Mandalay Hill
Mandalay Hill

Myanmar Travel Guide for First Time Travelers

Hi Friends! This year 2017, I decided to challenge myself to explore Indochina for 14 days. Part of it was to spend 3 days and 2 nights in Myanmar. Although the amount of time we spent in Burma was unfortunately short, I think it was enough to explore the most important attractions that I can’t wait to share with you guys. 😍 But before that, I wanted to share first all the notable things that we saw and the hard lessons that we’ve learned along the way to give you a glimpse of how this country looks like and somehow help you plan your Trip to Myanmar for the first time.  Here is my own personal Myanmar Travel Guide. ✌️

We took Airasia’s first trip to Mandalay from Bangkok and arrived around 12 noon in Mandalay International Airport. We only visited Mandalay and Bagan so I can only speak about the 2 interesting provinces.


Myanmar is flat, at least in Mandalay and Bagan

Bird's Eye View of Mandalay
Approaching Mandalay International Airport

Mandalay International Airport is situated in the outskirts of Mandalay Town. Dry golden(together with sun’s reflection) land dominates the horizon with trees spread around. It’s pretty flat like no mountains visible. It feels isolated and takes around an hour to reach the city center where signs of civilization can be finally seen. 🏢🏗️

ATM and Money Changer at the Airport

Mandalay International Ariport Arrival
Welcome to Myanmar!

Several ATM machines and money changers are available at the airport. Tourist information from various travel agencies can be found as well. In our case, we had our US dollars exchange to their local currency, kyat (pronounced as “chat”). The larger the bill the higher the exchange rate. Important note: Your dollars should be smooth and wrinkle-free or else they won’t accept it. I thought it’s just the internet, but it’s really true. My 20 dollar bill wasn’t accepted because the left edge was a bit crumpled. Like seriously. 🙄

Journey from Mandalay International Airport to Mandalay Town

Bus ticket from Mandalay Airport to Mandalay Town
The Bus Ticket. You may call the contact numbers written on this ticket if you have further inquiries.

It’s an hour drive to the city center from the airport. You can grab a taxi or ride the bus to take you to the town. We rode the bus that cost 4000 kyats per person from a “government-owned travel agency” (they said) at the airport. You will be delighted to see Pagodas scattered everywhere. ❤️ And if I’m not mistaken, we passed by the famous U-bein bridge on the left side ♥️ By the way, in case you are wondering, Uber or Grab is not yet available in Myanmar.

City Tour around Mandalay

Things to do in Mandalay
One of the nice monasteries that we visited in Mandalay. I forgot the name though 🙁

The bus dropped us off somewhere unfamiliar in Mandalay town. I specifically gave instructions to the driver to bring us to the bus terminal but we were forced to disembarked on a highway with no idea where to go next. This was the part where I told myself, I SHOULD HAVE BOUGHT A SIM CARD 😭 We spoke to some locals but their English was limited so NGA NGA. It was really a stressful moment until some men came over to us and offered their service. They were watching us from across and thought we needed help. I showed them my itinerary of the places we wanna go and agreed on 30000 kyats price (which is the standard city tour price base on my research) for a car and a driver. So far my budget was followed. 👍

After a few minutes, a white sedan arrived, we hopped in and started our Mandalay City Tour. Our driver was so nice and very kind! Although his English was also limited, he was very helpful. He doesn’t take advantage and seeks only what’s good for his guests. We asked where’s the nearest toilet at the U-Bein Bridge area, and instead of just giving directions, he really accompanied us to the toilet and paid the fee straight from his pocket. Also, when I finally decided to buy a sim, he was the one who went to the store, asked the vendor for a sim and just let me wait in the car. He’s the best! I’m sincerely grateful that we gave him 40000 kyats instead of the agreed price earlier. And I highly recommend him! Mr. Chit. San. Maung – 09250380011

City Tour around Mandalay - Laagan Kaayo
This is our ride and our driver patiently waiting for us. I snap this quietly on our way back from the toilet in U-bein Bridge area 😁

Trying out the Local Dishes

Curry - Local Burmese Food
Local Burmese Food set up in a fancy setting

I found this famous restaurant called Mingalabar Myanmar Restaurant in TripAdvisor, ranked as #1 Restaurant in Mandalay so I got curious. The place was cozy, staff were super nice and very accommodating however I didn’t like the food. I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just, it didn’t work on my tastes bud personally. But it might work for you, it worked pretty well for the people who highly recommended it on TripAdvisor. So please give their local food a chance 😉

Mingalabar Restaurant Menu
Mingalabar Restaurant Menu. I ordered something with “Bachelor” name on it.

The price was okay base on my budget and research, the serving was way over regular meal with hefty amount of side dishes. I just didn’t like the local taste.

Curry - Myanmar Local Food
This is the cheaper version of the meal in Mingalabar Restaurant from a local restaurant at the Kywe Se Kan Highway (aka Chan Mya Shwe Pyi) bus terminal for only 3000 kyats per set before we head to Bagan. It’s pretty basic with smaller serving. And I still didn’t like it 😀

Local Tradition is very much alive 😊

You see, currently Myanmar is still one of the least developed countries in Southeast Asia. The tourism industry certainly needs a lot of improvements. I totally understand since it’s not long when Myanmar has open its doors to foreign visitors from all over the world. In fact, it was just also recent when Philippine Passport Holders can enter the country without visa for 14 days. No skyscrapers nor chain restaurants like Starbucks or at least 7/11 present. However on the bright side, this country is staying true to its roots. The local tradition is very much alive, even to the newest Burmese generation.

Men are wearing sarong-like piece of cloth tied around their waist called “Longyi” instead of wearing long pants where men from the rest of the world are wearing.
Men wearing skirt in Myanmar
Local men wearing “Longyi” at Mandalay Hill
Men wearing skirt in Myanmar
A local on his motorcycle wearing a longyi. You’ll get use to it eventually.

When we arrive at Mandalay town, the very first thing I noticed was why are they(men) wearing skirts? Even this millennial-looking guy whom we met at the restaurant, he was wearing a corporate long-sleeve but still paired it with a skirt. What’s up with the fashion statement in Myanmar? Until I couldn’t take it anymore, I talked to one of the restaurant staff and straight up ask “I hope you don’t mind, I notice men are wearing skirt. Why are you wearing a skirt? Is that normal here?” and it’s too late to realize that my question was insensitive like I hated myself after that. 😢 The staff politely replied, “It’s called “longyi”” then excuse himself. He was so offended that there was a new guy serving us moving forward. I should have just ask Google or just shut up 😞 I’m really sorry 😭

Another distinctive tradition of the Burmese people especially the girls is applying cosmetic paste called “Thanaka” on their face.

Usually in a form of round circles. It came from the ground bark of the tree called “Thanaka”, often serves as sun protection or a lotion-alternative and is believed to help remove acne and promote smooth skin. It is also an anti-fungal. More info here.

Kids with Thanaka on their face in Myanmar
I met this cute kid with “thanaka” on his face in a form of a leaf in one of the temples that we visited. It’s so cool I asked a picture with him. He’s selling some birds for you to release to the sky and make a wish. Then I guess capture those birds back and sell them again. haha
Putting Thanaka on the face
Of course we tried it! Who doesn’t wanna have a smooth skin? 😀 Actually, we just wanna blend in, act like a local and hopefully escape the entrance fees. HAHA just kidding 😂

And along the way I realize, their rich culture and tradition are actually pretty amazing. I mean, those are the things that distinguishes them from the other modern breed from the rest of the world. Their identity, very raw and authentic.

Traveling from Mandalay to Bagan via Night Bus is perfectly OK!

There are several options available to choose from, like the train, boat, private taxi(fastest but most expensive) but we chose to ride the bus as it is reasonably fast and the cheapest. Important note: Don’t buy bus ticket in advance at the airport. They charge more! The standard bus ticket costs 9000 kyats but we were charged 13000 kyat per person at the airport. Grr Just buy directly at the bus terminal or from your hotel. The rate by the way comes with a bottle of water and a napkin. 🙂

Bus Ticket to Mandalay to Bagan
The Bus Ticket.

What bus to take? Our decision was purely based on whichever bus company has the latest night trip to Bagan, which is 8:30 pm. The name of the bus company in our ticket is Moe Thauk Htun. It’s a regular sized air-conditioned bus and we seated in the front to have more leg room. We had 1 stop along the way. Important note: Be sure to come out of the bus in the bus stop because they will lock it and if you stay inside you can’t go outside anymore until the driver comes back.

Mandalay to Bagan Bus Stop
Our driver and his conductor was having a full meal and took the time of their lives while my poor friend was stuck inside the bus struggling to keep from peeing her pants.

Travel time is more or less 5 hours. We left Mandalay at 8:30PM and arrived in Bagan before 1:30AM, dropped off in-front of our hotel. That’s my favorite part of the buses here in Myanmar, drop off and pick up directly from your hotel. But be sure to tell them your hotel ahead of time.

Strong faith on their religion is quite a scene in Myanmar 💗

As we all know, like seriously speaking, the thousand temples in Bagan are the most famous scenery of them all, worldwide. And while it attracts millions of tourist around the world, those temples are still functional, not all but most of them. And the locals are visiting them everyday, saying a prayer and praising Buddha. They continue to build new temples to express their faith and practice their religion. The “tourist attraction” factor is just a plus.

Myanmar Locals and their religion
Quite a number of locals visiting Mandalay Hill. The women’s skirts are female version of “longyi” called “htamein”

When we visited Mandalay Hill, I think there were only around 5 of us tourists exploring the place. The rest were locals, monks and kids demonstrating their faith. The same happened in the tallest temple in Bagan, Thatbyinnyu Temple. Most of the people visiting are locals doing their thing. And it’s quite an amazing scene, at least for me. ☺️

Only the major highways are cemented, the rest are dusty

This is happening typically in Bagan. The roadside is made mostly of dry golden soil and when it winds, good luck! If you have asthma, be sure to wear a mask or at least have your hanky ready always.

Road condition in Myanmar
Road condition in Bagan.

Wear slippers not shoes as much as possible

Almost all the tourist attractions in Myanmar involve temples or sacred places and footwear is strictly not allowed inside so a pair of slippers is the most comfortable choice.

No footwear allowed on Temples in Myanmar
Shoes and slippers parked at the foot of this temple where we watched the sunrise 🙂

Put on mosquito repellent PLEASE, always

Mosquitoes are everywhere especially on the stairways inside the temple where it’s dark and deserted, just waiting for a human blood to suck.

Explore Bagan through E-bikes, Horse Cart or Taxi – Horse Cart is the most enchanting though 😊

Yes, It’s the most enchanting way of exploring the temples. Actually we chose it because it’s the cheapest (25000 kyats whole day for 2 people), the enchanting part was realized a little later. Hahaha. Also, we don’t know how to operate an e-bike and even if we know, we still don’t know where to go. (zzz excuses. haha) The taxi is the expensive choice but the most comfortable. No free face powder along the way. If you know what I mean. 😉

Explore Bagan Temples through Horse Cart
Our horse cart and our driver/guide 😀 Maybe we explore the temples far too long so he fell asleep. 😀

We got our horse cart from our hotel and our guide, Min Min was so nice, very knowledgeable, can communicate well, funny and cute. He doesn’t take advantage of his guests also. That’s a big deal to me because I hate users. The smell of horse shit was my only complain so far. But I survived nevertheless.

Explore Bagan Temples through Horse Cart
This was taken during our sunrise tour in Bagan 😍

Entrance Fee to the temples

I knew it already so I allocated 20USD to our budget for the Bagan Archaeological Fee but we had an amazing guide! He only brought us to the temples that were free! Although we missed the famous Shwesandaw Pagoda, I can’t say our experience was any less. During our sunrise tour, we position ourselves in a temple just in-front of the famous for sunrise spot, Buledi Temple and I think our view was better and it was FREE!

Temples of Bagan, Myanmar
Yours truly 😊

Since we only have “almost” 2 days in Bagan, the free temples were just right for us I guess. Paying the 20USD Bagan Archaeological Fee won’t be satisfying for sure.

“Pssst Lady, the entrance is here! Come!” – Beware of this scam!

It still pisses me off every time I remember this incident we had at Shwezigon Pagoda, our first temple stop. They even place an “Entrance” sign to make it more legit so we followed these bitches who called us. We left our slippers outside and entered on a small entrance and voilà! Souvenir stalls welcomed us! One lady greeted us, put a small hand-made butterfly pin on our shirts and I thought, wow! What a nice welcome! We told them we will check their items later. So we continue walking straight to the temple and realized that the real entrance was on the other side. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t mind it then because I was so stoked to see the famous pagoda inside.

Locals at Shwezigon Pagoda
Locals at Shwezigon Pagoda. This temple is currently undergoing construction when we visited. It’s a spectacular sight I must say, but please be aware of the vendors outside.
The trick finally sink in!

After exploring the temple, we went back and finally got the trick that we had no choice but to pass them again to get our slippers. While walking our way back to the souvenir kiosks, I was surprised to see my slippers lying in-front of this certain stall so I took it. Then the lady started selling her products to me, aggressively. Grabbed my hand, hold it tight and forced me to sit on a small chair she prepared. I refused to sit but still continue to check on her products but I was already shaking. Although I felt obliged to buy as exchange to their warm welcome earlier, their price was just way too much.

I asked for ref magnets and she had but it was ridiculously overpriced! 20USD for 3 fucking ref magnets? I swear I don’t wanna buy but she was very pushy, started nagging and didn’t let go of my hand. I was so scared, I thought if i don’t buy, will I be able to escape them? We were caught off guard. My friend was also facing the same plight with another lady and was forced to buy the bracelet that she tried to put on for 15000 fucking kyats. MY GOD! 15000 kyats can buy a pair of nice clothes already!!! When the lady received my 20 dollar bill, she was so happy that she kissed it and swept it through her products as a sign of good luck. Like FUCK YOU BITCH. I HOPE YOU LIVE LONG!

Public toilets are squat-toilet, not properly maintained and don’t have tissue

Bring your own tissue or wet wipes always. And alcohol as much as possible. (OC spotted)

Chilly mornings in Bagan. Who would have thought?

I never expected it. During our sunrise tour, we started our  journey around 5 in the morning and IT WAS REALLY COLD LIKE TAIWAN IN DECEMBER. I checked the weather and it was 17 degrees. So don’t forget your jacket please.

Buying a local sim

The mobile data is pretty decent with just H+ network as far as I can remember. I bought an MPT sim with free limited data for 2000 kyats. Eventually I had to top up, bought 2 1000 Ks denomination. I was able to post updates on Facebook and informed my Mom that I’m still alive in Myanmar 😌

Local sim in Myanmar
The top up for my sim I bought in the bus terminal. Just ask the vendor how to use it. 😀

Always check the expiration date of the products in a local store before buying

Before we started our temple tour, I wanted to buy some snacks so we checked out this local store near our hotel. I went through some biscuits and finally took the Oreo and was surprised to see the expiration date. Like it expired 2 fucking months ago. The other junk foods were also expired. It dawn before me, they sell old stock goods and neither the staff nor the management cares. 😟

Credit cards are not widely accepted

Prepare enough cash to survive. Like seriously.

Where to stay in Bagan?

There are several accommodations available from luxury to budget-friendly pads. Affordable hostels are mostly found in Nyaung-U area so we chose to stay there. Free breakfast is a standard in most accommodations and we picked Innwa Motel as they offer buffet breakfast in the rooftop!!! And the best part? They let us checked in at 1:30 AM coming from Mandalay via night bus. No extra fees. We just paid PHP 1,298.19 for 1 night for 2 people via Agoda. New towels and bottle of water everyday. Facilities are totally fine except there’s no elevator and our room was on the 3rd floor so.  The staffs were very nice and helpful! Their place is just in-front of the main road and there are restaurants nearby.

Innwa Hotel at Bagan, Myanmar
This is terrace view just outside our room

To help you further decide, check out this post: http://wikitravel.org/en/Myanmar

Lastly, please participate in Tourism Surveys at the Airport or wherever

One of the things I love about this country is that they acknowledge their flaws and shortcomings. We were waiting for our flight back to Bangkok at Mandalay International Airport, when this lady was roaming around randomly picking up tourists to fill up the survey and I’m glad I was chosen. There’s so much room for improvement and they certainly need our feedback to help them progress. Also, this was my chance to express my sincerest feelings for Myanmar. I love this country even if we got ripped off big time. I mean it. ❤️

Myanmar Tourism Survey
Survey Sheet. I poured all my feelings in the comment section 😀

 

So that’s basically how we experience Myanmar for the first time. Generally, the Burmese people are friendly and extremely helpful, at least those whom we personally met. Well except the opportunist vendors we encountered. When it’s your time to visit this country, be sure to engage a local for the real Myanmar experience. A smile can go a long way. 🙂

Happy travels!

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