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Budget Backpacking Guide to Myanmar

(Part 1 of 3) Yangon > Kyakityo > Mawlemyine in 4 Nights

Burma - the land of the Golden Stupas

You've heard about the regular backpacking Myanmar travel routes.  Fly into Yangon… See Shwedagon Pagoda, take the sleeper train to Mandalay.  Take the ferry to Bagan, watch the sunset from Shwesandaw Pagoda..  Visit Inle Lake and take a river boat and snap the iconic picture of a man fishing with a net.  Back to Mandalay and then back to Bangkok.

These are all ‘must see' attractions of traveling to Myanmar.  But if you are happy to travel to a few slightly out of the way places, you may find a wealth of hidden treasures this country holds for you.  From the Mud Volcano's of Minbu to Spearfishing at Chaung Tha Beach and watching the sunset over the Bay of Bengal.  In this blog series, we have documented our 21 day adventure in this magnificent country.  We hope our experiences and travel guides will help you with your adventures to “The Land of the Golden Stupas”.

Planning our trip before leaving Thailand

We wanted our backpacking trip to Burma to be a good mix of sights and attractions that are on the cover of your guidebook, with some comfort (on a budget!) along the way. And then going ‘off the beaten backpacker trail' a little to make us feel like we were discovering something new.  I'm not someone who wants to shun all the big sights, nor do I want to spend every day trying to figure a way of doing something unique and different.  Tourist attractions are there because.. they are actually worthwhile seeing (in some cases).  So we didn't ignore everything, we tried to mix it up a little to ensure we didn't go too bonkers.

We also read a few Lonely Planet backpacking guides for inspired routes (Don't worry about buying the latest published ones, as you read on, we will tell you the pitfalls of all current guidebooks on Burma).   Speaking with some other backpackers, we got some of the latest tips from inside the country.   We then worked out on a Nelles paper-based map (recommend getting!) and Google Maps what attractions and sights we really wanted to see (you can view our Google Maps for inspiration).  There are also some great online resources out there covering Myanmar, such as Go-Myanmar.com.

After our research, we came up with the below itinerary as we were on the road and it worked fairly well!

Our Backpacking Myanmar Route Map & Itinerary:

Backpacking Myanmar Itinerary

Myanmar Map Key: 1 Yangon, 2 Kyakityo, 3 Mawlemyine, 4 Pyay, 5 Magway (Minbu), 6 Bagan, 7 Mandalay, 8 Chaungtha Beach (Pathein).

In this first part of our series on Myanmar, we cover points 1,2 and 3.

Our ‘Insider Tips' for Backpacking Myanmar in 2014:

The local currency is kyat (pronounced chat) and the exchange rate at time of writing was 960 kyat per 1 US dollar.  At the Airport, you can exchange up to $100 to kyat at 975 rate one time only, after that it drops to 960 rate.  Outside Yangon and Mandalay you will find worse rates, so I recommend you exchanging a lot of money in either of these cities and then utilising ATMs which offer government 960 set rate thereafter.

Budget backpackers will require $30 minimum per day, per person if travelling in a group. Solo travellers will need $40 per day.  If you bring in as a group $40 per person to play it safe in US Dollars, over 3 weeks this will equate to $840 per person maximum spent.  We spent just shy of $700 per person, so $33 per day and that was living comfortably. Accommodation is the biggest cost, then transport (buses) and then attractions.  You can eat like a king and get blind drunk everyday for under $5 per person.  Read our budget plans for backpacking Myanmar for more information.

Day 1 & 2: Exploring Downtown Yangon & Shwedagon Pagoda

We flew in from Bangkok by AirAsia, which cost us 7,140 Baht in total.  That is £71 per person ($115) return with baggage (you can get it for much cheaper than this though).  When you walk out of security, you are greeted by a mob of taxi drivers wanting your ride.  Don't pay more than 8,000 Kyat to go anywhere in downtown.  You can maybe get it down to 7,000 Kyat but might find yourself sharing a taxi with locals or fellow backpackers.

The ride into downtown is as people say it is, driving in imported Japanese cars built 30 years ago and retaining their right hand drive, whilst the Burmese now drive on right hand side of the road.  Only in Myanmar this could work without anyone questioning it!

First few sights driving into Downtown Yangon

Our plan was to find some cheap accommodation on arrival, based on the maps in our out of date Lonely Planet 2009 guide.  We knew where there might be a concentration of budget hotels / guesthouses, there would likely be others not listed in the guidebook.. Yangon is different though, which we slowly found out.

Cheap places to stay in Yangon for backpackers:

First tip I can give you, don't get the taxi to take you to 32nd street.  You might have read that is where the budget accommodation is..  But if you want to stay at the Okinawa Guesthouse, or Garden Guesthouse it is likely you will find your out of luck even in low season, as these get booked up far in advance.  If you are keen on these places, then make sure you get to them early (9am), when people may have checked out.  The other option is a barebones (and I mean barebones – you won't find anymore bare and cheaper than this) place called ‘Maha Bandoola Guesthouse' at the top of the road.  It's $10 a night, which sounds reasonable.. But if you think you can find a reasonable quality hostel for that price in Burma, you are going to be crying yourself home.  This is real local standard budget accommodation, not Thailand budget!  If you can put up with real budget accommodation, then this might just suit you.

Our Backpacking Myanmar, Yangon Hotel Recommendations:

Below we have some recommendations that are for what budget / mid range backpackers will want and expect from backpacking other SE Asia countries on a budget.

Hotel Name Address Triple Room Double Room Single Room Facilities
May Fair Inn No. 57, 38th Street (Downtown Yangon), Yangon, Myanmar $35 $30 ($25 without window) $25 A/C, Hot Water, WiFi, 24 Hour Electricity, Taxi / Bus Booking Available.
Grand Hotel No. 108, 1st Floor, Bo Aung Kyaw Street, (Downtown Yangon), Yangon, Myanmar N/A $35 $30 A/C, Hot Water, 24 Hour Electricity

In case your scratching your head to the whereabouts of these hotels.  They are both located on the block nearest to Strand Road.  There are budget guest houses that you can stay at dotted all around this area of downtown, you can get for maybe $20 – $25 per night low season (Tokyo Guesthouse), but for a few $$ extra per night, you get a proper hotel quality room with en-suite as listed above.  Just walk up and down Merchant Street and you will see signs down each street advertising guesthouses of various standards of quality.

On the 2nd day we visited Yangon Railway Station to book our tickets down to Kyaikto. The ticket office is open until 3pm every day.  It's not located at the Railway Station main entrance, it's on the opposite side of the tracks on ‘Bo Gyoke Road' roughly opposite 34th street.  There are always staff behind the counter that speak English. Although your pronunciation of the destination your travelling to, may come across a little confusing to them! The train to Kyaikto costs $8 per person in ‘Upper Class' and unlike most things in Myanmar now, you have no option but to pay in US dollars.

We then flagged down a taxi to take us to Shwedagon Pagoda (2,000 Kyat) and hired a guide for the day, as it was only $8 (8,000 Kyat) and meant we learnt more about the Pagoda, one of the big sights of Yangon and Myanmar.  Guides will approach you on entrance to the Pagoda, $8 is reasonable price to pay them, if you are a larger group than 2, offering a little more is a fair deal.  Entrance to the Pagoda has recently gone up to 8,000 Kyat and they no longer accept US dollars as entrance fee (Slightly high for budget backpackers, but there is no other option but to pay that for entrance).  The same goes with mostly all attractions in Myanmar now, don't listen to guidebooks saying to pay in dollars, you cannot 99% of the time.

When we got back into town (another 2,000 Kyat), we went out searching for some food and rested on a beer station.  Beer stations are scattered everywhere in Yangon and offer dishes for around 2,000 – 3,000 Kyat which can either be eaten all in one with rice, or shared out Asian style.  A large bottle of Myanmar beer sets you back 1,600 – 1,800 Kyat per bottle.

Our guidebook suggested a walking tour of downtown Yangon, to take in all the old british colonial era architecture.  That included taking in the Myanmar Port Authority building (1920s), The Strand Hotel (1901), Ministry of Inland Water Transportation, Customs House, The High Court (1914), The Ministers Building – where Aung San was assassinated (Late 1800's), Yangon City Hall (1936) and many more along the route!  It's well worth the walk, and if you are staying in our recommended budget / mid-range hotels, you are right in the centre of them all.

Our train in the morning was at 6am, so we headed to bed early to ensure we wouldn't miss it!

Day 3 & 4: Kyaikto ‘Golden Rock' and a trip to Kipling's immortalised Mawlamyine

Our train got into Kyaikto station around 11:30am, the journey isn't for those with a weak stomach!  I never knew a train carriage could move in such a way without falling of the rails.  Your body is lurched back to front, side to side and up and down the entire way. Make sure you secure your bags properly on the overhead frames, otherwise they will almost certainly come crashing down, mid way through the journey.

At the station we jumped into the back of a shared pickup truck, that heads up to the smaller town of Kinpun on the hillside.  The journey takes 15 minutes and costs around 1,000 Kyat each.  You will be immediately greeted by someone from the nearby Sea Sar Guesthouse.  This seems like a popular haunt for other travellers backpacking Myanmar and stopping by overnight.  Even though we didn't see any other accommodation, I recommend looking at the other options in town (it's a small place anyway), as you will probably save money and get a better place to stay.  We were just in a rush to get up the mountain before sunset!  Sea Sar Guesthouse costs $25 for an older style bungalow, not much different than their $35 bungalows.  This hotel is used quite a lot by other backpackers, as it's in a good location for getting the pickup truck to the Golden Rock..  I'll come onto that in a little bit..

Before heading up the mountains to see the The Golden Rock we organised our bus journey to Mawlamyine for the next morning.  We got ripped off on this one, they charged us almost double what it truly cost at 8,000 Kyat per person.  If you went to the bus station hatches in the middle of Kinpun, you can find a bus for maybe 4,000 Kyat per person at it's cheapest.  Don't trust the staff at Sea Sar as they aren't the best for organising transport and take a heavy commission.

After booking the bus for the next morning (6am start as usual), we had our first taste of a Burmese curry.  It costs just 1,500 Kyat and is a few small pieces of chicken on the bone in curry and oil with a large side of rice and a soup on the side.  Perfect for a light lunch before getting up the mountain before sunset.

Travelling from Kinpun to Kyaikto by pickup truck to see the Golden Rock Pagoda:

Kinpun is where I think we experienced the worst transportation in memory and hopefully never experience again.  With the fact this place is a huge tourist attraction for the Burmese and foreigners like us, they work out the best ways they can squeeze every bit of profit from visitors.  I say the word ‘squeeze' literally, as we jumped into the back of an already over-filled large open top truck with wooden plank seating to accommodate passengers.

It wasn't even that this truck was built for the Burmese and we were too big, even the locals were struggling with the lack of room!  I was sitting on a burmese Nun I think, and couldn't stop apologising through the whole journey.  The worst part hadn't even come yet, as the ride up the mountains down single track roads is the nearest I have come to a roller coaster for some time, if you think Nemesis Inferno at Thorpe Park is scary, wait 'til you get to Kinpun! Its a bare knuckle adrenaline ride, with everyone falling on top of everyone else at various stages of the journey.  The trucks are hitting max throttle, speeding around corners and breaking suddenly.  As we travel further up the mountain, things get even more scary with sheer drops all around and being in an old truck with a dodgy gear box and very worn breaks.  And all this, for 2,500 Kyat per person each way!

The temperature drops as you creep further up the Mountain and within maybe 25 minutes you are up at the very top.  Here you get off and walk the remainder of the way and pick up your tickets.  Again 6,000 Kyat per person entry fee for the Golden Rock and you can only pay in local Kyat, no US Dollars.  Within a 10 minute walk you are standing face to face with the Golden Rock.  The views up there are breathtaking, the temperature and humidity has dropped off now, and it feels like another world.  Pictures don't describe the views and the rock when sunset is approaching.  Definitely a highlight of backpacking Myanmar!

After walking around for an hour or so, we get back to the pickup truck and make the same journey back down. Again we eat at the restaurant at the front of our hotel, as the food is at a reasonable quality and price.

Our journey from Kinpun (Kyaikto) to Mawlamyine by bus:

An early start the next day for our first bus journey in Myanmar! Our hotel sorts out a pickup to take us down into town and grab the bus we have pre-booked.  After 8 or so bus journeys all with different operators throughout Myanmar, I can say the operators down this way offer the best journeys, with music and films shown, wet wipes midway, bottles of water provided and travel sickness remedies on hand.  Oh yes,  that is one thing you will need to get used to over here.  The local Burmese are pretty bad travellers, for some reason, they suffer travel sickness way more than any other nationality.  Expect on a bus journey that your neighbours will be yacking up at some point into the bags provided. It's not like they throw up all over the seats and there isn't usually a bad smell circulating, but I just wish they took their sick filled bags with them off the bus!!

After a 5 hour journey we start travelling across the newly constructed Thanlwin Bridge that connects Mawlamyine with the North.  The bus station isn't located in the city centre, it's on the otherside of the hill, so getting across to the harbour side will cost around 2,500 Kyat.  We stayed at the Breeze Guesthouse on Strand Road.  Breeze costs $14 per night for a twin room.  Even though it's probably the most bare bones place we stayed, it represented good value for money, had a bed, fan and a semi-private bathroom that was shared by just a couple of rooms.  It's definitely budget backpacker friendly.  The staff here are very friendly and helpful with booking anything you need.  They also don't charge commission.

Mawlamyine doesn't get a huge amount of visitors, maybe it's charm has faded over time and the lack of attractions in the town itself contribute to the lack of visitors.  For us, this place was immortalised by Kipling. This is the place at which he wrote ‘On the road to Mandalay' and when writing about Mawlamyine Pagoda, got distracted by the burmese beauty standing at the steps.  This being an ongoing trend of the English who visited Mawlamyine, including Orwell.  Even over 100 years on.. the local Mon women are as beautiful as they ever were, you can understand why authors of the past got entranced by this place.

Because time was scarce on our trip down to this southern end of Myanmar, we had 1 attraction that was a little out of town we wanted to discover.  Win Sein Taw Ya or otherwise known as ‘The World's Largest Reclining Buddha'.  The Giant Buddha of Mudon is located around 25 minutes South of Mawlamyine halfway between the town and Mudon on the main road.  It's a real pain to get out to see on your own, without a tour guide.  Head towards the central market area and ask pickups if they are going towards Mudon.  Find one that can take you and drop you off at ‘Win Sein Taw Ya'.  We required 2 different pickups to take us all the way to the entrance, costing 4,000 Kyat in total for the both of us. Upon arriving at the entrance, you can either walk for 20 minutes or get a motorcycle taxi for 500 Kyat per person (sharing) each way.

When you first glance at the Buddha, you just won't believe it's size.  Standing at 30 meters high, and 180 meters in length, you can see it for miles around.  If you notice a monk sitting at the entrance of the steps to the bridge to take you across, it is polite to make a small donation of 2,000 Kyat per person.  Take your footwear off before walking up the steps, as this is a religious site.

You can walk all the way inside the Buddha, there are a couple of floors spanning the entire length, with statues portraying the story of the Buddha and the repercussions of not leading your life in an appropriate manner. Some of it is very disturbing!

Heading back into town after your finished is not too hard, get a motorcycle taxi back up to the main road and then hitch a ride back to Mawlamyine for probably less than it cost to get out of town.  All vehicles going past will be stopping off in Mawlamyine somewhere.

For dinner, there are plenty of restaurant options around the harbour-side to choose from, taking a stroll along Strand Road at night is enjoyable.  The sea air is cooling and the sunsets on clear nights are beautiful.

Our bus back to Yangon ended up costing just 5,500 Kyat when booked through Breeze Budget Guesthouse, a great deal considering the cost to get there from Kyaikto.  It takes roughly 8 hours to get back to Yangon from Mawlamyine, but was probably the most comfortable and enjoyable bus journey throughout our time in Myanmar.

This guide was from a 3 part series on our travels backpacking Myanmar, read the below guides for more information and inspiration for your adventures!

Interested in reading our other Travel Guides on Myanmar?

If you enjoyed this blog and series, please share the link below!  Thank you.

About Darryl Hall (85 Articles)
Darryl left the shorelines of England in 2013 to study and travel in China and South East Asia for a year. Darryl is a co-founder of escapingthedesk.com, a travel blog with the aim of sharing travel tips, country & city guides for other backpackers. Visit my Google+ page.

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