Fresh off recent democratic elections, Myanmar is slowly freeing itself from the shackles of military rule and opening up to outsiders. Bordering the regional heavyweights China and India up north, and with the booming South East Asia down south, the country is poised to be an exciting country to watch.
With that in mind, now’s a good time to explore Myanmar, before it becomes Macdonaldsified.
Day 1: Yangon
Most international flights arrive and depart from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and former national capital. Assuming you land in the morning, make a beeline to the regional bus station to buy your tickets out of Yangon to Bagan on an overnight bus.
From the bus station, hop aboard bus 43 that heads towards the city. There’ll be many taxi drivers and touts loitering around looking for tourists to say, “No bus to city. Taxi only!” Ignore them.
The main sight in Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist temple complex built atop a hill. From the nearest bus stop (ask the driver), walk 15 minutes across a park to the pagoda. Head up one of the four entrances and walk clockwise around the stupa. You can easily spend half a day, grab dinner, then return to the bus station in time to catch the 8pm bus.
Day 2: Bagan
Overnight buses in Myanmar are surprisingly comfortable, and you’ll reach Bagan at 5am in the morning after a good rest. Book the bus ticket for tonight’s bus ride to Mandalay, and try to find a cheap hostel or guesthouse to grab a shower and safe-keep your backpack for the day.
The bus station in Bagan is 20 minutes away from the main commercial district of New Bagan, and you’ll need a taxi to get there. Prepare yourself for tough negotiations, as taxi drivers will swarm around the busload of tourists demanding to take you to town for double the official fare of 8,000 Kyats.
After settling in New Bagan and enjoying a proper breakfast, start your tour of the ancient stupas and temples that dot the landscape. The best way to explore the place by yourself is with an e-scooter, which does not require a license to operate. But at the very least, you’ll need to be able to balance and ride safely on the main road. Otherwise, follow a tour or hire a taxi to get around.
You can temple-hop in two ways – with a preplanned itinerary and a map, or just randomly stopping by every other temple and peeking in for a quick selfie. It takes a fair bit of effort to follow a plan, so you’re better off listing several main temples to visit, and just checking them off the list without following a fixed route. In any case, try to your visit to Pyathagyi Hpaya just before sunset, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the best sunset spots in town.
At night, grab dinner at Nyaung-U, a town replete with the chill backpacker vibes of Bali and Siem Reap. From there, return the e-scooter and head back to the hostel to collect your backpack. If you booked a bus, the company will send a van to pick you up and transport you to the bus station directly.
If you’re looking for a cheap place to leave your bags for a day, try the Bagan Central Hotel. There’s private rooms that cost less than US$25 per day, and it comes with an ensuite bathroom. They also offer hostels, although you’ll have to lock your stuff up securely if you’re going to explore Bagan for the entire day. Check out the latest prices and room availability.
There’s so much more to Bagan than just ancient temples! Check out Our World To Wander’s excellent post on the sunrise and sunset of Bagan.
Day 3: Mandalay
The former royal capital of the Burmese empire needs at least 3 days to fully appreciate the sights, but you’ve got 8 days and you’re already almost halfway through it. The bus from Bagan reaches Mandalay in the dead of the night at around 2am, so try your best to bargain for a cheap 15 minute ride to town. It’s probably a good idea to have a place in mind this time round.
The next day, get an early start to the train station and book tickets on the Gokteik Railway to Hsipaw (4am, USD 16). Book the upper class carriage with reserved seating, you won’t regret it. From the train station, rent a bicycle and cycle towards Mandalay Palace – it’s located on an island almost in the middle of the city, so it’s pretty accessible. The island itself is controlled by the military, so you can only get in from the East Gate, where you need to leave your bicycle and walk in.
Mandalay Palace is a museum that still retains much of its original architecture and interior, albeit without the royal family living within. Spend a few hours checking out the palace grounds, and climb up the watchtower for a good view of Mandalay Hill… because that’s where you’ll be cycling to next.
Mandalay Hill is located in the north of the city. It’s crowned by a picturesque temple offering an amazing vantage point to catch the sunset (again). You can either take a taxi up, or climb many flights of stairs to the top. As you do so, you’ll pass Buddhist shrines at each turn. I recommend taking the stairs, which is not as physically demanding as it would seem from the start.
At night, visit one of the many classy restaurants in town. Tripadvisor’s your best bet, but BBB restaurant has my vote during my visit. Spend the night at Mandalay (at last!)… you have an early morning train to catch at 4am.
As you’ll be spending a night in Mandalay and leaving in the wee hours, I recommend a private room again. The Mandalay White House Hotel is located somewhat further from the city centre, but you can borrow a bicycle from them for free. It takes about 20 minutes to cycle from the hotel to Mandalay Hill, which is a pretty good way to travel across the city. Check out the latest prices and room availability.
Day 4: The Gokteik Railway
Wake up bright and early at 3am and head over to the train station to catch your ride up into the hills. This train ride trundles towards the Chinese border city of Lashio, and cuts through scenic farmland, lush jungle and eventually, the highlands. You could also do the same journey by bus, which runs almost alongside the tracks… but then you’ll be missing the highlight of the entire journey, this:
The Gokteik Viaduct was built by an American firm under contract by the British. It had the highest span of any bridge in the British Empire back when it was built. Crossing across dramatic gorge, the train slows to a crawl as it trundles over a narrow line. Heads and hands will stick out of the windows clamouring for a photo. You might be prevented from taking a photo at times though, as the Gokteik Viaduct is considered to be of strategic importance.
From the Gokteik Viaduct, it’s another 3 hours to Hsipaw to the remote hill tribes of the Shan State in Northeastern Myanmar. By time you reach, it’ll be probably nightfall. Give yourself a pat on the back. It’s been a 15 hour ride up. Time to get some rest, a strenuous 2-day trek starts tomorrow.
Hsipaw is a small town, and much of the backpacker scene happens in Mr Charles’ Guesthouse, one of the earliest backpacker hostels to pop up in this remote town. While reviews are mixed, this is a good place to meet other backpackers and find travel companions for the road ahead. Check out the latest prices and room availability.
Day 5: Trek to the hill tribes from Hsipaw
There are two relatively accessible treks to check out the hill tribes of Myanmar. Most tourists would head to Kalaw, but in recent years Hsipaw has been gaining popularity as a less touristy alternative. Just a decade ago, Hsipaw and the surrounding areas was still restricted to foreigners. Rebels once operated in this thick jungles, but not anymore. Reports of people getting blown up by landmines still happen occasionally though.
If you did not stay at the guesthouse overnight, it’s possible to go over to the guesthouse early in the morning and book a 2-day hill tribe trek out of Hsipaw immediately. It’s advisable though to contact them to reserve a place first. At the same time, book an overnight bus to Nyaung Shwe after the trek. Since you’re already on the 5th day, there’s hardly any time to spare if you get delayed!
The trek starts right from the guesthouse, and is done entire on small muddy trails, steep inclines and small mountain roads. Wear a good pair of waterproof hiking boots and carry light. Bring along a change of clothes in a waterproof bag, as there’ll be a chance to bathe at night.
You’ll also stop over at a Palaung village for lunch, hosted by a local villager. It’s a humble meal of vegetables and fruits, but expertly cooked with fresh ingredients.
By twilight, you’ll reach the village to spend the night in a hut. Rest well, since it’s going to be a long trek back to Hsipaw tomorrow.
Day 6: Trek back to Hsipaw
Wake up bright and early to the laughter of village school-kids outside the hut. You’ll have some time to wash up and eat breakfast before heading out again. The path back takes almost the same route, so expect to reach Hsipaw by early afternoon.
Back at the town, get washed up at the guesthouse, grab a quick bite or buy some snacks, and head over to catch the 4pm bus to Nyaung Shwe, the nearest town to Inle Lake.
Day 7: Inle Lake
The bus arrives at Nyaung Shwe at 7am, just as the town stirs to life. Nyaung Shwe is the largest town near to Inle Lake. There’s plenty of guesthouses, hotels and restaurants catering to an international clientele. If you’re booking a resort-style hotel by the lake, you need to hire a taxi or tuktuk to travel another 30 minutes to the lake. Each resort is largely on its own, so you need a driver and car.
Getting to Inle Lake from Nyaung Shwe is straightforward. Along the river that runs along the town, boatmen and touts seek out tourists for a ride across the lake. A 2-hour ride from town to the Cat Monastery and the Floating Gardens cost 5,000 Kyats for the boat. A full day tour can can go as low as 15,000 Kyats for the whole trip.
After the Inle Lake experience, grab a bike or hire a taxi and head to the nearby Red Mountain vineyard. A 20-minute drive from town and up the hills, the view opens up to grape vines and a panoramic view. Find an outdoor table at the restaurant, order a bottle of the surprisingly-drinkable wines, and wait for sunset. Most assuredly, you couldn’t possibly find a more magical way to end a whirlwind trip to Myanmar.
At night, ask your guesthouse to help book the 7pm overnight bus back to Yangon for your flight out. You’ll have to rush from the vineyard, so do prepare your backpack beforehand.
Kick back and relax for this last leg of your trip without spending a fortune. Hotel Maine Li is an affordable and central that’s absolutely spotless. You can also borrow bicycles to explore Nyaung Shwe on wheels, and cycle along the trail that borders Inle Lake. Check out the latest prices and room availability.
Day 8: Back to Yangon
The overnight bus reaches the Yangon bus station at 6am, the same place you began your trip 8 days ago. Take a taxi to the airport to catch your flight out, or book your next bus ticket out of Myanmar. There’s still more to explore in this country, so start planning your next adventure soon!