What country will be the next great Southeast Asia destination? Look no further than Myanmar. It's epic. It's spiritual. It's far-reaching. And it's a place few people have actually traveled to. Now's the time to go. The country had been sitting on my bucket list since 2013. And for awhile I worried about the impact of tourism on a place that for years had been so isolated from the rest of the world. I've watched mass crowds swallow up other destinations in Southeast Asia (both Bali and Cambodia quickly come to mind), and I didn't want the same thing to happen to Bagan before ever having the chance to visit. Thankfully, tourism in Myanmar has been slow to catch on. The clock is ticking though, and I decided this was the year to visit. I spent 11 days in February exploring Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake, but this guide I've put together can easily be applied to two-weeks of travel. Below I've included photo locations, must-see temples, a trip cost breakdown, transportation information, dress code and logistics - pretty much all the information and research I used to piece together my itinerary.
HOW MANY DAYS IN YANGON?
Some people skip Yangon altogether and just use the capital as a transit city enroute to Bagan, but I recommend staying a couple of nights. A full day in town will give you enough time to see the main cultural sights. I only had a half day in town, and it was not enough time.
WHAT TO WEAR IN YANGON
Myanmar is a conservative country, so I suggest covering shoulders and knees whenever possible, but it's really only required at the temples.
GETTING AROUND YANGON
Like most of Southeast Asia, Yangon is best navigated by taxi. Download the app Grab Taxi before arriving, and you can hail a cab with a few taps on your phone. Also, traffic can be brutal in Yangon, so plan accordingly. It's about an hour to reach the hotel from the airport, and there were times it took us 30 minutes to travel just a couple of miles within the city.
THINGS TO DO IN YANGON
Chinatown (Tayoke Tan)
Explore Chinatown on foot to soak in the chaotic craziness of Yangon's most vibrant neighborhood. It stretches from 18th Street to 24th Street. (COST: Free)
Easily the most popular tourist attraction in Yangon, and understandably so. The expansive sight shimmers gold with a massive stupa adorned in 7,000 diamonds, rubies, topaz and sapphires. Shwedagon Pagoda is an active place of worship, so arriving early to avoid the crowds does not not work here - hundreds of locals show up to start praying before sunrise. (HOURS: 4 AM-10 PM; COST: 10,000 kyat)
Swe Taw Muat Pagoda
If you're lucky enough to visit when the sun is out, you'll see the pagoda's white and gold accents sparkle in the light. Shwedagon is the city's more popular tourist attraction, but I preferred Swe Taw Muat. I visited both pagodas the same morning, and Shwedagon was filled with hundreds of people, whereas the Swe Taw Muat parking lot was empty. (HOURS: 5 AM-8 PM; COST: 3,000 kyat)
PLACES TO STAY IN YANGON
Belmond Governor's Residence
Yangon is one of the only cities in Myanmar with five star luxury hotel brands, so if you're looking for creature comforts, this is the place to splurge. Belmond Governor's Residence is centrally located - it sits less than a mile from Shwedagon Pagoda. (ADDRESS: 35 Taw Win Rd., Yangon)
If you're looking for a midrange hotel, Pullman Centrepoint is a good option. I stayed here for my one night in Yangon, and the property is clean, modern, spacious and centrally located (Chinatown is walking distance). For one night in high season I paid $115 USD. (ADDRESS: 65 Corner of Sule Pagoda Rd. and Merchant St., Kyauktada Township, Yangon)
Another five star option in Yangon, but less central to the main tourist attractions. This Rosewood property overlooks the Yangon River - worth the splurge if you have more than one night in the capital city. (ADDRESS: 14 Strand Rd., Yangon)
One of the most iconic hotels in Myanmar, The Strand is located just down the street from the Rosewood, perched above the river. The Victorian-style property was built in 1901 and is absolutely stunning with its colonial flare, marble flooring, rattan furnishings and luxurious pool backdrop. (ADDRESS: No. 92 Strand Rd., Yangon)
Swe Taw Muat Pagoda was the prettiest temple in Yangon, and it had no visitors!
Trying to make the most of the six hours I had in Yangon to sightsee - really wish I stayed longer.
If you're looking for a quieter, less touristed alternative to Cambodia's Angkor Wat, the spectacular ruins of Old Bagan just might be the destination you've been looking for. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ancient city is home to more than 2,000 ruined temples, pagodas and stupas - most could be mistaken for an Indiana Jones movie set. Despite its Instafame in recent years, tourists are minimal. And even if that wasn't the case, crowds would thin out regardless amongst the hundreds of temple options. Definitely the highlight of my trip to Myanmar.
HOW MANY DAYS IN BAGAN?
Temple hopping is the main attraction in Bagan, so build your itinerary with that in mind. As much as I loved this part of Myanmar, a week of it would have been too much for me (all the temples start to look very similar after you've seen 50). For my itinerary, I decided on three full days, plus one half day - that gave me four sunrises and four sunsets in Bagan. It was perfect.
WHAT TO WEAR IN BAGAN
If you're visiting in dry season, be warned that a lot of the temple grounds are covered in weeds that are filled with spiky burs. Because several temples require visitors to cover up, I wore long skirts and dresses most of the time ... and my outfits were bur magnets. I know this sounds like a silly complaint, but I left most temples with 30-40 burs stuck in my skirt, and it would take 20+minutes (every temple visit) to remove them, ripping the fabric in the process. I ruined four or five dresses in Bagan because of these weeds - so be warned.
GETTING AROUND BAGAN
There are a variety of ways to experience the region, depending on your level of adventure - tuk tuk, private taxi, scooter, bicycle, e-bike or group tour. My preference would have been bicycle or e-bike with a temple map, but because of our camera gear, we opted for a private taxi, which was very affordable. We lucked out and hit it off with the taxi driver that picked us up from the airport. All the taxis are available to hire for private daytrips, price varies depending if you include sunrise and/or sunset in your full day tour. We did 5 AM-3 PM daily, and paid $40 USD per day (9 AM-5 PM would have been $30 USD).
THINGS TO DO IN BAGAN
Temples, temples, temples. The 2,000+ pagodas scattered throughout Bagan are the reason to visit, and that's where I wanted to spend all of my time. I did a ton of research leading up to the trip, mapping out the pagodas I wanted to visit, balloon viewing locations, sunset spots, etc. But those plans pretty much went out the window on Day One. Bagan's ancient city was home to more historical ruins than I could have imagined (it's really hard to picture 2,000+ temples), and that first day I realized no amount of web research could prepare me for the sightseeing options in Bagan. Temples of every size line the dusty roads, and most of them don't even have names. So, I had my list, but it was by no means my guide.
Also, when we arrived in Bagan we learned that the government had recently closed all temples to climbing due to fragility from the 2016 earthquake. Until recently, there was still a short list of temples that permitted climbing, but now everything is closed. All the pagodas are still open for visitation (and virtually none of them have barriers, which is amazing), just no climbing.
I thought I'd share some of favorite locations below. Several pagodas in Bagan are nameless, so it makes it a bit tricky to create a guide when I can't provide a name, address or exact location. I know first hand how hard it is to find a place without a name or address. I went on a couple of wild goose chases trying to find specific temples with only a photo to go on. I'd show photos to locals thinking of course they'd know the locations, but it was like a needle in a 2,000 temple haystack.
Note there is a 25,000 kyat Bagan Archeological Park fee that all tourists must pay.
As one of the only fully restored temples in Bagan, Ananda's white-washed exterior is a misfit amongst its neighbors, and it's absolutely stunning. The temple design embraces both Mon and Indian architectural cues, and sits in a sprawling courtyard lined with ornate vaulted archways. It's one of the most visited sights in the city, and also an active place of worship. (COST: Free)
Dhammayan Gyi The largest pagoda in Bagan, Dhammanyan Gyi is most impactful from a distance, outside the temple walls. We parked 100 yards away about an hour after sunrise, and the temple resembled a giant pyramid aglow in the morning light. (COST: Free)
Khay Min Ga Temple
I'd never heard of Khay Min Ga, a cluster of pagodas my driver suggested we visit. If you're looking for a place that gives illusion of climbing, this is a good one. There are accessible, elevated areas surrounding the stupas that make it look like you've climbed a temple rooftop, even though you're just a few feet off the ground. (COST: Free)
Le Put Kahn
Ok, our driver had a tough time finding this one. I had the name AND a photo, but he was clueless about Le Put Kahn. We finally used Google Maps and let my app direct us. The temple is beautiful, and completely deserted. (COST: Free)
No Name Temple
(GPS Coordinates 21.154541, 94.880673) This is an amazing spot to watch the balloons at sunrise, but tricky to find because there isn't a name. If you follow the GPS coordinates and take a screenshot of my blog image, it will be easy to find (that's what I did). (COST: Free)
Shwe Nan Yin Taw Monastic Complex
Now that it's forbidden to climb structures in Old Bagan, the Shwe Nan Yin Taw temple complex jumps to the top of the list as Bagan's best balloon viewpoint at sunrise. (COST: Free)
An absolutely grand temple that I had to skip because it was undergoing renovations when I was in Bagan. (COST: Free)
One of the larger temples in Bagan, Thatbyinnyu is a beautiful two-story white washed pagoda. It's on the tourist circuit, so I imagine it could get busy, but there were hardly any visitors when I was there. (COST: Free)
Winido Temple Complex
My favorite surprise of Bagan. The Winido Temple cluster was not on my radar, but my driver suggested we visit. It's another deserted complex, only this one is absolutely oozing with Tomb Radar vibes. (COST: Free)
Yin Ma Na Hpaya
A cluster of temples located just off the road, this is an easy one to include in any itinerary. For drone pilots, photos at Yin Ma Na Hpaya are much more interesting from above if you can put a drone in the air. (COST: Free)
PLACES TO STAYIN BAGAN
For better or worse, the Myanmar hotel experience can't be compared to other parts of Southeast Asia. Tourism is still relatively new, which means limited hotel variety and a lack of luxury options in most parts of the country. I stayed at Villa Bagan (one of the better reviewed properties on TripAdvisor) and a room with a view was $85 USD a night. The property location in Old Bagan was perfect - there were pagoda ruins right outside my window, and most temples were driving and/or biking distance. That said, it's still a two-star property.
Waiting for Indiana Jones to pop out of one of the temples at the Winido Temple complex.
This is a lot harder (and scarier) than it looks, and I rock climb pretty regularly!
This was the last temple we visited in Old Bagan, and it was one of the prettiest! Unfortunately, it doesn't have a name.
Dhammayan Gyi is the largest temple in Old Bagan - it looked like a pyramid in the distance.
Stopped to make friends with hundreds of goats grazing around the stupas.
They say there are more than 2,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries in Bagan ... and I believe it. They are everywhere!
The Shwe Nan Yin Taw Monastic Complex is a great spot to catch the sunrise in Old Bagan.
Making friends at Ananda Temple.
Colorful puppets hang from the trees all over Old Bagan.
If you're looking for a place that gives illusion of climbing, this is a good one. There are accessible, elevated areas surrounding the stupas that make it look like you've climbed a temple rooftop, even though you're just a few feet off the ground.
There are so many temples in Bagan that do not have names - like this beauty. GPS coordinates (for those you that want to visit this spot) are 21.154541, 94.660673.
Tourists can explore the ruins of Old Bagan by bicycle, e-bike, scooter, tuk tuk or private taxi.
HOW MANY DAYS IN MANDALAY?
While there wasn't much I wanted to see in Mandalay, it was the best place to base myself for daytrips in the region. I recommend three to four nights to properly see everything listed below.
WHAT TO WEAR IN MANDALAY
Similar to Yangon and Bagan, be prepared to remove your shoes, and cover your shoulders and knees at most tourist sights.
GETTING AROUND MANDALAY
I was lucky to connect with Mr. Thi Ha and hire him as my private driver. He is based in Mandalay, and drives a large van, both clean and comfortable. Mr. Thi speaks very good English, and knew all the ins and outs of the tourists sights we wanted to visit. We paid $55 USD a day (6 AM to 5 PM) for our big daytrips from Mandalay. If you're in need of a driver, I highly recommend Mr. Thi (and he drives all over Myanmar too, not just Mandalay). His contact information is WhatsApp: +95-943011581, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook: @thihaswe.thiha.
THINGS TO DO IN MANDALAY
Dat Taw Gyaint Waterfall
Massive waterfall located just outside of Anisakan village. The drive time from Mandalay is 90-minutes to two hours, so best to couple the waterfall with other nearby sights and make a daytrip out of it. (LOCATION: Anisakan Village; COST; 1,000 kyat)
Also known as the Myatheindan Pagoda, this beautiful white temple sits on the western banks of the Irrawaddy River. It's one of Myanmar's bucket list destinations, and worth an overnight stay in Mandalay just to visit this place. Hsinbyume is a popular attraction, and one of the few places we actually saw tour groups on this trip, so I suggest arriving as early as possible (it's a 90-minute drive from Mandalay). The pagoda is a giant white sphere made up of several terraces, so no matter what time of the day you visit, it's possible to move to avoid the sun and people without sacrificing the view. It looks the same from all perspectives. And yes, you can climb the temple terraces. (LOCATION: Mingun; COST: 5,000 kyat)
If you have time to include Jade Pagoda on your daytrip to Hsinbyume, then do it. But it's not worth it to visit as a one off trip. The entire pagoda is made of jade, a rare color to see in such a large structure.(LOCATION: Mingun; COST: Free)
I spent three nights in Mandalay, and Kuthodaw was one of the only places I actually visited in town. 729 white stupas surround the central temple, and the symmetry of the structures is beautiful, especially at sunrise. (LOCATION: Mandalay; COST: Free)
A massive set of 18th century stupa ruins, located next to Hsinbyume Pagoda. It currently holds the record of being the largest pile of bricks in the world, but the monument itself was never completed. (LOCATION: Mingun; COST: 5,000 kyat)
This pagoda is located next to Kuthodaw, so it's easy to visit both the same morning. Similar to its neighbor, the main temple is surrounded by 1,174 white washed stupas that are absolutely beautiful. (LOCATION: Mandalay; COST: Free)
Sitagu Buddhist Academy
I included both the Buddhist Academy and U Min Thonze Caves on my Hsinbyume Pagoda daytrip. Both are easy stops on the drive back to Mandalay. Sitagu is an absolute stunner, and you're likely to have it all to yourself. Compared to other sights in Myanmar, this place is very new - built in 1994. The academy's main attraction is a large, stumpy pagoda dripping with gold and pink detailing. (LOCATION: Sagaing; COST: Free)
U Min Thonze Caves
The caves are actually 30 doorways built into a crescent shaped colonnade that glows under the sun thanks to the pagoda's pastel color pallete. Step through any of the doorways, and you enter a long narrow corridor filled with 45 Buddha statues. (LOCATION: Sagaing; COST: Free)
PLACES TO STAY IN MANDALAY
Mercure Mandalay Hill Resort
It may be the second largest city in Myanmar, but the hotel options were far and few between. There are no upscale properties in Mandalay, and even the midrange options are underwhelming. We opted for the Mercure Mandalay Hill Resort based on TripAdvisor photos and decent reviews. It was a large property, but very dated.
The spherical pagoda is made up of several climbable terraces that encompass the entire structure.
U Min Thonze Caves is perfect to include on a trip out to Hsinbyume Pagoda - it's located on the drive back to Mandalay.
I always worry about the direction of the sun, but at Hsinbyume Pagoda there's no reason to worry. The temple is a giant white symmetrical circle - pretty much the same view from all vantage points.
Dozens of golden Buddhas are located in the doorways of U Min Thonze Caves.
One of my favorite sights in Myanmar.
Weather in Myanmar was perfect in February - relatively cool for most of the day, toasty only at midday.
Hsinbyume Pagoda was a popular field trip destination - cheese!
There were so many cute fruit stalls located on the drive from Mandalay to Hsinbyume Pagoda.
So many sweet pups in Myanmar.
Early morning at Kuthodaw Pagoda, in Mandalay.
HOW MANY DAYS IN INLE LAKE?
There isn't a lot to see and do on Inle Lake, but it was the most peaceful end to a crazy adventure through Myanmar. There's enough sightseeing to fill a day, making two nights on the lake a perfect amount of time.
GETTING AROUND INLE LAKE
We hired a taxi driver from the airport for the one-hour journey out to our resort, on Inle Lake. Cost was $35 USD, one way. For sightseeing around the lake, boat is the primary mode of transportation, and that can be booked through your hotel.
THINGS TO DO ON INLE LAKE
Sunrise Boat Trip to Indein Pagoda
Indein Pagoda was the grand finale of my adventures in Myanmar. It wasn't the easiest place to get to because it required adding an entire extra leg to our trip (a flight to Heho, and a stay on Inle Lake), but it was on my must-see list, and I didn't want to leave Myanmar feeling like we missed out. We arranged private boat transport through our hotel for $20 USD roundtrip - the pagoda was a 45-minute journey across the lake. The hotel suggested we leave at 9 AM, but we insisted on a sunrise departure, and thank goodness we were stubborn. We boarded our narrow longtail boat just as the sun started to rise, and it left me speechless. The still lake reflected the sky's dreamy shades of pink and purple as we glided across the open waters, and through floating villages and narrow canals. It was the most dreamy experience! FYI, I was freezing on the water at 7 AM, so I suggest packing a jacket! From the Indein Village boat dock, it's a 10-minute walk to reach the pagoda. Just ask the locals and they'll point you in the right direction. The pagoda is comprised of 1,054 densely placed stupas - some completely restored, while others look like ruins from a Tomb Raider movie. (LOCATION: Indein Village; COST: Free)
PLACES TO STAY ON INLE LKE
Novotel Inle Lake Myat Min Hotel
The property is absolutely lovely. I stayed in one of the over-water bungalows, and it was completely modern, spacious and beautiful. We paid $140 USD per night for our room type, which was completely affordable. Definitely the nicest hotel stay of the trip.
Where's Waldo here at Indein Pagoda.
Market shopping on Inle Lake.
The restored stupas of Indein Pagoda - there's another area where the stupas look like mini Angkor Wat ruins.
Busy market days on Inle Lake.
The sunrises and sunsets on Inle Lake were absolute magic.
Loved that I spent my last day in Myanmar with puppies!
TRIP COST BREAKDOWN
Below is a general cost breakdown of my 11-day trip. For me, Myanmar was a very affordable destination. Keep in mind, I stayed at nice hotels (my Myanmar standards) and used private transport almost every day. This trip could be done for even less if you were to stay in mid-range hotels and cut out some of the private transportation. I've also included an FYI - I split the cost of hotels and transport with my friend, and I used airline miles for the big international flight.
Kept it under $1,000!
Photos taken by myself and Anh-Thi Nguyen (@leftietraveler on Instagram).