Along with Malaysia, Myanmar is definitely one of the places I've enjoyed most on my trip in Southeast Asia. I allowed two weeks for exploring and wished I'd had at least three, maybe even four. There's lots to see and do, and the distances between cities are long (and the roads not that fast). If I'd had more time, I would have explored the cities in the south near Yangon (Bago, Mawlamyine, Kyaiktiyo), ventured north of Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin, spent an extra day or two exploring Inle Lake, and checked out Ngapali Beach. That being said, I got the biggest sights of Myanmar checked off the list while getting a great feel for the country.
What I liked most about Myanmar? The people. Really kind, smiling, hospitable people who haven't been corrupted by a ton of nasty tourists over the years. But, I'm not worried about Myanmar retaining its lovely spirit in the face of growing numbers of tourism and global brands beginning to pop up in the big cities (a KFC was being built in Yangon when I arrived) -- as our guide pointed out, people come to Myanmar for nature and the culture. If they want to party, they can go to Thailand. (Same if they want underage prostitutes.) In a weird way, it's Myanmar's good fortune to be developing now -- they can observe the downfalls of how nearby countries allowed tourism to choke the original culture and hopefully make decisions about how they'll permit foreigners to conduct themselves on Myanmar soil. Or, as they develop the areas surrounding the old temples of Bagan, look to Cambodia and Siem Reap for what they want to emulate or not.
While Myanmar is not a wealthy country, it is also not as poor as Cambodia. In fact, I would say there are a lot of similarities between Cambodia and Myanmar, and if you've travelled in Cambodia, you're not going to find a ton about Myanmar that will shock you, except that a lot is still being done in Myanmar "the old-fashioned way", such as making lump charcoal by hand, like I witnessed in Yangon. In fact, I thought Myanmar seemed like a more wealthy country in some ways; it felt a little more organized and cleaner than Cambodia. Because there hasn't been a ton of tourism until the last 5 years, the children haven't learned to beg and the adults aren't trying to rip you off at every turn (like they are in Cambodia). Our trekking guide was really emphatic about visitors never giving anything to children while visiting so that children don't forgo going to school (and spend their days seeking out foreigners to get stuff from instead). (The Malaysian couple I toured around the outskirts of Mandalay with broke this rule; I was shocked when the Malaysian girl pulled candy out of her purse and handed it out to a group of kids while they were IN SCHOOL at a monastery we visited. Horrifying on so many levels! First, giving kids candy is a terrible idea given the lack of quality dental hygiene around the world. Second, sugar. Thirdly, you're distracting them while they're in school. If you want to give things to kids in foreign countries, give it to a parent or teacher so they can distribute it correctly -- wouldn't you want the same for kids in your own country?!)
There are some challenges to visiting Myanmar, but they're manageable. One big one is that there isn't enough accomodation to meet demand. Most of the inventory is below Western standards, and expensive. You can't get a $20 mid-range hotel room like you can Vietnam; even a hostel bed can cost $20 in Yangon and Bagan (which is what I paid in Singapore!). Another big challenge is the food. If you've been to YoMa in Allston, MA or Burma Superstar in San Francisco, you're getting a certain version of Myanmar food that's been a bit changed to accomodate foreign palates. Mynamar food is tasty, but it's also insanely oily -- they use about a half cup of oil in every bowl of curry, partly to keep the food preserved as it sits out all day long. There are some tasty salads (not our idea of salad, more like one vegetable chopped and flavoured) but I found the diet kind of limiting and heavy after two weeks. I also seemed to get bad headaches after eating it, maybe due to a lot of MSG? (Although they use a ton of MSG all over Asia in the food, so I don't know why I would be more affected there?)
These small annoyances aside, I found Myanmar to be a really wonderful country, welcoming and beautiful. It's interesting to see a country opening to the world that was so closed off for so many years, and I really hope that it retains what makes it charming (like the men still wearing traditional longyi) while improving some of the things that really do make it easier for visitors to enjoy their stay (like basic hotel accomodations).
Where I Went
I flew to Yangon from Krabi and spent a full day here before heading on to Mandalay. I visited Sule Pagoda and Shwedagon Paya pagoda, Bogyoke Market, walked all through Chinatown, and visited the train station where I bought my train ticket for the loooooooong train ride to Mandalay.
Taxi from the airport: 8,000 kyat
Train ticket to Mandalay: 9,300 kyat
I spent 3 nights in Mandalay. The first day, I joined a Malaysian couple who'd hired a taxi to go to the towns on the outskirts of Mandalay, which included Amarapura, Sagaing, Inwa and the famous U-Bein Bridge. The second day I visited Mandalay Royal Palace, two nearby pagodas, then had a motorbike taxi take me up to Mandalay Hill for the sunset (which was more like a giant raincloud blocking the sun, but still).
Taxi around Mandalay: 36,000 kyat (divided by 3 people)
Mandalay Zone entrance fee: 10,000 kyat (good for visiting 10 sites in the Mandalay area and valid for at least 5 days; I had to buy it when I arrived in Inwa)
Motorbike taxi: 6,000 kyat (he took me to the two pagodas and up Mandalay Hill, waited for me for an hour, then back to my guesthouse)
Minibus to Bagan: 15,000 kyat
I spent 3 nights in Bagan as well, renting an e-scooter both days to explore the temples in the area.
E-scooter rental: 5,000 kyat/day
Bagan zone entrance fee: 20,000 kyat (good for a week)
Minibus to Kalaw: 16,000 kyat
I spent one night in Kalaw before heading out on my 3-day, 2-night trek that took us all the way to Nyuang Shwe on the northeast side of Inle Lake.
Trek to Inle Lake: I arranged my trek with Sam's Family Trekking which I HIGHLY recommend! It included all meals while on the trek, entrance fees to the village, the two homestays, transport of our big bags to our hotels in Nyuang Shwe and the boat ride from Tonle to Nyuang Shwe across the lake at the end. All for only 38,000 kyat.
Inle Lake entrance fee: 10,000 kyat (good for a week)
Nyuang Shwe/Inle Lake
Some of the folks from my trekking group and I arranged for a boat to take us around Inle Lake for the day; we visited the Monday market, a pagoda, a wooden monastery built on stilts, a silversmith's workshop, a cigar-rolling shop, and another place where two long-necked women were seated making something, which made us all sad since they seemed like humans in a zoo to be gawked at by tourists all day.
Night bus to Yangon: $22 with J&J Express Bus (a girl I met in Bagan recommended this company as they were safe and quiet. Given my insane minibus ride between Bagan and Kalaw, I was super glad that this bus driver took his sweet time winding his way around the sharp curves in the dark. Worth the money!)
I had one day left in Yangon before my early flight out back to Thailand the next day. I spent most of it in a coffeeshop taking care of some emails and booking things for my stay in Chiang Mai and Pai, but I did wander around the Sanchuang neighborhood where the hostel was located. I also had a delicious (Western) dinner at a restaurant not too far away (although I had to take a taxi to get me through the insane monsoon-style rainstorm that started before I left to eat).
Taxi to the airport: 7,000 kyat
Where I Stayed
Yangon: Pickled Tea Hostel This almost-new hostel is really nice; the bathrooms have been renovated to have modern sinks, toilets and showers and the sheets and towels are white, fresh and clean. It's fairly well-located, although you'll want to take taxis most places you're trying to go (this is true in a lot of SE Asia though, due to the traffic and heat). The only downside to this place is that the room really smelled funky. At first, I thought maybe it was the people staying in the room when I was there, but after returning after two weeks and being put in the same 6-person room, I realized there was something definitely not right about the smell. Other than that though, it was a good stay. ($20/night, incl. breakfast)
Mandalay: Dreamland Guesthouse I found this place online and loved the sound of it -- it's an art and music school for local kids, so there are rooms of instruments and art easels on the first two floors with kids hard at work banging out the notes to Beethoven. The rooms were a little rough around the edges. Just very basic and cheap, and with windows that didn't seal to the outside, the a/c had to work very hard. All of Myanmar suffers from power shortages due to infrastructure being unable to keep up with the rising demand on energy; there were several power cuts while I was there, and listening to the loud generator rev up made me wish the guesthouse could do more to insulate the rooms since the a/c's having to work so hard to keep up was probably not helping. (The windows were basically outfitted with shutters so that to 'open' the window to light, you were always opening it to air. This would make sense if you did not have a/c trying to keep the room cool, and it makes for a room that is hot, noisy, and dirty.) Still, I had my own room and bathroom and I loved hearing the kids play music downstairs. ($18/night, incl. breakfast)
Bagan: Ostello Bello Hostel A new hostel in Bagan, run by a group from Milan who operate a hostel there by the same name. They're renovating an old Bagan hotel and getting it up to Western standards, which means redoing the bathrooms and building out the rooms. One of the better hostels I've stayed at so far in SE Asia, actually, with a big room with only two bunk beds and a clean bathroom (sadly the shower didn't drain well, but it's hard to know in Myanmar what is the fault/responsibility of the hotel and what is just a result of nothing working very well across the country). You can rent e-scooters across the street and there's a nice patio for meeting travellers and relaxing. ($20/night, incl. breakfast)
Kalaw: Golden Kalaw Inn I needed a place to stay for a night before heading off on a trek and this place fit the bill. Nothing overly fancy here, but everything functioned and it was clean. ($20/night, incl breakfast)
Nyuang Shwe: Manaw Thuka Hotel I "splurged" on this hotel for the end of my trek and it was a lovely place to stay. My only "complaint" is that it was super far from where the boat dropped us off in Nyuang Shwe and not knowing that, I dragged my painful feet for a really long time to find this place instead of hopping into a cyclo. I chatted with the hotel owner for a while and she told me they were renovating getting ready for the next big season, and she had a French guy on hand who was helping with the overall aesthetics of stuff. Still, found this place very comfortable, although it was kind of far from getting back to the center of town (although one of the guys working security gave me a ride on his motorbike when I wanted to meet my friends from the trek for dinner!) ($25/night, incl breakfast)