With three weeks in Myanmar, you’ll be able to spend a decent amount of time in all of the “Big 4” places – Mandalay, Inle Lake, Bagan, and Yangon – and also tack on a few other spots for good measure. We thoroughly enjoyed our first trip to Myanmar, and love encouraging others to visit this fascinating country that often gets skipped by travelers in Southeast Asia. To help you plan your great Burmese adventure, here’s a little rundown of our 3 weeks in Myanmar.
“This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about.” – Rudyard Kipling
Our trip to Myanmar was sandwiched in between stays in Thailand, so we got our visas in Bangkok, stored some things, flew out of there, and came back after the three weeks. Here’s the route that we took, along with an interactive map you can check out:
Mandalay – 3 nights
Pyin Oo Lwin – 2 nights
Hsipaw – 3 nights + an overnight bus
Inle Lake – 3 nights
Trekking – 2 nights
Bagan – 3 nights + overnight bus
Yangon – 4 nights
Our trip started out in Mandalay, the 2nd largest city in the country. Air Asia has really cheap flights from Bangkok.
We spent three nights and two full days exploring the city and its surroundings. One day was dedicated to the sites in the city. We visited the former Royal Palace, Mandalay Hill, and a few of the temples. For the second day, we hired a driver who took us to see some sites just outside of Mandalay. We saw a shinbyu ceremony – a celebration when a young boy enters a monastery. It is marked by a long procession with dancing and music. The boys are dressed up to look like a prince.
In addition, we visited a large monastery, took a tour around a small island in a horse-drawn carriage, and took in a beautiful sunset at U Bein Bridge.
Pyin Oo Lwin
From Mandalay, we piled into the back of a local bus for an uncomfortable but cheap (only $1) ride up the road to Pyin Oo Lwin. This former hill station is much cooler, thus providing a nice break from the stifling heat.
The main thing to do here is to visit the lovely botanical gardens, which can easily be done in half a day with rented bicycles. The grounds are quite large. There’s a restaurant serving traditional Burmese food. Don’t miss the little zoo where you can see monkeys and exotic birds.
If you’re feeling extra energized, Anisakan waterfall is a few kilometers ride down the mountain from town. We were on our way there when we realized we would have to ride uphill when we decided to return, and changed our mind. Some other travelers we met actually made it there on bikes and then hitched a ride back in a pick-up truck. They said the waterfall was worth the trek.
When you’re ready to leave, buy your ticket to take one of the great train journeys of the world, as you cross the Gokteik Viaduct en route to your next destination.
Many come to Hsipaw to go trekking, but we didn’t end up doing it as we were there during the hot months just before rainy season. Everything was brown and dry. Instead, we spent our time visiting the former home of a Shan Prince who has a tragic story.
We also checked out the “Mini Bagan,” enjoyed a walk through the countryside, and attended Bawgyo Pagoda Festival – a huge temple festival that takes place in March. It’s very important for Buddhists with hundreds making a long pilgrimage there every year. Even though it was a Buddhist festival, things got surprisingly rowdy.
If you make it to Hsipaw, make sure to pay a visit to the legendary Mr. Book to chat for a while. He’s an incredibly friendly and knowledgeable guy who will impart lots of wisdom on Myanmar.
We were on the fence about going to Inle Lake for a variety of reasons, but we’re so glad we ended up doing it. Is it touristy? Yes – it’s one of the most popular places to visit in Myanmar. Does that mean you should skip it? Absolutely not! With your own hired boat, you can easily escape the crowds and spend a day meandering through the floating villages, stopping at markets and workshops along the way.
There are many great trekking opportunities that will take you far away from the Lonely Planet-wielding tourists out into rural villages. We booked our trip at Mr. A Tun, one of the many travel agents in town that had received rave reviews online. Being that it wasn’t high season, we managed to book a 3-day, 2-night trek for just the three of us (Sasha’s sister was with us at the time). Our guide spoke great English, was very knowledgeable about the region and told us funny stories about challenges with other groups he had guided.
Just outside of town is Red Mountain Winery. Grab a bike and cycle there to taste their wine and watch a beautiful sunset. Don’t miss Aung’s Marionette Puppet Show, a cultural experience that is slowly dying in Myanmar as more and more young people lose interest in such things.
Seeing the temples of Bagan on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” and the film “Samsara” is what really inspired us to finally visit Myanmar. This former kingdom is home to thousands of temples, stupas, and pagodas that stretch as far as the eye can see. Exploring the area requires at least 2-3 days and a variety of transportation – bicycles, e-bikes, hired cars, horse-drawn carriages, and even hot air balloons. Watching the sunrise here was quite possibly the highlight of our entire trip, and was well worth the early wake-up call.
An incredibly comfortable overnight bus brought us to our final stop in Myanmar – Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. It’s the previous capital and largest city. Despite being attacked by bed bugs in what might be the worst hostel we’ve ever stayed in, we still enjoyed our time there. It still feels like a capital city. All the embassies and consulates are there so there’s a pretty big expat community. It’s bustling, loud, and fun when you dig in a bit.
We stayed at Mahabandoola Guesthouse and it’s easily the worst hostel we’ve ever stayed in. At $6/night/person, it’s definitely the cheapest place in Yangon but it’s awful. The owners are not at all friendly. There were bedbugs. We also noticed they didn’t change the sheets if guests only stayed one night. Gross! It’s definitely worth your while to pay $30/night to stay in an actual hotel.
Things to do in Yangon
To get a break from our gross accommodation and feel fancy for an afternoon, we went for high tea at the Strand Hotel. Built in 1901, this is where all the visiting dignitaries would stay when visiting the country. It’s been restored using beautiful teak wood. High tea isn’t that expensive – $17/person. They have a western option as well as a Burmese one.
The most fun thing we did in Yangon was riding the circle train for $1. This train goes in a huge circle through the suburbs of the city. You will pass by colorful markets and meet the friendliest people. A group of friends hopped in our car after buying some furniture at the market and they are some of the happiest people we’ve ever seen. They were joking and teasing each other. Perhaps it was all for our entertainment but it was funny nonetheless.
Finally, a trip to Yangon wouldn’t be complete without going to the most important religious site in the country – the Schwedagon Pagoda. The best time to visit is once the sun goes down. As you have to be barefoot, going at night will save your feet from the hot pavement and big afternoon crowds.
Impressions and Advice
We had a great time traveling in Myanmar and would love to go back to visit some of the places that we had to cut. Here are a few impressions and tidbits of advice for prospective travelers to this amazing country:
- Before arriving, we were worried about needing to pre-book all of our hotels. In the end, Mandalay and Bagan were the only places we booked online in advance. Not coincidentally, these also ended up being the most expensive rates. We’d advise to book online for your first stop of the trip and then ring hotels up along the way to get a better rate.
- The internet in Myanmar is terrible. In hotels, restaurants, and even in ‘net cafes we had zero luck getting a good connection. If you work online, keep this in mind and do your posting in advance. Sasha’s need to get work finished was what drove us to fly back to Bangkok after only three weeks instead of staying for four.
- Most people you meet are very friendly and talkative, and many speak English very well. We really enjoyed chatting with drivers, tour guides, and people we met along the way, something that doesn’t happen in a lot of countries due to language barriers.
- Don’t come to Myanmar expecting an amazing culinary or party scene. The food isn’t bad, but it’s nothing special compared to nearby countries like Thailand or Vietnam. Ditto for the nightlife, or should we say lack thereof. Come to Myanmar to experience the culture, shining temples, and beautiful landscapes.
- For more photos of this amazing country, check out our photo essay.
Check out Sasha’s video to see what 3 weeks in Myanmar looks like: