When I chose to visit Myanmar, I was quite nervous. I didn’t know anyone who had solo traveled there. Would it be safe? Are they respectful of women? Will I be able to get around and communicate? What’s the food like? The landscape? These questions plus more haunted me as I made the leap to book my flight from Chiang Mai to Mandalay. I was ready for a country more off the beaten path that hasn’t yet been overrun by tourists. And ready to be pushed far out of my comfort zone… Myanmar delivered.
Spending over a week in Myanmar taught me more lessons than my previous 12 weeks abroad. 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. 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.
That while not ideal, the trek from city to city is often done by bus or minivan; jam-packed of 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. That a country is made up of so much more than its government. It’s made up of kind-hearted people who don’t agree with the way the government is acting on their behalf. People who work hard, take care of their family, and get up to do it all over again.
While Myanmar is a big and expansive country that covers over 200,000 square miles, it’s a country that isn’t made equally. There is a ton to see and do, but there are locations better than the next. For that reason I’d spend my week in Myanmar exploring Mandalay, Bagan, and Nyaung Shwe.
• You can either move from Mandalay to Bagan to Inle to Mandalay; or Mandalay to Inle to Bagan to Mandalay •
Two Nights in Mandalay
Arrive into Mandalay – Mandalay International Airport
The main places to fly into Myanmar are the two biggest cities, Mandalay and Yangon. Depending where you’re flying from, either of these cities are good starting points, however I would choose Mandalay over Yangon. It’s closer to the highlights of Myanmar – Inle, and Bagan. Upon arriving to the airport there are ATMs where you can take the local currency out. Transportation can be set up through your hotel or you can get your own taxi from the cars waiting. Make sure to ask the price and negotiate before getting in.
Stay – Ostello Bello
A chain hostel through Myanmar and Italy. Ostello Bello is clean, cheap, and offers tons of day excursions around the city. Plus there are private rooms available if you don’t want to share. Not one to typically choose a hostel, I would highly recommend it.
Eat – Mingalabar
Serving traditional Burmese food, Mingalabar is a great place to eat for the local dishes. The food is cheap, delicious, and the portion sizes are huge!
Highlights of Mandalay
1. 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 to hire someone to take you, and wait for you to go back. Drivers will be more than willing to do so for a low rate.
2. Kuthodaw Pagoda – Sitting on the foot of Mandalay Hill, the Kuthodaw Pagoda is the largest book in the world.
3. Schwenandaw Monastery – Also located near Mandalay Hill, Schwenandaw is a Buddhist Monastery built-in 1878. A bit eery, not the typical Monastery found in Myanmar.
1. Sanda Muni Pagoda
2. Atumashi Monastery
Two Nights in Bagan
Transportation – Bus, Plane, or Boat
Getting from Mandalay to Bagan is 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. There are many boats that will take you to and from, and while I didn’t take one, I don’t feel comfortable recommending a specific cruise.
Stay – Ostello Bello or Ostello Bello Pool
A chain hostel through Myanmar and Italy. Ostello Bello is clean, cheap, and offers tons of day excursions around the city. You can choose Ostello Bello or Ostello Bello Pool, which offers an outdoor pool. Both hostels have private rooms available. Not one to typically choose a hostel, I would highly recommend it.
Eat – The Moon, Black Bamboo, Shwe Oo
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 Oo – A traditional noodle restaurant located in New Bagan near Ostello Bello.
Highlights of Bagan
1. Renting electric scooters and driving around the pagodas – 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.
2. Watching the sunrise with hot air balloons above you – You can either choose to participate in a hot air balloon ride, or you can wake up at 0500, drive to the pagodas, and watch the air balloons light up and take flight above you.
Bagan was my favorite stop in Myanmar. To see why read Why Bagan Should Be On Your Bucket List
Two Nights in Nyaung Shwe (near Inle Lake)
Transportation – Bus or Plane
Getting to Nyaung Shwe is 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 to will be Heho in Taunggyi. From Taunggyi it’s an hour drive further to Nyaung Shwe.
Stay – Ostello Bello
A chain hostel through Myanmar and Italy. 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. Not one to typically choose a hostel, I would highly recommend it.
Eat – 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
1. A trip around Inle Lake via boat – Make sure to visit Ywa Ma Village, Nan Pan Market, and see the fisherman. While the “tourist” fisherman get paid to pose for pictures, I still quite enjoyed the experience. I found it fascinating that they were capitalizing on social media in a different way than what I’ve been used to in the past.
2. Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and Winery – On a dramatic hill overlooking Inle, rent a bike up to the estate to try Myanmar wine. In a gorgeous setting, enjoy your wine flight in the vineyards, watching the sunset behind Inle. 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 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.