Nuts N’ Bolts Guide to… Myanmar

Hi all, time for another ‘Nuts N Bolts’ Guide, this time to Myanmar, the former Burma, where I headed four years ago now. Myanmar is a great country to visit these days in South East Asia, rapidly changing and welcoming more and more tourists every year. On the flip side, although the country has opened up and seems to be more democratic and is technically no longer a military dictatorship, it still is having its issues, many of which are well known.

With thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh, and although some are coming back, it is clear that Myanmar has a way to go still in fairness for all and in human rights, and I think this is something that everyone who goes in 2019 should consider before they go. If you stick to the well-worn tourist trail, well you are probably well away from any unrest in the country, but there will remain the shadow of how ethical it is to visit Myanmar for some time yet I expect.

Morning in Bagan, Myanmar.

Myanmar sits on the western side of ‘South-East Asia’, bordering Bangladesh, Thailand, India, China and Laos. As far as I know, the only borders used at the moment are with Thailand. It used to be you could cross into Myanmar but not actually leave the border town and get right into Myanmar, I believe that is now possible. From other countries I’m not so sure.

Mandalay Hill before the climb. It looks bigger in real life!
Moat around the citadel in Mandalay.

I flew in and out of Myanmar in 2015, when it was not possible to cross by land and then cross the country. And considering the main tourist circuit is sort of central, it probably still makes sense unless you are feeling intrepid and have a lot of time on your hands to fly in and out. I flew into Mandalay and out of Yangon, a number of airlines fly to these main cities – Thai and Air Asia for example.

Golden Stupa at the Shwedagon Pagoda
At the top of the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Myanmar’s population is around 53 million, and at over 675 metres squared, it’s one of the largest countries in South-East Asia – bigger than Vietnam and Thailand. As in those two countries, once you head north you get into ‘hill country’. It’s more remote and there are less services, and it’s also cooler.

Yangon

Although Yangon, formerly Rangoon, is the main city still and clearly the biggest, Naypyitaw is the new capital and has been for a little while now. It’s not often visited by the traveller, and the main tourist destinations form a sort of diamond in the middle of the country. They include –

Yangon – a popular flying in and out point, interesting city, old capital, circular train line and the amazing Schwendogan Pagoda which is not to be missed!

Mandalay – a more relaxed town with a few temples and a citadel in the middle. Has a more colonial feel probably than Yangon, also feels more spread out.

Inle Lake – this incredible lake is magical, despite the throngs of visitors, and you can see floating villages, markets, temples and more.

Bagan – the ancient temples here need a few days to see and are truly special. They are probably not quite at Angkor standards, but they are one of the wonders of Asia.

Boats pull in to the market (in the distance) that ferry the tourists around Inle Lake.

These are four spots which are really worth time. And right there you have 2 weeks sewn up. I also ventured north to Pyin Oo Lwin in hill country, easily accessible from Mandalay. It was a cute town, and from there I was able to the train over the Gokteik Viaduct. From there you can head further north into hill country. South of Yangon and you can see the Delta and a very different (and less dry) part of the country.

Across Bagan

Before you go you will most likely need a visa. Tourist visas are not hard to get these days. If you’re in Thailand every man and his dog runs some sort of tourist agency that can help you out. I got mine in Australia before I left. It was simply and straight forward. It seems today you can apply online for an e-visa too which is no doubt cutting a substantial amount of red tape.

Going over the viaduct.

Travel around the country can involve a few long journeys. Inle Lake to Yangon was an overnight bus ride for example – and it was a very comfortable ride two which excellent service. Of course, it cost extra. Trains run in Myanmar but are often late and always pretty slow. There isn’t much comfort either. However, it’s a lot of fun and certainly an adventure to take the train in Myanmar.

The night bus I took in Myanmar, from the outside.

Roads generally are okay-ish between the places I mentioned, but you will still be faced with a perhaps surprising amount of unsealed roads. Go to more remote places and you can expect much poorer roads on transport less comfortable. Flying is possible too, with obviously domestic airlines whose safety ratings may not be the highest. But it would save you and awful lot of time.

All in all, Myanmar is an adventure and a rewarding place to go too. And much of it is a little wild and unexplored. Just have some idea where you are going and be sensible, and you can’t help but love Myanmar. Thanks for reading – May the Journey Never End!

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