Myanmar, with its numerous magnificent Buddhist temples, has become the most appealing and exotic destination in Southeast Asia, even to other ASEAN fellows. The country only opened up itself in 2012, and only from Oct 2013 could a Vietnamese passport holder like myself enter the border without having to acquire a visa.
Most people say now is the good time to visit Myanmar before it is fully touched by Western influence, but my feeling from a week rushing across the country (23-31 Aug 2014) is that it is already quite integrated. And someone even said to me Myanmar would develop fast, even quicker than Vietnam before. Perhaps.
A few things to be aware prior to the trip:
1. Traveling in Myanmar is NOT cheap. I often say traveling in Laos is more expensive than in Vietnam, then traveling in Myanmar is even more expensive than in Laos. Note that fact and prepare your budget. I say, modestly you would spend USD 300-500 in a week. There are entrance fees for Bagan and Inle Lake (we skipped Mandalay so I don’t know if there is any entrance fee there), there is no entrance fee for Yangon but tourists have to pay to go in almost all of tourists’ attraction sites here.
2. Internet in Myanmar runs at snail’s pace. It almost doesn’t work in Bagan, and is very limited and slow in Inle Lake and Yangon. Thus, write down and print everything you need in advance.
3. Burmese people are generally nice and lovable, even the street hawkers. Don’t be too hard on them, spend your money! (Probably this will change soon when too many tourists come in and ruin the people’s purity, just like what happened to Vietnam or Cambodia)
4. Don’t miss Bagan in your travel itinerary. It’s like Cambodia‘s Siem Riep or Vietnam’s Hue. It’s the country’s legacy. Probably visiting once is enough, but it’s a MUST.
Transportation from Vietnam to Myanmar:
I heard that you could get in Myanmar from Thailand by bus, but the easiest way is to fly in. Try looking at Air Asia (indirect flights) or Vietnam Airlines (direct flights from Hanoi / HCMC to Yangon).
In fact, keep an eye on Vietnam Airlines for their promo tickets to Yangon. We got the cheap return tickets from Hanoi to Yangon at only USD 170 (yes, this is the cheapest ticket option to Myanmar that you can possibly find from Hanoi, for now).
Burmese currency is Kyat (pronounced /chat/). Currently, the exchange rate is around 1,000 Ks ~ 1 USD
The exchange rate at Yangon airport is good, you won’t get better rate in the city center (maybe only 1-2Ks better, which doesn’t mean much), thus, it is advised to change all the money you may need for the whole trip at the airport. Exchange rate in Bagan and Inle Lake is worse.
Notice: Your money notes have to be brand new and in perfect condition, a trace of them being folded or any little mark on the notes may result in refusal to change your money or a very bad exchange rate for you. The 100 USD notes are offered best rate, smaller notes have lower rate.
You can use USD directly for hotels and to buy gifts from markets as well.
Our travel itinerary:
We arrived at Yangon airport at 6 pm and immediately hopped on a taxi to rush to the bus station (5,000 Ks for 2 peeps), where my friend had already booked a night bus leaving at 8 pm to Bagan (18,500 Ks/pax). The bus company is JJ Bus – a very high standard one and I totally recommend.
Day 1 & 2: Bagan:
We arrived in Bagan at around 6 in the morning and grab a taxi to our hotel in New Bagan (7,000 ks taxi charge for 2). The thousand year old Bagan is a splendorous town with nearly 3,000 ancient pagodas. Don’t let the terms “Old Bagan” and “New Bagan” deceive you about its size (it’s nothing similar to “Old Delhi” and “New Delhi” where it takes one hour or two to go from the New to the Old). The whole Bagan is very modest, 2 days should be enough to explore the whole area on your rented e-bike. Entrance fee into the town is 15 USD/pax.
We stayed at Mya Thida Hotel in New Bagan for 2 nights. This is a decent budget hotel (30 USD per night for a twin room) with lovely staff and free wifi (though it almost didn’t work), clean air-conditioned room, no hot water (but the weather was quite hot so it was okay for us), and only one electric socket in the room (thus, remember to bring an outlet adapter to create more spaces for extra devices). We rented e-bike at the hotel for 8,000 Ks per day per bike, but for sure you can find cheaper price by asking a few other places.
Buy a map from the hotel (1,000 Ks) and ask them to advise you on what to visit and where to go for sunset and sunrise. Now you’re all settled, it’s time to explore the town and its magnificent pagodas.
Day 3 & 4: Inle Lake:
We left Bagan for Inle Lake in the morning. Remember to buy your bus tickets at the hotel (same price as in the bus station with hotel pick-up included). JJ Bus doesn’t operate on this route so we took a day bus from another local company at 11,000 Ks per pax and arrived in Inle Lake in mid-afternoon. Entrance fee into this lake town is 10 USD.
The tiny town and its beautiful lake can be a great place to relax.
Guest houses in the town are rather inexpensive but resorts on the lake can be 200 – 300 USD per night. My friend booked a fancy boutique hotel called Viewpoint Lodge at 79 USD per night and we had quite a comfortable cottage suite with all amenities.
Regarding food, I totally suggest this humble-looking restaurant called Linn Htet located at the corner of the market (very easy to find) that serves tasty Burmese curry dishes at a very reasonable price.
Honestly, prior to the trip to Inle Lake I didn’t feel very excited because I couldn’t think a natural lake site in Myanmar could beat the beauty of Vietnam’s numerous lakes across the country. The road to here is not as picturesque, either. And actually, what’s charming about the place is not the natural beauty but the cultural beauty of the people living on the lake and the craft villages spread out along the lake side.
My friend and I found a random companion and we shared a boat tour which cost 14,000 Ks from 8am to 3pm. We saw the incredible fishermen balancing on one leg, the long-neck tribal ladies, and the many floating craft villages where they produced lotus silk, silver jewelry, wooden souvenirs, iron equipment and organic cigarettes.
Day 5-6-7-8: Yangon:
We took another night bus with JJ Bus from Inle Lake to Yangon 2 hours after the boat trip, price is 19,000 Ks per pax.
Firstly, let me say Yangon has now become my second favorite city among all the places I have been to in Southeast Asia excluding Vietnam while my number one favorite is Luang Prabang in Laos.
Contrast with the tranquil Luang Prabang, which is perfect to look for one’s inner peace, Yangon is a vibrant, dynamic yet still very enchanting city that I would love to be able to experience living in some time in the future.
Yangon is exactly the reason why many people often call Myanmar “the meeting point of India and Southeast Asia”. The city center was pretty much a combination of the less-crowded version of Hanoi some 20 years ago, the busy streets of Old Delhi and the British architecture of Mumbai.
Besides the city center, another highlight in Yangon is the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda, which is claimed by many to be the most remarkable Buddhist temple in the world. We spent almost a whole day here watching the temple changing color from afternoon to evening and looking at hundreds/thousands of local people walking past. Entrance fee is 9 USD per person. And oh, bring your laptops and phones here for the complimentary wifi.
The best place for shopping in Yangon is the huge Bogyoke Aung San Market, but all shops close before 5 pm, so remember to wrap up your shopping during day time.
I don’t have any hotel reference since my friend managed to find accommodation for us inside the Vietnam Embassy in Yangon (!), but I’m sure hotels in Yangon are much cheaper than in Bagan and Inle Lake.
Only 8 days in Myanmar didn’t help me much in understanding the country, but I’m sure I have fallen for it. Probably next time in Yangon, you’ll find me wrapping myself in a traditional longyi dress and covering my face and arms with thanaka. And in case people confuse me with a Myanmar girl I have already learned how to say “I don’t speak Burmese” in Burmese 🙂