Myanmar is yet to become a major stopping point for travellers in Southeast Asia, thanks largely to the fact that it has only recently become accessible to tourists, but this is fast changing, and we urge you to visit this country now before the masses have truly discovered it.
This is a serene country with incredible religious complexes, stunning natural scenery and a population of the most kind hearted people you could ever hope to meet. Travelling around by bus and train gives you a real sense of adventure: don’t expect to be on time, don’t expect a good night’s rest, but do expect to be won over by the country’s charms.
Travelling will take up a large chunk of your time here, so you may not get to see as much as you’d hoped or expected, but if you travel by night you can cover fair distances without losing too much time. Do not be too anxious – it is fairly easy to get around, particularly by bus. Buses are everywhere and your hostel, homestay or hotel can often book tickets for you. Meanwhile train travel is slower and less reliable than buses but offers a host of charms that you will not find on the bus; you can expect to see more of the country’s incredible views and have interesting interactions with locals, who will want to feed you and hear your life story. But where to begin?
It is still relatively difficult, and in some places impossible, for travellers to cross Myanmar’s borders by land, and therefore your trip will generally start either in Yangon or Mandalay. These cities are home to the country’s two largest international airports. Between Yangon and Mandalay lie the most visited parts of the country, and therefore the easiest to access by road or rail. From Yangon the first port of call is generally Bagan.
Bagan is a region of Myanmar that is home to thousands of ancient pagodas. Climb through semi-hidden passages in the walls to the top of one of these temples and the view is unlike anything else in the world: lush verdant landscapes extend as far as the eye can see, dotted with spires of pagodas, like a million tiny golden antennae, stretching to the horizon in all directions, becoming mere glimmering specs in the distance.
Exploring this area is made all the more magical by the emptiness of it. You can be doing the rounds of the gardens and interiors of a gigantic pagoda and see not another living soul – almost as if you have discovered your very own secret garden. As it is a quiet area renting a scooter is a great way to explore at your own pace, however, if you’re not comfortable driving yourself, you can easily hire a driver for a day. The town also has a lot of charm to offer visitors: from its small harbour with little eateries and children playing in the water, to its market packed with stalls selling wicker furniture, bags and toys, clothes, jewellery, crockery and all manner of fruits, vegetables and other edible delights.
Getting to and from Bagan
From Yangon to Bagan there is a daily train that is scheduled to take seventeen hours, but it can take anything up to (in worst case scenarios, with flooding on the track) 30+ hours, although closer to 20 hours is the norm. There is only one sleeper carriage (which we would recommend) meaning that tickets do tend to sell out quite quickly, so we advise to book well in advance. You can expect a bit of a bumpy ride but the seemingly never-ending views of farmland, little huts, tiny villages and dusty dirt tracks are a sight to behold.
There are also several buses that go from Yangon to Bagan each day, which are scheduled to take around 11 hours, but often take far less: you may well arrive in the middle of the night which can make arrival at your next accommodation a bit tricky. The buses are generally comfortable enough and often quite empty, so you may even be able to stretch out over two seats. The downside of the buses is that they travel solely through the night, meaning you see a mere fraction of the views compared with travelling by train.
From Bagan up to Mandalay there are two daily trains which run from early in the morning till the late afternoon, and can take anything from seven to thirteen hours. Again stunning views abound, and arriving into the city of Mandalay during daytime allows you a glance into the daily lives of the city’s inhabitants; particularly interesting is the mishmash of urban and rural lifestyle visible in the city’s suburbs. Meanwhile, by bus the journey is only four to six hours, but this bus is a minibus, not the usual large coach style vehicle, and is therefore quite cramped. However, you will be travelling by day so expect a lot of the same views as with train travel here.
Mandalay to Inle Lake, and back to Yangon
From Mandalay the next stop is Inle Lake. Inle Lake, a huge lake spanning over 100 square kilometres in central Myanmar, is one of the most famous attractions this country has to offer and it is easy to see why. The lake itself has calm, gently rippling waters, that are home to a large variety of restaurants, weaving factories, silversmiths, floating monasteries, little charming houses in various states of disrepair and some in full glory, floating gardens, and a plethora of fishermen, interestingly rowing their little boats with an oar held in one leg, whilst their arms wield large metal cages: a truly fascinating display.
The train journey from Mandalay to Inle Lake can be a bit complicated, you must take the train to Thazi and stay a night here, and then take the slow train from Thazi to either Kalaw or Shwenyaung. If you have time the slow train is an unforgettable experience. As the train enters the hills, it must reverse several times and climb up backwards in order to scale the steep mountainside. It then loops back on itself on multiple occasions and makes a very complicated route to get to its destination. Bring snacks and plenty of drinks and sit back and enjoy the ride. By comparison the bus is a lot faster, taking around seven hours during the night, but again you miss the scenery and, as all transport to and from Inle Lake (situated in the Shan Hills) must go through, up and over the hills. It can feel quite perilous as the bus trundles up and down, tilting worryingly at each corner.
Finally, from Inle Lake you head back to Yangon and your circuit is complete. We estimate that this route takes roughly a fortnight, although you could probably cram in a few more stops if you avoid the trains, but the trains are half the fun! Inle Lake to Yangon by train takes anything from six to twelve hours (some trains are direct and some make a stop in Thazi), whilst the bus is about eleven hours driving through the night and arriving early in the morning.
A few more ideas
If you have some more time in the country then here a few more recommendations of places to check out;
- Dawei is a stunning old colonial coastal town in southern Myanmar, fairly close to the border with Thailand. The empty beaches, beautiful surrounding hillside and local seafood eateries make Dawei a great spot for a few days of downtime. However, getting there is not too easy: the train from Yangon takes at least twenty-four hours and there are no sleeper cabins, whilst the bus takes about sixteen hours. However, the route is prone to delays thanks to unreliable road conditions.
- Katha, which was George Orwell’s inspiration for the town of Kyauktada in his novel Burmese Days, is a city almost frozen in time. With elements of new life springing from decaying colonial architecture, it has more charm and provinciality than you will know what to do with. From Mandalay you can take the bus (around eight hours), note that it is a lot pricier than other journeys of similar length: whilst the train runs four times a day, and can take anywhere between six to twelve hours, note most trains do not offer sleeper seats.
- Indawgyi Lake is Myanmar’s largest lake, and an ideal spot for nature lovers who want to explore some virtually untouched landscapes: it is a great spot for cycling, as well as boat trips. The major highlight is its large floating golden pagoda. It is a truly stunning destination which can be reached by bus from Mandalay, although this is a very slow journey, and so most people take the train, which takes roughly 15 to 20 hours.