Since I use the forum to plan my trip and get very helpful information, I wanted to share my trip report and hopefully provide the latest details on prices and other various logistics in Myanmar as of January 2013.
I flew in for 2 weeks over Christmas and NYE to meet up with 2 friends, all female backpackers traveling on a budget.
I absolutely loved the country. Everything still feels unspoiled unlike some of the neighboring places. The local people are some of the nicest people I've met around the world. I found them typically very genuinely friendly to tourists and rarely quoting higher prices than normal. Most people are extremely friendly.
I liked every single place we visited. I was hesitant about Chaungtha Beach at first reading reviews saying the water is muddy and it's full of mostly locals. However, we found it very pleasant and especially fun for NYE when locals came out on the beach with huge speakers, playing music, shooting fireworks, making fires, and dancing. We weren't sure where to spend NYE in Myanmar given general lack of nightlife in most places, but felt we made a good choice in the end. We found the water fine and the atmosphere good for what we were looking for as single female backpackers.
The downside is probably the food. It's relatively difficult to find what I would call a "good" meal. Most stuff is barely edible and some is ok. We also missed simple things like cheese and chocolate, but I would say it's worth it for a few weeks given the experience you get in the country otherwise. Shan cuisine was probably best when it comes to local options.
I flew to meet my friends in Bagan to start our trip. I arrived in Bangkok and had 1.5 hours to change to my separately purchased flights on Myanmar International Airways. It ended up being super easy at BKK as you can go through the Transit area to check in (I didn't check any bags on purpose) as long as you bring a printout of your itinerary. So I was off the Japan Airlines plane and had my MIA boarding pass in less than 10 minutes.
I also had a flight to Bagan booked via Asian Wings from Yangon and had about 2 hours for that transfer. The MIA flight was 40 mins late, so I had to ask a staff person at immigration to take me to front so I could skip the line and make the connection. They had no problem doing it. FYI that you also have to walk about 0.5km from the int'l terminal t the domestic terminal down the road outside.
Now on to some logistics.
- I had a relatively difficult time finding a travel agent who was responsive enough over email to book 2 domestic flights within Myanmar. Most didn't respond at all since many flights were sold out and they didn't want to bother with just a couple tickets during this busy Christmas/NYE period. The only one that was consistently responsive and was willing to put us on waitlists for flights that we wanted was Radiant Travel and Tours in Yangon (firstname.lastname@example.org). For that reason, I would highly recommend them. They got us everything without issues and were patient. They also had someone meet me at the airport so I could pick up the tickets, pay and get on my next flight.
We also had a similarly difficult time booking guesthouses, especially since we were looking for budget places. Many didn't have emails and it is impossible to call Myanmar via Skype. In the end, we ended up staying at the following. I left reviews for all of them on TripAdvisor.
Bagan - Pyinsa Rupa Guesthouse in Nyang U. $30 for a triple room with private bathroom and breakfast. Wouldn't recommend it unless there is nothing else available. Ok, but can be cleaner, wifi doesn't work, hot water is rare. We weren't able to find a budget place that pre-booked and had space, so my friends found this room once in town by walking around and checking out different places.
Inle Lake - Joy Hotel in Nyaungshwe. $36 for a triple room with private bathroom, mini fridge and TV (only 2 channels). Were easy to book by email. Good location, super helpful staff, good balcony for breakfast. Overall a pleasant budget stay and would recommend it.
Chaungtha Beach - Hill Garden Hotel. $36 for bungalow with extra bed for 3 people total and private bathroom. Amazing new place owned by Belgians - a sister hotel to Shwe Hin Tha. Located about 1.5km up the road, so need a bike to get to the main strip, but definitely worth it. There are just 9 bungalows set in a beautiful setting in a garden. The staff is amazing. Breakfast is included and even has the option of a banana pancake and not just your typical egg. WiFi is free at the sister hotel on the main strip. http://hillgardenhotel.com/
Yangon - ended up staying at Sunflower Inn near the train station by walking in. $23 for a double room with shared bath ($28 with private bath). Wouldn't recommend it if you have other options. Good location walking distance to most things, but smelly stuffy rooms and non-Western toilets in shared bathrooms. Free wifi at reception, but sometimes doesn't work well.
- Flight Yangon to Bagan on Asian Wings via Radiant Tours - $130
- Air Con bus Bagan to Inle Lake - 9,000 kyat (shops by the Eden Hotel offer this cheaper rate), 9 hours
- Heho to Yangon flight on Air Bagan via Radiant Tours - $130, flight delayed by 4 hours almost preventing us from getting to Chaungtha Beach for NYE. Taxi from Nyaungshwe to Heho 15,000 kyat
- Taxi Yangon airport to bus station to Pathein - 9,000 kyat
- Bus Yangon to Pathein - 8,000 kyat, took exactly 3 hours (very fast)
- Pickup taxi from Pathein bus station to Chaungtha Beach - 45,000 (we arrived too late to catch the bus due to the delayed flight)
- Asia Dragon bus from Chaungtha Beach to the center of Yangon - 8,000 kyat, 6 hrs. Leaves Chaungtha at 9:30am every day
- Taxi from center of Yangon to the airport - 5,000 kyat
Recommendations by city:
- Nyang U has the most budget places and restaurants concentrated in a walkable area. We liked staying here. Bike rentals are 1500 kyat per day and it takes about 20 minutes to bike to the main temples.
- My favorite temple was Sulamani. Lots of well-preserved carvings inside.
- Best Western food is probably at Black Bamboo and Weather Spoons ("best" doesn't mean good necessarily). We had great Shan food at a local place off the road past Old Bagan on the way to New Bagan.
- Cheri Land cafe has terrible coffee, but probably the best WiFi connection we found
- We liked staying in Nyaungshwe. There are lots of restaurants to choose from. Green Chilli Thai food was just ok. Best local food we found was at a small place across from the market. There are lots of good fruits and veggies at the market itself as well.
- Bike rentals are 1500 kyat per day.
- Would recommend biking about 45 mins to the Hot Springs. $8 gets you into the "private" pools area with lounge chairs, full bar, good views, 3 pools, and bathrooms with showers. Good place to tan in your bathing suit if you're interested in that since the "private" pools are mostly frequented by Western customers.
- Would recommend biking 3km to Red Mountain Winery for the sunset. They also have WiFi and good chocolate pancakes. We didn't try the food, but there is a full restaurant too. The wine tasting is only 2,000 kyat for 4 or 5 wines. It was better than we expected.
- We booked our boat trip to the floating villages through our hotel and it cost 18,000 kyat for the entire day which ended up taking 7 hours or so. You can also do it for 15,000 kyat if you don't go to the very last stop further out to see 1054 stupas (I'm on the fence on whether this is worthwhile, but we did it and didn't regret it). The trip is beautiful. Lots of National Geographic style photo opportunities.
- We really like this beach for NYE. It was the only truly happening place and day in the evening on our trip.
- We found the beaches ok. Not crystal clear water, but very clean with only minor waves, so good for swimming.
- We didn't find any amazing local food, however, we found William Restaurant to have very bad local and Western food. This place is in all the guidebooks and thus always has people who are I'm sure mostly disappointed. I would recommend to stay away from it.
- The best Western restaurant is by far the new Italian establishment called Pasta Fresca. It was only open for 9 days when we were there. It's run by a brother and sister who moved from Italy and the sister cooks everything herself. There is a daily menu on the board outside and they have Italian wines. If you're missing true Western food, make sure to come here for dinner. Come early as they sell out of stuff due to limited resources in the area. Very nice atmosphere for dinner with tables outside.
- We paid 13,000 kyat each for a day trip to Ngwe Saung Beach which takes about 1.5 hours. I would highly recommend it as you're mostly riding the motorbike along the beach. It's a beautiful ride and worth it just for that alone. The food at the Shwe Hin Tha hotel at this beach is decent. We didn't try others. The water was slightly nicer than at Chauntha, but I wouldn't say by much. There are bungalows you can stay in on the beach at Shwe Hin Tha. The town seemed more spread out than Chaungtha. You'd definitely want a bike to get around. The main downtown area feels a bit less developed than Chaungtha, but outside of it, there are concrete resorts as well.
- Really liked this city. Reminded me of some cities in India actually. It's not the cleanest or nicest looking, but has a good busy vibe.
- Shwedagon Pagoda is probably the most impressive one we've seen in all of Myanmar. Definitely do not skip it.
- This city actually has good coffee (didn't find any in the other places). Jade Lotus on the north side of the park had very good iced lattes though at Western prices.
- The food stalls around 19th Street are great. Lots of options of grilled meats and fruits. Would highly recommend going there for dinner one night. They are open after 5pm.
- 50th Street Bar is the only place we found in the country that felt like you stepped back into the Western world. The prices also reflect this. But if you're missing a pub and some serious Western food like lamb chops and mashed potatoes, may be worth a try. We didn't eat, but had good wine and good chocolate mousse dessert at Western prices. Sometimes, just gotta satisfy that craving :)
- Monsoon Restaurant is another interesting option for food. They have food from all SE Asian cultures and it was pretty decent. They also have a happy hour on drinks 5-7pm with 50% off, which is worthwhile. It's also good to get there at that time when it's almost empty. After 7pm, tons of tour groups arrive. All tables are pre-booked pretty much.
Hope this is helpful to anyone planning an upcoming trip. I'm happy to answer any specific questions.