Much of the mountainous areas of Myanmar near the borders are closed, due to conflicts with minority groups or sometimes due to dodgy infrastructure. Remember that situations can change, with routes opening (or closing); always check before you start planning.
Another big factor, of course, is weather. After Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, roads heading into the washed-out Ayeyarwady Delta region, south of Yangon, were barred to foreign visitors. All other transport services rebounded shortly after the storm.
In the places you can openly visit in Myanmar, travel methods are remarkably open to visitors. No set itineraries are required (unlike places like North Korea or the old USSR) and you can pick and choose how you go as you go – taking a bus, plane or train, or crammed pick-up, or hopping into a giant ferry that drifts at ox-like speed.
Speaking of which, local transport also comes ped-powdered, often with trishaws and horse carts greeting you for rides around town, and rental bikes awaiting you at nearly all accommodation.
It’s worth trying to go by land in Myanmar. Airlines have higher fares – thus more tax money that reaches the government – than a bus, not to mention higher carbon emissions.
Many places that are restricted actually can be visited with permits provided by the government’s Myanmar Travels & Tours (MTT) and a guide. Sometimes this takes several months of advance planning. So don’t expect to cross Chin State’s rough highways by showing up and asking.
Some sites require government fees, but the following areas are only accessible via previously arranged government permits from the MTT office in Yangon or a government-run trip.
The Ayeyarwady Delta area was closed to foreigners after Cyclone Nargis, most has now re-opened
Khamti, aka Naga Land - the government’s group tour in January costs $1200!
Mong La, Shan State - the permit is free at least, but you need to arrange one in Kengtung
Mt Victoria, Chin State - bypass the government guide by going with a private one, but you’ll still need a permit
Putao, Kachin State
Tachileik, Shan State - if you’re travelling around central Myanmar, you need a permit to visit Tachileik and exit to Thailand by land
A huge fleet of riverboats, remnants of the old ’20s-era Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC), still ply Myanmar’s major rivers, where the bulk of traveller-oriented boat travel gets done. Some boats are ramshackle (but certainly lively) government ferries; some date from the British era and others are old-style IFC liners that run luxury cruises. The main drawback is speed. Boat trips for many routes are loosely scheduled in terms of days, not hours.
There are 5000 miles of navigable river in Myanmar, with the most important river being the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy). Even in the dry season, boats can travel from the delta region (dodging exposed sandbars) all the way north to Bhamo, and in the wet they can reach Myitkyina.
Other important rivers include the Twante Chaung (Twante Chanel), which links the Ayeyarwady to Yangon, and the Chindwin River, which joins the Ayeyarwady a little above Bagan. The Thanlwin River in the east is only navigable for about 125 miles from its mouth at Mawlamyine, though the five-hour trip to Hpa-an is one of the country’s most scenic waterway journeys.
It takes great expertise to navigate Myanmar’s waterways. Rapidly changing sandbanks and shallow water during the dry season mean the captains and pilots have to keep in constant touch with the changing pattern of the river flows. For example, seven pilots are used on the stretch from Mandalay to Pyay (Prome). Each is an expert on his own particular segment of the river.
In addition to the rivers, it’s possible to travel along the Bay of Bengal between Sittwe and Taunggok (north of Ngapali Beach).
Although the obstacles standing in your way are daunting, it may be possible to travel along Myanmar’s coastline via Myanma Five Star Line, the country’s government-owned ocean transport enterprise. Technically it’s only cargo now, but you can try to see about jumping on a boat to Thandwe, Taunggok or Sittwe, or south to Dawei, Myeik or Kawthoung, at some point in the future.
FERRIES & PRIVATE BOATS
Most ferry services are government-run, particularly the Inland Water Transport (IWT). The IWT has over 500 boats totalling nearly 1.5 million tonnes and supposedly carrying 14 million passengers annually. Today most of the IWT boats are rather run down and ramshackle, but provide remarkable glimpses into local river life. Many of the passengers on the long-distance ferries are traders who make stops along the way to pick up or deliver goods.
Along the heavily travelled 262-mile-long Yangon–Pyay–Mandalay route, there are 28 ferry landings, where merchants can ply their trade. IWT offices are usually near the jetty. They can offer information, schedules and fare details, and usually tickets. IWT offices, officially, accept US dollars and FEC only.
Some short trips – eg between Bagan and Pakokku – are handled with small covered wood-boat ferries that fit about 25 people. Often there are smaller, private boats you can negotiate to use with the driver. We include private boat services whenever possible. However, because of their size it’s not always as safe riding with private boats compared with bigger government ferries. In 2004, a small private boat between Sittwe and Mrauk U capsized during a storm and several Italian tourists were killed.
Only a few riverboat routes are regularly used by visitors. Key routes:
Mandalay to Bagan - on the IWT or private boats such as the Shwei Kennery Express
Myitkyina to Mandalay via Bhamo and Katha - a few private fast-boat services, but mostly done on the IWT
Mawlamyine to Hpa-an - daily government ferries
Sittwe to Mrauk U - small private boats or government ferry
There is no direct service between Yangon and Mandalay: you’d need to change boats in Pyay – and the IWT offices seemed to frown on taking passengers on this route. If you make it, take a book or two: it’s about two days by boat between Mandalay and Bagan, three more to Pyay, and two more to Yangon. A more feasible long journey, and a more attractive one, is south from Myitkyina.
River routes on the Chindwin River, northeast of Monywa, are reportedly going to open the long-restricted river-way to some foreign-operated group tours. Either way, it can be possible to get a government permit with a knowledgeable local guide and make the trip on your own from Homilin to Monywa. Unlike the Ayeyarwady it’s a narrow river with oodles of local life to dip into. Mr Saw at Yangon’s KS Elephant Travels & Tours (01-666-202; www.kselephanttravels.com; Bldg 2, Eight Mile Junction, Rm 40, Mayangone, Yangon) has heaps of experience with this trip. Two people could make it in six days for about $900 (including flight up, meals, accommodation, boat and permit).
Be aware that the higher-priced cruises are either privately run boats on lease from the government or a joint-venture operation. You can book services with travel agents in Yangon, but keep in mind that many trips are booked out by tour groups.
Several luxury ferries travel the upper and lower reaches of the Ayeyarwady River. The joint-venture operation Road to Mandalay (www.orient-express.com), offers three-, four-, seven- and 11-day trips (from $1780 to $3610 per person for three nights, or $2320 to $4810 for seven nights), which centre on Mandalay.
Pandaw Cruises (www.pandaw.com) Yangon (01-727 029, Dusit Inya Lake Hotel); Mandalay (02-244 256, 14 Strand Rd, 35/37) offers various high-end cruises aboard a replica of the teak-and-brass IFC fleet such as a popular two-night trip between Bagan and Mandalay (about $584 per cabin, all inclusive) and a 14-night trip between Yangon and Mandalay (from $2700 per cabin, all-inclusive).
Almost always faster and cheaper than trains, Myanmar buses come in different sizes. Options include luxury air-con express buses, less luxurious but nice buses (without air-con), local buses, and mini 32-seaters. Most are operated by private companies (unlike the train).
Note that gas prices went up by 500% in late 2007, and bus fares around the country were up by two or three times from a few years before. No other typical tourist daily expenditure has seen more of a rise in price in recent years. This may change, perhaps meaning considerably cheaper fares than quoted in this book.
How to skip overnight buses
There’s not one obvious way to travel by bus between Myanmar’s big four – Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay. Most travellers just bus to Mandalay one night, then pick between Inle Lake or Bagan next. But this requires at least a couple of overnight buses.
If you like being able to see scenery out the window, or sleeping in beds, you can manage it all without one overnighter. But it takes pre-planning and a bit more time.
There’s currently a lone morning bus from Mandalay to Kalaw or Taunggyi (near Inle Lake). Head west on a 4am bus out of Taunggyi to Bagan by day. Return to Yangon in two days. The first, bus to Magwe, have a couple hours to look around, and catch an afternoon bus to Pyay. There are many bus connections to Yangon from here.
Classes & Conditions
Many long-haul trips, such as from Yangon to Mandalay, allow the greatest comfort, with new(ish) air-con express buses – some of which are quite nice. A lot of bus activity happens at night, with buses leaving from 4pm to 10pm or later, and arriving at the final destination in the wee hours (often 5am or 6am).
If you want extra air-con comfort but don’t want to go the whole way on one of these routes, you usually have to pay the full fare (eg going from Mandalay to Taungoo you pay the full fare to Yangon) and will have to deal with middle-of-the-night arrival time. Similarly, by paying the full fare for the route, you can jump on a bus at a stop along the way, eg catch the Mandalay to Yangon bus at Meiktila. Staff at your guesthouse or hotel should be able to help with this.
A bottle of water is often handed out on better-quality buses. There are usually no bathrooms on the bus, but frequent toilet-and-soup stops perforate the night – frustrating if you’ve just got to sleep and the bus stops at 3am for ‘breakfast’. Often TVs blare for much of the trip – usually sticking with Myanmar-made concerts or movies detailing things such as, oh, protagonists dying bloody deaths in car crashes, but the occasional Raiders of the Lost Ark slips in.
Be aware that temperatures can drop substantially at night. Take a jacket or blanket (preferably both).
Local buses, or 32-seat minibuses, bounce along the highways too. These tend to use the aisles, if not for blokes, for bags of rice, veggies or (worst) dried fish. Sometimes the floor in front of you is filled too, so you’ll find your knees to your chin for some bouncy hours. Getting up to stretch your legs while moving just isn’t an option. (Try to sit in the front couple of rows, which sometimes have fewer bags stored, and better visibility.)
Trip durations for all forms of public road transportation are very elastic. We hear of travellers on the nicest buses who were stopped for hours on the Yangon–Mandalay highway. Myanmar superstition says that when you’re on a journey you shouldn’t ask anyone ‘How much longer?’, or ‘Brother, when will we arrive?’, as this is only tempting fate. Note how some local passengers hold their breath whenever a bus passes a particularly dodgy looking bridge
Buses of all types do break down sometimes. Older buses often stop to hose down a hot engine. Some roads – one-lane, mangled deals (read: very rough) – don’t help matters, and tyre punctures occur too.
Formerly, many buses were operated by the government’s Road Transport Enterprise (RTE). Now RTE buses are almost exclusively used for cargo, while nearly all passenger buses are privately run.
Unlike for train, plane and most boat tickets, you can pay kyat for all bus fares. But, similarly, foreigners will pay more than locals – and on occasion the price is ‘set’ on the spot. Generally minibuses, local 32-seaters, express buses with no air-con, and air-con luxury jobbies charge roughly the same on overlapping routes.
From November to February, it’s wise to pre-book buses a couple days in advance for key routes, such as Bagan–Inle Lake. Seat reservations are made for all buses. Ask to see the bus ahead of time to choose the seat you’d like.
Foreigners are permitted to buy bus tickets of any class, using kyat, to any destination within or near the main Yangon–Bagan–Mandalay–Taunggyi quadrangle. We also found that buses were easily boarded in most other places in the country, except for a couple tricky areas – like travel towards the Thai border, or – of all things – the Mandalay–Monywa trip.
Visitors not wanting to take planes, or endure overnight-bus bumps, frequently hire a car and driver for the bulk or entirety of a trip. It’s a good way to go, though not always cheap. To drive one yourself is difficult to arrange, but permission must be arranged via the government-run MTT and Road Transport Administration Department (RTAD; 01-252-035), and you must be accompanied by a local at all times. (Some expats bypass this with registration from the RTAD.)
Driving conditions can be poor but often better than on many roads in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos – and traffic is comparatively light compared to Thai or Vietnamese roads. Of the 15,000 miles of roads in Myanmar, about half are paved; the remainder are graded gravel, unimproved dirt or simple vehicle tracks.
Road Rules: To the Right!
All Myanmar traffic goes on the right-hand side of the road. This wasn’t always so. In an effort to distance itself from the British colonial period, the military government instigated an overnight-switch from the left to the right in 1970. By far, most cars either date from before 1970, or are low-cost Japanese models, so steering wheels are perilously found on the right-hand side – this becomes particularly dicey when a driver blindly zooms to the left to pass a car!
HIRING A CAR & DRIVER
The best place to arrange a driver, perhaps for a full trip, is in Yangon, but it’s possible to track down a ‘taxi’ or ‘private car’ from most travel agencies or guesthouses around the country, particularly in popular destinations like Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake.
When trying to find a car with driver, consider there are three unofficial types of cars:
Tourist cars – these are reasonably new, air-conditioned cars run by a company that provides back-up or repairs in the event they break down. These are the most comfortable – and that air-con is handy when it’s dusty and hot out – but the most expensive, running to about $80 to $100 a day, depending on the length of the trip. This price includes petrol for up to 12 hours’ driving per day and all of the driver’s expenses.
Airport taxis – a midrange option are the so-called ‘airport taxis’ – often yellow taxis that will be offering you their service for your trip before you leave the Yangon airport. These are older, may or may not have working air-con, and run to about $50 to $60 per day.
Private cars – the cheapest option are ‘private cars,’ run by entrepreneur drivers. These go with windows down (ie no air-con), vary in condition and price dramatically – and there’s less of a chance that you’ll have any sort of replacement in case the engine goes out midway between Bago and Taungoo. They can be found for as little as $40 or $50 per day. Some travellers tell us of great experiences at this level, others have problems.
Among the most popular and reliable rental cars in the country are second-hand, reconditioned Toyota Corona hatchbacks imported from Japan from 1988. Such a car can cost a staggering $40,000. A slightly better quality car are Toyota Chasers (from 1990 to 1992). Myanmar also assembles its own Mazda jeeps – MJs – using 85% local parts. Though mostly a government monopoly, these jeeps make decent off-road vehicles. The old US-made, WWII-era Willys Jeeps that once characterised outback Myanmar travel are becoming few and far between.
Petrol is rationed (four gallons per week) to vehicle owners – not nearly enough for most drivers. The supply is rationed (two gallons per car, at K2500 per gallon) with black-market outlets that run makeshift stands everywhere. Prices rise and fall, but black-market petrol is usually twice as expensive (about K6000 per gallon, up from K2000 in the past several years). When Myanmar vehicle owners make an upcountry ‘road trip’ (the Burmese-English term for any driving out of Yangon), they have to buy fuel on the black-market or carry along numerous jerry cans of petrol.
Another small cost to consider when travelling by car is the customary K50 or K100 ‘toll’ collected upon entering many towns and villages throughout Myanmar. Many drivers are adept at handing these to the toll collectors while barely slowing down.
It’s occasionally possible to rent a motorbike, though few locals advertise this. In Mandalay, for example, it’s about $10 per day to rent a motorbike, while one in Myitkyina goes for about $17. Unlike cyclists, you’re required to wear a helmet in most towns.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
One extra reason to avoid hitching in Myanmar is that local drivers may not know which areas are off limits to foreigners and may unwittingly transport them into such areas. In such cases the driver will probably be punished.
‘You don’t need a disco in Myanmar. Just listen to techno and sit on a train – it’ll do the dancing for you.’ - Mandalay local
First thing the British did anywhere they colonised was stick a railroad in. In Myanmar, it’s often the same old train on the same old tracks. There are as many opinions of Myanmar’s oft-maligned train service as there are people riding it. For some a train ride on narrow-gauge tracks is like going by horse, with the old carriages rocking back and forth and bouncing everyone lucky enough to have a seat on the hard chairs; others dig it, as some routes get to areas not reached by road. One local said, ‘It’s not as bad as some people say, not as good as you hope’. What’s known for sure is that train trips along the same routes as buses mean extra travel time.
Long-distance trains have dining cars accessible to passengers in 1st, upper and sleeper class. The food isn’t bad – fried rice and noodles. Attendants can also take your order and bring food to your seat. Trains stop pretty often too, with vendors on platforms offering all sorts of snacks. Bathrooms are basic; there are also sinks to wash hands and brush teeth. Attendants sometimes hire out bamboo mats to spread on the floor in aisles or under seats if you can’t sleep upright. It can get cold at night, so bring a jacket and/or a blanket.
To guarantee a seat on most trains with upper and sleeper cars, book three days or more in advance. Smaller stations sometimes require some perseverance to get a ticket, as agents aren’t used to foreigners climbing on.
Major train routes tend to require payment in US dollars or FEC.
Something to consider: foreigner fares on trains are skies above the local fare (Yangon–Mandalay upper class foreigner $35, local K8000), sometimes inflated by 550%. Considering the trains are government-run, you could argue that, percentage-wise, train service fares are more tilted towards the generals’ pockets than private airfares (and certainly more than the tax culled from cheaper private-bus companies).
Myanmar maintains 2900 miles of 1m-gauge railway track – much of which is now open to foreign tourists – and 550 train stations.
The 400-mile-long trip from Yangon to Mandalay is the only train trip most visitors take – though there are plenty of other routes for the more adventurous. Other train journeys worth considering are the Mandalay (or Pyin U Lwin) train to Lashio (or Hsipaw), which takes in hilly terrain the roads miss (Paul Theroux managed to do this back when foreigners weren’t supposed to, in his book The Great Railway Bazaar), and the Yangon to Mawlamyine route.
On the Yangon to Mandalay route there are reserved carriages on express trains, where you can be sure of getting a seat. One way to tell whether an approaching train is express or local is to check the engine colour: express engines are generally painted yellow; local ones blue.
The express trains are far superior to the general run of Myanmar trains. Other trains are late, almost by rule – taking one 12-hour train trip that ends up running as much as 15 hours late is enough for most travellers. The Mandalay to Myitkyina route, though scheduled to take around 24 hours, can take up to 40 hours. In 1995 this train derailed, killing 120 people, and in 2001 a bridge collapsed, killing an equal number.
Even on the far more travelled Yangon–Mandalay route, delays are common. In recent years, late-night robberies (allegedly) by insurgents near Taungoo prompted the government to shift the starting time of the overnight train from Yangon to pass Taungoo just before dark.
Apart from the straightforward Yangon–Bago–Pyinmana–Thazi–Mandalay route, you can also take the poke-along branch line from Pyinmana to Kyaukpadaung (about 31 miles south of Bagan) or the branch from Thazi to Shwenyaung (about 7 miles north of Inle Lake). From Yangon lines also run northwest to Pyay, with a branch to Pathein; from Bago there’s a branch southeast to Kyaiktiyo (the jumping-off point for the Golden Rock) and on to Mottawa, a short ferry ride from Mawlamyine.
An express line now runs between Bagan/Nyaung U and Mandalay (though this was built with forced labour in the mid-1990s). At Mandalay there are three branch lines: one running slightly northwest across the Ava Bridge and up to Ye-U, one directly north to Myitkyina in Kachin State and one northeast through Pyin U Lwin to Lashio in the northern part of Shan State.
Note also that Myanmar trains are classified by a number and the suffix Up for northbound trains or Down for southbound trains. Train numbers are not always used when purchasing tickets.
Express trains offer two classes of passage, upper class and ordinary class, while many trains also offer sleepers. The main differences between ordinary and upper are that the seats recline and can be reserved in the latter, while ordinary class features hard upright seats that can’t be reserved. Some trains also offer another class of service called 1st class, which is a step down from upper in comfort.
For government-run services along the Yangon–Mandalay line, all foreigners are supposed to purchase tickets from the MTT or from the train station. MTT sets aside seats for foreigners, which means that they often have seats when the booking office or station window says that the train is full. A day’s notice is usually enough to book a seat.
If you want to try your luck at getting a coveted sleeper, you’ll need at least a couple of days’ notice – longer during the high season (November to March), when berths are sometimes booked weeks in advance. If you hold a seat on a train pulling a sleeper car, you can try to upgrade to a berth after you board by paying the additional fare directly to the conductor.
To buy tickets at other train stations you can use the same ticket windows as the locals.
If you’re having trouble buying a ticket or making yourself understood at a train station, try seeking out the stationmaster – the person at the station who is most likely to speak English and most inclined to help you get a seat.
Visit the excellent ‘The Man in Seat Sixty-One’ website for reasonably up-to-date information on the train network in Myanmar: www.seat61.com/Burma.htm.
Larger towns in Myanmar offer a variety of city buses (ka), bicycle rickshaws or trishaws (saiq-ka, for sidecar), horse carts (myint hlei), ox carts, vintage taxis (taxi), more modern little three-wheelers somewhat akin to Thai tuk-tuks (thoun bein, meaning ‘three wheels’), tiny four-wheeled ‘blue taxi’ Mazdas (lei bein, meaning ‘four wheels’) and modern Japanese pick-up trucks (lain ka, meaning ‘line car’).
Small towns rely heavily on horse carts and trishaws as the main mode of local transport. However, in the five largest cities (Yangon, Mandalay, Pathein, Mawlamyine and Taunggyi) public buses take regular routes along the main avenues for a fixed per-person rate, usually K25 to K100.
Standard rates for taxis, trishaws and horse carts are sometimes ‘boosted’ for foreigners. A little bargaining may be in order. Generally a ride from the bus station to a central hotel – often a distance of 1.25 miles or more – is about K1000 or K1500. Rides around the centre can be arranged for K500 or K800. You may need to bargain a bit. Sometimes first time offers are several times higher than the going rate.
Japanese-made pick-up trucks feature three rows of bench seats in the covered back. Most pick-ups connect short-distance destinations, making many stops along the way to pick up people or cargo. They are often packed (yet somehow never ‘full’ according to the driver). Pick-ups trace some useful or necessary routes, such as from Mandalay to Amarapura, from Myingyan to Meiktila, from Bagan to Mt Popa, and up to the Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo. Unlike buses, they go regularly during the day.
Fares are not necessarily cheaper than those charged for local bus trips of the same length, and prices often go up more after dark. You can, however, pay 25% to 50% extra for a seat up the front. It’s often worth the extra expense, if don’t want to do scrunch duty. Sometimes you may share your spot with a monk riding for free; usually you get exactly what you pay for (‘the whole front’), unlike in some other parts of Southeast Asia.
Pick-ups often start from the bus station (in some towns they linger under a big banyan tree in the centre) and then, unlike many buses, make rounds through the central streets to snare more passengers.
AIRLINES IN MYANMAR
While three of the four airlines in Myanmar are ‘private’ (on paper), rumours about some level of government links hover over all – at least in licensing and administration fees being increased from government, as one insider put it, ‘because the government didn’t feel they were making enough from tourism’. Tay Za owns Air Bagan, and has been targeted directly by some outside sanctions. Apparently in 2007, Air Mandalay was refused parts from a Canadian company for reported connections with Air Bagan too.
If you fly, we advise avoiding Myanma Airways in particular – it’s not only government-run but its Fokkers are antiques with the worst reputation for upkeep.
Following is the contact information for the offices in Yangon for the four airlines:
Air Bagan (01-513 322, 01-513 422; www.airbagan.com; airline code AB; 56 Shwe Taung Gyar St, Bahan) Often linked to the government, but tends to have best reputation for service.
Yangon Airways (01-383 101, 383 106; www.yangonair.com; airline code HK; MMB Tower, Level 5, 166 Pansodan St) A private Myanmar-run airline operating since 1996, with a cute flying-elephant logo; their slogan ‘you’re safe with us’ is a poke at government-run Myanma Airways’ safety record.
One Yangon agent told us ‘in Myanmar, air routes change in the air’. They’re not joking. It’s particularly true of MA flights, where dates and departure times are often not written on your ticket, so the airline doesn’t have to honour the days and hours for which reservations were originally made. (In some cases, if officials are flying somewhere – say to Lashio – seats may suddenly open to the public.) Schedules are more reliable on the other three airlines, and between main destinations during the high season.
Peak-season is dry season, and sometimes that means renovations on runways. In 2006, Thandwe airport’s runway was closed for five days weekly, nearly cutting off travel to Ngapali; in 2007, Kengtung’s runway was closed, meaning flights landed a tough three-hour drive away.
Because travel agents sell flight tickets at a slightly discounted rate, it makes little sense to buy directly from the airlines. One-way fares are half a return fare, and can usually be bought a day in advance. To buy a ticket, you’ll need to pay with US dollars or FEC, and bring your passport to the travel agent or airline office. It’s sometimes difficult to buy a ticket that departs from a town other than the one you are in.
There is no domestic departure tax.