Family travel in Myanmar on a budget
I was mentally preparing myself for this leg of the journey. It would require me to step out of my comfort zone and accept that planning was not going to work out too well here. The research had thrown up a mixed bag of results. Some information was available, some not. We still wanted Family travel in Myanmar on a budget, however, the security of pre booking for 4 people just isn’t really there… not for the budget we want. So it was time to breathe deep and go with the flow.
Accommodation in Myanmar
We have, and continue to, use booking.com and Agoda apps primarily for booking accommodation. We have tried to use Hostelworld but it’s really geared towards the solo traveller.
Rooms in Myanmar tend to be a double and single bed for a family room. The people here are so lovely and accommodating that they won’t have a problem adding another bed if you need it.
But accommodation is more expensive here than other South Asian countries. We’ve been paying around $30-$40 per night in budget accommodation. The rooms are usually ensuite and spacious, with comfortable beds. Our cheapest being three seasons hotels & spa in nyaungshwe, near Inle lake. It’s not bad considering their infrastructure.
The windows on the other hand are not so great. Most of the windows don’t shut properly or did not fit the frame. And definitely no double glazing. But that just means you get to hear as well as see the local life! Embrace it, or bring earplugs.
Best time to travel in Myanmar
The best time to travel, when the monsoon rains have stopped and the heat has receded, is November to April.
This is also the best time to enjoy key tourist attractions such as watching hot air balloons over Bagan, trekking Kalaw to Inle lake and Mandalay to Bagan boat cruises.
We travelled in early June. We had a couple of days with heavy rain. But for the most part we had hot, sunny days. The temperature can get up in the 40s so bear this in mind. We enjoyed traveling up to Kalaw in the mountains where the air was slightly cooler.
We also managed to complete the 2 day, 1 night trek from Kalaw to Inle lake. It wasn’t too strenuous, a little up and down but the afternoon heat was a struggle. I’ll write about our experiences shortly.
Getting cash out in Myanmar
Information is so conflicting! First we heard that mainly USD is very accepted. That the dollars must be crisp and new, that there are very few working ATMs and that basically you’ll struggle.
I can report that we found none of this!
We got money out of ATMs. Your limit is usually 300,000 kyat. We did have to try a few in Bagan and Inle lake before we got money out. Plus Bagan would only allow us to withdraw 200,000 kyat
It is definitely worthwhile having USD with you, just in case, as there are lots of currency exchange.
We stayed in mainly tourist hub areas. I can imagine if you go off the beaten track you may experience more difficulties!
Mandalay seemed to be the only place that you could use a credit card. It’s very rarely accept and all payments rm tend to be cash only. Our Revolut card continues to work wherever we go!
Places to go in Myanmar
I was already struggling with the fact that we couldn’t organise and plan too much in advance. This meant we didn’t deviate too far from the beaten track.
- Yangon – the capital city, but not the best place for exploring. Although the shwedagon pagodas is a stunning site. You can also see the local life from the circle line train (this is currently under construction, due to finish in 2020. But you can do half the journey). There are a few nice gardens to visit and if you need shelter you can head to the bogyoke markets. You shouldn’t need more than 2 days in Yangon.
- Bagan – great place to explore on your own. Grab an e-bike and explore the countryside while in search of Bagan’s famous temples. But, as recommended by others before us, make sure you get a place with a pool. It’s hot with exploring! Within Bagan there are 3 areas. New Bagan, Old bagan and Nyaung-U. I’m still unclear the differences in these areas. But we stayed in New Bagan and there were plenty of decent shops & restaurants around here.
- Kalaw – an escape from the heat. A lovely little town set in Myanmar’s mountains. We enjoyed sitting back and enjoying the views, especially sunset! There are a few nice viewing areas, markets and a Buddha temple. But it’s mainly used as the starting point for trekking to Inle lake
- Inle lake – definitely a highlight of the trip. Most people tend to stay in Nyaungshwe. It is linked to Inle lake through the waterways. There is a set day tour which takes you around the more tourist sites. But I didn’t mind this too much as you got to see local crafts. And yes, there were shops at the end, but no-one was ever pushy. We also hired push bikes for the day and explored the area. There is a 22km route which I’ll tell you about in my other blog posts. There’s not much traffic so easy for the kids to cycle.
- Mandalay – Not as exotic as the name suggests, but there’s a number of sites to visit in this big city, especially a couple of nice sunset spots. The city is better equipped, in my view, than Yangon and there are a few more things to do. As well as a few sunset spots there’s monasteries, temples, the city palace, boat rides and markets. You can easily spend a few days here.
Other places to visit
- Hsipaw – a famous train ride into the mountains. The train only goes one way (nope, I don’t know why – maybe too steep to return?!). You can stop in pyin oo Lwin en route to break up the journey. But this leg is known for the famous Goteik viaduct crossing.
- Ngapali – the most famous beach in Myanmar. It is has gorgeous white sand with beautiful palm trees and turquoise blue water. But as it was monsoon season, we decided against a beach visit… This time!
- Ngwe Saung – another recommended beach destination, but as I mentioned above our arrival in June is not the best time to visit. It’s recommended December to April is a much nicer climate.
- Kyaiktiyo Pagoda – home of the golden rock and a beautiful sunset destination in the mountains. I believe you can catch a train or bus to Mount Kyaiktiyo. Best to depart from Yangon. Check out https://www.go-myanmar.com/getting-to-mount-kyaiktiyo for more info. You could stop in Bago en route to break up the journey!
Getting around Myanmar
The best form of budget travel in Myanmar is bus! And actually they are very plush, especially if you book JJ express.
The main roads are in good condition. The new road to Inle lake only opened last year. There appears to be a lot of work going into development of roads.
You can book these buses online too! It’s worth noting that in order to book the bus you must reserve from the start point to the end point – even if you intend getting off en route.
So we wanted to book from Bagan to Kalaw. But you need to book the bus Bagan to taunggyi. You then tell the bus driver you want to get off at Kalaw. Now that’s fine if you know where the bus goes and where it stops! See what I mean about not all the information being there!?!
My research beforehand made these trains out to be horrendous. I love train journeys, but even I was dubious about booking them! But we did anyway! And they’re super cheap!!
They were totally rock and roll.. and noisy!! But still awesome. The boys loved them and reminded me of the Isle of Man steam railway. Chugga chug, chugga chug.
We took the (very long) train from Yangon to Bagan. It was a sleeper class and considering all the bumps we all slept fairly well. Plus the sleeper class was a 4 bed individual compartment all to ourselves.
It’s true what get say – trains are very slow in Myanmar. The infrastructure is so dated, hence the jiggling. But surprisingly we arrived in Bagan on time – I think we were one of the lucky ones!
We also enjoyed the slooooowwww train from Inle lake to Thazi (to link to a transfer to mandalay). It was 11 hours to travel 94km! When they say slow here they aren’t joking. But the views through farmland and across the hills is just beautiful. I love nothing more than sitting back and watching the world at work.
You have to experience the trains of Myanmar!
If they thought of long tiresome journeys aren’t your thing, then there is the option of regular flights. But this comes at a price and for budget travellers it wasn’t an option for us.
Thonebane/bike/horse & cart
These are all forms of transport that are used within the towns themselves. We mainly used thonebanes (tuk tuk style) to get around. Although, the towns are small enough to walk!
Grab – it’s the Uber of Asia and is brilliant. Good pricing, paid directly to your credit card and no haggling. In fact at times we’ve used the grab app to negotiate the real price with drivers!! It was only available in Yangon & Mandalay, so make sure you download it!
These are a regular occurrence throughout Myanmar. Most hotels have generators that will keep the lights going but not air conditioning. The more lavish (and out of our budget) will probably be better equipped to deal with this.
What we did find was that power cuts were planned. And that these changed from week to week.
Stay connected in Myanmar
Internet isn’t bad – considering! We bought 2 SIM cards at the airport. Mytel & Telenor. Mainly because we’d read that coverage was not covered by Telenor in some places – we’ve find this to be incorrect. We’ve seen a number of new telephone masts going up – so could be the reason coverage is better. Everyone in Myanmar seems to have a phone!
Our research found that Telenor was more than sufficient in the areas we travelled. It’s a slightly faster and cheaper option than the others and you can top up online.
Most cafes, restaurants and all hotels had WiFi but not at a fast speed.
The people of Myanmar
I couldn’t write a blog without talking about the wonderful people of Myanmar. You will receive such a warm, friendly welcome with the biggest smile you ever saw. Although your first instinct may be to grimace at their red stained toothy grin. But this is just from the paan that they chew!! You’ll get used to it!
Unlike other countries we’ve travelled to, their welcome feels genuine. There isn’t a motive to intice you into a tour or to get you to buy something. They are genuinely pleased to see you and welcome you to their country!
Unfortunately the country has endured some troubles and with that comes bad press! There are still some issues in the South West of the country, but it’s so far away from the tourist areas – you are not affected. These people want, and need, more tourists to come to Myanmar.
A truly amazing country to visit!