Last updated on July 10th, 2023 at 03:10 am
For decades now, I have been yearning to travel to Myanmar. After seeing so many images of the Buddhist temples and pagodas, I was left wondering, could Myanmar be as amazing as Thailand or Sri Lanka?
Understandably, our biggest concern about traveling to Myanmar was the ongoing civil war and our safety. There were very few blog posts about this travel destination and most said not to go at this time. However, we understood that the unrest was mostly in the north of the country, not the tourist triangle of Yangon (the capital), Bagan (the gem), Maldalay (second largest city) and Inle Lake.
In addition, after speaking to some guides and drivers online, we understood how crushed the tourism economy was in Myanmar. First of all, we always want to help a needing community. Second of all, it is enticing to be one of the very few tourists in a given country.
So we booked the ticket and got the eVisa online. Little did we know that we would be meeting some of the friendliest people, traveling through one of the cheapest and most romantic destinations where we felt safe at all times.
As always, we do not profit from any of the recommendations that we make (unless we explicitly state that we do).
Getting to Myanmar wasn’t as easy as we thought. Our flight was a short one – Bangkok to Mandalay. Easy poesy we thought as we sat in the Priority Pass lounge drinking lattes and getting a massage, “What time is the boarding?”, I asked Rob half asleep? “I don’t know”, Rob, said, ” should be in an hour or so”. Okey dokey, I thought to myself.
I looked quickly at the boarding pass, then at my watch and then at the boarding pass again. “Holy crap!”, I yelled. The plane is about to take off! We ran as fast as we could on the moving walkway towards the gate. As an aside, this was the same walkway that a lady got stuck in (and her leg had to be amputated) just a few hours after our run.
Our plane had already left the gate. In addition, because we were through immigration, we were not allowed to purchase a ticket for the last flight (for 4 days) getting ready to board. Oh well! Thankfully, we were escorted past immigration, alleviating the long immigration line to get back into Thailand.
What now? Well, as we were licking our wounds in the airport we decided to grab a flight to Yangon instead. Thankfully, even though our eVisa said that the port of entry was Mandalay, we were told that landing in Yangon will be accepted by Myanmar immigration. And we were lucky enough to find a flight from Yangon to Bagan a few days later on Air KMZ.
Things to Consider
The official exchange rate in Myanmar, was 2,097 MMK to 1 USD. Therefore if you pay by credit card or take money out of an ATM, the official rate is the amount that you will receive (not recommended).
As soon as we landed we were approached by dozens of people trying to exchange our US dollars. They were offering terrible rates which were between 2300-2400 per $1USD.
Our recommendation is to wait until you are in town to do the exchange. In Yangon, we were able to exchange $100 USD bills at 3,000 MMK to $1 USD and $50 USD bills at 2,900 per USD. Probably by the time that you go, the rates will be even better. These were the best exchange stores that we found:
Data/Wifi connectivity in Myanmar is very poor. We purchased an eSim card that was rated well for the country . Yet once landed it did not work. There is free wifi in the Yangon airport though, so we were able to order a Grab to our hotel and paid the bad exchange through our Grab credit card app.
In the morning we went to one of the many phone shops in town to get a cheap SIM card and data.
PRO TIP: To get the best SIM card price, go into one of the many shops in town to get a SIM card and data. The prices at the aiport are 3-4 times more expensive. We paid $2.60 for a SIM card and 2 Gb of data for a week.
Transportation in cities is very cheap. It is easy to wave down a taxi, agree on a price: $1-$2 USD per 10-20 minutes of driving. Grab is also available, although you will probably get a call from the driver. With Grab it is easier to communicate destination and price as it is through the app, but you need to wait for the car to arrive.
Romantic Luxury Travel Destination
If you enjoy couples massages, luxurious hotel suites to lounge in or romantic dinners, then Myanmar has all of those at a very cheap price! You just have to be careful which places you choose as some can be underwhelming or just yucky. We list our favorites under each city we visited below.
We understand that many people view tipping differently. However, the people of Myanmar do appreciate a tip for good service. It may not always be expected, but greatly valued.
Given how cheap everything was, we generally tipped a minimum of 20% at restaurants, spas and for guides. And a minimum of 10% for taxis/grab drivers. Again, to each their own, but that is just how we do it.
First and foremost Myanmar is going through a civil war. This newest conflict started in 2021, yet, for most citizens it feels like the war has been on going since 1948. However, the actual fighting is concentrated in the north of the country and does not visibly affect the tourist triangle.
For us, it is important to support the locals. The citizens of the country are the ones who suffer due to the loss of tourism. And they have been suffering because there are very few tourists in the country.
Throughout our week in Myanmar we felt very safe. We did not see any protests or any violence whatsoever. The friendly and kind locals went out of their way to make our stay in their country as special, seamless and safe as possible.
Yangon - The Capital of Myanmar
As we mentioned earlier, Yangon was not part of our 1 week in Myanmar itinerary! Our plan was to spend the majority of our time in Bagan. However, we made the best of it. Yangon is a large capital city with a lot of traffic and activity. Here is what made Yangon a fun romantic luxury stay:
Hotels in Yangon
Our stay in the ParkRoyal was fabulous – cheap romantic luxury. For $45/night we had a high floor room which felt more like a suite. The breakfast was great as well!
If you want an even fancier place, then consider booking the Pan Pacific starting at $68/night or the Lotte Hotel starting at $69/night.
Each property has a spa as well. So cheap romantic luxury is actually a thing in Yangon.
Spa in Yangon - Cheap Romantic Luxury
Although cheap romantic luxury sounds like an oxymoron, we really did find it in Yangon. So, was our mistake of missing the flight to Bagan really that bad?!
There are plenty of cheap and sleazy places in Yangon to get massages and spa treatments. Rob likes to go for a massage a day and check top rated places. However, there wasn’t a single one that stood out from that category.
So, for cheap romantic luxury we can highly recommend the St. Gregory Wellness Center at the Pan Pacific. The massages, spa treatment or couples massage will get you a day pass to their spa which includes the infinity pool, sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi, fitness center, etc.,
Our favorite restaurant in Yangon is Nourish Cafe. Located in the upscale district of the city, it is a health conscious restaurant which offers mostly vegan and some vegetarian delicious food. We went back every single day for a meal there! Our cost for drinks, appetizers, main dish and desert was always around $25 USD.
Now if you want really fine dining, then we highly recommend Seeds in Yangon. Now this isn’t exactly cheap, but in comparison of what this type of 8 course meal would cost you in the west, it would be considered quite cheap at $78 USD per person.
Things to See and Do Yangon
After all the wining, dining and spa treatments, if you still have time to see the city, here is what we enjoyed:
Shwedagon Pagoda was the gem of the capital. It costs 10k MMK (approximately $3.33 USD) to get into the complex. There is a real sense of peace in this pagoda as the monks and nuns walk around and the chimes and gongs ring.
There are also a number of different parks to stroll around. Our favorites were Kandawgyi Natural Garden and General Aung San Park. However, there are so many in the city – you can just start at the Shwedagon Pagoda View Place and stroll from there.
Honestly, Yangon was not our favorite place, but we enjoyed our hotel, the spa experiences and these few places that we visited. So, for cheap romantic luxury – this place is good, but Bagan is better.
Bagan - the Gem of Myanmar
Bagan is the magical spiritual and romantic destination that has become one of our favorite places in the world! It is an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In many ways Bagan reminds us of Angkor Wat of Cambodia.
Hotels in Bagan
We stayed at The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate. The place is stylish, has a good spa and a refreshing pool. Breakfast was included in the price. Our room was quite large and had a patio. Unfortunately the wifi was terrible as it is in the majority of places in Myanmar. So we mostly used our data.
The location is across from the top attraction – Ananda Temple and our favorite vegan restaurant in Old Bagan – The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant. But I digress, more on those places later.
Since we still had some hotels.com certificates left we were able to pay with a 20% discount (that deal is no longer available). Our nightly price was $60 USD with the current price being $80 USD. Given the higher price we think that the Aureum Palace Hotel & Resort Bagan is a better choice as it is a 5 star hotel and the same price.
Our friends stayed here and really enjoyed this luxurious hotel. A deluxe room starts at $78 USD/night. The pool is amazing as is the spa! And the location is next door to the Viewing Tower which is one of the top attractions in Bagan. Bicycles are offered to guests free of charge.
However, if you enjoy golf, the Amazing Bagan Resort offers an 18 hole golf course, spa and high end dining options starting at $47 USD/night.
Spas in Bagan
As usual, Rob tried many of the spas in Bagan for massages which were underwhelming. Our best spa experiences in Bagan were at the hotels. Specifically at the Aureum Palace Hotel & Resort Bagan as well as The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate.
The overall area to see all of the sights in Bagan is quite large – therefore a scooter, or ebike or bicycle (if you have the energy in the heat) is necessary to get around.
Most hotels offer ebike or scooter rentals. We paid $5 USD/day for our ebike which was amazing! The ebike had no problem taking us around the soft sand of the back roads of Bagan and the adjacent areas.
Restaurants in Bagan
Unfortunately due to the lack of tourism in Bagan, most of the restaurants have shut down. Oddly, the best rated ones were still listed but were shuttered. Perhaps it is because the better rated ones had made enough money to flee the new military regime in Myanmar? We couldn’t figure it out.
One day we literally rode around a neighborhood for over an hour trying to find a restaurant! Luckily we found some great options for you:
Our favorite place in Bagan to eat is the Moon Vegetarian Restaurant. It is outside (no air conditioning), but we felt pretty cool in the shade. The menu is vegetarian/vegan and absolutely delicious. Not fancy, but cheap and very tasty!
Our second favorite place is called The Basket and it is inside with air conditioning. Again, the menu was delicious and very inexpensive. This place is not vegan but did provide quite a few wonderful options for me.
Our average large meal at both of these places was around $6 USD. This would include drinks, appetizers and a main meal for 2.
Things to See and Do in Bagan
Wow! Where do we start?! Well, on your first day in Bagan, we recommend visiting The Viewing Tower (which is next to the Aureum Palace Hotel & Resort Bagan). This is the tallest structure in the area and offers 360 degree views of the whole locale. The best time to go is at either sunrise or sunset. The tower is open 24 hours a day and charges 12.5K MMK (approximately $4 USD) per person to enter.
So what is the Difference between a Pagoda, Stupa and Temple?
Before we talk about the Pagodas, Temples and Stupas in Bagan, let’s discuss the names.
Pagoda – A pagoda is an umbrella term that can mean a temple or a stupa
Stupa – A stupa is a pagoda with no entrance. Typically you cannot go inside
Temple – A temple is a pagoda that you can enter. Typically it has 4 entrances with a Buddha at each one of the North, South, East and West entrances
Pagodas of Bagan
There are so many Pagodas in the area of Bagan that it is very easy to just start riding around. During our stay in the area, we didn’t go very far or very fast. There was something new and interesting to see every 60 seconds (or less)! So we suggest to spend a day just wondering around.
However, there are some top sights that we want to make sure that you do not miss:
As we mentioned previously, the Ananda Temple, built in 1105 AD is one of the most important temples to visit in Bagan. Even though it was damaged in the 1975 earthquake, the temple has been beautifully restored.
In the heart of the temple are 4 gilded teak Buddhas measuring 9.5 meters. Each Buddha is placed in its own naive and faces a different direction – North, South, East and West.
Shwesandaw Pagoda is another pagoda that is very memorable to us. While we were there, 4 large buses of monks of various ages pulled up. Seeing the joy in the monk’s faces when they entered and explored the pagoda added to our experience.
This pagoda was opened in 1057 AD and at 100 meters tall is the tallest stupa in Bagan. It contains a series of five terraces, topped with a cylindrical stupa, which has a bejeweled umbrella.
The Sulamani Temple was built in 1183 AD and offers some of the best fresco paintings of the area. Many have been painted over throughout the centuries, yet this temple was able to preserve quite a few of these treasures.
The Thatbyinnyu Pagoda is another important temple in Old Bagan which was opened in 1150 AD. This is the only temple in the area that is white (as it’s exterior is covered in white stucco) and at 66 meters in height is considered to be the tallest temple in Bagan.
We were not ready to leave Bagan yet, but the time had come for our wonderful driver Tay to come and pick us up from our hotel. There used to be various ways of getting from Bagan to Mandalay. However, due to the war, the only sensible way left was by car. The train ride was almost 27 hours long!
At $100 USD for the ride we were very happy to spend 4 hours in Tays comfortable car. The drive was scenic and took us through the farmland of the Mandalay region of Myanmar.
Hotels in Mandalay
The most luxurious hotel in Mandalay is the Mingalar Mandalay Hotel. It is considered a 5 star hotel. However for western tastes, we would rate it a 4 star. There is a nice outdoor swimming pool, a good spa and a few nice restaurants. Starting at $100 USD per night, it is a pleasant oasis in a somewhat chaotic big city.
The Mercure Mandalay Hill Resort is a 4 star resort located at the foot of the Mandalay Hills. Depending on the floor you are on, you may get a good panoramic view of the city’s pagodas as well as the Royal Palace.
The hotel has a fabulous spa, as well as 3 restaurants and 2 bars. The outdoor pool is much nicer than the one at the Mingalar. A large 32 sq meter room starts at $72 USD. Overall for a luxury stay for a good price, we would recommend the Mercury over the Mingalar.
For a cheaper option that still has all of the western perks (big breakfast included, rooftop bar, free wifi, etc.,) we would recommend the New Wave Hotel. It was comfortable, clean and centrally located across the street from the Royal Palace. The average price for 2 people was $37 USD/night.
Spas in Mandalay
The best spa in Mandalay is Innwa Spa. If you want a day of luxury, or romantic luxury on the cheap, then this is the place. We could spend a whole day in this place and just get non-stop pampering.
For an even fancier experience, the spa at the Mercure Mandalay Hill Resort is incredibly special! It is more expensive than the Innwa Spa, but the level of luxury is higher as well.
Restaurants in Mandalay
Honestly, I was disappointed by most restaurants in Mandalay! The only one that I can recommend is the Mingalabar Restaurant in the heart of the city, close to the Royal Palace. I loved the fresh food and the focus on creating Burmese dishes with a flair. There was even a vegan option for me!
Things to See and Do in Mandalay
Overall, Mandalay is the second biggest city in the country. There were way too many things for us to see there, so we decided to hire Tay for a full day tour from sunrise to sunset to show us around. The cost was $45 USD for both of us. It was a no-brainer!
Our first stop was the famous Mahamuni Temple. Built in 1785 AD this pagoda became a major pilgrimage site due to the huge Mahamuni Buddha gold encrusted statue within it. The statue is the biggest in Mandalay. It is 3.7 meters (12 feet) tall and weighs 6 tons! While we were there, men (because women were not allowed entrance into the Buddha area) placed gold leaves on the statue as a sign of respect and honor.
In addition, there was a wedding taking place, so we got a chance to see the procession of young girls and women dressed in white and pink costumes.
Tay then drove us to the U-Bein Bridge. Stretching 1200 meters it is the longest wooden bridge in the world! It is actually made up of teak planks from a royal palace! There were many people selling handicrafts and some beggars. The wind was howling and the bridge boards were quite uneven, so we had to be careful. On the way back we carried fist fulls of cash to give out to the beggars.
It was an interesting experience. For those not interested in walking the distance of the bridge and back, there are boats that will take you the length. However with the wind, the ride would be quite choppy.
The Shwenandaw Monastery was really a marvel to see as well. Made out of teak and adorned by a myriad of intricate gilded carvings, it is a wood lovers dream! And of course Rob spent an inordinate amount of time adoring the carvings.
Originally this was part of the Royal Palace. But the new King ordered this part of the palace (the apartment) to be moved to the base of Mandalay Hill. Why? Well, because he thought that it was haunted by his late father’s spirit. By doing this move, he saved a piece of the Royal Palace. The Royal Palace burned down after this apartment was moved.
Entry to this site was 10K MMK (or $3.33 USD) per person. The ticket provides free entry to the Royal Palace, Kuthodaw Pagoda and a few other places. Although we were only asked for the entry ticket here.
Our next stop was the Kuthodaw Pagoda. The entrance claims to have the worlds largest book. Athough the Ruhnama book in Turkmenistan looked bigger to me. Inside the area are hundreds of small white pagodas (729 to be precise).
A band was playing very loud hymns (mostly in minor notes with a lot of dissonance). In addition, a woman was performing exorcisms and dancing. This was creepy, too loud and very interesting all at the same time.
Our last stop was Mandalay Hill. We came here at sunset and got a nice overview of the city and surroundings from the top of the hill. It is a nice climb up. However, if you choose not to go on foot there is an elevator to take you up to the top. In our opinion, the climb and sights along the way make this much more interesting.
Mandalay Hill is known for its abundance of pagodas and monasteries, and has been a major pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists for nearly two centuries. At the top of the hill is the Sutaungpyei (literally wish-fulfilling) Pagoda. In the end we were rewarded with a panoramic view of Mandalay. Well worth the climb!
If you still have time, about a 90 minute drive out of town will take you to the Mingun Pagoda. This interesting square, incomplete mountain stupa was temporarily closed when we visited. Perhaps it will reopen when you go?
Close to the Mingun Pagoda is another interesting site called the Hsinbyume Pagoda. This temple is painted white and is modelled on the physical description of the Buddhist sacred mountain, Mount Meru.
Myanmar was such a surprise to us! We didn’t know what to expect given the civil war. However, we felt very safe throughout our trip. Given how few tourists (especially westerners) are in the country, we were treated like royalty.
In addition, we could not believe how cheap Myanmar has become. The MKK currency is consistently being devalued to the dollar making this a very cheap destination. So, we ended up having a cheap, romantic, luxury trip. (And helped some locals by being part of the economy as well).
Have you been to Myanmar? What was your experience? If you would like to go and have some questions, please do reach out in the comments or by emailing us. In addition, I will happily provide Tay’s contact information offline. Just reach out. We love to help other travelers get the best bang for their buck and enjoy off the beaten path destinations.