Backpacker’s Guide to Myanmar / Burma
How to travel in Burma on your gap year
Burma’s history of isolation and the ban on tourists means the country has kept its unique charm and individuality. It was closed to tourists until 2012 so the Western influences that have diluted the culture of many other countries hasn’t been allowed to change the way of life here at all.
Since Burma opened up to tourists it’s become a hotspot on any backpacker's trail. On the border of India, China, Laos and Thailand it can fit right in to anyone’s South East Asia itinerary.
There are a few things to bear in mind however. It's not as simple to get about as you’d find in the likes of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Typical tourism features – accommodation, restaurants, excursions – have not quite been set up to meet demand yet, but that’s all part of the charm. It will also be more expensive than those countries mentioned, but absolutely and totally worth it. Here are a few of the hotspots to include in your itinerary and a few words of advice on getting around...
As the capital of Myanmar you’d expect Naypyidaw to be buzzing with people. Turns out barely anyone lives there and the streets are like a ghost town. Naypyidaw has huge Vegas-style hotels, sprawling golf courses, fancy gardens, malls, zoos, huge highways – everything a city needs to thrive, except for people. The Government is based here – a fact that causes much speculation among the Burmese. You might not see many people here but it’d be interesting to see what a few billion dollars looks like on a real life game of Lego.
Yangon remains as it did in the 19th Century – a British colonial capital. Visit Yangon and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a museum, thanks to the traditional dress of the locals and the old Chevy buses.
You’ll find pagodas all over Burma – but here’s where you’ll find one of the biggest, and definitely the most honoured. At 326 feet / 100 metres the Shwedagon Pagoda dates back 2500 years and can be seen all over the city.
If it’s temples you’re after, you’ll love Bagan. Known as the Land of 1000 Temples you can follow the banks of the Ayeyarwady River and you’ll find more than 2000 temples and stupas located in the area. One of the best things to do here is to enjoy an idyllic boat trip up the river as the sun sets, or, if you have the cash, make the most of a hot air balloon ride over the temples.
Any cycling enthusiasts will love it up in Mandalay. The locals have generally shunned any other forms of transport in favour of two wheels. It’s a great idea to visit here to see a different side to Burma compared to what you’ll see in Yangon.
If you’re heading to Thailand from Burma it makes sense to go via Inle Lake. It’s a beautiful area of Burma and a bit cooler than the rest of the country. Locals live in traditionally built huts on the mountain slopes, try and get yourself an invite for a real insider Burma experience.
Golden Rock / KyiteHteeYoe Pagoda
You’ll need to take a four-hour bus ride from Yangon to get to it, and then either a bus ride or a 5-hour hike up to the top, but it will all be worth it to stand next to the gravity-defying Golden Rock. It's one of the most important spiritual places in the whole of Burma.
Drive three hours in the right direction from Mandalay and you’ll find yourself in Monywa. The area’s claim to fame is basically the incredible Poewindaung Mountain Caves where visitors can explore incredible stone carvings and murals all over the cave. The Thanboday Pagoda is another major attraction in Monywa, as well as the site of 1000 Buddhas.
Ngwe Saung Beach
You definitely need to get your backpack here quickly; it’s so beautiful all the tourists will descend before you know it. After a 5-hour drive from Yangon you could be greeted by nine miles of white sands, beautiful water and incredible vistas.
Another beautiful beach in Myanmar Ngapali Beach is famous for its natural and unspoilt beauty fringed by coconut palms. Cycling is also quite big here and you can enjoy a bike ride to the local fisherman villages, if you like. Or, you could even hire a fishing boat to go and explore.
By all accounts the people of Burma are great and one of the best things about the country. Don't be afraid of their friendliness, or of asking to have your photo taken with them - just go for it!
Getting around Burma
Travelling around Burma on your gap year is definitely doable, you just need to give it a little more time and money, and have the right attitude.
Travelling by air will get you to the more remote places in Burma while travelling Burma by bus will get you there cheaper. Trains and boats are available in Burma but can be a slow way of getting around and be quite unreliable too. Both of these are a great way to see the country and to mix with the locals. You can’t really hire cars in Burma but you can hire motorbikes.
Top tips for Burma
Burma is still partly closed. If you just want to visit the main attractions you’re fine, but if you want to delve a little deeper into the country you’ll need to go on a private tour planned well in advance.
Be prepared with lots of money in your purse – lots of perfectly intact US Dollars as if there is even the slightest stain they might not take it.
Book accommodation with a pool – you'l need it to cool off!