Many parts of Myanmar, particularly border areas and regions where the government is in conflict with ethnic minority groups – such as large swathes of Shan and Kachin states – are completely closed to foreign visitors or require permits that may take several weeks to obtain. What’s more, these closures and requirements can change without warning. Parts of Rakhine state, for example, closed and reopened more than once in late 2012.
There’s a list of such areas on the Ministry of Hotels & Tourism website (
myanmartourism.org), although it may not be up to date, and if you want to obtain a permit then government-run Myanmar Travels & Tours (MTT;
) offices – found in most major tourist destinations – should be able to help.
In addition to Myanma Airways, the state-owned national flag-carrier, an array of private airlines – among them Air KBZ, Air Mandalay, Air Bagan, Asian Wings, Yangon Airways and Golden Myanmar Airlines – run services on domestic routes and have offices in major towns and cities. Given the long journey times overland, and the relatively low prices of flight tickets, travelling by plane can be an attractive choice. In a few cases, such as visiting Kengtung, it is the only option as overland routes are closed to foreigners. Many services fly on circular routes, stopping at several airports on the way. At each stop, some passengers will get off, some will get on, and some will stay on board and wait for a later stop. One quirk of this is that it may be easier to make a journey one way (for example, Nyaung U to Thandwe) than the other way (Thandwe to Nyaung U).
There are a number of downsides to domestic air travel. For one thing, it may not save you much time as schedules are subject to change at short notice and delays are not uncommon. It also isn’t possible to buy tickets online, although some airlines – such as Air Mandalay – allow online reservations and you then pay once you’re in the country. This is likely to change following the easing of sanctions, but in any case it’s generally a bit cheaper to buy tickets through local travel agents. In addition, travellers should avoid flying if they are trying to limit the amount of their money that ends up with the government or its cronies (see The Ethics of visiting Myanmar).
Buses are usually faster and cheaper than trains, and are generally the best way to get around on a budget. There are many different bus companies and most are privately owned. Taking buses can be quite tiring, however, since most long-distance services run through the night, stop regularly for toilet breaks and arrive before dawn. Travelling at night also means that you miss the scenery, but locals prefer it since it means that they can travel without taking a day off work.
Most long-distance buses are reasonably comfortable, but make sure you bring warm clothes as they tend to crank up the air-conditioning. On major routes, such as Yangon to Mandalay, it’s possible to take a more modern bus for a small additional fee. There are also local buses running segments of longer routes, such as Taungoo to Mandalay (rather than the full Yangon-to-Mandalay trip); these are usually in worse condition but are cheaper for shorter trips, as on long-distance buses you pay the fare for the full journey even if you get on or off partway through. You’ll also find smaller, 32-seat local buses that should be avoided if possible, as they tend to be jam-packed with luggage.
It’s a good idea to book a day or two ahead for busy routes (eg Bagan–Nyaungshwe), ones where only a few buses run (eg Ngwe Saung–Yangon) or where you’re joining a bus partway through its route (eg in Kalaw).
Guesthouses can often help book tickets for a small fee, or you can buy them either from bus stations (which in some cases are outside of town) or from in-town bus company offices.
The railway system in Myanmar is antiquated, slow and generally uncomfortable. On most routes a bus is faster and more reliable – it is not uncommon for express trains to be delayed by several hours, and local trains are even worse. Trains are also more expensive than buses, and since they are state-run, the money goes to the government. All that said, there are reasons why you might want to take a train at least once during your trip. One is that on a few routes, such as from Mandalay up to Naba and Katha, road transport is closed to foreigners. Another is for the experience itself: many routes run through areas of great beauty (the Goteik viaduct between Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw is a good example), plus there is the chance to interact with local people.
All express trains have upper- and ordinary-class carriages. The former have reservable reclining seats, while the latter have hard seats and no reservations. Some trains also have first-class carriages, which fall somewhere between upper and ordinary in price and comfort. Sleeper carriages, when available, accommodate four passengers and come with blankets and linen.
Long-distance trains often have restaurant cars, and food vendors either come on board or carry out transactions through the windows whenever the train stops. The bathrooms onboard are basic and often unclean.
Fares are payable in US dollars and vary according to class, although you may find station staff are reluctant to sell ordinary-class tickets to foreigners. Try to reserve a day or so in advance, or more for sleepers.
Shared taxis and vans
Although not as common as in some Southeast Asian countries, shared taxis and shared vans (the latter also known as minibuses) are available on some routes. Shared vehicles charge separately for each seat and leave once full, making them cheaper than taking a whole taxi. They typically cost around fifty percent more than a seat on an air-conditioned bus, but will drop you wherever you like, which saves on transfer costs in towns where the bus station is inconveniently located. Vehicles can sometimes be arranged through accommodation, and there are sometimes shared-taxi stands in town centres.
In addition to these services between towns, which are primarily used by locals, there are a handful of services aimed specifically at foreigners. These are typically round trips, such as to Mount Popa from Bagan.
Car, bike and motorcycle rental
Hiring a car is not a realistic option in Myanmar as there is too much red tape involved, but it’s easy to arrange a car and driver (from around $40/day) through your accommodation or travel agencies.
Bicycles are available in many places for around K2000 per day. In some parts of the country, for example Mawlamyine and Hpa-an, it is also possible to hire a motorcycle, typically for K8000–10,000 a day plus fuel.
There are numerous hazards for motorcyclists: traffic can be very heavy in the cities, while in rural areas the roads are often in poor condition. Adding to these dangers is the fact that most cars are right-hand drive even though people drive on the right, meaning that cars have large blind spots. Overtaking is, as a result, a pretty risky manoeuvre. Before hiring a motorbike, check that your travel insurance covers you for riding one.
Local transport in Myanmar is usually some mix of public buses, taxis, pick-ups (adapted pick-up trucks with seating in the covered back portion), motorcycle taxis (where the passenger rides pillion) and cycle rickshaws. Public buses run only in the largest cities, including Yangon and Mandalay, and are very cheap. It can be very hard to work out the routes but if you aren’t in a rush, then riding on the buses is certainly an experience. The same can be said of pick-ups, which cover set routes and pick up and drop people off on the way; they usually depart regularly throughout the day and can get so full that passengers ride on the roof. If you want the most comfortable seats, in the cabin, then you can pay a little extra.
Taxis are available in large towns and cities, and range from 1970s Toyotas to occasional new left-hand-drive Chinese imports. There are no meters but drivers tend not to overcharge as outrageously as in many other Southeast Asian countries. On the other hand, and particularly in Yangon, they don’t seem to be so keen on bargaining once they’ve offered a price. Expect to pay around K1000–1500 for a decent trip across town, such as from a bus station on the edge of town to a hotel. Tricycles are still in use in many towns, although they are being edged out by motorcycle taxis, which are much faster and normally around the same price (around K500–1000 for a short ride).
Most of these forms of transport can also be hired for a day including a driver, which can be arranged direct, through accommodation or via travel agents; you’ll need to bargain to get a good price. Motorcycle taxis are popular in this regard, particularly for solo travellers, and may not work out much more expensive than hiring a self-drive motorcycle. Groups can often get a good deal on a pick-up for the day, for example in one of the “blue taxis” of Mandalay.
In small towns, horse carts are used as a key form of transportation, and are used to ferry tourists around in a number of places, notably Bagan, Inwa and Pyin Oo Lwin. The horses are not always well looked after, however.