Myanmar is a country that will surprise, confuse, and amaze you – its transportation system is no exception. From rickety train rides to freezing overnight buses and off-roading tuk-tuks, the ways to get around the country are limitless, and also quite daunting. Here’s a comprehensive guide to the different transportation systems, their risks and rewards, and how to navigate them.
In Myanmar you can pretty much get to any city by bus. Buses range from beautiful, new AC-bestowed luxury vans to suspension-less, dusty, overcrowded glorified school buses. With these, you typically get what you pay for, with buses from Yangon to northern cities (Bagan, Kalaw, Mandalay) ranging from less than $10 USD to over $20. My typical strategy for saving money on accommodation was to book bus rides overnight, since most bus rides between Burmese cities last from 8-12 hours.
The usual tourist hubs for bus routes are Yangon, Bago, and Mandalay, so if you’re going between two smaller cities such as Hpa An and Kalaw, you’ll probably have to take two buses to get there. The easiest way to book buses is through your hotel/guesthouse or a travel agent – they’ll usually charge you a small commission, but it’s worth it to have someone who can communicate with the bus company and ensure your seat assignment.
Riding the train in Myanmar is always an experience. Sometimes, it’s a wonderful experience. Sometimes, it’s a terrifying one. For me, it was a little of both. The reason the trains are slightly nerve-wracking is because the rails are very old, some dating back to when the British occupied Myanmar! Trains don’t go very fast, which is good because some travelers have told horror stories about their trains derailing (yikes!). Nonetheless, if you want a unique local experience in Myanmar, train travel could be worth a try.
Trains are fairly frequent and run between many (but not all) of Myanmar’s major cities. Some of the most popular routes are Yangon to Mandalay, Yangon to Bagan, Yangon to Mawlamyine, or the opposite direction of any of these. There are also various classes in the trains, ranging from “luxury” sleeper cars with ensuite bathrooms to the wooden bench-clad ordinary classes, priced accordingly. The best way to buy a train ticket is to go directly to the station – but don’t make the same mistake I did; make sure you have the ticket for the class you want before you pay for it!
If you want the train experience but don’t want to be stuck on one for hours upon hours, the Circle Train in Yangon is a daily commuter train that makes its way into the surrounding countryside of the city and back into the center, taking a morning or afternoon to make the full circle. I didn’t take this, but I’ve heard from multiple travelers that it gives a worthwhile glimpse into local Burmese life.
Traveling between some Burmese cities is possible by boat. I would highly recommend this as it is a great way to see some of the riverside towns and nature that are inaccessible by road. My most pleasant intercity ride was on a boat, when I traveled between Mawlamyine and Hpa An, and I enjoyed every minute of the 5-6 hour journey. Organizing this is easy – just go to Breeze Guest House (a giant blue guest house) on Strand Road in Mawlamyine and ask for the boat to Hpa An. You can also do this in the opposite direction through most of the guesthouses in Hpa An. As of February 2015, the boats ran daily (as long as there were at least a handful of passengers) during the high season and cost $10 one way.
Another possible boat ride that is frequented by many travelers is the all-day journey from Bagan to Mandalay. I did not take this boat but it is a popular option for those who want to experience the intercity boat ride but don’t take the Mawlamyine-Hpa An route. When I asked around about the price for this boat, I was quoted $35 by multiple agents for the 11-hour journey, which leaves around 7 in the morning and arrives at dinnertime in Mandalay. It’s a little pricey for budget travelers but if boats are your thing, you might want to give this one a try.
*I do not condone the motorbike option – I saw too many people get injured by motorbikes all throughout Southeast Asia. I’m listing it here because it is an option, but please proceed with caution.*
In many cities like Hpa An it is possible to rent a motorbike and embark on a do-it-yourself journey. This is usually fairly inexpensive and can enable you to go to sights at your own pace. It’s pretty dangerous because drivers in Myanmar don’t really seem to follow many road rules and the roads are somewhat poorly maintained in many rural areas.
In Bagan, however, there are ebikes (electronic bikes) for rent and these are really awesome! I rented one for $5 a day and it’s like a motorbike except it’s run by battery and doesn’t go as fast (basically just the speed of a regular bicycle). I recommend this option for seeing Bagan as it’s relatively safe and slow, but also a fast and easy way to see the sprawling temple area of Bagan.
Taxis in Myanmar are the cheapest I have seen in Southeast Asia, with most short rides costing less than $5 or 5,000 kyat. Tuk-tuks are often even cheaper. In Myanmar no taxis that I saw have meters, so you have to negotiate with the driver before entering the vehicle. Usually they are willing to bargain, especially if you are polite. Motorbike taxis are also available in most cities except for Yangon (where motorcycles are illegal), and these are usually $1-2 at the most if you’re willing to ride on the back.
Getting around Myanmar can be confusing at first, and can sometimes be time-consuming, but it’s worth it to see the beautiful gems this country has to offer. Most of the time your hotel reception can be a fantastic resource for booking tickets and asking for advice, so definitely reach out to them if you have any concerns. I was glad I had a variety of experiences traveling through Myanmar, so I would recommend trying a few different methods of transportation to get a diverse feel for what the Burmese lifestyle is like!