I was at the end of my backpacking journey around mainland South East Asia, with one more country left on my itinerary: Myanmar.

Myanmar, also known as “Burma,” had only recently become a popular destination in the South East Asian backpacking trail. Blame it on decades of military government control for isolating the country from the rest of the world. Since 2008, however, the Myanmar government initiated a series of reforms geared toward a transition to democracy. Tourists are among the first take notice of Myanmar starting to “open” itself more.

Myanmar seemed very different from the rest of South East Asia. During my two week visit, the influence of local culture was still strong even in big cities and the main tourist areas. I agree with other travelers who are saying that the best time to visit Myanmar is sooner rather than later before the country succumbs to the ills of mass tourism and globalization.

Traveling to Myanmar needed a bit more preparation than neighboring countries. For one, they required all tourists to apply for a visa, even passport holders of South East Asian countries. Also, there were no ATMs that accepted foreign cards anywhere, a result of international banking sanctions. I had to bring all the money I needed and they (banks and legitimate money changers) only accepted immaculately pristine & new US$ dollar (or Euro) bills.

Don’t that discourage you, though, getting around within Myanmar was easy. Locals were always helpful and there were many people who spoke good English.

Myanmar was beautiful and I highly advise it to travelers who prefer to stay away from the “tourist crowd” and appreciate interactions with local cultures.

Myanmar Route Map

I traveled around three main areas: Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay.

Two weeks would’ve been enough to do “the big four” Myanmar backpacking trail but I decided to deviate from this popular route by skipping Inle Lake. Squeezing in a quick visit to Kyaiktiyo and riding aboard the train ride to Hsipaw seemed more worthwhile at the time.

On this trip, I was able to visit three of the holiest Buddhist sites in Myanmar namely, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon, Mahamuni Buddha in Mandalay, and the Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock Pagoda… the “Holy Three of Myanmar”


Arrival and first impressions of Myanmar

Yangon 3 day Itinerary: An intro to Myanmar (Burma)Sunrise before boarding my Bangkok to Myanmar flight at Don Meuang International Airport, Thailand

Arriving at Yangon International Airport, I already felt how different Myanmar was with all the places I’ve previously visited. Most Burmese men and women wore longyi, traditional skirt bottoms similar to a sarong. Almost all men had red stains on their teeth from regularly chewing betel nut, which was surprising because chewing betel nut is only popularly done in remote mountainous regions anywhere else in South East Asia. Whereas most women (including a few of the men), wore a light-colored facial mask called Thanaka, a practice I’ve only noticed in Burma. There were also a considerable number of  locals with Indian descent, aside from more Malay and Chinese features.

Three days in Yangon

Formerly known as Rangoon, Yangon is the largest city and capital of Myanmar during its British-colonial days.

After stepping foot at Yangon City Center and getting a first glance of all the grand old buildings, I was totally sold on hanging around longer. I was surprised to discover that Yangon had so many well-preserved colonial-era buildings, probably the most impressive in all of South East Asia.

I ended up spending three days wandering around Yangon.

At the heart of Central Yangon was the golden spire of the Sule Pagoda, a fitting landmark to start my walking tour. Yangon did not feel pre-dominantly Buddhist. I passed by more mosques and grander Christian churches than Buddhist structures within the city center. The abundance of western-style buildings also contributed to the multi-cultural feel.

Surrounding the grand colonial period edifices were dense rows and blocks of old apartment buildings, which gave the city a gritty urban feel. Probably, the most characteristic quirk of Yangon’s streets was the generous red splattering of betel nut spit.

Yangon’s colonial era buildings had very eclectic architectures.  Beside the Sule Pagoda was the City Hall building, infused with strong Burmese architectural influences. Many buildings had domed towers that reminded me of Soviet Russia for some reason. My favorites were the former High Court Building for its imposing clock tower and the Minister’s Office for its sheer size, occupying one whole city block.

Yangon 3 day Itinerary: An intro to Myanmar (Burma)Burmese locals playing ball in front of the Sule Pagoda and City Hall before the morning rush hour
Sule Pagoda Road
Minister’s Office Building
Yangon 3 day Itinerary: An intro to Myanmar (Burma)Old High Court building

I was very fortunate to have witnessed a golden sunset over the surreal beauty of the Shwe Dagon Paya, Yangon’s most famous tourist attraction and the holiest Buddhist site in all of Myanmar.

Sunset twilight at Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon

Four days in Bagan

I took advantage of traveling on night buses (like the long 8-9 hour land trip from Yangon to Bagan), to fully utilize daylight hours on my trip and save a few bucks on hostel costs.

I stayed four days in Bagan, the longest part of my trip, in a single destination. Bagan is Myanmar’s prime tourist attraction, which should not be missed. Its architectural grandeur and historical significance are comparable to the major temples complexes in South East Asia such as in Angkor, Borobodur, or Prambanan.

Bagan served as the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar. Over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone during the kingdom’s heyday.

The highlight of my trip was climbing temple tops and seeing spectacular sunrise and sunsets over more than 3,000 temples and pagodas in Bagan that still survived to the present day.

Bagan from dusk till dawn: My 4 day temple run in MyanmarGolden sunrise at Shwe Sandaw Pagoda
Bagan from dusk till dawn: My 4 day temple run in Myanmar Misty sunrise view from Thagya Pone Temple
Bagan from dusk till dawn: My 4 day temple run in MyanmarSunset view of Bagan temple tops from Shwegugyi Temple

I and two newly met travel buddies traveled around Bagan by horse cart on our first and second day. We visited far-off temples first and worked our way towards the major temples in the Old Bagan area.

There were a lot of vendors selling all sorts of souvenirs at popular temples. It could get a bit annoying when you’ve been sightseeing around temples all day and have to constantly to tell them that you’re either not interested in what they are selling or you’ve already bought something similar. I understand they were just trying to make a living.

Most of the locals, however, were very pleasant, unlike their counterparts I encountered in other touristy spots around Asia, trying every possible scam to get me to spend money on something. Most Burmese people were charming and seemed genuinely interested in actually having a conversation. Talking with foreign tourists, was a way for them to practice their English and learn about different cultures of the “outside world.”

When we were at the Htilo Minlo Temple, one of the vendors told me she had just met a group of Filipinos. I got excited since I rarely met Filipino travelers for weeks that I was backpacking around South East Asia. She held out a piece of paper with a list of common Filipino phrases (Hello, Thank You, How are you?, etc…) that the group of Filipinos wrote down for her. I thought it was sweet.

I coincidentally met the group of Filipino tourists later that evening. Bagan was such a small town with limited dining options that you’re bound to bump into other tourists you encounter while temple hopping.

Bagan from dusk till dawn: My 4 day temple run in Myanmar Standing statue of Gotama at Ananda Temple, one of the holiest temples in Bagan
Bagan from dusk till dawn: My 4 day temple run in MyanmarIntricate sculptural carvings of Brahma and other Hindu deities inside Nanpaya Temple
Bagan from dusk till dawn: My 4 day temple run in MyanmarDhammayan Gyi, the largest temple in Bagan
Bagan from dusk till dawn: My 4 day temple run in MyanmarWalking past the twin Buddhas in Dhammayan Gyi Temple

On our third day, we hired a van transport to Mount Popa Temple, which was located a bit far off.

My favorite means of touring around Bagan was definitely by bicycle because it felt like discovering the ancient monuments ourselves especially at the small temples where there were no other tourists around.

Bagan from dusk till dawn: My 4 day temple run in MyanmarSteep imposing slopes of Mount Popa Temple
Cycling around Bagan
Bagan from dusk till dawn: My 4 day temple run in MyanmarSelf-portrait at the wooden balcony and stone staircase of a newly restored monk monastery

Five days in Mandalay and Beyond

Mandalay is the second largest city and last royal capital of Burma. The city actually seemed to me, more urban and commercially developed than Yangon.

I spent five days exploring Mandalay and beyond despite other backpackers saying attractions in Manadalay does not warrant, even, a full day’s visit. I can sort of understand why. If you’re a “you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all” kind of traveler then you’re probably better off spending less time in Mandalay.

I, however, generally enjoyed Mandalay. Some sights, like Innwa (Ava), I would’ve rather skipped but I found most places I visited worthwhile.

Around Mandalay city center, I pedaled to the Royal Fort and a couple of interesting Buddhist sites nearby like Mahamuni (Golden) Buddha Temple and Sutaungpyei Pagoda atop Mandalay Hill.

I got lost while searching for the Shwe In Bin wooden teak monastery. I passed by a school filled with hundreds of monks and went inside out of curiosity. A friendly monk started talking to me, which was so cool because it was my first time and I got to learn interesting tidbits about their life.

Mandalay and beyond: 5 day itinerary to Hsipaw and ancient cities of Upper MyanmarMandalay Hill and the fort walls of the Royal Palace
Mandalay and beyond: 5 day itinerary to Hsipaw and ancient cities of Upper MyanmarDusk twilight at Mandalay Hill
Mahamuni (Golden) Buddha Temple
Mandalay and beyond: 5 day itinerary to Hsipaw and ancient cities of Upper MyanmarShwe In Bin (wooden teak) monastery in Mandalay

I also went to Upper Myanmar’s four ancient cities: Mingun, Amarapura, Innwa, Sagaing, which were easily accessible as day trips from Mandalay. I rode a ferry to get to Mingun, while the other three I reached by local pick-up commute and motorcycle.

Burmese fisherman on a wooden boat at the Ayeyarwady River. Taken on the ferry ride from Mandalay to Mingun.
Mandalay and beyond: 5 day itinerary to Hsipaw and ancient cities of Upper MyanmarWhite-washed Hsinbyume Pagoda in Mingun
Mandalay and beyond: 5 day itinerary to Hsipaw and ancient cities of Upper MyanmarView of Sagaing Hills from U Min Thonze Pagoda
Mandalay and beyond: 5 day itinerary to Hsipaw and ancient cities of Upper MyanmarBreast-shaped golden mound of Kaung Mu Taw Pagoda
Mandalay and beyond: 5 day itinerary to Hsipaw and ancient cities of Upper MyanmarAmarapura’s Ubein Bridge, the longest wooden teak bridge in the world

Since I’ve been traveling mostly around popular tourist areas, I was also craving to visit one of Myanmar’s “off the beaten track” destination. I decided to go with the scenic train ride to Hsipaw, a small rural town located further north from Mandalay.

My two days spent in Hsipaw was one of the most memorable and photographically rewarding parts of my whole trip.

Mandalay and beyond: 5 day itinerary to Hsipaw and ancient cities of Upper MyanmarBeautiful deep gorge on the train ride to Hsipaw, regarded as one of the ‘must do’ railway journeys of the world
Mandalay and beyond: 5 day itinerary to Hsipaw and ancient cities of Upper MyanmarBurmese smiles aboard the happy train to Hsipaw
Mandalay and beyond: 5 day itinerary to Hsipaw and ancient cities of Upper MyanmarYoung monk apprentices at the morning market
Mandalay and beyond: 5 day itinerary to Hsipaw and ancient cities of Upper MyanmarApprentice walking along the dirt roads in Hsipaw


The last segment of my trip was a two-day visit to Kyaiktiyo, located a few hours south of Yangon. This pilgrimage site is most known for the seemingly gravity-defying Golden Rock that sits on the summit of Mount Kyaiktiyo.

Seeing the perfect golden sunset at the Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock Pagoda was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. It came at such great timing at the end of my backpacking trip around Myanmar and the rest of mainland South East Asia.

Sunset at Mount Kyaiktiyo

Budget Summary

Backpacking around Myanmar was slightly more expensive than traveling around nearby South East Asian countries like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

  • Total Expenses: US$350 (estimate)
  • Daily backpacking budget: US$25 to US$30

Travel dated October 2012

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