Closed off from international travel until 2015, Myanmar is Southeast Asia’s yet-undiscovered pearl. Dotted with thousands of glistening pagodas and over 100 ethnic groups, travel in Myanmar is unlike anywhere you’ve ever been before. Trek through wild pine forests or drift down the Irrawaddy River until it spits you out in the Bay of Bengal. Post up in a colonial-legacy teahouse and watch locals pass by in thanakha (traditional make-up) and blue jeans or longyi (traditional men’s skirt) and tank-tops: an exotic mixing of old and new, past and present. Adventure travel in Myanmar offers something for every explorer.
Where to Travel in Myanmar
Teeming with temples, rice fields, desolate wilderness, and hospitable hosts, Myanmar satiates the appetite of even the most ambitious adventurer. Whether you’re seeking urban thrills, exotic beaches, or untamed mountains, this understated destination is filled with surprises.
In the Mandalay Region of Upper Burma, travelers can find a burgeoning cultural hub. Infused with the vibrant diversity of the many minority ethnic communities that inhabit the surrounding hills, Mandalay bridges urban business with rural livelihoods. A casual stroll through the city showcases a thriving art scene, constantly alive with traditional puppet shows, craft exhibitions, music, and dance. Make a day trip out of the city to brave the 200-year-old U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world, or peddle through limestone valleys and pagodas near Amarapura and Sagaing. End the day with a sunset hike up Mandalay Hill, where you’ll be rewarded with an unbeatable panoramic view of the city.
Halfway between Yangon and Mandalay lies Inle Lake, a network of serene waterfront communities that’s rightfully one of the country’s premier destinations. More than 13 miles long and seven miles wide, this expansive natural lake is surrounded by floating gardens and stilt-houses set above emerald marshlands. Further in the distance, rolling hills fill the horizon, home to indigenous minorities that make their way to the lake weekly to sell their harvests and wares. Make sure to try the fish-rice-spice mystery combo that is the “Shan Traditional Snack”, especially popular in this region. At around 1,100 kyat ($1), travelers will be hard-pressed to find a better flavor-price ratio.
The surreal landscapes of Bagan have captured the imaginations of travelers for centuries, and rightfully so. Sandwiched between the Irrawaddy River and the northeastern hills home to the Shan tribes, Myanmar’s central plains hold a permanent mysticism. The 26 square mile archaeological zone of Bagan reflects the rise and fall of many kingdoms, including over 4000 stupas, the ruins of Thayekhittaya built by the Pyu dynasty in the fifth century, and the quaint lacquerware trade hub of Myinkaba. This captivating region also makes a great adventure destination for hikers and cyclists.
Types of Myanmar Adventure Tours
Fancy trekking through lush jungle, lounging on the pristine sands of the Bay of Bengal, or kayaking cross-country on the rolling Irrawaddy? Though program options are much more limited than those in neighboring destinations like India and Thailand, Burmese tourism businesses are rapidly growing, and, along with them, accessible and affordable Myanmar adventure tours. The Burmese backwoods are calling, and explorers must go.
Myanmar offers unparalleled opportunities for adrenaline junkies and culture enthusiasts alike. Explore rambling mountain trails through the tribal villages in Myanmar’s northern hills or scale your way up jarring cliffs down south. Popular outdoor adventure activities include camping, trekking, and climbing. Cycling is also an excellent way to see the country’s endless pagodas and traditional temples, while enjoying the wind in your hair and a nice calf workout. The Central Plains are ideal for two-wheeled travelers, with moderate temperatures and lush landscapes stretching into the horizon. If you’re more the two-legged travel type, strap your belongings to your back for an epic backpacking trip to Myanmar’s most forgotten corners. Eco-tours are also available for environmentally-conscious travelers.
Most travel programs in Myanmar also have service learning and cultural components, offering travelers opportunities to learn about Theravada Buddhism, visit ancient monasteries, and volunteer with sustainable development organizations and disadvantaged schools.
November to February is the best time to enjoy Myanmar’s tropical climate. Monsoon season makes traveling around damp and difficult from May to October, especially in the southern Irrawaddy delta, and temperatures often spike over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the March to May spring heat.
Costs of Travel to Myanmar
Myanmar adventure tours give you plenty of bang for your buck. Rumors on the travel circuit say that Myanmar is expensive, but budget-savvy adventures will find affordable local options if they’re willing to forgo a few of the comforts of home.
A budget hotel room will run about $25 per night, and dorm bunkers can be found for around $10 per night. (Pro tip: Make sure to book in advance during high season, as limited budget accommodation options can fill up, leaving you with only higher price tag options.) A food budget of $10 per day will ensure you don’t run out of fuel between adventures. Of course, plan to spend a bit more for a nice meal out or, to really cut costs, stick to street-side food carts peddling roti, noodles, salads, and BBQ skewers.
Note that accommodation and transport are often priced and paid in U.S. dollars. But make sure to have kyat (Burmese currency) on hand for market and street purchases as well as taxi trips around town.
Limited programs offer full-package trips that cover nearly all in-country expenses: transportation, accommodation, activities, meals, and educational events. However, these types of travel programs in Myanmar are less common than in other Southeast Asian destinations, so double-check all that is included (and what isn’t) in tours when signing up. If the sparse program selections don’t appeal to you, there are plenty of great resources to help you plan an adventure-filled Myanmar travel DIY-style. If you’re looking for a little extra financial help covering your adventures in Myanmar, scholarships or a FundMyTravel campaign are great resources for adventurous travelers whose wanderlusts outpace their banks accounts.
Accommodation in Myanmar
After a day of adventure, every explorer needs a place to lay their head. While Myanmar accommodation options are nothing to write home about, travellers are in for a treat with Burmese hosts, who are on the whole exceptionally hospitable, generous, and eager to share their homeland with pioneering travelers.
Fair warning: international amenities and accommodation options in Myanmar are limited outside of major cities like Mandalay and Yangon and popular destinations like Inle Lake and Bagan. In rural destinations, travelers will find scattered homestay options and endless plots to pitch a tent. Ever wondered what it was like to find housing on the road before the wealth of insights and options provided by modern travel apps? In rural Myanmar, rely on the good old-fashioned generosity and guidance of locals.
Tourist Visas for Travel to Myanmar
Travelers from most Western countries should apply for an eVisa and pay a fee online at least a week prior to visiting Myanmar. An eVisa allows you to enter from one of six ports of entry (three airports and three land crossings on the Thai border), and travel for 28 days in country. Check with the Myanmar Embassy in your home country to find out more.
Benefits & Challenges
Looking for a truly unexplored, off-the-beaten path destination? Myanmar is the Holy Grail. Most of the country is very rural, so you’re much more likely to stumble upon quaint local villages than hordes of fellow backpackers.
This also means that travelers planning their trips independently may have some difficulty finding reliable, up-to-date information about buses, lodging, and activities in advance online. Since the country’s borders were only opened to foreign travelers in 2015, transportation, accommodation, and program options in the country are generally sparser than in neighboring tourism giants. So plan to adventure in real time! Put down that outdated Myanmar travel guide, and let your feet and your gut lead you through this idyllic country.
While you’re wandering, make time for conversations with the Burmese you meet along the way. After half a century under an authoritarian regime that restricted contact with the outside world, there’s a real appetite for cultural exchange in the air. Conversations with the country’s kind, inquisitive locals will likely be some of your most cherished memories from Myanmar.
Adventure travel in one of Asia’s wildest and most mystical destinations is calling. The Burmese are eager to share their beautiful country with conscientious visitors just like you. Kyaosopartaal (welcome)!