Myanmar's infrastructure is in poor shape. As a
result of the political situation, Myanmar is
subject to trade sanctions from much of the western
world, and this can cause problems for unwary
travellers. Travel to certain regions is prohibited;
for others, special permits must be obtained, and a
guide/interpreter/minder may be mandatory - although
whether these "guides" accompany you to look after
you, or to keep you from going to places the
government doesn't want you to see, is moot.
Much of Myanmar is closed to foreign travellers, and
many land routes to far-flung areas are also closed
(for example, to Mrauk U, Kalewa, Putao, Kengtung).
Thus, while travellers can travel freely in the
Bamar majority Burmese heartland, travel tends to be
restricted or circumscribed in other places. In
theory, any tourist can apply for a permit to visit
any restricted area or to travel on any restricted
land route. In practice, it is unlikely that any
such permit will be issued in a reasonable amount of
time, or at all. Permit requests can be made locally
in some cases (for example, requests for the land
route to Kalewa can be made in Shwebo) but, in most
cases, the request has to be made in Yangon.
Requests to visit restricted areas must be made at
the MTT (Myanmar Travel and Tours) office in Yangon
(Number 77-91, Sule Pagoda Road, Yangon).
Applications for local permits can often be made at
a local MTT office or at a police station. As of
writing this, local permits are available only for
the following places & routes:
Shwebo - Kalewa.
A permit is necessary if going by road. It is
uncertain whether one is required if going by
- Kengtung - Tachilek.
This used to be straightforward but the
availability is now uncertain.
- Myitkyina - Indawgyi
Lake. Easily available in Myitkyina but must
travel with a guide. Your hotel or a local tour
company can arrange this for you.
- Mrauk U Chin/
Zomi village tours. Easily available in Mrauk U
but must visit with a guide. Your hotel or a
local tour company can arrange this for you.
All other permits must be obtained in Yangon.
Myanmar is not North
Korea, and you are free to walk around, go to
shops and interact with the locals. That being said
with many of the more far flung places, and places
restricted to foreigners it is better to arrange
your internal visa in advance. Companies that can
help with internal visas.
The poor state of Myanmar's roads and railways make
flying by far the least uncomfortable option of
travelling long distances.
State owned and appallingly run Myanma
- not to be confused with Myanmar Airways
International (8M) "MAI" - is known for its poor
safety record. Even locals prefer to avoid it
There are also four privately owned airlines serving
the main domestic routes in Myanmar. They are Air
Bagan (W9), Asian
While more expensive, they are a safer option and
would get you to all the main tourist destinations
from Yangon or Mandalay. If you want to plan
domestic travel ahead, you can buy Asian Wings
The private airline companies are usually on time,
and even depart early (10-20 min), so be on time and
reconfirm your flight and flight time 1-2 days
before departure. Sometimes the itinerary might be
altered some days before departure (meaning that you
will still fly to your final destination on the
scheduled time, but with an added or removed in
between stop, e.g. Yangon-Bagan becomes
Yangon-Mandalay-Bagan). This usually only affects
your arrival time. En route stops have only
10-20 min ground time, and if it is not your final
destination, you can stay inside the plane during
Important for Yangon: Yangon international
airport serves all domestic flights from the old
terminal building. This building is located
about 200 m further on the road than the main (new)
Yangon International Airport building. When taking a
taxi from downtown to the airport, mention to the
driver that you are on a domestic flight so you'll
not end up in the wrong terminal.
The table below gives some example rates for Air
Bagan and Air Mandalay (January 2011) between most
visited places in Myanmar (note: these are high
season prices, and usually the fare in the opposite
direction is the same price. Check for more up to
Example fares between important destinations
(through local tourist agency)
Myanmar has an extensive but ancient rail network.
Trains are slow, noisy, often delayed, have frequent
electrical blackouts, and toilets are in abysmal
sanitary condition. Never assume that
air-conditioners, fans, or the electrical supply
itself will be operational, even if the train
authorities promise so. Train stations also charge
exorbitant prices from foreign travellers making
buses a cheaper and faster alternative. Still, a
journey on a train is a great way to see the country
and meet people. The rail journey from Mandalay,
up switchbacks and hairpin bends to Pyin
U Lwin, and then across the mountains and the
famous bridge at Gokteik, is one of the great
railway journeys of the world. Trains in lower
Mandalay (Yangon - Pathein and Yangon - Mawlymaing)
are little communities of their own with hawkers
selling everything imaginable. Sleepers are
available on many overnight express trains,
although, in the high season, you may want to
reserve a few days in advance (the Yangon-Mandalay
trains now run in the daytime only, apparently
because the government does not want trains passing
Naypyidaw at night). Food service is available on
the express up and the express down between Yangon
and Mandalay as well as on the Yangon - Mawlymaing
Except for the new bridge and rail line that
connects Mawlymaing to points on the western side of
the Salween River, the rail network is exactly the
way it was in British times. The most used line is
the 325km line from Yangon to Mandalay with
several trains a day (this is also the only double
line in Myanmar), and the only one that is
competitive in time with buses (note that the
fastest trains take 15 hours for the 385km run, an
effective rate of 25km/hour!). A second line
connects Yangon with Pyay (9
hours for the 175km journey!) with a branch heading
off into the delta region town of Pathein.
These tracks, the earliest constructed are in poor
shape. With the construction of the bridge across
the Salween, it is now possible to go by train from Yangon to Mawlymaing (8
hours for the 200km journey) and on to Ye (Ye
is closed to foreign travellers). From Mandalay,
trains continue on to Myitkyina in Kachin
in 24hours) and to Lashio.
There are also rail connections between Yangon-Bagan and Mandalay-Bagan,
but bus or ferry are better alternatives (The 175km
from Mandalay to Bagan takes 10hrs).
There is a new (as from March 2010) railway service
between Yangon-Bagan (16 hours, first class US$30,
upper class US$40, sleeper US$50).
The following table summarizes travel time and
prices between most visitable places in Myanmar
(note: prices are approximate, check with more up to
date and reliable sources!):
Train travel times and fares between
||Pyin U Lwin
|Pyin U Lwin
There is also a large river ferry network. Both are
to a large extent run by the government, although
there are now some private ferry services. The trip
from Mandalay to Bagan takes the better part of a
day, from Bagan to Yangon is several days.
Buses of all types ply the roads of Myanmar. Luxury
(relatively speaking) buses do the Mandalay-Yangon run
while lesser vehicles can get travellers to other
places. Fares are reasonable and in Kyat and, for
the budget traveller, there is no other option
because of the high price of train tickets for
foreign nationals. Many long distance buses assign
seats so it is best to book seats at least a day in
advance. Because the roads are bad, avoid the rear
of the bus and try to sit as far up front as you can
get. Long distance buses also have an extra jump
seat that blocks the aisle and, because it is not
well secured to the chassis, can be uncomfortable
(which also means that there is no such thing as a
side seat where taller travellers can thrust their
legs). A window near the front of the bus is always
the best option.
A scam about bus tickets seems to be popular in
Yangon currently. While many travellers make a
stopover in Bago, they are told at their guesthouse
or at the bus station it's not possible to buy
tickets up there in the direction to Mandalay. In a
country where everything might be possible when it
comes to transport, some people tend to believe is.
Actually, this is not the case and tracking back to
Yangon for a bus ticket up north is not necessary at
all. Bago has a bus terminal with several bus
offices. Buying your ticket at Bago might be
slightly cheaper (of course depending upon your
bargaining skills) and gives you more freedom for
the rest of your journey.
The following table summarises travel times and
approximate fares between important tourist
destinations in Myanmar (Note: most bus fares have
gone up with the recent fuel price rises, the fares
listed here are rough estimates):
Bus Travel times and fares between important
||Pyin U Lwin
Old Toyota pickup trucks run everywhere in Myanmar,
inexpensively ferrying men, women, children, and
monks from one place to another. The rear of the
truck is converted into a canvas covered sitting
area with three benches, one on each side and one
running along the centre of the truck (some smaller
trucks have only two rows), and the running board is
lowered and fixed into place providing room for six
or more people to stand on (holding on to the truck
frame). Pickups are ubiquitous in Myanmar and every
town has a central point somewhere from where they
depart to places both near and far. Tourists who go
off the beaten track will find them indispensable
because often the only alternative is an expensive
taxi or private car.
The basics of pickups are fairly straightforward,
wait till it is reasonably full before heading out.
On well traveled routes (Mandalay - Pyin
U Lwin, for example), they fill up quickly and
the journey is quick. On less well-traveled routes (Bhamo-Katha,
for example), passengers arrive (early, usually
around 6AM), mark their place, and then hang around
drinking tea and chatting until the truck fills up.
When the pickup does get moving, it may linger or go
out of its way in the hope of picking up more
passengers. The inside of a pickup can be hot and
uncomfortable - passengers, packed in like sardines,
face away from the windows (which are tiny) and into
the truck - and standing on the running board can be
tiring and tough on the arms! On the other hand, the
window side seat next to the driver is very
comfortable and well worth the little extra that you
have to pay, so it is best to go early and reserve
You can hire a private car and driver at reasonable
rates to tour independently. The licenced guides at
Schwedagon Paya in Yangon can arrange to have a
driver with a car meet you at your hotel. Another
way is to arrange for a car through a travel agency,
though it can be quite expensive. You can "test" the
driver and the car by driving around the city for 10
or 15 minutes. If you are satisfied, a departure
date and time and per diem rates (inclusive of
petrol) can be negotiated. Some guides are willing
to travel with you to serve as interpreters.
Road travel to tourist destinations is generally
safe, although some roads may be rough. Highways are
often 2-lane, and cars often pass one another
recklessly. That being said, driving habits are not
quite as aggressive as say, Vietnam.
Allow two days to drive from Yangon to Bagan in fair
weather. Pyay provides a good midway stopover point.
Allow a day to drive from Bagan to Inle Lake.
In cities, it is also considered illegal to cross an
amber light without stopping. Despite having crossed
3/4 of the way, you will be required to stop in the
middle of the road and make your way back in
Accidents and fatalities are common. Night-time road
travel is not recommended, and medical facilities
are extraordinarily limited in rural areas. At
government hospitals, bribes may be required for
expedient services. Make sure needles are new or
carry your own. HIV is a major problem in Myanmar.
All taxis (and by extension all vehicles for
transport of people and goods) have red/white
licence plates, while private vehicles have a
black/white one. Tourist agency owned cars have a
blue/white licence plate.
In Yangon, riding motorcycles and bicycles is
illegal. Mandalay's streets, on the other hand, are
filled with both.
Cars and pedestrians may not follow the established
rules, and crossing the road can be difficult.
Drivers will almost never yield to pedestrians, even
on striped pedestrian crossings.