BACK IN 2011, ONLY 22,000 AMERICANS visited Burma (also known as Myanmar), and much of the country was still off-limits.
Now this is changing fast. Areas formerly closed by the military regime are now open to foreigners with permits. I was surprised how easy it was to travel independently for the month I was there even in February of 2012.
Burma does have a backpacker circuit similar to what you see in the rest of Southeast Asia. For anything beyond that, though, planning is key. This means allowing sufficient time for your guide (required for permit areas) to secure permits before you reach Yangon. Flexibility also is essential, as I learned when two tribal areas I expected to visit suddenly were closed by a nervous government.
Below are three itinerary options. They increase in difficulty in terms of planning required and uncertainty involved — and inversely in terms of how many foreign faces you’ll see.
Money: Burma’s is a cash-based economy, which means no ATMs. Outside a few posh Yangon hotels, no stores, lodgings, or restaurants accept credit cards. Note: Costs as I found them are given in US dollars below.
Visas: At present, Burma issues single-entry tourist visas valid for 90 days, allowing a maximum stay of 28 days. You’ll need to secure one before arrival. Expect several weeks for issuance and be prepared to provide a flight itinerary along with the requisite form and photos. More info here.
Domestic transport: There are six domestic airlines that fly the Bagan-Inle-Mandalay-Ngapali circuit on similar schedules. The five I flew were excellent.
Roads, on the other hand, are poor (e.g., a 100-mile stretch can take 12 hours). Think broken pavement, deep sand, washed-out bridges. Public transport includes small buses, the occasional decrepit shared taxi, trains between a few cities, and some private cars of the 30-year-old Toyota with dead suspension sort. There are no rental car agencies. If going overland, allow plenty of time and patience.
Boats are the best way to reach villages in western Burma and the regions north of Mandalay and Myitkyina.
Permits: The government shuts access to regions at its discretion, and some permits take weeks to issue. Ask your guide or travel agency for the latest information as you start to formulate plans.
Guides: Adventure travel is so new in Burma that it can be difficult to find a guide who’s both willing and capable of organizing a custom trip. My guide, mentioned in Lonely Planet Myanmar, is known as the best: Mr. Saw Myint Naing.
Communication: You can buy local SIM cards in $20 increments — for use in-country — but cell coverage is rare outside of cities. Email works best for reaching anyone in Burma if you’re outside the country, though it’s not 100% reliable. Adventure guides like Saw are frequently in places with no internet connection.
Start planning a couple months ahead, don’t hesitate to resend emails after 48 hours of silence, and be patient.
The backpacker circuit
Yangon to Mandalay to Inle Lake to Bagan to Ngapali Beach back to Yangon:
- Mandalay: A busy, smoggy city of 1 million +, with the palace of Burma’s last king, monasteries on shady backstreets, and the country’s largest daily jade market, packed with Burmese sellers and Chinese buyers.
- Inle Lake: Inle’s vast blue waters support Intha tribe stilt villages, teak monasteries with gold buddhas, floating gardens, and side channels where water buffalo join motorcycles for a wash. Tip: Book your private longboat for 7am to be just ahead of the crowds.
- Bagan: Bagan is Burma’s best-known and most-visited attraction for good reason. Its thousands of temples — some jumbles of brick, others glittering gold in the nonstop sun — cover 40 square miles of Burma’s hot, dry central plain.
- Ngapali Beach: In Ngapali there’s beginner’s body surfing, forgettable snorkeling, and wonderful seafood along the curving white-sand beach. Several working fishing villages separate a long string of resort-style hotels fronting the warm Andaman Sea. Tip: Eat your meals at the shacks on the beach, where the fish is fresh and cheap.
Timing: After leaving Yangon, I spent one week on this circuit and could have skipped Mandalay. Others spend two weeks and wish they had longer.
Transportation: Ground transport options are plentiful, but I suggest flying. Flights take 25-60 minutes. If time permits, do Bagan -> Mandalay by boat; they run up the Ayeyarwady daily during the main November-March tourist season (once a week after that).
Lodging: Hotels at the choicest spots — Inle’s shore, beachfront Ngapali, along the Ayeyarwady in Old Bagan — fill up quickly. But there frequently are last-minute cancellations, so check again the night before arrival. Plenty of budget-priced guesthouses exist in the villages slightly back from the water’s edge.
Costs: Hotels are $70-$300/night. Flights run $90-$120. Inle Lake motorized longboats: $20-$35/day, depending on itinerary. Bagan bikes: $5/day. Bagan horse carts: $20/day. Bagan -> Mandalay by boat: $35.
Permits required: None
The trekking and tribes itinerary
From Kalaw to Inle & Bagan to Mindat to Kanpetlet and back to Bagan:
- From Kalaw, you can walk one day among the Pa-O tribe, or trek four days to Inle Lake, sleeping in village homes and monasteries. The countryside is hilly farmland and a local guide is essential to navigate the trails. Bring comfortable walking shoes and a day pack. Tip: Vineyards around Kalaw and Inle produce excellent wine.
- From Bagan, visit the tattooed tribes of Chin State and climb the 10,000ft Mt. Victoria. Ideal is to be in Mindat for Chin State Day festivities — Feb. 20. Be prepared to drink lots of homemade millet wine and dance with the locals. There also may be animal sacrifices. Tip: If you see brightly dressed women carrying bowls of bananas, coconuts, and flowers, they’re on their way to worship a nat.
Timing: 2-4 days for each circuit.
Permits: None in Kalaw. For the Chin State trip, permit and licensed guide are required. You’ll have to apply for one through a Yangon agency or your guide before you arrive. Allow two weeks.
Transportation: Kalaw is one hour by private car from Heho Airport (which serves Kalaw and Inle), or a one-mile walk to the highway for a slow bus trip that could eat up half a day. Private car is also best in Chin State so you can visit local homes and join celebrations en route (these take place January-March).
Lodging: Kalaw has many options in all price ranges. I like Dream Villa Hotel (Zatila Street) for its wood paneling, private bathrooms, delicious breakfast, and helpful staff: $38/night. In Chin State, there are simple guesthouses available, $15-$20/night.
Costs: Every Kalaw hotel can connect you with a trekking guide: $10-$12/person/day. The Chin State trip will cost $600+/- for two people, including car, driver, guide, permit, and lodging, all paid upfront.
Advanced itinerary up the Chindwin to Naga Hills:
From Monywa to Kalewa to Mawlaik to Phaungbyin to Homalin to Thamanti to Khamti to Sin Thae/Lahe:
The Chindwin River flows from Kachin State in northern Burma through Sagaing Region till it meets the Ayeyarwady south of Mandalay. Because of the region’s poor roads and spotty rail access, the river is the lifeblood connecting northwestern market towns from Monywa to Khamti.
Unlike the vast Ayeyarwady, the Chindwin is narrow enough for life on both banks to be easily observed from the water. Slender fishing canoes and mammoth bamboo rafts floating teak logs downstream share the waterway.
Going upriver, you can hop express boats like local buses. Expect to share seats and deck space with 50-80 villagers and farmers, along with their pigs, chickens, motorcycles, furniture, oil cans, and market goods.
The 300-mile river journey mapped out above will bring you to villages that rarely see foreigners. In each, you can shop for produce in the markets, buy jade from local miners, smoke a cheroot at riverside teashops, and eat hot, crispy doughnuts for breakfast. Tip: Get your hair washed in a village salon for a Burmese head massage.
Timing: 10-14 days.
Permits: Allow two weeks for a permit to be granted after applying in Yangon or through your guide before you arrive. While a guide isn’t required till Homalin, I recommend one as village police are unaccustomed to foreigners and may refuse permission to stay despite your permit.
Transportation: Fly to Monywa. To maximize time on the upper reaches of the Chindwin, you can drive by private car with your guide to Kalewa, or go by bus: 12 hours. Or, if you have four extra days, start your boat journey right from Monywa. Crazy fast shared taxis also drive Monywa-Kalewa, but permission is required to use them.
From Kalewa north, express boats depart daily between each village en route to Khamti: 4-14 hours depending on the leg. Take a canoe ferry from Khamti to Sin Thae, then go by cargo truck to Lahe, the Naga tribe administrative seat: 6-8 hours. Pay extra to sit comfortably up front with the truck driver, or share the dust and bumps in back with villagers, 100lb rice sacks, and barrels of fuel.
Overnight in Lahe and spend a couple days visiting neighboring Naga villages on foot. Return to Khamti by cargo truck / ferry. Flights to Mandalay or Homalin depart several days a week, from where you can catch another flight to Yangon.
Lodging: Every village has a well-tended guesthouse. Rooms have 1-2 cots with foam mattress, pillow, and thick fleece quilt. Bring a sleeping bag — some guesthouse blankets are thin, and the further north you go, the colder it is at night. Toilets are the communal squat sort with adjacent washroom for splash baths; a bucket of hot water can be prepared on request.
Costs: Boats go for $12-$45/person depending on length of leg. The cargo truck to Lahe should run $25/person. Expect to pay $11-$35/room in the guesthouses. This guide was first published on April 16, 2012.