It’s pitch black and freezing. I’m wrapped up in full-length pants, a cardigan and a bomber jacket and struggling to drag my very pink, very girly case across the sand. At this moment, I am really wondering why I ever thought a case was a good idea for this trip!
We approach the boat which is just a hazy blob given the lack of lighting and stumble up the gangplank trying to avoid an icy tumble into the Irawaddy. It’s hard to believe it is going to be scorching in just a few hours. We thought we were so clever buying our little torches in England but the specks of feeble light thrown out barely touch our feet!
We are heading towards Mandalay on the day ferry from Bagan, a prospect which really excited me when planning our mini adventure. It’s called the fast ferry but be warned it is anything but. It leaves at 6.30 am and arrives around the same time in the evening. There’s the hint of smoke in the air from local cooking pots or trash burning but otherwise little sign of life apart from our motley crew on board.
I’m trying not to imagine ourselves snuggled under the duvet of the comfy bed at the very lovely Zfreeti Hotel as we settle into our wicker chairs on deck. These are not chairs designed with ergonomics in mind. Stray bits of wicker prod and poke me like an acupuncturist. I’m already thinking the civilisation of a flight might have been a much better idea!
Leaving Bagan is bitter sweet. Whilst the excitement of seeing new things is always strong, Bagan has stolen a piece of my heart. When I started planning this trip I hadn’t even heard of it. It didn’t have the same ring as Angkor Wat or Macchu Pichu so I wasn’t expecting much. Isn’t it great when that happens? You have no great expectations and are totally blown away by something…
I have yet to visit Machu Picchu but Angkor Wat pales into comparison. Yes it might have bigger temples but it doesn’t have as many. It might have more facilities but it doesn’t have the charm. What it does have are crowds aplenty and these are totally absent from Bagan.
Bagan is home to more than 2,000 temples strewn across 16 square miles of dusty plain. Roads here are sandy pathways meandering between temples. Hiring a bicycle is an experience as you try to pedal through sand, frequently faltering and with barely a soul in sight.
You can sunbathe on temple rooftops admiring the view with just the twitter of birds to accompany you. It’s like stepping through a doorway into an Asian Narnia!
As dark turns to dawn and we cast off, the world of Myanmar slowly comes to life. It’s like a peek into a kaleidoscope of Burmese traditional life which remains an enduring symbol of my trip.
The Irawaddy is one of the great rivers of Asia, the longest in Myanmar originating in the North of the country and flowing South into the Andaman Sea. Its around 1,350 miles long and is a commercial lifeline plying goods back and forth between Yangon, Mandalay and beyond. It’s one of the great waterways of the world!
The ferry slowly meanders past tiny thatched villages, children playing in the shallows, pigs drinking from the river and families fishing for their dinner. This simplicity is what I recall when I think of Myanmar, a world relatively untouched by Western culture where locals still decorate their faces with chalk like face paint each day. It took me a day to realise the locals hadn’t just left the house without looking in the mirror to check their make up!
Temples line the bank on an unprecedented scale. If you have been to Thailand and become ‘templed out’ prepare yourself for a whole new level. The volume is staggering and they come in every conceivable shape and style – large, gold, and stone. Barely a few hundred metres pass without seeing a temple!
As the day progresses, the cold turns into glaring heat and I start to feel like a pig roasting on a fire. Its equal parts fascinating, boring and annoying at times as our fellow Eastern European travellers, intent on drinking the boat out of beer, become more rowdy as the day progresses. It’s like middle aged Club 18 – 30 horror.
All this doesn’t change the fact that this country packs a punch. Myanmar glitters, gleams and bewitches unsuspecting tourists. I’m surprised the glow from all these temples isn’t visible from the moon.
So hopefully I’ve now persuaded you Myanmar is the place to go, what’s the catch?
Well the problem is simple – organised tours are expensive and direct flights from the UK do not exist!! Even the cheapest tour is around £1,000 per person for 12 nights, which hardly constitutes budget travel!!
Here are some examples of what you can expect to pay:
- Intrepid charges £1,425 for a 10 day tour (£142.40 per day)
- Tucan Travel charges £1,339 for a 14 night tour (£95.64 per day)
- Imaginative Traveller charges £975 for 12 days (£81.25 per day)
- Trailfinders offers 8 days for £1,088 (£136 per day)
They all follow similiar itineraries visiting some of the principle sites including Mandalay, Yangon and Bagan. For full details you can see the individual sites using the links above.
The average of these is £113.82 per day! For us that would have worked out at £227.64 per day and a whopping £1,593.51 for the week we spent in Myanmar.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that there are so few people!
But help is at hand. Ditch the tour, DIY, save a fortune and visit this amazing country while it is still not on the mainstream tourist trail. It is possible to do Myanmar on a budget!
By following this plan of action, we spent just £40.25 per day (£21.13 each for those who need help with the maths!) on travel and accommodation. That works out at a whole £60 a day cheaper per person than the cheapest tour I found.
So prepare yourself for the fun of planning, and perhaps a little frustration, and you too can build your own personal itinerary for a fraction of these prices. With a little patience and some investment in researching potential itineraries you can do Myanmar on a budget and save thousands!
Step one – Create Your Ideal Itinerary
- Decide how many days you will spend in Myanmar
- Visit a number of sites, such as Imaginative Traveller and Intrepid and look at the tours on offer
- Read through the itineraries and decide which places you want to visit and which you are happy to exclude. You don’t have to go to Inle Lake just because everyone else does!
Step Two – Flights
- Book any internal flights as far in advance as possible using Skyscanner to research the best prices
We didn’t book any internal flights but instead flew into Yangon from Bangkok and returned to Bangkok from Mandalay. We booked our flights through Skyscanner and travelled with Air Asia. I found them incredibly good value and reliable. The service was also considerably better than what you might expect from budget airlines in Europe.
Step Three – Hotels
I booked all my hotels through Agoda beforehand. This way you pay upfront and don’t need to carry huge piles of cash. Credit cards are rarely accepted in Myanmar although there are plenty of ATMs where you can withdraw local currency.
There is no real budget accommodation in Myanmar. Those £10 a night hotels in Vietnam are not to be found here…You also won’t find lots of chain hotels in Myanmar and even less American hotels. We did not see one Hilton, Marriott, Macdonalds, or Burger King!
You get the point – American brands have failed to arrive here yet!! Hotels tend to be smaller localised establishments. They vary from pretty squalid, with bright pink colourful bedspreads enough to blind you, to the lush Zfreeti.
If you really want a taste of times gone by then stay at The Strand a glorious colonial hotel on the riverfront with slow whirring fans, cool hangout areas and quiet unassuming service. It’s worth a visit even if you don’t want to fork out for a night there – just go for a coffee!
Step Four – Internal Train Booking – Yangon to Bagan
- Book any ferries or trains through a travel agency in Myanmar
This and the ferry booking proved the most challenging aspect of organising our trip. It is not possible to book these items online . You have to use an agent however I was thoroughly impressed by the agency we used. Yes we had to go pick up our tickets from their office but it was very central and they kept us well informed. They even went as far as to contact my employer to get my personal email address concerned that we had not received their message.
Once we had confirmed our requirements to the agency by email and agreed the price, they sent me a link to make a secure credit card payment.
Until recently, foreigners paid $50 for this train journey but the government has now removed the differential pricing so we paid the local price. Be warned the agency might try and charge you the higher $50 price so be insistent if that is the case. Seat 61 offers great train advice and is a valuable source of information for timetables and an overview of services throughout the whole of Asia.
Incidentally, take whatever they tell you about the train time with a pinch of salt. Our train was due to arrive at 8.30 and arrived at 11.30.
Also be aware of a few scams on the trains – take your own food or accept that you will pay an arbitrary price for food on the train, which may double what you pay in the cities. We haggled our server down but knew full well we had been had! There is no set menu, no prices and they clearly are trying it on as they could not explain how they had calculated the price. Or perhaps they could not add up!
There is no need to have a porter (although it helps!) and they will insist on a $10 tip. This is nonsense, you do not have to pay it and can pay them what you wish. Alternatively you could agree the price upfront before they run off with your bags but you might have to be quick. In spite of the weight in my case, and their slight build, they were like whippets!
Please don’t let these things put you off as it is all very jovial and there are too many incredible sights to see in Myanmar to allow a few opportunists to ruin your experience.
This would happen regardless of whether you were on a tour or not as the couple sharing our berth had already paid their porter fees and were still pressured for more!
So here is our itinerary – something of a whirlwind but time is usually a constraint unless you are one of those nomads who have decided to forsake a formal job for a life working and travelling (green eyed monster alert!).
Our Travel Costs
And here is what we spent. The prices shown are the Sterling equivalent of what I paid as most prices were paid in Dollars.
|Start Date||End date||Travel/Hotel||Travel Agent||Hotel|
|24-Jan||26-Jan||MGM Hotel, Yangon||Agoda.com||£39.91|
|26-Jan||27-Jan||Overnight train in First Class sleeper berth||Exotic Myanmar||£50.00|
|27-Jan||29-Jan||Zfreeti Hotel, Bagan||Agoda.com||£81.10|
|29-Jan||29-Jan||Day ferry||Exotic Myanmar||£32.50|
|29-Jan||31-Jan||Hotel Yadarnarbon, Mandalay||Agoda.com||£78.24|
|Total Spend per person||£140.88|
I estimate that we saved around £1,400 on this leg of our trip by going DIY. I’m not going to lie and say it was all plain sailing but the trip was much more satisfying as a result. We got to travel at our pace, with people of our choosing and in hotels of our choice. Incidentally the Zfreeti was one of our favourite hotels of the entire trip and it had by far the best breakfast!!
We were really short on time too and so many of the conventional itineraries were not an option for us. At least this way we got a taste of the country and we know we will return!
I haven’t included the cost of Visas or transport to Myanmar as these are not included in any of the tours I looked at.
What would be included however would be many of the entrance fees (although check the itinerary careful to avoid unpleasant surprises) and so I have indicated what we spent on these below:
- Bagan – $20 for 5 days ($40 total)
- Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon – Shwedagon Pagoda $8 each ($16 total)
- Sule Pagoda, Yangon – $2 each ($4 total)
- Botataung Pagoda, Yangon – $3 each ($6 total)
- Inya Lake, Yangon entry to Kandawgyi Lake – K2000 for the boardwalk (approx. $2 each) Entry at the two Karaweik entrances (for the restaurants on the eastern side only) is K300.
- Mandalay – $10 pass for combo ticket (payable only in localKyat at 10,000) which gives you entrance to a number of facilities including:
- Atumashi Kyanugdawgi
- Schwenandaw Kyaung
- Mandalay Palace
- Sandamuni Paya – Free
Obviously, my costs don’t include a tour guide but frankly I don’t want to be herded like sheep, nor do I need to know every single historical fact about a place. For me travel is about seeing, experiencing and engaging with locals and other travellers all of which is FREE. For everything else, I have Lonely Planet.
The sum total of our tickets was $90 which still means we saved over £1,300 by doing it ourselves.
One note of caution regarding visits to Myanmar for UK residents.
When you Google visas for Myanmar, the top items are always VISA agencies which charge you a fee to submit the ‘complicated paperwork’ to the Embassy, This means your VISA costs around £55 each depending on which agency you use. AVOID THESE LIKE THE PLAGUE!
THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO NEED TO USE AN AGENCY FOR UK CITIZENS wishing to visit Myanmar. You will be charged an admin fee for them simply to receive your paperwork, check it and forward it to the embassy. The paperwork is far from complicated and incredibly efficient.
We posted our passports direct to the Myanmar Embassy on a Monday and received them back on the Thursday. You have two options now:
- E-visa online – $50 for 28 days Myanmar e-Visa (Official Government Website)
- or you can still apply directly to the embassy for a small fee of £14 each plus postage Myanmar Embassy London
You can find the latest information on the UK Foreign Office site.
So you can choose to have someone else dictate where you go, when you go, what hotel you stay in and how long you will be at each destination or you can have way more fun and DIY!
You will be in total control of your itinerary, hotel selection travel options and budget!
So be brave do it your way!