A goal without a plan is just a dream. Whenever we’re visiting a country for the first time and bent on experiencing as much as possible, I tend to take this mantra to heart and carefully plan our movements (often in minute detail) ahead of time. I’ve read criticisms of people like me who like to spreadsheet their holidays (no flexibility, no spontaneity) – but since I’m not a spontaneous person, some level of organisation helps safeguard against something I would actually find devastating: missing out on a wonderful place or experience because I didn’t do my research.
I had a lot of fun planning our trip to Myanmar on the eve of the country’s milestone elections in October 2015. It was still hard to find information about independent travel in Myanmar at that time. The Lonely Planet book we purchased was more or less useless – by the time it went to print, it was already out of date. I have a feeling that is all about to change as Myanmar gains favour among travellers to Southeast Asia and new government regulations encourage competitiveness among tourism providers.
Our one-month, seven-city Myanmar itinerary took us from north to south over 28 days. If you’re looking for a comprehensive itinerary that allows extra time than most to absorb each place – with a few adventures thrown in (but never straying too far from the tourist trail) – you might find this helpful.
Day 1: Mandalay
Myanmar’s romanticised central city is just a short hop from neighbouring Thailand. Spend your first afternoon in Myanmar wandering the wide boulevards of Mandalay.
Stay: Smart Hotel, $50
DAY 2: Amarapura, Ava & Sagaing
DAY 3: Mandalay to pyin oo lwin
Board the early morning train for Pyin Oo Lwin – an old colonial hillstation nestled in northern Shan State. Don’t be like the other travellers on board – alight the train here, hire a bicycle, and bask in the cooler weather.
Stay: Golden Gate, $35
Day 4: Pyin Oo Lwin
Dedicate your morning to the vast Botanical Gardens. In the afternoon, check out the Chinese Temple, Candacraig House, and the other Orwellian-era homes.
DAY 5: Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw
Back on the train to delve deeper into Shan State’s highlands. Your reward for an early rise and bumpy journey is a stunning view of the Gokteik Viaduct.
Stay: Tai House Resort, $50
DAY 6: HSIPAW
Hsipaw is a popular starting point for treks into Shan State – but the town itself is quaint and small enough to explore on foot. Spend the afternoon resting in preparation for tomorrow.
DAYS 7-8: TREKKING
Most hotels can organise a guide and route for you on the fly. Read more about the pros and cons of trekking in shoulder season here.
DAY 9: Hsipaw to Mandalay
Take a minibus (much quicker than the train) back to Mandalay. Climb Mandalay Hill in the evening for a beautiful view over the city.
DAY 10: MANDALAY TO BAGAN
Take the MRGR boat down the Irrawaddy River to Bagan. Coming in at just over seven hours, the boat is definitely the slow option, but the river views are gorgeous and the boat well-equipped for a comfortable journey.
Stay: Kaday Aung Hotel, $46
DAYS 11-14: BAGAN
Hire an electric bike and set out for Old Bagan. Four full days (probably more) can easily be spent exploring the landscape and getting up close with the exquisite details of the stupas and temples. On your final afternoon, take an overnight minibus to Kalaw.
DAY 15: KALAW
Another stop-off point for trekkers, it’s worth spending a day in Kalaw for the fabulous dry market (packed with antiques) and the tea shops. Visit the Eversmile office to book your trek.
Stay: Green Haven Hotel, $35
DAYS 16-18: TREK TO INLE LAKE
The three-day trek to Inle Lake is one of Myanmar’s most popular routes. In shoulder season, you might just get a guide all to yourself. The best part of the trek (in my opinion) is the finish line – kicking off your shoes and piling into a boat to traverse the entire length of Inle Lake up to Nyaungshwe.
Stay (Nyaungshwe): Zawgi Inn, $41
Days 19-21: Inle Lake
We were lucky to arrive at Inle Lake in the middle of a Buddhist festival – otherwise, three days here might have been too long. Nyaungshwe has the best tourist infrastructure of any place on the itinerary so far, so if you’re in need of some R&R, set aside an extra day to rest and refuel on pub food, sushi and cheap beer. On your last afternoon, board an overnight JJ Express Bus for Yangon.
Days 22-26: YANGON
If you’re a city slicker like me, you’ll want a decent amount of time in Yangon. Five days allowed us to explore the city at a good pace – although we could have squeezed in a day trip to Kyaiktiyo or a side trip to Mawlamyine. Find my recommendations for Yangon here.
Stay: Royal Khattar Hotel, $70 (the best hotel we stayed at in Myanmar by far – and well worth the splurge).