[Edit: In light of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State, some travelers may feel ethical issues with backpacking Myanmar. I encourage you to consider these issues, which are discussed in further detail in my post: Should Travelers Boycott Myanmar?]
With the Thai islands swarmed by millions of European student who read “The Beach,” and with Angkor Wat about as unexplored as Times Square, it can be easy to be a lemming in South East Asia. But you can still experience the backpacker trail of yore — just hop over and start backpacking Myanmar.
Myanmar (Burma) is trending as travel destination, owing to the fact that this beautiful country is finally opening up to the world after spending years under an oppressive and reclusive regime. Backpacking Myanmar offers world class archaeological sites, bustling and interesting cities, beautiful hiking, interesting cultural experiences, and gorgeous untouched beaches. And its very picturesque — my photos of Myanmar are still some of my favorites.
Unlike elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the locals are not yet accustomed to having tourists around. This means that the people are eager to interact with you and genuinely fascinated by foreigners (you will likely be frequently asked to appear in photos).
Below I’ve compiled a simple travel guide for your backpacking adventure in Myanmar, with summaries of the top destinations in Myanmar, suggestions on where to stay and what to do, and practical information about travel to Myanmar.
With visa on arrival now available for most nationalities, I suspect that in five years Myanmar will be well entrenched on the SE Asia backpacker circuit. So go now to experience the place before the hordes of tourists descend on the country!
Though tourism is still in its nascent stages in Myanmar, there is already something of an established backpacker circuit across four (or five, depending on how you count) major destinations. Most backpackers follow some variation of this route, which can be done in 7-12 days depending on your preferred pace:
This is the main entry point for most international flights (though you can now cross overland from Thailand, most people backpacking Myanmar still fly in). The main attraction here is the Shwedagon pagoda, Myanmar’s top religious site. Entrance is 8000 kyat ($7). Go at sunset for beautiful lighting, and then stay past dusk to see the pagoda lit up.
For a unique cultural experience, I highly suggest taking the Yangon Circle Train around the city. A ticket costs less than a dollar. Food and drink vendors pop peddle their wares on the train, farmers use it to transport crops and livestock, and the locals are certain to be fascinated by your presence on their commute.
Myanmar’s star attraction, Bagan is a vast expanse of thousands of temples stretching out over kilometers of grassland. These temples represent the remains of the ancient Pagan empire, which dominated the region until it was destroyed by the Mongols. Though the rest of Pagan eroded with time, the stone temples still stand.
Each morning hot air balloons fill the skies over the temples. Rides are very pricey (around $325 per person), but just viewing the balloons creates some great photo opportunities. Note that officially the ballooning season ends March 31, but there are a handful of companies that are permitted to run balloons past this date.
Also note that, though foreigners cannot drive scooters in Bagan, “e-bikes” are available for rent very cheaply. If you can drive a bike, this provides a convenient way to explore the vast Bagan archaeological zone.
Bagan can get very hot during the middle of the day, but is cool at night. The temples look most miraculous at dawn and dusk, so I found that the best way to enjoy them was to rise early for sunrise each day. Once you get too hot and tired, head back to your hotel or hostel (I highly recommend Ostello Bello) for a nap, then head back out at dusk for spectacular sunsets.
If you get “templed out,” you can also take a sunset cruise on the river.
One day Bagan may well rival Angkor Way on the banana pancake trail. Until then, there is still time to have a temple to yourself for sunrise and sunset.
This 100-square kilometer lake is home to fascinating people and stunning terrain. This is a place where the fishermen row with their legs (to keep both hands free) and where the villages are suspended on stilts above the water.
Many backpackers coming from Bagan chose to get dropped off in Kalaw, where you can trek for two-to-four days through rice paddies, hills, and villages, ending with spectacular views of Inle Lake. The lake is dotted with a handful of high end resorts, though most budget accommodation is in nearby Nyaung Shwe township.
Things to do in Lake Inle:
Though Mandalay admittedly fails to live up to the mysticism famously evoked by Rudyard Kipling, it is still an interesting city to explore for a day. Plus, with cheap AirAsia flights to Bangkok, entering or exiting through Mandalay can save you the trouble of a return trip to Yangon.
The most popular attraction is the U Bein Bridge, a kilometer-long teak bridge that extends over lily marshes. At dusk the bridge is swamped by people coming to view sunset, but it still makes for a great place for to snap interesting photographs (check out 35 of my favorite Myanmar photos).
Besides the bridge, there are numerous temples and monasteries you can visit. Many of these are around famous Mandalay Hill. I’ll always remember as the place where I was urinated on by an infant Burmese child whose parents were eager to shoot a photo with a tall foreigner. Remarkably, even after the kid peed all over me, all the family wanted to do was make sure they still got the shot!
Check out 35 Incredible Photos of Myanmar (Burma) to Help Inspire Your Visit and Get Your Free Lonely Planet Guide to Myanmar Using this Trick
Need a backpack for Myanmar? Check out my review of the Osprey Porter 46L to see why I think it’s the best backpack out there!
Nate Hake has traveled to 65+ countries across six continents around the world and blogs about his travels at TravelLemming.com. He is from Denver, Colorado, recently concluded a six month stint living in Mexico, and is now currently traveling in Thailand.