Burma Travel Tips: Accommodations and Transportation

Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

This guide is part of a series of country-by-country focused resources for Southeast Asia addressing accommodations and transportation. You’ll find some overlap with the posts for other countries within the region. We’ve separated them by country because that’s what our readers are looking for. Feel free to skim past the parts that don’t suit you or seem redundant. Let us know if you’ve got insider knowledge to add!

Burma, officially Myanmar,  is an emerging travel destination in Southeast Asia. After years of unsettled political climates and the resulting upheaval, beginning with a coup in 1962 and followed by military rule and a civil wars lasting almost fifty years, which has made the country less hospitable to foreigners, the country is opening its doors again. The elections of 2015 elected the opposition party and installed the first non-military government since Burma declared independence in 1962. That’s a big step!

Now is a great time to visit Burma, as the doors are just beginning to re-open to the world and travel is becoming easier as infrastructure improves. It should be noted that Burma isn’t “easy,” like Thailand and Malaysia are, and that the effects of half a century of struggle will be felt in every aspect of life there.

Table of Contents

Dealing With Money

Perhaps the biggest issue travelers worry about in traveling to Burma is the money situation. Until 2015 the only way to get around was with mint condition USD. That’s changing. Slowly. There used to be no ATMs in the country; now there are a few. Euros and Singaporean Dollars can now be exchanged. The new government is trying to get the local currency established as a viable option.

Still, it’s not as simple as blowing in with your ATM card and your Visa for back up, like other places in Southeast Asia. For a thorough and up to date (2016) treatment of the topic, read Dustin Main’s article on How to Deal with Money in Myanmar (Burma). The short version: Take cash, carry cards for back up.

Burma Transportation

Burma transportation

Local & International Airlines

Air travel in Burma is possible between the largest cities but isn’t the most affordable option. Unlike within some other Southeast Asian countries (like Thailand) where there are numerous inexpensive options for flying around the country, Burma’s choices are more limited.

Giulia, Tortuga’s Production Assistant, recently traveled to Burma and she had this to say about air travel prices in the country:

guilia-tortuga-backpacks“Taking a plane can be a good alternative if you have a higher budget. We checked into flights to go visit the south west of Myanmar, Ngapali beach (which is beautiful and very close to Thailand) but it cost 200 USD from Yangon (almost the same price we paid from Hongkong to Yangon).”

There are three international airports, located in Yangon, Madalay,  Naypyadaw and Bago; Mandalay’s airport is the largest. There are many smaller domestic airports around the country with varying degrees of service.

If you’re looking for more information about domestic airlines and how to fly around Burma, World Adventurer has a comprehensive post with an airline by airline breakdown; published in 2013 it’s a bit out of date but a great overview to get you started.

Flights in Myanmar is a handy website for searching and booking flights within Burma.

Otherwise, booking through your hotel or travel services within the country is still listed as one of the better ways to organize your flights.

Finally, here’s a comprehensive list of all airlines flying to, and within Burma.

Trains

Train travel in Burma can be an adventure. It’s a great way to see the country, but it’s not faster than taking the bus and it’s not super reliable. Not all trains are readily available to foreigners. Most tickets cannot be purchased online, with the exception of the most popular tourist routes. You should expect to have to show your passport or other documentation when buying tickets at a station. Plan to buy tickets ahead for upper class seats or sleeper trains and lower your expectations for timeliness and cleanliness.

Go Myanmar: Provides a useful overview of the basic information on how and where to buy train tickets, the routes most popular with foreigners and links to the online purchase options where they exist.

A Train Trip to Remember: Mandalay to Myitkyina: Jodi Ettenberg, of Legal Nomads tells the story of their unforgettable rail journey in Burma in 2011.

Train Travel vs. Buses: Wandering Wanderluster breaks down the realities of train travel in Burma and why every traveler should take at least one long train trip in the country. Helpful information about the logistics and a video of their experience.

The WORST Travel Experience of My Life – The Overnight Train from Bagan to Yangon: This is a serious “truth in advertising” travel post from Turnip Speed Travel complete with photos of sleeper train accommodations, the toilet situation and a blow by blow description of their journey. I’m including this one as a balance to the “pro-train” recommendations because train travel in Burma isn’t for everyone and if discomfort isn’t your thing, perhaps a flight is worth the money.

Seat61: Map of train routes and information about train travel in Burma from the most trusted website in train travel, worldwide.

Buses

Giulia, who intentionally collected travel information for us in Burma had this to say about overland travel and buses:

guilia-tortuga-backpacksThe transportation in Burma is still a big deal, you need to plan in advance how you want to organize your trip; that’s because the infrastructures are not totally developed yet, and they barely have highways. For this reason we spent a lot of time on the way from Bagan-Inle lake-Yangon (it took us 12 hours for 300 kilometers from Inle lake to Yangon).”

Her personal experience, in September 2016, with bus travel in Burma was as follows:

“From Yangon we took a night sleeping bus to Bagan (an old fascinating city with more than 2000 pagodas that you can visit). The most recommended bus company is JJ express: It covers many routes, connecting the main places of interest in Myanmar, we took it from Yangon to Bagan, from Bagan to Inle lake and from Inle lake back to Yangon. It costs 25 USD per person, but you have clean reclining seats, blankets to fight against the AC, a pillow, a screen with a couple of movies to watch during the 10 hours trip and a dinner (a plate of local fried noodles or rice and chicken) included. It’s a good deal, and taking overnight transportation in Burma can help you to optimize your time. “

Myanmar Bus Tickets: Sells bus tickets for the major routes online.

Go Myanmar: Gives a good breakdown of what you can expect from buses in Burma and includes photos.

Bamba Experience: Hop on hop off independent bus travel servicing most Southeast Asian countries, including Burma. Type “Burma” into the search bar at the top of the page for several interesting options.

Alternative Transport

The more “off the beaten track” a destination, the more interesting the alternative forms of transportation become. Burma is brimming with options.

Boats

You’ll want to do your homework in advance and you’ll also want to allow plenty of time for flexibility on the ground if you plan to negotiate a boat journey while you are in Burma. Here are some resources to get you started:

Go Myanmar: Once again, this site is a great resource for the basics of boat travel, fast vs. slow, costs, ticketing, and what to expect.

Myanmar River Cruises: Their tag line is, “Your One Stop Cruise Shop.” From one day cruises to luxury cruises, they have a variety of options. They’ve even got a section on hot air ballooning. How’s that for alternative transportation?

Guide for Myanmar: This is an antiquated website but it includes some great information on the types of boats you might choose to travel on, from cargo boats to ferries and everything in between. Some useful links are also provided with the descriptions.

Burma Boating: Provides private tours and chartered sailboats. You can do the sailing, or they can do it for you.

Ama Waterways: Specializes in luxury ten, or fourteen day river cruises in Burma.

Rent Your Own Wheels

Cars

Renting a car is possible, but only if you also hire a driver. Self-drive car rental is not possible at the time of this writing. You can reserve ahead of time through the airport you fly into. Or, you can rent from a company on the ground. Be prepared to negotiate the price and be prepared for the prices to be high, compared to other modes of transportation. The Real Myanmar estimates the costs between $85 and $110 USD per day and suggest that prices can be reduced by combining car hire with flights.

The Real Myanmar: Rents cars and drivers, can accommodate groups.

EuropCar: Lists cars for hire with a chauffeur from the major airports.

Myanmar Rent a Car: Lists cars for hire with a driver, priced in ten hour increments.

Motorbikes

Unlike cars, motorbikes CAN be rented in Burma for self drive, however you aren’t allowed to self drive everywhere and the off limits segments of the country are subject to change. It’s important to get up to date information on that before you take off into the wilds on your own.

Guided tours are also available and provide some fantastic adventures for those who aren’t quite intrepid enough to go it alone in a developing country.

Giulia had this to say about renting motorbikes in Burma:

guilia-tortuga-backpacksOnce there, it’s convenient and much more fun to rent a motorbike. Or, if you feel like doing more sports, a bicycle to go around, among the temples and the pagodas of the historical sites.”

Mandalay Motorbikes: This company is run by an expat and offers both self drive and guided tour options as well as advice on where you can go on your own.

Myanmar Bike Rentals: Another option in  Mandalay, also run by an English speaking expat; they offer everything from 125cc scooters to a 400cc cruising bike and accommodate all sorts of travelers.

Discovery Rides: Offering guided tours and independent journeys. Their guided trips include daily servicing of the bikes. They can accommodate groups and offer a range of trips, including flights and bookings.

City Travel & Haggling

City transportation in this part of the world is extremely diverse. Mopeds speed around en masse, and it’s possible to hop on the back of a local guide’s moped for a tour of the city. Tuk-tuks are ubiquitous – tiny three-wheeled, open-air vehicles that act as cheap taxis and can miraculously always hold “just one more” person. Pickup trucks with seats built into the backs act as local buses in many areas.

The cost of local transport generally depends on the haggling abilities of the traveler. In most cases, you will be asked for fully twice what is fair. Offer a little less than your final price, and work your way up from there. Never immediately offer the price you actually intend to pay.

Understand that there is almost always tiered pricing and you’re very unlikely to pay what locals do. Consider this your luxury tax for being there and remember that paying a buck for what locals are paying .75 for is okay, because the same ride in NYC would cost you twenty five dollars, and the story wouldn’t be nearly as good.

The trick to successful city transport without getting taken for more rides than you’re hoping for, is in upfront negotiation of price and a cheerful attitude. Never get into a cab or tuk tuk without knowing that the driver understands where you and having agreed upon the price. Always have correct change to pay with (because if you don’t… they won’t either!) Finally, don’t be afraid to walk away. If you have a bad feeling about a particular driver, thank him with a smile and keep looking, there will be dozens of other drivers vying for your business.

Burma Accommodations

Burma accommodation

Luxury & Resorts

Luxury resorts are an emerging market in Burma. Because the country was “closed” for so many years, there is less tourist development and infrastructure here than in the other Southeast Asian countries. That being said, the growth in traveler interest in recent years has triggered a boom in the tourist industries and there are more luxury options opening up all the time, many of them in opulent colonial era settings.

Belmond Governor’s Residence, Yangon: A romantic, colonial-style mansion dating from the 1920s, Belmond Governor’s Residence is redolent of the days when it was home to the ruler of Myanmar’s southern states.

Malikha Lodge, Putao: Perched high above the Nam Lang River with glorious views of mountains and rice terraces, this lodge has a feeling of luxurious seclusion and is a great base from which to experience some adventurous activities, from kayaking and rafting to jungle treks and mountain biking.

Aureum Palace, Bagan: This place is pretty amazing; it’s set within Bagan Archaeological Preservation Zone amongst the ancient temples of The Kingdom of Bagan.  If you’re interested in history and luxury, this is the perfect blend.

Inle Princess Resort, Inle: A Burmese owned and operated resort on the magical Inle Lake, with a commitment to the communities around the lake and sustainable practices.

Novotel: A go-to for hotels in general. Novotel has a long list of hotels across Southeast Asia to suit most price ranges. Two of which are in Burma.

Splendia: This is a site for finding luxury hotels wherever you are traveling. They have three listings for Burma; one is the Belmond Governor’s Residence, listed above.

Hotels Under $150

Hotels in Burma under $150 are very easy to find. Giulia’s experience booking inexpensive hotels in Burma was as follows:

guilia-tortuga-backpacksWe finally booked the two hotels (both in Bagan and in Inle lake) through booking.com and price was 25 USD/ each per night with breakfast included. The hotel in Bagan also had a wonderful outdoor swimming pool where we could chill out and rest after the visits. What really impressed us was how kind and ready to help was the staff  was in both places we stayed. They helped us in booking the sleeping bus, finding a local fisherman to take us around the lake with his boat (for the one-day boat trip) and a local tour guide that took us into the countryside for a trekking day.”

Tips for saving money on a hotel in Burma:

Keep an eye out for hotel deals on the following sites:

Travelfish: One of the single most useful websites for finding all sorts of information about travel in Burma, Travelfish is an independent travel guide that focuses specifically on SEA. Use it to find hotels, restaurants, tours, and top destinations. Great for finding off-the-beaten-path adventures.

Agoda: Plug in your destination and dates here for a comprehensive list of available hotels and the sorts of rooms they have available. The ratings and recommendations feature of this site is specific to various types of travelers, so you’ll find ratings based on business travel, family travel, romantic travel and more. This is super helpful in choosing a hotel that will be a good fit. Agoda is also good for last minute planning, as well as reservations in advance. I’ve been known to sit in the lobby of a hotel, after being quoted one price at the desk, and find a better deal at the same hotel through Agoda, book it online, and check in with a smile. Over 800 options in Burma alone. (Tip: search “Myanmar”)

Expedia: Reliable service when looking for the comfort you’re used to, but won’t always give you the best deal. Check your prices against another booking agent, if getting the lowest price is important to you.

Travelocity: A personal favorite no matter where I’m traveling. Travelocity brings up over 200 hotels in Thailand alone, and is one of the only travel sites to bring up hotel options for Burma and Brunei.

Hotels.com: Hotels has you covered, no matter where you’re going. Similar to Agoda, Hotels is one of the best ways to find budget hotels all over Southeast Asia, in even the most remote locations. (Tip: search “Myanmar”)

Boutique Hotels

A boutique hotel is any small hotel with under 100 rooms. By that definition, you’re going to be able to find a “boutique” hotel in nearly any town in Burma. Personally, I believe that a boutique hotel needs to have a certain measure of style and uniqueness before it’s earned its title.

Southeast Asia spawns your average cheap hotel by the thousands, but finding a truly unique small hotel here can be a challenge. Unlike in most other destinations around the world, boutique hotels in Bumra generally cost a good deal more than an average hotel stay, some even bordering on outright luxury prices. If you find the hotel of your dreams, it may be worth it. However, after a bit of digging, I’ve found a few great boutique hotels that won’t break the bank.

Merchant Art Boutique Hotel, Yangon: The Merchant Hotel is uniquely an art boutique hotel, claiming to be the only one in Yangon. Believing that art breeds commerce their design is built on that vision.

Bagan Lodge: Offers rooms and suites that “Echo of another age.”

Villa Inle: The hotel and it’s ethos are centered around blending in with the natural environment and reducing the hotel’s impact on the environment. They’ve deliberately limited the number of rooms.

Mandalay Hill Resort: Mandalay Hill Resort lies at the foot of Mandalay Hill with a panoramic view of a myriad of pagodas and faces the distinctive architecture of the Royal Palace and its beautiful moat.

Vacation Rentals

If you plan to stay in Burma for a more than a few weeks, a vacation rental may be the way to go.

Not only are vacation rentals far more comfortable and private, they may save you money in the long run. Vacation rentals are my first choice nearly everywhere I travel. Living in a fully furnished home and being able to cook all my own meals is far more sustainable for a stay of a week or more.

Vacation rentals offer a very uniquely immersive travel experience, and are fairly easy to find.

Booking through any of the online agencies is, absolutely, possible; however, booking on the ground is often the better way to go. A bit of bravery and some flexibility are required. Just turn up, book a couple of nights in a hotel where you want to spend more time, and pound the pavement. All of our best home rentals, in SEA and elsewhere have been located through locals on the ground.

How do you do it? Find a local real-estate agency and ask for a referral to a rental agent, or, rent a motorbike and ride around writing down the phone numbers from signs on the gates of rentals.

Wimdu: Has 3 properties in Burma. One of the most popular vacation rental websites out there.

Airbnb: Possibly the most well-known vacation rental and B&B locator on the web. With thousands of properties in 150+ countries around the world, it’s a go-to for house-hunting. Over 300 listings in Burma, averaging $39 USD per night.

VRBO: There is just one listing in Burma, but all homes must pass inspection, so you know you’re getting value.

Roomorama: An easy to use vacation rental booking site that allows you to narrow your search from thousands of homes to the perfect stay for you. There is just one listing in Burma. (Tip: Search Myanmar)

Camping

Camping in Burma is both dangerous and illegal. You’re likely to have your tent confiscated by the authorities. There are, however, some camping tour companies that are properly permitted to guide camping groups within the country. Here’s one reputable option if you’re determined:

Myanmar Trekking Tours: Offers a range of treks from 4-6 days that include camping and cycle tours that range a couple of weeks in length that also camp.

Unusual Accommodations

Burma’s tourism infrastructure is still emerging, which means that you’re not going to find the wide range of unique options that you’ll find in the other countries of Southeast Asia. The most unusual accommodations are the ones you tend to stumble across accidentally along the way.

Some things can’t be planned, and there is much that hasn’t been discovered yet. If you’ve been to Burma and you stayed somewhere unique, please add a note to the comments and share it with us so that we can add it to the list.

Shwe Inn Tha Floating Resort, Lake Inle: While these aren’t exactly floating houses, the air conditioned rooms are built on stilts over the water.

 

Hostels

Hostels are popping up in Burma. Giulia stayed in one in Yangon, when she first arrived in the country and she has this to share:

guilia-tortuga-backpacksWe went to Yangon and we stayed in a hostel in the city center, not far from the airport. Despite the turmoil that was outside, the hostel was clean and quiet. We could stay in a private double room and enjoy the local breakfast and unlimited Nescafes for free. Price per night was 20 USD for each person.

Yangon pitstop was a MUST but it was not my favourite place of this trip, too noisy, too dusty and a bit dirty (so far that’s a common feature of the South-East Asia capital cities I have been visited so far).”

HostelWorld: Relied upon by backpackers around the globe, HostelWorld has a decent selection of SEA hostels to check out.

Southeast Asia Backpacker: If you’re hosteling SEA, treat this site like your golden handbook. With information on all the best (and worst) hostels, as well as everything you need to know to backpack SEA, including Burma, this site is a must-read.

Agoda: Easily book hostel rooms as well as hotel rooms.

Hostel Bookers: Similar to HostelWorld, works on an international level and showcases a large collection of SEA hostels.

TL;DR

Travel in Burma can be demanding, but it’s also rewarding. Since the country has only recently reopened its doors to the world, the infrastructure isn’t as good as it is in other Southeast Asian countries, but the trade off is fewer travelers.

Transportation is inexpensive and easy to arrange, but may not always go to plan. It’s difficult to avoid being swept up in unexpected adventure here, whether you’re traveling by bus or by tuk-tuk. When traveling in Burma:

Image Credit: Christopher Michel, Flickr, Bucketlistly