When I chose to visit Myanmar, I was quite nervous. I didn’t know anyone who had been to the country, let alone traveled solo through the country. Was Myanmar safe? Are they respectful of women? Would I be able to get around and communicate? What’s the food like? The landscape? These questions (and more) haunted me as I cautiously purchased a flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Mandalay, Myanmar. After spending some time in Western Europe and Thailand, I was ready for a challenge. A country that was more off the beaten path that hadn’t yet been overrun by tourists. Spending one week in Myanmar confirmed that there’s more than what meets the eye (or makes the news) when it comes to traveling through the country. Here is a one-week itinerary for Myanmar (and that is only skimming the surface!).
The Ultimate Itinerary for Myanmar – One Week in Myanmar
Spending over a week in Myanmar taught me more lessons than my previous 12 weeks abroad (I had just come from spending 10-weeks in Europe and 2-weeks in Thailand). I learned that Myanmar is a country where words oftentimes fall short because they aren’t always translated correctly. Instead, a warm smile, handshake, or hug goes a long way. It’s a place where the journey is part of the destination, and while it’s long and uncomfortable, you have no other choice but to buckle in and make the most of it.
I learned that while it’s not ideal, the trek from city to city is often done by bus or minivan; jam-packed with people and bags, oftentimes with no air conditioning, moving through bumpy, winding, twisting roads. That while I don’t agree with the way the military is treating people, the media oftentimes portrays only the negative things that happen in a country. I learned that Myanmar is made up of so much more than its government. It’s made up of kind-hearted people who don’t agree with the government at all. People who work hard, take care of their family, and get up to do it all over again day in and day out.
Myanmar is a big and expansive country that covers over 200,000 square miles. You could spend months here and still not even know the complexities of the country. While there’s a ton to see and do in Myanmar, this guide focuses on spending one week exploring Mandalay, Bagan, and Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake).
Please note, you can move from Mandalay to Bagan to Inle to Mandalay; or Mandalay to Inle to Bagan to Mandalay. For purposes of this post, I’m focusing on Mandalay – Bagan – Inle Lake – Mandalay.
Mandalay – 2 Nights
ARRIVAL INTO MANDALAY
The main places to fly into Myanmar are the two biggest cities, Mandalay and Yangon. Depending on where you’re flying from, both of these cities are good starting points, however, I would choose Mandalay over Yangon because it’s closer to the highlights of Myanmar – Inle, and Bagan.
Once you arrive in Mandalay there are ATMs where you can take the local currency out (MMK – Kyat). There will also be a line of taxi drivers waiting (or you can book ahead with your hotel) – just make sure to negotiate the price before getting in the car. Don’t forget to get money before taking a taxi! Having cash on your is essential.
WHERE TO STAY IN MANDALAY
I highly recommend staying at Ostello Bello when visiting Mandalay. Ostello Bello is a chain hostel located in Myanmar and Italy. It’s clean, cheap, and offers tons of excursions around the city.
WHERE TO EAT IN MANDALAY
If you want to try local Burmese food, then I highly recommend dining at Mingalabar Restaurant. The food is cheap and delicious, plus the portion sizes are huge!
Highlights of Mandalay
U BEIN BRIDGE
The U Bein Bridge is the oldest teakwood bridge in the world, built in 1850. Its impressive structure spans the Taungthaman Lake outside of Mandalay and boasts some of the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever seen. You can take a boat ride, cross the bridge on your own, or forge your own path under the bridge, getting across the water on rocks. There are two restaurants to order food and drinks as you watch the sunset on the horizon.
If visiting the bridge I would recommend hiring someone to take you and wait for you to go back. Drivers will be more than willing to do so for a low rate.
Sitting on the foot of Mandalay Hill, the Kuthodaw Pagoda is a Buddhist stupa and also happens to be the world’s largest “book”.
Also located near Mandalay Hill, Schwenandaw is a Buddhist Monastery that was built in 1878. It’s very unique and doesn’t look like the typical monastery that you would find throughout Myanmar.
While there are tons of incredible things to see in Myanmar, there were also two sights that I thought were quite overrated and would therefore recommend skipping. These were the Sanda Muni Pagoda and Atumashi Monastery.
Bagan – 2 Nights
ARRIVAL TO BAGAN
Getting from Mandalay to Bagan is the cheapest by bus. The JJ Express offers bus routes from Mandalay to Bagan for as cheap as $7 and will take roughly five hours. Be aware that the buses frequently take off early or late, and that if you miss your bus you’re likely to be booked on the next one out. Also be aware that the buses are typically packed, and the roads are often bumpy and winding. All buses also make long stops, 30 minutes-one hour, to get out and eat.
Taking a boat from Mandalay to Bagan (or vice versa) will take the longest, about 12 hours, cruising down the Irrawaddy River.
WHERE TO STAY IN BAGAN
In Bagan, I would highly recommend staying at Ostello Bello or Ostello Bello Pool. Both are hostels (a chain throughout Myanmar and Italy), and both are cheap and fun options. The best part is that there are many day excursions throughout Bagan making your stay at the hostel more than worthwhile.
WHERE TO EAT IN BAGAN
The Moon – A vegetarian indoor, outdoor restaurant located near the infamous pagodas in Old Bagan.
Black Bamboo – Also an indoor-outdoor restaurant located in Old Bagan.
Shwe Ou – A traditional noodle restaurant located in New Bagan near Ostello Bello.
HIGHLIGHTS OF BAGAN
If you’re visiting Bagan, I can’t recommend renting an electric scooter enough. If you’re staying at Ostello Bello there is a free day excursion where a local will pick you up in the morning, and spend all day riding scooters around Bagan showing you the best pagodas. If you choose to do this on your own, I urge you to put down your phone and explore where your heart takes you.
I also suggest renting a scooter at night so that you can take your scooter early in the morning (sometimes as early as 4 am) to the pagodas to watch the sunrise and the hot air balloons.
Bagan was my favorite stop in Myanmar. To see why read Why Bagan Should Be On Your Bucket List!
Nyaung Shwe (near Inle Lake) – 2 Nights
ARRIVAL AT NYAUNG SHWE
Getting to Nyaung Shwe is the cheapest by bus. You can find bus routes on 12Go, which will be the cheapest option, but it’s a long haul. Taking approximately eight hours, the bus from Bagan is a long, crowded, and bumpy ride. If you choose to instead come from Mandalay, the bus is a bit quicker, clocking in around seven hours.
If you’d rather fly, the airport you will arrive at will be Heho in Taunggyi. From Taunggyi it’s an hour’s drive further to Nyaung Shwe.
WHERE TO STAY IN NYAUNG SHWE
Again, highly recommend staying at Ostello Bello when visiting Nyaung Shwe. Like both Mandalay and Bagan, Ostello Bello is clean, cheap, and offers tons of day excursions around the city. Located near the lake, Ostello Bello has great day excursions and private rooms available.
WHERE TO EAT IN NYAUNG SHWE
PawPaw – Not only does PawPaw serve cheap, and fabulous Burmese food, but their mission is to help young women from remote areas of Myanmar. Aside from the food, PawPaw will also set you up with treks, boating excursions, cooking classes, and more. My favorite restaurant I dined at in all of Myanmar, I returned on three separate occasions.
HIGHLIGHTS OF NYAUNG SHWE
Nearby Inle Lake, you’ll definitely want to rent a boat to take you around to the different fishing villages. Make sure to visit Ywa Ma Village, Nan Pan Market, and see the fisherman. While it’s a tourist attraction, the fishermen get paid to pose for pictures meaning you’re putting money directly in locals’ pockets.
If you like wine, don’t miss visiting Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and Winery. The winery is set on a dramatic hill overlooking Inle, and the best way to reach it so by renting a bike up to the estate. While the wine is subpar, the atmosphere is excellent.
Myanmar will forever be imprinted in my memories as one of my favorite countries. A place that has changed the way I think of travel. Where instead of impressive shopping malls and tall buildings, the beauty is right in front of you. It’s found in the rolling green hills against the clear blue sky. In the untouched land where cows, horses, and pigs move freely. In the sunrises and sunsets that fire up the sky. The beauty is found in fields of sunflowers. In locals hard at work. In the dusty dirt roads. The old wooden bridges that are still standing. The ancient pagodas. That the beauty in Myanmar is unconventional, but it is everywhere.
Myanmar… worlds away from what I know and am comfortable with. Yet full of people from all walks of life to whom I can relate tremendously. It’s an epic destination both mentally and culturally. And a place that has changed my views and perception more than anyone will ever know. I hope that this itinerary for Myanmar will give you a taste of this incredible country.