I hardly slept through the 45-minute flight from Bangkok (BKK) to Yangon (RGN) because of excitement. It all started with photos of hot air balloons flying over the plains of Bagan. The landscape dotted with many temples and enveloped with fog as the sun’s morning rays shine in the background. At long last, I am finally in Myanmar, the Golden Land.
Myanmar, Let the Journey Begin to the Golden Land
Myanmar (Republic of the Union of Myanmar), formerly but still known as Burma, is located beside Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, China, and India. The capital was only moved to Naypyidaw in 2005 by the military. It’s a newly-formed city with modern infrastructure in Central Myanmar. The capital used to be in Yangon, the largest city of Myanmar, which remains to be the commercial capital.
It is a country on the rise in the Southeast Asian backpacking trail because of its allure as a place “off the beaten path”. Coming off a lengthy seclusion, it is also a country currently in the midst of change and transition. The local culture is still prevalent and it is not uncommon to see locals wearing longyi and htamein, or spitting the red juice of betel nut. Locals also put on a light yellow colored facial mask called Thanaka, which is used for aesthetic, traditional and functional purposes.
Your stay in #Bagan will definitely not be complete without seeing the #epic #sunrise. I have seen lots and lots of #amazing Bagan sunrises but to see it with your own two eyes, now that's #magical. As the sun slowly rises from beyond the horizon, with the color changing and the #sun rays illuminating the fog enveloping the city of #temples, you feel like a speck of dust within the galaxy. Definitely the highlight of my #Myanmar journey. @frommers
As Filipinos, we are allowed to stay in Myanmar Visa-Free for 14 days. Should we want to extend, we have to apply for a 28 days visa.
Most nationalities need a visa to enter Myanmar. If you are coming from Bangkok, you can apply at the Myanmar Embassy in 132 Sathon Nua Road. Visa costs vary depending on how many days before your flight you are applying for your visa. Visas are only valid within 90 days after you’ve secured your visa. You can also opt to apply for Visa on Arrival online or e-visa, though this is more expensive than applying at the embassy.
Best time to go
The dry season is from November to February. Be prepared for the heat when you go from March to May. Monsoon season is from July to September but can start as early as May up to early October. If you’re going in the low season, be prepared for the sudden change in weather that can affect your travel schedule. Yangon is more prone to rain than Mandalay.
Mingalaba #Myanmar! Formerly but still known as #Burma, this exotic gem of #SoutheastAsia is one of my most awaited part of my #journey. And it surely did not disappoint. Occasional rains has not deterred us from exploring and traveling on the low season surely has a lot of its advantages. The Burmese people are very helpful and welcoming and after getting a piece of #Yangon, i'm now oh so excited to reach the climax: Bagan. Even though Yangon can be a bit disorienting, it can also slowly capture your heart.
The National currency is Kyat but US dollar is still widely accepted. Do take note that the dollars you should be bringing with you have to be in pristine condition: new, crisp, unmarked, and with no folds. I had my dollars changed to pristine ones in Super Rich Bangkok (just tell the counter that it’s for Myanmar). I was given change of USD in not-so-pristine condition when I paid for my entrance in Bagan. But I was still able to use those twenties even when they had a few folds and little scribbles.
Money changers are easier to find now than before as well as ATMs (there are even ATMs now in Hsipaw). The charge per transaction for ATM is around 5000 kyat. The rates of the money changers in the airport and in Yangon doesn’t differ much. Although the money changers at the airport do not have the same rates, so if you’re going to change some of your money there, best to compare them beforehand. Also, more often than not, it is cheaper to pay in kyats that’s why I always have my XE Currency Converter ready.
Regarding haggling, I say that unless the price is too outrageous, refrain from haggling and just think about how you’re helping those locals.
There are entrance fee rates that one must pay before entering some of the places of interest in Myanmar. Check out this link for the entrance/zone fees.
Mobile connectivity and The Internet
Myanmar is slowly catching up to its Asian neighbors. When I went there in 2015, there are already 3 mobile service providers: Ooredoo, Telenor, and MPT. The Internet used to be unheard of but now, guesthouses have it and thanks to the 3 mobile service providers, you can have the internet everywhere there is a mobile signal. Getting a sim with data has saved me countless of times during my stay in Myanmar. Also, the locals are now hooked up on Facebook and online games too like Clash of Clans.
The fastest and most convenient way to get to Myanmar is by air. Lots of airlines have flights directly going to Yangon (RGN), Mandalay (MDL), and Naypyidaw (NYT).
I booked my flight when Air Asia had their Php 1 sale, more than 3 months before my flight date. Most popular direct flights come from Thailand, Kuala Lumpur, Vietnam, and Singapore. Tiger Air, Jetstar, and Nok Air are some of the budget airlines that have direct flights to Myanmar.
If you are planning to go by the land border, always check for updates.
Domestic flights are quite expensive so most travelers use land transportation. Take note that some roads are not in the best condition and that there could be horrible traffic especially during rush hours. VIP or express buses are available especially in the tourist routes (Yangon, Inle Lake, Bagan, Mandalay). They may be slightly more expensive but the comfort is definitely worth it. The bus is spacious and has different amenities like a charging socket, LCD monitor, reclining seat, free water and snacks, and even a blanket. You can even book your seat at JJ Bus via their Facebook Page.
The cheaper buses are another story, though. Some have air conditioning, some do not. No reclining seats and it surely is an adventure riding them.
You can also book your bus via your guesthouse. A word of caution, though, I have read in guides before that one shouldn’t ask the bus driver what time you will arrive at your destination. It’s sort of bad luck.
Train travel in Myanmar is a different experience. Some tracks are already run-down resulting to a bouncy ride. But it gives you the chance to mingle with the locals and has a more authentic transportation experience. The scenery is also incomparable, with the train going to Hsipaw taking the cake.
Horse carriages, motorbikes, trishaws, small boats and pick-up cars are the other modes of transportations that I saw and tried in Myanmar.
Now 114 years old, the Gokteik Viaduct is definitely the highlight of the Mandalay-Lashio #train route. You can do a day trip up to Nawngpeng where the northbound and southbound trains coincide or go straight up to the charming town of Hsipaw, a respite from the bustling city of Mandalay. The viaduct stands more than 300 ft and is really very scenic on either side. Instead of opting for the upper class coach, try to experience the ride in the local coach and mingle with the locals.
There are lots of guesthouse and hostels available, but with the influx of tourists, it is best to reserve beforehand, unless it’s low season.
Definitely safe for tourists. I was used to people being hospitable in my home country, but the Burmese really stood out from my travel experiences. They are so welcoming, very friendly, generous and helpful.
There are a few areas closed off for tourists due to lack of infrastructure and the ongoing conflict between different ethnic groups.
Places of Interest
Most of the travelers visit Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake, and the Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo). Visitors also go to Bago, where you can find the gigantic Shwe Tharlyaung Buddha, the second largest Buddha image on earth. For beach lovers, Ngwesaung Beach, located on the western coast of the Bay of Bengal, is just 4 to 6 hours away from Yangon. Ngapali Beach is the most popular beach but is not for backpackers as you have to fly in and out. For nature lovers, you can visit Inya Lake and Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon. Inle Lake is popular for its floating villages and the Intha fishermen rowing their boats with one leg. The ancient city of Bagan is home to thousands of unique temples across a vast plain. They say that the best way to experience a Bagan sunrise is by riding a hot air balloon, which is quite expensive. Innwa, Sagaing, and Amarapura are the most visited in Mandalay. The city is a bustling metropolis, more modern than Yangon interspersed with places of historical and religious importance.
Burmese food has influences of its neighboring countries. Though it is not as popular as Indian, Thai, and Chinese cuisine, you’ll still leave Myanmar with a dish you liked. Mohinga is the unofficial national dish and may not be the most visually appealing but it is surely packed with ingredients and an explosion of different tastes. Tea Leaf Salad is also worth a try as well as the Burmese curry. Shan noodles have also become wildly popular with both visitors and locals alike. It is also not unusual to see animal innards boiled in a hot pot and then eaten on a stick among roadside stalls. The Burmese also has a lot of fried street food, some of it made using chickpea and corn flour.
Street food 1/3: Mohinga | Myanmar A typical Burmese breakfast consisting of rice noodles, catfish, chickpea flour, fish paste, ginger and lemongrass among others. It is considered to be the national dish. It is readily available everywhere, all day but more so during breakfast. It is typically Asian in taste and I must say it's def my favorite dish I ate the whole time I was there. We had this in Yangon before heading to Bagan that night.
Here’s my 10-day itinerary across Myanmar (September 2015):
Day 1 YANGON
BKK – RGN
Shared taxi with newfound friends to Sleep In Hostel
Walking around the city:
Bogyoke Aung San Market (food and shopping for longyi)
Thone Pan Hla (milk tea)
Yangon City Hall
Maha Bandula Garden
High Court Building
Maha Wizaya Pagoda
Dinner at roadside stall
Yangon 1/3: Maha Wizaya Pagoda It was my first day in #Yangon and was walking around with my newfound friends: a Norwegian and a French. We had just come from Sule Pagoda and eager to get to Shwedagon before sunset. However, this fairly new pagoda (completed in 1980) caught our attention. All that gleaming gold lured us to take a peek inside. Also called as "The General's Pagoda" because the hti (umbrella) on top of the pagoda was donated by Ne Win, #Myanmar's former head of state and military leader. What's amazing about the central dome are the murals you'll see inside it once you look up. It has depictions of Buddha and animals. #PSwanderlust #aprilcontestforall Photo Contest
Day 2 YANGON – BAGAN
Free breakfast from Sleep In Hostel
Circle Line Train
Late lunch in roadside stall
Shared taxi to Aung Mingalar Bus Terminal
JJ Bus to Bagan
Shared trishaw to guest house
Check in at Winner Guest House
Free breakfast at Winner Guest House
Rent e-bike next door
Dinner at Aroma 2 in Nyaung U
Day 3 BAGAN
Van to Mt. Popa (with stop at a palm sugar facility)
Lunch at Weather Spoon’s in Nyaung U
Sunset at Old Bagan (Buphaya temple)
Dinner at a restaurant near Winner Guest House
Day 4 BAGAN to MANDALAY
Early morning bus to Mandalay
Check in Rich Queen Guesthouse
Hire a motorbike driver to tour Mandalay
Sunset at U-Bein bridge
#Sunset (1/3): U Bein Bridge | Mandalay, Myanmar This unedited and unfiltered sunset remains to this day one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen in my travels. I was halfway through the oldest teakwood bridge when I realized it was time for sunset. The sun was just glaring a few minutes ago when the sky turned into a myriad of colors that made everyone stop on their tracks. I thought that sunsets in U Bein were mostly just edited. But this definitely proved me wrong. No filter or edit needed. Just Mother Nature doing its work. How I wished at that time that he was with me at that moment. Sunsets, how beautiful they may be, also has the power to make one nostalgic.
Day 5 MANDALAY
Tour Mandalay with locals from Why Not resto bar
Day 6 PYIN OO LWIN
Pick-up car to Pyin Oo Lwin
Walk around town
Day 7 PYIN OO LWIN to HSIPAW
Train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw (Gokteik Viaduct!)
Check in Red Dragon Hotel
Walk around Hsipaw
Dinner at Club Terrace
Day 8 HSIPAW – MANDALAY – YANGON
Walk around Hsipaw
Bus to Mandalay
JJ Bus to Yangon
(Note: I realized too late that there’s a direct bus from Hsipaw to Yangon. Silly me)
Day 9 YANGON
Check in 4 Rivers Hostel
Walk around Yangon
RGN – BKK
#Football is so popular in #Myanmar that it would be common to see the locals watching it on tv everywhere. Watching them play their own version is also a treat. Perhaps you could even join a #game with them. The #ball they use is usually made with light wood strips interwoven with each other to form a circle. Games like these in the #video are played with live #local #music. After the sunset in U Bein bridge in #Amarapura, our guide took us here just near the temples. #Asia #sports #play #travel #traveling
Reminders to travelers
Travel responsibly and travel with an open mind. Be sensitive to cultural and religious norms. Always be respectful. As much as possible, I encourage you to not travel luxuriously here to have a more authentic experience. Learn even a little of the language. It doesn’t hurt to greet the locals with Mingalabar and a smile. I assure you, there is very little chance that they won’t greet you back.
Like in Angkor, Cambodia, be prepared to be templed out. That’s fine. Just take your time and savor those moments. And like those who said it before, it’s best to visit Myanmar now before it succumbs to modernization and mass tourism.
*** Featured Image Source: Pixabay| CC0 by judithscharnowski
Have you been to Myanmar? How was your experience? Any more tips to add?