Our travels in Myanmar
Whilst we were travelling in Myanmar, we utilised buses and a river ferry as our modes of transport.
Below is a summary of where we went, the mode of transport used, the length of time the journey took, and how far it was.
|Journey||Mode of transport||Distance (miles)||Time taken||Cost per person (Kyat)|
|Moreh to Mandalay||Night bus||298||15||28000|
|Mandalay to Bagan||River ferry||120||11||61000|
|Bagan to Inle lake||Bus||194||7||22000|
|Inle lake to Hpa An||Night bus||438||15||25000|
|Hpa An to Myawaddy||Minivan||81||4||10000|
Having previously encouraged people to stay away in order to avoid lining the pockets of the military. Responsible travel to Myanmar is now welcomed. Tourists are encouraged to use facilities that help ordinary people and avoid businesses that have links to the military.
The country’s official name is the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. The name changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. This is a contentious issue because the change was undertaken by an unelected military government without consulting the people.
The military seized power in 1962 and is only beginning to cede that power today. Part of the reason for the military justifying its iron grip for so long are the ethnic insurgencies that have continued since the end of the Second World War.
In 1988, there was a mass uprising against military rule. Led by students and monks, during which time, the National League for Democracy (NLD) rose to prominence. The protests were violently suppressed. Nevertheless, they led to elections in 1990, which the NLD won. The military generals refused to recognise the result and held on to power.
In 2010, the government embarked on a series of dramatic reforms. These allowed a general election in November 2015 that the NLD won.
The people of Myanmar want tourists to visit their beautiful country. When travelling it is possible to use local, independent shops, tour guides, hotels, restaurants, and guesthouses that do not have any links to the military. Not only does the tourist dollar go a long way.
Accommodation is available to suit all budgets in Myanmar. Our experience is that you get what you pay for. We stayed in a number of different places on our travels throughout the country. Using Booking.com to book the accommodation. From our experience, the hotels that we stayed in were well furnished, spacious, clean, and good value for money.
Don’t expect tea/coffee making facilities in all hotels or guest houses. Bathrooms are western style, with bath and/or shower. Toiletries were provided. Breakfast was always included within our room rate.
WiFi was available, generally, it was good strength. The staff was always polite, courteous, and very helpful.
Most hotels will advertise their room rate in US Dollars, depending on the exchange rate at the time, it can work out cheaper paying in Kyat.
During the high season, it is recommended that rooms are booked in advance. Popular destinations, such as Inle Lake and Bagan, can be busy. Check online for the best deals, we found that hotels were generally more expensive for walk-in bookings.
In the central parts of Myanmar and the popular tourist destinations, foreign travellers have complete freedom of movement. However, when travelling outside these areas, to the mountainous border areas, travel is more restricted. If you are intending to travel to these remote parts of the country, take photocopies of your visa and passport photo page with you. These may be demanded by bureaucratic officials.
In our opinion, travelling by bus is the simplest way to get around Myanmar. It is the only way to get to certain destinations by public transport. Bus routes are run by private companies, and they serve tourist areas of Myanmar.
The long-distance buses on major routes in Myanmar are modern and air-conditioned. In less touristy areas older buses are used which aren’t as modern. The local buses will be crowded and not just with people. Expect sacks of grain and even live animals filling the aisles. These buses are the lifeline transport to some villages.
Many long distance bus operators run night buses. Be aware that these are not sleeper buses. So to ensure your comfort, choose the appropriate bus type for the journey you are undertaking.
On most routes, it is possible to choose a VIP bus (Express bus, although not always faster). These are very comfortable, having reclining seats in a 2+1 formation (as opposed to the usual 2+2).
Buses do not have toilets on board. Longer journeys have plenty of toilet/refreshment stops. These stops being at local roadside establishments, offering cheap local food.
We ate at all of the stops and found the food to be good. Even though we didn’t have a clue what we were going to get on a couple of occasions, as nobody spoke English.
Bottled water, and sometimes a small snack, are supplied on all VIP buses and some other buses. The VIP air conditioned buses get cold at night, even with the blanket provided. Myanmar pop and rock videos or romantic movie dramas are often playing to themselves on buses, sometimes loudly.
Some roads are very rough and dusty, becoming impassable during the rainy season. Because of this journey, times can vary, if you have a connecting onward journey, bear this in mind.
These can be bought at bus stations but as the long-distance bus stations are usually located out of town, this can prove to be inconvenient. Tickets can also be purchased online or from booking offices or hotels in town. We generally used one of the many ticket agencies in town.
Book early for popular routes, particularly during the high season from November to April. Things get particularly busy during this period. The Thingyan (Burmese new year) water festival in April is also a busy time.
Long distance bus journeys are usually faster and cheaper than trains. Often starting between 1600 hrs and 2200 hrs, meaning arrival at your destination very early in the morning.
We fell foul of this when arriving in Mandalay from Tamu. Arriving at 0430 hrs in the morning, we got to our hotel at 0515 hrs. We had to wait for a room to be vacated and cleaned before we could check-in. Read more about our journey from Tamu to Mandalay.
Travelling by train in Myanmar is one of the best ways to see the country. Railway journeys give scenic views and the chance to interact with the locals. The first class and overnight sleeper carriages are more comfortable than buses. It will however be a slow bouncy journey.
Journey times can vary wildly owing to flooded tracks or mechanical problems. This makes the train a less reliable option than the bus. The Yangon to Mandalay express train is the exception to this, as it is usually quite reliable.
Trains in Myanmar are classified as either Up trains (heading north) or Down trains (heading south).
Classes are divided into:
- Ordinary class, simple wooden seats, usually very crowded. This class is available on all trains.
- First-class, usually wooden seats provided with cushions. This class is not available on all trains.
- Upper class, comfortable, larger seats. This class is available on all trains.
Be prepared for a general lack of cleaning and broken seat adjustment mechanisms on all trains.
Standard sleeper, a four-berth or two-berth lockable compartment. Bed linen is provided. The wash basin and toilets are at the ends of each sleeper carriage. This class is only available on the Yangon to Mandalay and Mandalay to Myitkyina routes.
Special sleeper, self-contained compartments, with separate entrance, toilet, sitting, and sleeping areas. No access to the rest of the train is possible from these compartments. Water and bed linen is provided. Usually, this class is only available on the Yangon to Bagan route.
In general, the train standards on the main Yangon to Mandalay route are far better than other trains on other routes. With trains being cleaner, with air conditioning systems that are more likely to work. Trains in more remote parts of Myanmar tend to be slower and less reliable.
Train tickets from Yangon to destinations around Myanmar can be booked online. Online bookings must be made at least five days ahead of the departure date. Alternatively, tickets can be purchased from the departure train station.
As foreigners passport details have to be provided when purchasing tickets. These can be booked one day in advance for normal class seats and three days in advance for upper-class seats. Sleepers can be booked a week or two in advance.
Seats are numbered in all classes. Booking early is recommended, particularly for sleepers. At some local stations on branch lines, tickets may only be purchased on the day of travel. This is not usually a problem for foreign travellers.
At the railway station ticket office, tickets need to be paid for in Kyat. Foreigners now pay the same price for tickets as Myanmar locals. Buying tickets at the railway stations is cheaper than booking online. However, not all station staff will speak English.
Train travel tips
- Trains in Myanmar are unreliable. Arrival and departure times can vary. Yangon station has a digital departure board (in English), but few other stations do.
- A passport is required to purchase a train ticket.
- Trains can get cold at night.
- Buying train tickets can take a long time. The station staff has to complete a form-filling process that is required for foreigners.
- Even in the upper class, seats can be dirty. All the toilets found on trains are basic and dirty.
- Book early for popular routes, particularly during the high season from November to April. Things get particularly busy during this period. The Thingyan (Burmese new year) water festival in April is also a busy time.
Travelling by boat in Myanmar is an alternative to the bus or train. Connections are available between some of the major destinations. Most routes follow the Irrawaddy River that flows north-south through the country.
Passengers get a real taste of life on the river, taking in the sunrise over the stupa-lined river banks and getting the opportunity to mix with locals.
Slow boats are the cheapest way to travel. Fast boats are more expensive and can only operate during the day and are usually more comfortable
IWT (Inland Water Transit) is the government-owned company that provides most official river services. Their website provides a guide to services, and they have offices in most cities where you can get information and buy tickets, these are often located at or near the jetty from where the boats depart.
As with buses and trains, boats often leave very early in the morning. We took a boat from Mandalay to Bagan, an 11 hour journey, departing Mandalay at 0700 hrs. Read more about our journey from Mandalay to Bagan.
A good way to see the local area is by renting a scooter. We hired a scooter a number of times while in Myanmar. Already having ridden scooters in other SE Asian countries, we were aware of the pitfalls of scooter hire and use.
Hiring a scooter in Myanmar is easy, everywhere you turn, someone will be renting scooters out to tourists. Follow some basic rules to help you stay safe.
- Only rent from either your hotel or a reputable local firm.
- Ensure your travel insurance includes cover for you renting and riding the scooter.
- You will be required to leave some form of deposit. Most places will ask for your passport. Think twice about just handing over your most valuable travel possession. Check where it will be kept and that it will not get into the hand of anyone else.
- Always wear a helmet. Check the helmet provided fits correctly and is undamaged.
- When you collect the scooter it could already be damaged. Point this out to the person renting it to you and then take pictures/videos of the entire scooter for when you return it.
- Use the horn when overtaking. It lets other drivers know you are there.
- Always be prepared for the unexpected. All traffic will pass you on both sides. When driving on the right and turning left, be prepared for something to still come hurtling past you on your left.
- Secure the scooter when it’s left unattended. Preferably with your own lock. You don’t know who else has a key to the rental supplied padlock.
The Kyat is the official currency of Myanmar. However, the US Dollar is used as an alternative currency, particularly for larger purchases. Don’t be surprised if you are expected to pay for your hotel in dollars. If payment is made in Kyat, it can be at a worse rate.
If paying in dollars, the change will often be given in Kyat. Local purchases, such as taxis, buses, and restaurants are always paid for in Kyat.
The local currency is readily available at ATMs. For cash withdrawals, there is usually a 5000 Kyat transaction fee and a withdrawal limit of 300,000 Kyat per transaction.
You may also be charged a transaction fee by your own bank. The use of ATMs in Myanmar is sometimes restricted by internet failure and power cuts. Visa and Mastercard are both accepted at ATMs and at larger establishments for card transactions.
If paying with US dollars the notes must be in perfect condition. Blemishes of any kind, creases, marks, folds, etc. will result in the money not being accepted. Also, pre-2006 dollar notes or ones with the letters AB and CB at the start of the serial number (at the top left corner of note) may not be accepted. This is not the case with the local currency. Some of the Kyat notes in circulation are in an awful condition but accepted everywhere.
The traditional clothing worn by both men and women in Myanmar is the longyi (sarong). Introduced in colonial times, its popularity is rooted in its simplicity and suitability to the hot climate.
Also popular and connected to the climate is thanaka pronounced tawn’-uh-Kuh). A facial paste made from ground bark. Worn mostly by women and children to protect them from the sun. It is also said to be good for the skin.