The Travelers Guide To Transportation in Myanmar
Transportation is a funny thing in Myanmar (Burma). Slow, loud and dirty are adjectives you could use to describe most of them, and safety is pretty questionable as well. But the sheer variety available makes for a fascinating combination of new and old methods you should check out for yourself during your next visit to the country.
Pretty simple, your feet can get you many places in the country. Whether it's wandering around town looking for a nice local spot to eat, or trekking in the Shan hills, your feet will get you many places, albeit slowly. Expect obstacles to pop up, like the notoriously uneven Yangon sidewalks, or stray dogs.
Take care of your feet to prevent blisters from flip-flops or poorly fitting shoes. Serious hiking boots aren't necessary for the vast majority of places in the country, but a closed toe sport sandal is my footwear of choice.
Most of all, be careful in the sun. Lather on the sunscreen, carry an umbrella (for the sun or the rain), and stay out of the midday sun if possible.
Best of all, it's completely free.
Until recently, many of the bicycles in the country available to rent were decades old, and it showed. With no suspension and poorly geared, they're hardly a gentle ride. On the contrary, they are a good way to get a bruised bottom riding along the poor roads. Seriously. My bony butt has felt it.
Renting a bike can run anywhere from 1000 kyat (~$1.00) / day to 3000 kyat (~$3.00) / day. If you're around for a few days and you find one you like, talk to the shop keeper and arrange to take the same bike over a few days. This is particularly a good bet in Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake) or Bagan where shops typically don't open until you've missed the sunrise by hours well after sunrise.
TIP: Consider renting a bike from a place other than your guesthouse to spread the money around the community.
More recently, "mountain bikes" from China have been making their way into the country. I wouldn't trust them for actual mountain biking myself, but for touring temples and villages they are a step up from the others. There are a couple of places that are even importing good quality mountain bikes (specialty companies including in Kalaw & Nyaungshwe) and making them available for rent. Expect to pay $7-$15 a day for one.
If you're interested in a more serious biking trip, some companies inside the country offer biking tours with good bikes and road support. If you're going on your own, be sure to come prepared. A Swiss couple I spoke with had 20 flat tires in 20 days with the crappy tubes that are typically available in the country. You'll also want to bring your own helmet, as you likely won't find any here.
New to the scene, the e-bike is most prominent in Bagan / Nyanug U, and currently banned in the Inle Lake / Nyaungshwe area. I honestly find them a blast to zip around on.
Renting one of these electric bikes will cost you about 5000 kyat to 12000 kyat (~$5.00-$12.00) a day. That's quite a bit more than a bicycle, but trust me, it's worth it. If you're planning on riding with two people on one e-bike, I strongly recommend splurging for a bigger and better bike.
TIP: It's worth noting that the shops renting the bikes won't open until 9am or later, so you'll miss the sunrise opportunity. Instead, plan ahead and rent one the night before. If you're hanging around for a few days (or weeks like I sometimes do), you may be able to negotiate a slightly better rate.
In terms of quality, know that these are imported from China for about $250-$500 USD, so don't expect a world beater here. Do check for a full battery and take the e-bike for a whirl before you plop down your cash... the quality and care for these e-bikes varies a lot from place to place and bike to bike. When you get a good one, just have them swap the battery for a fresh one instead of getting a different bike each day.
(Check out my Super Bagan Travel Guide)
Slowly fading into the past is the tri-shaw. Think of that same poor bicycle from above, with a wood & metal sidecar welded onto the side. Often used by older ladies who are heading home from the market, they are often found seated in the front, with their weaved bag of meat and fresh veggies for dinner plopped down in the back.
Slow and inefficient, the driver will often have to hop off and push the cart up even the slightest of inclines. I can't help but hop off at the same time, as having someone slowly push me up a 'hill' is too much to bear. Plus I can walk faster (really).
While quickly disappearing from major cities, they are still prevalent in smaller, relatively flat cities such as Pyay, Sittwe, and Shwebo. On the other hand, you'll likely never find them in hilly areas (Moulmein, most of Shan state).
Ride one if you have the chance, though for the experience more than anything. It'll set you back anywhere from 200 kyat (~$0.20) and up. Best to ask around first (or check with your guesthouse) to get an idea of what sort of rate you should be paying for the length of your journey and expect to pay a "tourist rate" of several times more than the locals pay. It'll still only amount to a dollar or two.
Riding in a horse cart around the old temples of Bagan or Mrauk U is one of those iconic Burma (Myanmar) experiences. Like looking into the past through goofy rose-colored glasses, riding in a horse cart is nicer in thought than reality. Clunky, smelly, and with poor views, it too is best as an short experience rather than an all day affair. The best thing they can offer is a little shade from the sun, because the experience of riding on those wooden wheels and rocky roads won't be high on your todo list for a second go.
500 kyat and up depending on how long / far. Ask around for daily rates when temple hopping which can be in the 15000-30000 kyat (~$15-$30) range.
Tuk Tuk / Rickshaw
Not as prevalent in Burma (Myanmar) when compared to Thailand or India, you can still spot a few of these around. They often seat 6 or more, often crammed with people or bags.
Rates are negotiable based on distance. Sometimes you can ask a driver to wait for you at your destination for an hour or more. They are often happy to wait, knowing they'll have the return fare.
500kyat and up.
A relatively comfortable way to get from point A to B, a motorcycle taxi is also fairly inexpensive, particularly as a solo traveler. Best to ask for a helmet, for your own safety as well as to keep the police happy.
It's easy to spot a motorcycle taxi stand. Drivers often hang out around major intersections in town, sometimes wearing vests that say "taxi" right on them. Yep, that easy.
Rates start at 500 kyat, and it's a good idea to ask around for the going rates before you look for one. As an example, the 15km journey from Kalaw to Aungban to 1000 kyat to 1500 kyat.
There are some motorcycle tour companies, mostly out of Mandalay, that will set you up with a good bike, plan the journey, and give you the support you need. There are also a few places that will rent you a motorbike for a few days to head out on your own. Expect to pay more than in neighboring Thailand, and for a crappier motorbike (typical Burma).
Foreigners are banned from riding or renting motorcycles themselves in different parts of the country. This includes Bagan and area. Also know that the health care in this country is atrocious, and I've met one foreigner who broke his leg on a motorbike. It took him days to get out of the country and to proper medical attention (and he was part of a guided trip).
Shared Pickup Truck
Going from (small) town to (small) town (less than 60km), a pickup truck is often your best bet. Along the sides in the back are two benches facing inward for seating. The center will often be filled with bags, people, or maybe a motorcycle. Men will hang on to the sides or hop on top with the extra bags, though as a foreigner you won't have to.
Like motorcycle taxis, they often stop along particular roads to find passengers. Be prepared to wait for the truck to fill up, likely much fuller than you expect it can be (inside and on top), before it takes off for the next destination. My record is 31 people in the back of the truck (not including on top). Not terribly comfortable, especially for long distances where motion sickness may rear its ugly head.
TIP: You may also want to consider picking up a mask (200 kyat, ~$0.20) to keep the dust from the Myanmar roads out of your nose and lungs. Yep, learned that one from experience.
Rates are cheap, starting at 300 kyat in town, to several thousand between towns.
Around Myanmar's lakes, you may be able to get around the water on a canoe. This is definitely one of my favorite ways to experience the lakes and all that surrounds them in a slow and quiet way.
The canoes are often long and not very deep as they are typically hand made for shallower water. In places on and around Inle Lake, will be often be paddled in the Intha way by standing on the back and balancing with one leg, while paddling with the other leg. Don't miss this experience.
Consider hiring a canoe and driver by heading to the docks in a village around Inle Lake (one of my top things to experience in the country. Rates run 1000 kyat to 6000 kyat.
TIP: The village of Maing Thauk, south-east of Nyaungshwe is a particularly great place to go for a canoe ride. It's about 45-60min by bike from Nyaungshwe. Just walk to the end of the bridge towards the floating part of the village until you're spotted. Plan to be there a couple of hours after sunrise, or a couple of hours before.
Keep in mind that you almost certainly won't have a life jacket. Though you may be able to have your driver borrow one from a friend's power boat.
If you're around Inle Lake, a motor boat will likely be your mode of transportation for at least one day. These long boats typically seat up to 5-6 foreigners (or 20+ locals) heading from one floating village to another. Not terribly comfortable, the vibrating hull and the loud engine will have you wondering about where the tranquility of the Lake that you've read about has gone.
But they do allow you access to places you couldn't otherwise go (or at least not easily).
Typically you'll pay not by the amount of time (full day vs half day), but for distance traveled as the price is determined more by fuel costs. Also expect rates to jump (even double) during festival times as locals flock to the area to celebrate.
The typical routes around the lake run 18000-20000k for a boat, or 6000k-7000k to cross east/west. More if If you're heading much further south to Samkar, expect to pay ~60000k.
TIP: The drivers typically don't speak any English, so make sure whoever sets you up with the boat (travel agent or random guy by the dock) knows where you want to go before you hop in.
Ferry (on the water)
Myanmar's many waterways are often used as a way for transportation. The government ferries are big and slow people movers, while some of the private ferries that are geared for tourists can be quite luxurious.
You'll find ferries to get across the Yangon River to Dala (~1000k), Sittwe to Mrauk U (5000k - 40000k), Hpa-A to Moulmein (5000k-30000k), Mandalay to Bagan and many more places in the North along the Irrawaddy.
Prices vary wildly, between government run ferries with limited / no services for a couple bucks, to fancy "made-for-tourist" options costing in the hundreds.
The bus is the most popular method of transportation when traveling long distances, though you can also catch them to get around in major cities.
When taking the local (city) bus, be sure to inquire with your guesthouse as to which bus you should take, how much it costs, and how to identify it. When a bus pulls up along the street a man will lean out and yell the direction and destination, but his voice as well as the bus number, will be in Burmese which uses a script completely different from our alphabet. And in seconds they'll be off again, so you have to be quick. This isn't the time for you to ask 20 questions, so be prepared. Rates are often 200-300 kyat, but again, ask at your guesthouse.
For long distance, you'll have some options, but it's worth knowing a few things first. The bus stations are most often poorly located, far outside the main center of the cities, so you'll almost certainly have to take a taxi just to get there. Some cities have two or more bus stations (short distance & long distance), so make sure you know which one you need to be at, and if you need to transfer to another station to catch your next bus if you're transferring in a city.
1) The "local" bus is basic, with no AC and narrow seats. Expect it to be packed with cargo in the aisles and at your feet. While not a comfortable time for tall travelers, it's a great experience, particularly for short 2hr journeys. 1000 kyat to 3000 kyat. They can also be flagged down the road if you happen to be in the middle of nowhere.
2) The A/C bus is often newish, and the most popular way to get from place to place, mostly as overnight transportation though daytime buses are an option too. These buses are relatively new, most with seats that recline at least a bit. Be prepared to endure Burmese movies on super bright LCD TVs, with the volume turned up to eleven, though in recent years this seems to be more rare. You might even get some music videos as well, with vocal accompaniment from your fellow passengers. Along with the aural onslaught, the A/C will be cranked up to 11 (arctic winter). Bring pants, a jacket, and a blanket if you have. I'm not joking. Many people get sick after dealing with the cold, dry air on the bus ride, sandwiched between hot and humid destinations. 10000 kyat to 15000 kyat
TIP: The long distance bus (7+hrs) will stop several times along the way for food and bathroom breaks. These last 20-30 minutes typically, and everyone has to get off the bus as it's locked to prevent theft.
3) There are a few "VIP" buses that are popping up in Burma / Myanmar along major routes. These buses often have seats 3 across rather than 4, and recline more. You'll pay more for the luxury however, 16000-22000 kyat and up. The most prominent for foreigners is "JJ Express" but there are several others. A bottle of water, sugary snack, and a blanket are all complementary. This is the best value in bus transportation in the country. Spend the extra money for those longer 8-14hr trips!
TIP: Keep in mind of the (approximate) time you'll arrive at your destination. It's the rule, rather than the exception, that you'll arrive at your destination at some ridiculous hour in morning (think 3-5am). It's a good idea to have your guesthouse booked in advance as there is little worse than walking around the streets before dawn looking for a guesthouse. The staff likely won't even be awake yet.
After your first long distance / overnight bus ride, you'll understand why I say you should take one rest day for each major travel day.
Share Taxi (aka the ferry)
If you're looking to save some cash from the Aung Mingalar bus station in Yangon to downtown, you can catch the share taxi for a fraction of the cost of a regular taxi ride (and none of the negotiation hassle). Just ask for directions to the "ferry" when you jump off the bus and are accosted by a host of taxi drivers. They'll quickly point you in the right direction and move along.
You can hop into this modern, air conditioned minivan for just 1000k. Expect every seat to be filled before you head off, but for that slight inconvenience, you'll be dropped off at the bus stop just in front of Sule Pagoda, and will save 7000k over a taxi fare. Pick up a taxi here if you don't want to walk to your hotel / guesthouse.
The easiest way to get around in the big cities. As of mid 2012, there are a lot of new-ish taxis on the streets, replacing the old ones with doors you would have to open from the outside, and with holes in the floor ala the Flintstones. Rates to and from bus stations and airports to downtown are fairly set, so ask what the going rate should be at your guesthouse before heading to the streets to find a driver. Rates in the city are negotiable, with prices increasing in the evenings and during heavy traffic times.
500 kyat and up for short distances.
You can also arrange a car and driver to take you around the country. Speak with a local travel agency for rates. It usually has more to do with the distance you'll be covering rather than strictly a "day rate."
Day around Bagan will run approx 35000 kyat / day. Day trip from Yangon to the Golden Rock around $120.
The train is another Myanmar "experience." Fun on short journeys, and straight up torture on longer ones, they can be a much better way to interact with the locals than the A/C bus.
To put it in perspective, the experience is the opposite of a quality European train. Imagine it now: the train swaying side to side, then bouncing violently up and down, with bags flying from the shelves above and people standing up to brace themselves. Nothing but natural A/C (windows) to cool you down on a 40c+ day. Broken seats do more to bruise you than to comfort you.
It's a slow, but interesting way to travel. I'd recommend you do it once while in the country, on a shorter (~3hr) route if possible. As with the bus, you'll need a good rest day to recoup if you happen to take a longer journey.
TIP: In Yangon, you can take the circular train around the city. The ride will last approximately 3 hours, and you'll get to witness an interesting slice of life you would otherwise miss. A ticket will cost you $1 USD, and I'd recommend you hop on there early in the morning (7-8am) so you won't have to deal with the heat.
Overnight train journeys (Yangon-Bagan) are expensive and uncomfortable. I've never had a single person tell me that they had a positive experience on it, and it's pricey (relatively). Don't bother.
Train tickets are purchased in USD, and several classes may be available. The classes essentially go from hard seats, to padded seats, to the fancy first class seats that I'm sure were quite luxurious 30-40 years ago. Some trains will only have certain classes available. Don't trust the schedules in your guidebook, instead ask at your guesthouse.
For most locations, train tickets are on sale one hour before departure, while for further destinations it may be best to purchase the day before at an MTT tourism office or at the train station itself. In the big cities, the train station is often more convenient to get to than the bus station.
Hot Air Balloon
It can be difficult to take in all that is Myanmar without getting a view from the sky, and a hot air balloon ride in Bagan, Inle Lake, or Pindaya is now possible.
A view from the sky at sunrise can give enormity of the plains of Bagan a whole new perspective.
Expect cash to drift from your wallet as you float into the sky though, as this journey doesn't come cheap. Listed prices are typically from $275-$400 / person for a 45-75 minute flight. All flights are weather dependent, but you'll receive a refund if they can't take off safely.
Check our detailed guide on Hot Air Ballooning in Bagan for all you need to know about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Finally, there is flying. For time strapped tourist with some extra money to spare, this is by far the quickest and most comfortable method to get around across those long distances. Airports are located in or relatively near all the major cities and attractions.
A local travel agent is the best place to arrange a ticket when flying domestically as they currently cannot be purchased online reliably, particularly with the poor internet service in the country. Even if you're outside of the country, the majority of airlines here won't even show up in your Kayak and Skyscanner searches, or have a website that doesn't have a payment option besides a bank transfer from a Myanmar bank. Tickets run $80-$180 (one way), and there is a different price for locals than there is for foreigners on most airlines.
There are more than a few local airlines to choose from, with the government owned "Myanma" has the absolute worst reputation. The safety record for flight in the country is far from spotless. Most recently, a plane with Air Bagan went down in late 2012 near Inle Lake. I've flown about a dozen times in the country over the past 5 years.
If you're flying in and out of the country, the most popular way is via Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, though Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Singapore as well as many Chinese & European and Middle East connections are possible now.
Have you traveled in Myanmar? What was your most memorable way to get around the country?
Images and content originally published on "The Travelers Guide To Transportation in Myanmar" published on DustinMain.com
© Dustin Main 2016