why you should travel overland into myanmar if at all possible.

After an overly touristy 3 weeks in Thailand, I was so excited for Myanmar. Everyone talks about how off the beaten path it is, how different it is from the rest of Southeast Asia (which is basically overrun with partying backpackers), and how you just have to go soon before its “ruined.” I thought about flying into Yangon, but 5 months deep into traveling, I was a.) confident in my ability to navigate the potentially confusing and long journey, and b.) unwilling to pay a whopping $180 just for the sake of convenience. My journey began on a bus in Chiang Mai at 8:00am. I arrived in Mae Sot at around 3:30, took a taxi to the border, walked across, and rode with a taxi driver who was driving home to Hpa-An for the night, and a local girl we picked up in a village about 45 minutes into the journey. The sunset was unbelievably colorful as we wound through the bright green hills, spotted with small roadside huts and longyi-clad locals. I arrived at a Guesthouse that my taxi driver picked for me based on my only requirement of “cheap,” at around 8:00pm.

At one point I thought I might go from Chiang Mai all the way to Yangon in one go, and I am so glad I didn’t. The journey to Yangon was amazing in itself.

I spent the next day in Hpa-An with a motorcycle taxi I hired for the day. He took me on a full day tour of caves, temples, and swimming holes. Ya-The Bien and Sadan Caves go all the way through to amazing views, and after the long walk through Sadan you can pay for a small boat to take you back to the front (which is an experience in itself and so worth it!). Kaw Goon Cave isn’t spectacular, but there is a small pagoda you can hike up lots and lots of stairs to for great views. My driver also took me through several small villages, to a monastery for lunch (right by the Kyauk Ka Lat pagoda, which sits in the middle of a lake), and took me to see fabric being hand woven on old fashioned looms. I skipped climbing up Mount Zwegabin (a half-day activity at least, although many people even spend the night in the monastery at the top), but Lumbini park at its entrance is filled with over 1,100 Buddha statues and it’s a beautiful sight in itself. I was so glad I hired “Mr. John” (probably not his real name). I couldn’t have seen nearly as much on my own. Plus, aside from 3 other tourists in my guesthouse, he was the only person I met who spoke English.

After my long day in Hpa-An, I hopped on a bus to Kyaitko. The next morning I took a truck taxi (a pickup truck with benches in the back that they fill with people) up to Kyaikhteeyoe and the Golden Rock. The ride up to the rock was like a roller coaster. They crammed about 30 of us into the back of an open semi truck and sped up a winding mountain road for about 40 minutes, stopping at villages and monasteries along the way. Unfortunately by the time we got to the top the clouds had rolled in, so what was probably spectacular views below the seemingly floating gold rock was just grey. Still a fun day activity.

I took a 6 hour train from Kaitko to Yangon the following day, and enjoyed amazing views of people, animals, and villages propped upon stilts (to protect against flooding) out the window, and ladies selling all sorts of food from trays balanced on their heads inside the train. I arrived in Yangon just  in time for yet another amazing sunset.

As authentic as Myanmar feels compared with a lot of other countries, there’s still a definite “route” that most people take, and traveling overland forces you off of that, offering a bit of an (almost) local experience. It’s worth noting, however, that many of the border crossings into Myanmar are closed to tourists, and you do need to have your visa in your passport already, so make sure you do your research before heading to the border 🙂