No Longer A Well Kept Secret – But With So Much To Offer!
Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
I used every single one of the 28 days the eVisa was allowing me to stay in Myanmar in February 2015 and visited first the Southeast of the country (Golden Rock, Hpa An & Mawlamyine), before heading to the Northeast (Pyin Oo Lwin, train over the Gokteik Viaduct, Hsipaw) and finally discovered during the last two weeks the more popular and touristic part of the country (Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake & last but not least Yangon).
Why Travel To Myanmar?
There is a great diversity of highlights to discover in Myanmar:
- Bagan and its 4.000 temples are simply unique, one of the most fascinating places I have visited in Asia (and maybe in the world),
- Inle Lake still remains a photographer’s dream, both for the fishermen on the lake itself and for the surrounding markets,
- Mandalay offers a great diversity of cultural highlights, in and out of the city,
- And Yangon is definitely worth a few day if you want to scratch bellow the surface of this booming city…
- If you have more than two weeks at hand, especially Hpa An & Mawlamyine are worth the long bus ride (skip the Golden Rock, completely overrated), and the train ride from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw, crossing the Gokteil Viaduct is a touristy yet dizzy and cool experience…
- Last but not least, there is surely much more to experience in Myanmar, more Off The Beaten Track, but with max. 28 days at hand (the longest eVisa available), you have to focus on specific parts. Or you have to plan a multiple trip to this country…
But maybe the other highlight is that Myanmar still offers a somewhat genuine experience in Asia, far away from the masses that you find in neighboring countries, if you make the effort to move a little bit further afield. Do not be mistaken, though: the times when Myanmar was a well kept secret completely Off The Beaten Track are now gone… Myanmar is indeed changing at a very high pace. Tourism has doubled every year in the past 5 years, and more than one million visitors were expected in 2015!
Challenges Organizing The Trip – What Would I Have Wished To Know?
The country changes so fast that many things I read from the previous year was already outdated, especially as far as logistics and organization were concerned! Myanmar is now a country quite easy to travel:
- eVisas can be obtained Online and extremely easy to get (50 USD, payable with credit card);
- ATMs are widely available throughout the country (5 USD charge per withdrawal, with a limit per withdrawal of approx. 300 USD) – Nonetheless, if you want to change money, you still need absolutely pristine US Dollar bills;
- Internet is frustratingly slow (this might have changed), but also widely available, as are local SIM-cards (1.5 USD, slightly more for a nano-SIM)
- A touristic infrastructure now exits everywhere, with reasonable accommodation & transportations throughout the country (at least places where visitors go).
Myanmar is an expensive country for Asia, much more than India, Thailand or Vietnam, … So plan your budget accordingly, especially if you are not ready for the hardcore backpacking experience. For more information, see my Budget Guide To Myanmar.
For transport, really consider flying one or two legs if you have limited time at hand, you will save a lot of time and energy (keep in mind that bus stations are frustratingly far away from the center, so calculate an adequate amount of time just to reach them or leave them) and is not that expensive (see below: Getting Around in Myanmar).
With only 2 weeks, focus on the “highlights” of Myanmar. Yes, they are more touristy but really worth it! With a full month, you can add other parts, which are far less touristy and (still) void of tour groups…
Highlights Of The Trip
- Floating Over Bagan – Yes, the Hot Air Balloon ride costs 350 USD and must be booked weeks in advance. But is there a better place to enjoy such a ride? These 45 minutes were simply magic! And security standards are world class… Rent also an eBike and go discovering the more stunning of the 4.000 temples spread in a relatively compact area. True, only a few dozens are really worth a visit, but this forest of Stupas creates a unique atmosphere, especially at dawn and dusk (go to more remote temples for both sunrise and sunset to avoid the crowd of tour groups, for instance at Paya Pyathada, in my opinion the most stunning temple in Bagan).
- Inle Lake – This is probably the area of the country that will most dramatically change in the next few years. But yes, the atmosphere is special on Inle Lake at sunrise, with the dark grey, mirror-like surface of the water merging with the misty horizon, and the elusive shapes of fishermen rowing their boats with one leg… Surreal!
- Crossing the Gokteik Viaduct – No, you will not be the only tourist on this bumpy ride! But yes, this is quite a dizzying experience!
- The Caves near Hpa An & the Colonial City of Mawlamyine – Hpa An & Mawlamyine are places where even independent travelers are rare but highlights diverse and abundant…
- Mandalay – Mandalay is neither an attractive nor a pleasant city at first sight: a hot, modern, bustling grid of endless streets lined up with dull concrete blocks. Nevertheless, Mandalay abounds with amazing sites, and you will need at least 3 days if you want to visit those!
- The Circle Line in Yangon – Have you ever taken a 3 hour train ride arriving precisely where you started off? Being twirled around like laundry during the spin cycle? If not, take the Circle Line in Yangon and do the whole loop…
- Surprising Yangon – Yangon is a fascinating crossroad between Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. And if you scratch below the surface and take the time to dive into this surprising city, it has a lot to offer! 3 days are just right, especially since you might want to find some retreat during the hot hours of the day…
- Funky Hairdos – This is no joke! It won’t take long until young Burmese men with funky hairdos draw your attention. Obviously the thing to do: a very, very creative part of local fashion! Young men proudly adorn themselves with the strangest haircuts. You think it’s a small number of extravagant people? Oh no! It is a very widespread trend…
How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
With only 28 days at hand, it is quite difficult to go Off The Beaten Track on a first visit, as you will want to see the “Highlights” (the circuit Yangon – Mandalay – Bagan – Inle Lake) of the country (skipping Bagan or Inle Lake would be in my opinion a somewhat weird decision), which takes approx. 2 weeks. This is at least what I decided to do…
True, other parts, which are also quite easy to reach, are far less visited, but also no longer a well-kept secret: if the south (Hpa An, Mawlamyine) receives few visitors and only independent travelers, the Northeast (Pyin Oo Lwin, train over the Gokteik Viaduct, Hsipaw) are also popular and (extremely) touristy places.
The rest of the country, I cannot say, but it is much harder to reach, and hence sees less visitors (for now). This is most probably what you are looking for…
What Will I Especially Remember?
- A fascinating crossroad between Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent: many times I no longer knew if I was in Southeast Asia or in India or somewhere in between…
- Women working… Hardwork like construction work or roadwork is women’s affair. Men will sit in the shade and give orders…
- Kitschy Temples with Buddhas statues decorated with flashing colorful LED-Aureoles and clocks on a number of clocks the walls
- Monks everywhere: in the street, in markets, on bikes or scooters, of course in temples…
- Nuns in pink dresses – A color you cannot oversee!
- Construction sites – Dizzying bamboo scaffolding; how they stand remains a mystery to me…
- Young men with Funky Hairdo
What Would I Do Differently?
- Skip the Golden Rock – Completely overrated, crowed by large tour groups arriving in the end of the afternoon and totally overpriced if you want to slip atop Mount Kyaiktiyo
- If you have limited time at hand, focus more on Mandalay (3-4 days), Bagan (3-4 days) and Inle Lake (3-4 days) and reduce Yangon.
- If you have enough time and go to Hpa An, spend enough time there, there is a lot to discover around this pleasant little city. Take a tour on the first day to get a good orientation (quite challenging!), and then rent a motorbike / scooter…
- Avoid the Breeze Guesthouse in Mawlamyine, a dirty (yes, the only place with bedbugs I have ever experienced), overpriced hole with extremely unpleasant staff! How the Lonely Planet can rave about this place I simply cannot understand!
- Avoid more upscale restaurants. The ones I tried were totally overpriced!
Is It Safe & Morally Justifiable To Travel To Myanmar?
Things have changed dramatically in Myanmar in the last 5 years, and now the opposition lead by Aung San Suu Kyi has actually won the elections. So potential restraints due to one of the most brutal and corrupt Junta in the world are now completely unjustified, on the contrary! The young democracy will need every possible support, for instance your Dollars (or Euros or Yen or whatever)…
I experienced Myanmar as a very safe country, and never have I had any thoughts about anything close to safety, except maybe when choosing a motorbike-taxi at night. Some of them are really drunk!
Best Time To Visit Myanmar
The window to visit Myanmar is quite short, as temperatures rise dramatically before the rainy season and as the humidity is very high and roads partly impassible in the wet season (Monsoon). Myanmar is hence best visited between November and February.
Communication (Language Barrier?)
As soon as you leave the main tourist venues, communication can be quite challenging, as very few people actually speak English. But Burmese people are very hospitable, so everyone will do its best to find a way to somehow communicate, even (or especially?) in less touristy area…
Getting Around In Myanmar
Buses are reasonably comfortable and partly efficient in Myanmar, but keep in mind that bus stations are frustratingly far away from the center, so calculate an adequate amount of time just to reach them or leave them (up to 1.5 hour each way).
Nevertheless, you should consider flying some legs if you have limited time at hand, as road transports are all in all quite slow and plane tickets except to and from Yangon are very reasonably priced.
Locally, at least in Mandalay and Bagan, a scooter or eScooter / eBike will be your best friend. Driving around is quite easy…
|Type of Transport
100 km (€)
|Pyin Oo Lwin
|Pyin Oo Lwin
|Nyaung U (Bagan)
|(Heho) Inle Lake
|Heho (Inle Lake)
eVisas are now available Online and extremely easy to get (50 USD, payable with credit card), but are limited to 28 days that cannot be extended and requires to fly into Myanmar.
Note that the visa is not immediately issued: an approval letter is sent via eMail within 5 days of applying. You must print this document and show it upon arrival at Yangon to Myanmar Immigration to get your tourist visa (which is a straightforward process).
Photography – Myanmar: Temples, People & Landscapes
- Key Factors For Taking Great Pictures?
- Wide-Angle – As always in Architecture Photography (think of all those Temples…), the most important piece of equipment is a wide angle. I only had a standard lens (EF 24-105 L 4.0) and dearly missed a Wide-Angle like the EF 16-35 L 4.0 (that I bought shortly after…). When using wide-angle lenses a lot and post-processing your pictures, for instance in Lightroom, the new Upright – Automatic Perspective Correction is equally helpful. It corrects the tilted perspective by cropping the picture. Think about taking a wider frame of the subject, if possible!
- Polarization Filter – Too much light & a lack of contrasts are your major challenges while photographing outdoors in Myanmar. Hence, you should use one pretty much all the time to improve contrasts.
- Timing – Especially in Bagan and in Inle Lake, you will want to be before sunset at the right place. In Bagan, I recommend Paya Pyathada or of course a Hot Air Balloon. In Inle Lake, take a boat as early as 06:30 to experience the sunrise on the Lake!
- Tele-lens – Taking pictures of people is quite challenging, as most people then tend to pose (actually many people accept to be photographed in Myanmar, so you can do both). Many times when I asked, the result was not what hoped for. Now a tele-lens does the trick, enabling us to take pictures from a certain distance. Once people don’t notice, the expressions / portraits are much more genuine…
- Best Opportunities For Great Pictures
- Inle Lake at Sunrise – the atmosphere is special on Inle Lake at sunrise, with the dark grey, mirror-like surface of the water merging with the misty horizon, and the elusive shapes of fishermen rowing their boats with one leg… Surreal! Change the White Balance towards warmer colors to enhance the reddish reflection of the sun on the lake.
- Markets around Inle Lake – At least on the more remote Markets around Inle Lake, a lot of people still come in traditional closes, offering great photo opportunities.
- Monks – They are basically everywhere, on the street, in markets, in temples… Ask politely, with a smile, and more often than not, they will happily pose for the picture!
- Sunrise in Bagan – Both from Paya Pyathada and from a Hot Air Balloon, the forest of temples in the mist creates a surreal atmosphere. As for Inle Lake, change the White Balance towards warmer colors to enhance the reddish reflection of the sun in the mist.
- Train Rides – Both the Circle Line in Yangon and the Train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw over the Gokteik Viaduct offer great photo opportunities of the everyday life in Myanmar…
- Kitschy Temples – Yes, temples in Myanmar can be really kitschy! A Buddha with a colorful LED-aureole? Standard! Puffy Buddha Statues? No that special… Amazing!
- Funky Hairdos – This is no joke! It won’t take long until young Burmese men with funky hairdos draw your attention. Young men proudly adorn themselves with the strangest haircuts. It was good fun photographing them!
Best & Most Inspiring Travel Blogs For Myanmar
Conclusion About Myanmar…
Myanmar is changing, and fast! Since 2011, tourism has doubled every year, and 1 million visitors are expected in 2015. So the bad news is: No, you will probably no longer have some adventurous, Off The Beaten Track travel experience in Myanmar! Those days are long gone… Nonetheless, the good news is: Myanmar is now quite easy to travel!
And the even better news are:
- Myanmar has a lot to offer: Bagan is simply unique, one of the most fascinating places I have visited in Asia (the world); Inle Lake is still a photographers dream, both for the fishermen on the lake itself and for the surrounding markets (this is probably the spot where changes will be the most important); Mandalay and its surroundings abound with highlights; and Yangon is a bustling city that well deserves 3 days if you want to somewhat scratch bellow the surface…
- And this is only the most “touristic loop”… If you have more than two weeks at hand, especially Hpa An & Mawlamyine are worth the long bus ride (skip the Golden Rock, completely overrated), and the train ride from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw crossing the Gokteil Viaduct is a touristy yet dizzying & cool experience.
- And yes, Myanmar still offers a somewhat genuine experience if you make the effort to move a little bit further afield.
So my best advice is to go there now, before it is completely overrun like some of its neighbors, and before things have changed too dramatically!