If you’re at all in doubt about backpacking Myanmar, this guide is to persuade you otherwise. Myanmar is a feast for the senses – untouched landscapes, a rich history, epic architecture, delicious food, unmissable sunrises and the friendliest of locals. However, it’s relatively new to the backpacking scene as the country formerly known as Burma didn’t open its doors to tourists until 2015.
This is what makes backpacking Myanmar so incredibly special. Unlike the other backpacker favourites such as Thailand or The Philippines, backpacking in Myanmar still oozes authenticity – no cocktails in buckets, no burgers and chips and very few tourist scams. That’s not to say Myanmar doesn’t have its demons (more on that later) but to us, it will always be one of the most incredible places we have ever been.
Prior to our trip, we had so many questions which took weeks of research and many of which weren’t answered until we were actually there so we’ve made this Myanmar backpacking guide to answer the questions you’re likely to have before or during your trip as well as our top tips and recommendations along the way.
IS BACKPACKING MYANMAR SAFE?
Let’s start with the first obvious question, is Myanmar safe? We may have painted an idyllic picture but Myanmar is home to the world’s longest civil war. In 1948, when Burma became independent from the UK and changed to Myanmar, there has been ongoing ethnic conflicts ever since due to the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims.
This means the Northern parts of Myanmar such as Kachin state, Southern Chin and Rakhine State are almost entirely off-limits to tourists. Always check the government website (UK) as the accessibility of these areas change regularly.
The usual Myanmar backpacking route avoids these areas completely and these more touristy areas remain unaffected by the political turmoil, however there is understandably mixed opinions regarding the ethics behind backpacking in Myanmar due to the civil unrest.
In all honesty, it may seem overwhelming when you begin researching the current political events in Myanmar and we certainly did question if it was ethical to visit. It may feel unethical to rock up, camera in hand with a spring in your step to a country with so much conflict but one of the main ways Myanmar can overcome this is Tourism.
By us boosting local economy, spreading the word on this epic country, staying in homestays, learning from local guides and conversing with locals, your “holiday” can truly help in a way.
In terms of the more touristy areas, when backpacking Myanmar you’ll learn petty crime such as theft or scams are virtually non-existent. Apart from the odd cheeky Tuk Tuk driver or market stall owner we never felt overcharged nor hassled during our trip. If anything we found they simply wanted to practise English not sell you something and after a month in Thailand it was so refreshing that the locals were so welcoming of tourists and not at all corrupted by tourism or viewing us as ATMs.
There are a few things which we would warn of safety wise when backpacking Myanmar. Firstly, it is prone to Malaria so you will need to take medication and pack long sleeves/trousers for the evenings. We had also read several warnings about food in Myanmar regarding stomach upsets but despite our adventurous palettes we didn’t have an upset stomach once.
Our final word of warning will be with regards to snakes, scorpions and stray dogs. We came across all three when backpacking Myanmar and they’re particularly common around the temples in Bagan, where it’s dark and sheltered so they’re hard to spot. A bite from any of these could prove deadly, so take caution.
BEST TIME TO GO BACKPACKING MYANMAR
We’re gonna give advice here which is a little controversial and against most Myanmar travel guides, but it is based on our own experience.
It is said the best time to go backpacking Myanmar is from November to February – the weather is not too hot with a cool breeze and showers are rare. However, this is peak tourist time so expect crowds, increased airfares and fully booked hostels.
Then you have the scorching hot season from March to May, which we didn’t get the memo on and ended up backpacking Myanmar in April. It was insanely hot and we literally had to hop from one shaded spot to the next but it was nothing Factor 50 and a few hundred litres of water couldn’t cope with.
It did also mean we received free room upgrades and late check outs as hotels were empty, the pagodas were crowd free and at many attractions we were the only tourists. Win, Win.
Planning our Myanmar backpacking trip in April also meant we got to take part in the famous Thingyan festival which is the Buddhist New year and is one massive water fight to symbolize the cleansing of sins. It was a highlight of our entire time backpacking in Myanmar, so had we stuck to the advice of others we would never have had this once in a lifetime experience.
Although, if going in a hot air balloon over Bagan is on your bucketlist (at a not so backpacker friendly £300 a time) then backpacking Myanmar in April maybe isn’t the best plan as the balloons are seasonal and the season was just ending during our trip.
A final word of warning is not to visit between July and September as this is the peak wet season. We’re not just talking daily showers but flash floods which close many roads making travel in parts of Myanmar impossible.
HOW TO GET A VISA FOR BACKPACKING MYANMAR
It is very likely you will need a visa for backpacking Myanmar. It is super easy to apply for a visa however and as long as you have a valid passport from one of the 100 countries listed on the government website you’ll have zero issues.
An E-Visa is valid for 28 days and costs $50.00 per person. It is recommended to book the visa a month in advance as it can take anywhere from a day to a week for the confirmation.
We received our visas within 45 minutes. If you are flying from Bangkok (like we did) you can also get a tourist visa from the Myanmar embassy the same day (sometimes to pick up the day after.)
HOW TO GET TO MYANMAR
We understand that sounds a little backwards as Pai is closer to the Myanmar border but the transport links are very limited, so it was cheapest, quickest and easiest to fly from Bangkok.
We recommend using Skyscanner to find the best deals on flights to Myanmar – our flights were £100.00 per person from Bangkok to Mandalay.
BEST SIM CARD FOR BACKPACKING IN MYANMAR
No backpacking guide is complete without the ever millennial question of Wi-Fi. We were pleasantly surprised with the Wi-Fi during our Myanmar backpacking trip although do note power cuts are common so our Wi-Fi was cut off regularly, but when it was on it was perfect.
We purchased tourist sim cards from Telenor and they cost 4,500MMK (approx. £2.40) per person. We found the reception at our hotels were more than happy to make calls locally to arrange tours, book taxis etc so to be honest we wouldn’t say a sim card is a necessity, but it’s good to know a recommendation if you need one and have internet should your Wi-Fi get cut off/hotel not have.
ESSENTIALS TO PACK FOR BACKPACKING MYANMAR
Ear Plugs & Eye Mask
You will likely travel via bus and the roads in Myanmar are incredibly loud with non-stop car horns and the busses have no toilets so stop regularly as service stations. Wearing earplugs and eye masks helps sleep through these interruptions.
Long Trousers / Shawl
You will visit some epic temples in Bagan and many other religious sites throughout your Myanmar backpacking trip. This means shoulders and knees should be covered (for both men and women) but it’s also handy to have longer clothing for the evenings when mosquitos are rife to protect from bites.
We used our Monzo card throughout Myanmar with no issues but if you are taking cash ensure it is crisp US dollars to be exchanged when you get there. We saw numerous signs that they would not accept US dollars with creases or folds. Most tours and hotels accepted payment in dollars but we found it a better exchange rate to pay in the local currency.
Slip On Shoes
Flip flops are pretty much backpacker uniform, but incase you were thinking of wearing trainers or any other kind of foot wear, remember that you will be asked to remove your shoes regularly when backpacking Myanmar. This is due to religious sites but also it is part of the culture to not bring outdoor shoes into the home.
If you have intentions of attending Thingyan Water Festival you will definitely need a dry bag to protect your belongings. They are also super useful for protecting cameras/phones from heavy rain or dust which are both very common when backpacking Myanmar.
We did mention this earlier but to reiterate the importance of Malaria tablets. We understand they are expensive and although the Myanmar backpacking route sticks to built up areas, there is still a risk of being bitten and treatment will prove far more expensive than a pack of 10 tablets.
Just in case you choose to ignore the point above, travel insurance is essential for any backpacking trip. We walked the plank onto boats in Mingun, spotted snakes in Bagan and nearly fell off a bridge in Mandalay – travel insurance is a safety net that allows you to have the best adventures knowing if something was to happen, you’d be covered.
BEST TRANSPORT FOR BACKPACKING IN MYANMAR
Bus Travel in Myanmar
Although you can get cheap internal flights with the price of airport transfers and the time wasted in queues and security checks we much preferred travelling Myanmar by bus. If you’re backpacking Myanmar, night buses are perfect as you also save a night’s accommodation and ours even included a meal, blanket and refreshments!
The buses in Myanmar are also incredibly cheap and the most reliable company is JJ Express. We particularly recommend paying a little extra for their VIP buses in Myanmar as they’re far more comfortable for overnight journeys.
Although we found they often arrived much earlier than advertised and the roads incredibly loud and bumpy it is still the easiest and most cost effective way to travel Myanmar.
As a guide of cost our bus fares were:
- Mandalay to Bagan: 10,150MMK (approx. £5.50) per person
- Bagan to Inle Lake: 21,750MMK (approx. £11.80) per person
- Inle Lake to Yangon: 27,550MMK (approx. £15.00) per person
Unlike other countries in SE Asia, Myanmar is not as lenient with tourists hiring motorbikes or mopeds. There are strict rules in places such as Bagan, where tourists were restricted to E-bikes or bicycles only.
If you do find a hire shop they cost around 10,000 MMK per day (approx £5) to hire, but please do not hire a bike if it is your first time on one – not only could you risk injury but also a fine from local tourist police if you don’t have an international license.
To be on the safe side, we would not advise hiring one when backpacking Myanmar as the rules are very unclear.
We also recommend downloading the Grab app (as well as a few other apps for backpacking) as this proves the cheapest and more reliable way to book taxis.
Be warned when using Grab, although it’s just like Uber you may also get a bike and be expected to hop on the back instead of a car – always check the option when you book.
ARE THERE HOSTELS IN MYANMAR?
As it’s still new on the tourist scene, Myanmar backpacking accommodation is fairly limited. If you head off the usual Myanmar backpacking route you’ll discover hostels are non-existent but in the usual places such as Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon you will be able to find backpacker accommodation. However, you will need to book in advance as hostels are still uncommon so book up quickly.
As we were travelling as a couple, we often find it cheaper booking a private room than paying for 2 single bunk beds. However, we got lucky backpacking Myanmar that we were travelling in April and hotel prices were very reasonable, and we even got upgraded due to fewer tourists.
Of all the places we stayed in Asia, the hotels in Myanmar were some of the nicest we have ever stayed in both in terms of comfort and amenities but also the staff – they genuinely went above and beyond during our Myanmar trip.
THE BEST MYANMAR BACKPACKING ROUTE
The Myanmar backpacking route usually covers 4 main destinations – Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon. If you have time, some people include the following places in their Myanmar itinerary; Pyin Ooh Lwin (home to some spectacular waterfalls and not far from Mandalay) Hsipaw for some of the best markets in Myanmar and Hpa An famous for its abundance of caves.
We were limited on time, so our Myanmar backpacking route looked a little like this:
Bagan: At least 3 nights
Our 3 days in Bagan were probably the highlight of our Myanmar backpacking trip. The pagodas in Bagan are not to be missed and you could spend weeks here and still not visit them all (there are over 2000!) We also had delicious local food and went on an epic day trip to Mount Popa which we will never, ever forget.
Inle Lake: At least 2 nights
One of the most popular things to do in Inle Lake is book a boat tour to witness local life on the lake. We also left a few stones heavier thanks to the amazing restaurants in Inle Lake and even visited a winery to sample the local wine – all doable within our very modest backpacking budget!
Yangon: At least 2 nights
Our time in Yangon celebrating Thingyan festival would definitely be a close contender for the highlight of our Myanmar backpacking trip. Yangon is also home to the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda which is an absolute must-see (a little glimpse of its splendor in the photo below.)
HOW MUCH DOES BACKPACKING MYANMAR COST?
You will find backpacking Myanmar is more expensive than other SE Asia favourites such as The Philippines or Vietnam. This is only because tourism is still very new therefor the demand for hostels and tours are high, so they can charge a premium as there is little competition.
That being said, it still costs only £0.80 for a local beer, approximately £65.00 for all our buses and around £25.00 per night on average for a private room in a mid-range hotel.
In total, our Myanmar backpacking trip cost £750.00 for 10 days. This included all transport, food, accommodation and activities for 2 people.
We could have easily spent less as we splurged on things such as souvenirs (there’s simply too much beautiful market stalls) and private guides. We preferred paying for a local guide as it meant we learned a lot more and they brought us to hidden gems we’d never have found on our own.
We would also add, it’s best to pay in the local currency if you can instead of dollars although its less convenient, you will save money on the exchange rate. It’s also polite etiquette to hand over money with your right hand, and put your left hand on your elbow to show respect. You will see this frequently in Myanmar.
FOOD IN MYANMAR
If you’re a fussy eater and prefer to stick to burgers and chips, backpacking Myanmar probably isn’t for you. As mentioned, tourism is still new so Western food is hard to find not to mention expensive when you find it, but that is exactly why we love Myanmar and one of the main reasons we travel – local food.
We struggled in Thailand to find food that was authentic and not toned down for tourists or menus that offered Western and Thai food. In Myanmar you may occasionally find Indian, Chinese or Thai restaurants but the traditional food in Myanmar is not only the most affordable but to us, the tastiest. Tea leaf salad is particularly popular as is seafood and curry, although we did find the curries quite oily.
The restaurants in Inle Lake were probably our favourite but we also had an amazing experience in Bagan where we ended up in a local restaurant that didn’t even have a menu – instead they brought out nearly 25 small dishes (similar to tapas) and you only paid for what you ate. The food in Myanmar is often served like this and we recommend giving it a try during your trip.
NIGHTLIFE IN MYANMAR
Unlike other backpacker favourites, the nightlife in Myanmar is quite subdued. Yes, there are bars and the locals do enjoy a local beer but nightclubs and partying is not common when backpacking Myanmar as it’s a very religious country that (thankfully) hasn’t been overrun by cocktail buckets and full moon parties.
Instead we were introduced to cheroots (in Inle Lake) tea shops and puppet shows. Not your average backpacking activities. We were told by our guide in Bagan that after work many locals go to tea shops instead of bars as they do not drink alcohol and we really enjoyed our visit.
We understand partying often goes hand in hand with backpacking but if that’s the only reason you’re backpacking Myanmar – you’re in the wrong place. That’s not to say we didn’t scoop up the local beer, but from the epic sunrises in Bagan to bumpy boat tours in Inle Lake, you will not want to be hungover if you want to make the most of your trip as there will be alot of early mornings!
BACKPACKING MYANMAR FOR FREE
Now we have your attention, how do you fancy backpacking Myanmar without paying a penny on accommodation all while meeting friends for life and gaining a real insight into local life? Workaway offers just that.
In exchange for a few hours volunteering each day whether it’s helping to weed the garden, practise English or paint fencing, you will be given a free place to sleep and delicious homemade meals.
We have done three Workaway experiences (so far) which include sleeping in tree houses in Switzerland, olive picking in Greece and spending a month backpacking in Hawaii. All without paying a penny for accommodation and making memories with the most incredible people.
There are over 20 Workaway experiences in Myanmar which would be an incredible way to spend a week or two during your trip.
MYANMAR TRAVEL TIPS
We hope we’ve put your mind at ease and answered all questions you had about backpacking Myanmar however, before you book flights just yet we have some Myanmar travel tips to save you time, money and stress during your trip.
ATMs run out of money
Cash is still king in Myanmar but it is common for ATMs to run out of money (as there is only 1 or 2 per town) or simply be switched off. Early morning was the best time to use them, so if you have an activity booked, do not wait until 10 minutes before to take out cash to pay for it (like we did in Inle Lake) as there may be no ATMs available.
Do NOT climb the Pagodas
While there are some pagodas in Bagan and Hsinbyume Pagoda in Mingun that you are able to climb, the majority are dangerous to do so. Do not risk your life for the ‘gram and attempt to climb these crumbling buildings for a photo. It is not only potentially harmful to you, but incredibly harmful to the buildings themselves as the climbing aids erosion of these centuries old buildings.
Why is there blood on the ground?
You will notice crimson splatters all over the road in Myanmar and particularly in Bagan. You will be forgiven for thinking this was blood however it’s actually betel juice. Similar to chewing tobacco, locals chew betel and spit it out creating these red splatters so no need to worry.
Why is everyone wearing face paint?
You will notice the majority of locals (particularly women) wearing a white-yellowish paint like on their face. Sometimes all over their face and arms and other times in patterns and shapes such as leaves and circles on their cheeks.
This is called Thanaka and is actually made from ground bark. It has been used in Myanmar for over 2000 years both as a cosmetic but also due to it’s protection from the sun.
Being a Scottish redhead I was offered Thanaka regularly by locals to protect my skin from the sun, so now you won’t be confused why it’s worn and try some for yourself.
Pay the Archaeological Fees
We were so so shocked how many travel blogs encouraged you not to pay the archaeological fees because “they never check.”
When backpacking Myanmar we understand you’ll likely be on a budget and yes it’s true that we purchased passes in Bagan and our tickets were not checked BUT these fees are essential in order to restore these incredible buildings and boost local economy so please be a responsible traveller and do not try and sneak past the ticket booths.
Why are the men in “Skirts”
Being Scottish we are used to men in “skirts” but we loved the vibrant patterns and styles of the longyis in Myanmar. They are large pieces of fabric approximately 2 metres long and 80 centimetres wide which are wrapped around and tied in a knot (similar to a sarong).
They are mainly worn by men but we saw women in them too and are usually ankle length. We had a hilarious encounter with local children at the Hsinbyume Pagoda who explained Darren was wearing his all wrong and they tied it properly for him. This YouTube guide also shows how locals wear longyi in Myanmar.
Please keep in mind that Western Influence and Tourism in general is still new in Myanmar. The Burmese culture is very religious and naturally conservative so it can be offensive if you’re wondering these historical sites in skimpy shorts or on the back of a moped in your bikini.
Always remember to cover your shoulders and knees (or purchase a longyi) to show respect in Myanmar. Don’t forget to remove your shoes and socks at religious sites and read up on temple ettiquette to ensure you are being respectful.
English is Widely Spoken
Yes it’s super lazy but it is reassuring that compared to other SE Asian countries, English is well spoken in Myanmar. It’s comforting to know when backpacking Myanmar (particularly as a solo traveller) that you won’t be stuck as most local people speak English and it’s relatively easy to communicate and ask questions. That being said, we always recommend to learn a few basic Burmese phrases such as Hello/Goodbye: Mingalaba, Thank you: Cezu tin ba deh and How are you?: Neh kaun la?
There is a high risk of Malaria
As mentioned earlier, remember malaria tablets, mosquito repellent and to cover up in the evenings. Our accommodation didn’t have mosquito nets and we were never bitten during our trip but it’s always best to be safe as alongside Malaria, dengue fever is common and is caused by insect bites.
Being asked for photographs is common
Perhaps it was the red hair or the fact Daz is 6ft 4 that we stood out like sore thumbs but we were continually asked for photographs when backpacking in Myanmar. We found this fun though completely understand why others won’t and how it can become annoying. Even the occasional monk asked for a selfie and at times we felt like we were the tourist attraction.
However, it was a great way to break the ice with locals and strike up conversation alongside learn a few hidden gems and some local knowledge. Similarly, always ask locals if you can take their photo before sticking your camera in their face – it isn’t a human zoo.
Learn the phrase Da poun yai lo ya mala? Which is may I take a photograph? Before taking your camera out. If you do pose for a photo, never touch a local’s head as it’s seen as disrespectful and if you are female, never touch a monk.