Backpacking Burma / Myanmar: Our Experience

My boyfriend and I love Southeast Asia, like most other young backpackers. Everybody goes to Thailand, Vietnam is full of tourists and we’ve been to Cambodia already, so the question was – where should we go next?

And we chose Myanmar. We had a basic idea of the country’s existence just from the media in connection with the military junta, suppression of human rights and Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi.

I won’t lie to you – during the flight to Myanmar we were filled with mixed emotions. Will it be safe? Is the country even prepared for foreign visitors? Are we going to manage to communicate in English everywhere? Are we going to be spied on by the secret police? What’s the food going to be like? Considering that we had lived in China for quite a while, we were ignorantly confident that no country could surprise us anymore. But it did! In fact, in a positive way. The only part that wasn’t ready was our digestive system.

Buddha Burma Myanmar
Buddha Statue by Inle lake – the brightness is mesmerising!

First on the to-do list: Visa

It is not so easy to obtain Burmese visa. We planned to apply for it at the Embassy of Myanmar in Beijing, China. However, after we read all the requirements, we decided to fly to Kuala Lumpur first and try to apply there. It turned out to be an excellent idea, which I recommend to anyone. It was a fast, easy and relatively cheap solution. We had a Burmese Visa in our passports within a few hours and all we needed was money and passport photos. After that we flew AirAsia to Yangon.

I‘ve also heard it‘s really easy to get a visa in Bangkok.

What Burma offers in terms of cheap accommodation?

Are you used to nice, cheap hostels or hotels in SE Asia? In Myanmar, you will be most likely disappointed. The range of accommodation is very limited there.

So what should you expect as a backpacker on a low budget? You’ll spend at least $25 per night after bargaining. The rooms are usually very tiny and not cozy at all, the wifi hardly works and it’s common to spot mold on walls or ceilings…or both :)

On the other hand we really liked breakfasts in Burma, they are usually included in the price of the room.

Our advice: Don’t spend too much time in your room.

Burmese cuisine and possible stomach issues

After many years spent in China we were very proud of our strong stomachs, but our digestive systems were not prepared for what was to come.

We generally prefer eating outside on the streets – When in Rome, do as the Romans do, they say… So we decided to eat at the same places as locals did.

We soon started appreciating our stock of pain killers and stomach medicine. For a while, a bottle of Coke was my best friend and I could not even look at Burmese curry. After a few days of starving, I felt incredibly happy when I was finally able to eat Burmese bread.

Our advice: Start with Burmese cuisine slowly, your stomach needs time. And make always sure you know where the closest toilet is.

pagoda Bagan Burma Myanmar
One of Myanmar’s many pagodas

Pagodas and more (pagodas)

If pagodas are the main reason why you travel in Southeast Asia, in Bagan you’ll feel like you’re in paradise. It’s pretty easy to spend a week there. First day a bike ride throughout the streets of historical Bagan, second day on an electric bike, third day on a horse-pulled carriage. Perhaps on the fourth day, you’ll be ready to take a break from seeing pagodas, so you hop on a bus and make a trip to Mount Popa. But guess what awaits you on the peak? Yep, more pagodas..

It makes no sense to name all the places that you can see in Burma, it depends whether you prefer staying on the beach or rather discovering all the temples and religious sites that Myanmar has to offer. Without doubt, we recommend visiting:

  • Inle lake
  • Golden Rok (Kyaiktiyo)
  • Yangon
  • Mandalay
  • Pyin U Lwin
Inle lake Burma Myanmar
Inle Lake and the most common means of transport

The way up to Golden Rock is a real adrenalin adventure. Together with local buddhist monks you’ll be loaded onto a big heavy truck and set off uphill. It’s better not to think about the safety too much, unless you want to spend long hours by walking up on your own feet.

Check out also this guide on all things Myanmar travel.

Why to love Myanmar and why to come back

We were not sure whether English was used in everyday life and we were pleasantly surprised to learn that almost everyone in Burma spoke English. If you come to Burma from China (and you are not a sinologist), you will be in heaven because communication is not a problem there at all.

You will love Burmese people. They are smiling all the time, they seem like they are always willing to help you. Women are extremely beautiful. You might wonder what women and children have on their faces – they apply a special sunblock made from natural ingredients.

people Burma Myanmar
People of Burma: Beautiful women and cute kids (see the sunblock on the boy’s face?)

Read also this guide on backpacking Myanmar.

Altough the climate is very hot in Burma, we respected Burmese traditions and wore more clothes in the temples and pagodas. In front of every temple you could see a banner with information about forbidden clothes in the temples. It means you must cover your shoulders, no short skirts, shorts or tops are allowed. Even men are supposed to wear trousers that cover at least the knees, and every visitor has to take off their shoes. Unfortunately, we saw quite many young foreign girls shamelessly wearing shorts and tops next to the Buddhist Monks in the temples. To be honest, I would not be surprised if the Burmese started gradually closing their temples to foreigners soon…

You will like the Burmese nature. The air is fresh, the birds are singing and the fish are happily swimming in the rivers… And we didn‘t see any indication of environmental damage. Plus, you can lie on the beach fully undisturbed.

The greatest advantage of Myanmar is still the low number of foreign visitors. Of course Myanmar is gradually opening to tourists. But in comparison with e.g. Thailand or China, Myanmar is still undiscovered and not commercial at all.

I would recommend visiting Myanmar ASAP before Bagan begins to fill with tourists like Angkor Wat in Cambodia…

Bagan Burma Myanmar
Enjoying Bagan without tourists

18 thoughts on “Backpacking Burma / Myanmar: Our Experience”

  1. Wow, it sounds like Myanmar has changed a lot since we were there in 2010. We did love it, but it was such a hard place to travel around (it was the hottest time of year, and frequent power shortages meant no aircon or fans. Amazing place though, and I agree with what you said about Bagan.

  2. I’ve been reading more and more about the accessibility of Myanmar these days. It’s good to know, so thanks for sharing! I wished I had been able to visit while in SEA, but I’ll go back. :)

  3. TOTALLY agree with you on all this- I went to Yangon for the first time last October. I was definitely disappointed by my room situation, and so I didn’t spend too much time in my room. haha But I found Burmese people to be some of the friendliest, most hospitable people I’ve ever met! I was also pleasantly surprised by the amount of English spoken! I want to make it to the golden rock and DEFINITELY to Bagan before it becomes the next big SE Asia attraction overrun with tourists. Great post!

  4. I’m going to Myanmar in a few weeks and this post has filled me with more confidence about going. Just as you were at the beginning, I feel a bit unsure about Myanmar and what it has to offer but your post has given me a more positive light, thanks! :)

  5. I m just (well Sept/Oct) back form a trip through Laos, Cambodia and mostly Bangkok and can say that Myanmar (was there in Jan 2013) has been the most enjoyable, exotic and authentic travel experience in the region. Nowadays it is possible to enter also on land, but that might involve paying off certain tribes or government officials. I met people who did so coming from China. I got my visa in BKK, and that was a piece of cake. So, grab your passport and head-torch (yes, street illumination is often non-existing), and off you go. You ll need the head-torch in Bagan, which was my favorite experience. You actually do not need to pay the USD 50 fee for the visitor area, just go to some of the less visited pagodas, climb up before dawn and soak in the atmosphere as the sun rises. Priceless! And as the author suggested, Angkor Wat doesn’t compare with regards to flexibility and peacefulness. Myanmar is by the way also a great spot for practitioners or people interested in Vipassana meditation, as it is here that the tradition has been best preserved after it was brought over from India. I would choose Pyin-U-Lwin, former British summer retreat. In any case, for people also interested in the country’s history and culture, a great read is “Where China meets India”. I read it during my time there and it’s both entertaining and very informative. In that sense, hop one a plane, take the bike-shaws in Yangon, take a early-morning train to Mandalay, don’t stop in Naypyidaw, and do many more things…!

  6. Very nice post about Myanmar. We went some years ago, but choosed a company to travel with because we were uncertain about how easy it would be to travel around. I beleive it would be OK to day to travel by your self. Myanmar is a country I would love to return to. Thanks for some helpful travel tips.

  7. The country is world famous for Bagan (site name) in where contains more than 10000 temples & pagodas. You’ll have various tests on architecture, stupas, hollow temples & notable cultural sites. As well as their decent traditions must be satisfying for you.

    Thanks to you Veronika! You’ve operating a helpful & informative sites for the tourists and who are intended to travel in Asia.

    Best Regards,
    Saiful

  8. I started recruitment business in Myanmar back to 2012 after the “democratic” changes.
    I have been there 17 times since. It is amazing country in many aspects and for those like travelling , adventure and real touch with history…rush in. it is changing so rapidly, it will loose the shade of uniquiness very soon.
    I love Myanamr and people there and i wishall the best to them through the transition they have to come thru.
    Best regards,

    vladi

    • I read the article about you and your company in the Czech Forbes magazine :) Good luck over there in Myanmar, it’s great you can witness its development from so up close and participate in the development. Hopefully, also thanks to you, the country will transition smoothly and in a better way than e.g. Cambodia has.

  9. You’ve definitely gotten a great headstart on the hordes that I’m sure will visit Burma in the years to come. Too bad flights from India don’t have a great schedule, hoping that changes soon so we can get there too!

  10. I first went to Myanmar back in 1998 and it was the most incredible place I have ever been. I spent the entire time (two weeks maximum) and saw no other travelers. The Swedagon blows me away to this day. Amazing country; politics aside.

  11. I feel like if I don’t go to Burma soon it will be just another over touristy SE Asia location. How much longer do you think I’ve got?

  12. I work for a Job Portal which also has operations in Myanmar.

    Due to this I had the nice opportunity to visit the country. I have been there 5 times in the last one year and I must say, it has been a surprise every time. A pleasant one of course. From the amazing architecture to the street food, everything is worth noticing and experiencing.
    It is great to see that the fast times are coming and the country is developing quite quickly. It is bound to be a big South-East Asian tourist attraction, I would recommend all to see it before it gets flooded with tourists.

    Cheers
    Sohraab

  13. I was there a couple of years ago. I can still see that nothing’s changed. The price and standard of accommodation was the most disappointing. However, Myanmar will always stay in my heart as a country where people are the nicest and the sights the most amazing.

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