport from Bagan to Mae Sot was around 25 USD. And all in all you only loose one travel day. So in comparison to get a flight to Thailand it is definitely a good saving strategy.
Obviously from there if you are going north there is still one more bus to reach Chiang Mai, however as I mentioned it was the only crossing accessible at the time. So going south and then north was our only option.