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The comprehensive Myanmar (Burma) travel website

From idyllic beaches on the Bay of Bengal to the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan north, Myanmar offers a wealth of scenic beauty, ancient religious monuments, bustling cities and fascinating festivals. A country rich in history and Buddhist tradition, it is also filled with warm, friendly people from an amazing variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

But Myanmar is also a fast-changing country unlike anywhere else on earth: many of the facilities and creature comforts you are used to may be difficult to find; there are ethical and political issues to consider; and it can sometimes be a confusing – even disorientating – place to navigate.

Whatever your budget and personal interests, this comprehensive and continually updated website is here to simplify the preparation for your trip, to guide you to the most stunning locations, and help you find the best places to stay. Go-Myanmar.com also offers online domestic travel booking (air, bus, train, boat and car hire) and a variety of tour packages which can be tailored to your own needs.

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Latest Myanmar travel stories
‘Top Gear’ in Myanmar – myth or reality?

The BBC’s hugely popular tv show Top Gear regularly does ‘country specials’ – adventures where the cantankerous middle-aged (yet frequently juvenile) hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May go on an epic road trip through a far-off and exotic land. The last few weeks have seen Myanmar get the Top Gear treatment, and in many ways the country was ripe for it, making for an entertaining ride.

But given the show’s customary use of dramatic license, how much of the ‘Burma Special’ felt real to people who know the country? [Click on the links to find out more about the places they went to and the issues covered]

The Naming Myth

In the opening studio segment, Clarkson says that the BBC call the country Myanmar but ‘everybody else calls it Burma’. The naming is a complex issue, but in fact the BBC has been pretty slow in getting round to calling it Myanmar; the country’s name was changed in 1989, and the BBC have only just started to call it that. The New York Times and The Economist, for examp . . . .

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The BBC’s hugely popular tv show Top Gear regularly does ‘country specials’ – adventures where the cantankerous middle-aged (yet frequently juvenile) hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May go on an epic road trip through a far-off and exotic land. The last few weeks have seen Myanmar get the Top Gear treatment, and in many ways the country was ripe for it, making for an entertaining ride.

But given the show’s customary use of dramatic license, how much of the ‘Burma Special’ felt real to people who know the country? [Click on the links to find out more about the places they went to and the issues covered]

The Naming Myth

In the opening studio segment, Clarkson says that the BBC call the country Myanmar but ‘everybody else calls it Burma’. The naming is a complex issue, but in fact the BBC has been pretty slow in getting round to calling it Myanmar; the country’s name was changed in 1989, and the BBC have only just started to call it that. The New York Times and The Economist, for example, changed to using Myanmar years ago. And, more importantly, virtually everyone in the country itself uses the name Myanmar.

The Journey Begins

The team pick up their trucks and begin their journey in People’s Park in Yangon, with the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda in the background and, after some messing around downtown, they make their way to the Allied War Memorial. Located at 9 Mile on Pyay Road about an hour north of central Yangon, it is worthwhile visiting this huge and beautifully maintained graveyard, with many hundreds of tombstones soberingly marked ‘A Soldier of the War’.

As they bumble along, Clarkson soon raises the issue of most cars having the steering wheel on the right, but also weirdly driving on the right, and this is absolutely correct. Probably 95% of the vehicles in Myanmar have the steering wheel on the wrong side, and the reasoning he gives (being due to the absurd vagaries of the old military regime) is also true.

But although Clarkson professes to have no idea why it continues to be the case that people buy these cars, the answer is in fact simple: virtually all of them are second hand imports from Japan, which has right-hand drive and has had long-term trade deals with Myanmar, and locals believe they are better cared for and better built than the alternative (that is to say, China).

Whilst perhaps exaggerating the chaos of Yangon traffic (it is if anything a bit better than most large cities in developing countries), Top Gear hits the nail on the head about night time driving in Myanmar. It is scary, extremely tiring and often fatal (for local pedestrians and two-wheel traffic, rather than foreigners).

In general, the quality of roads in Myanmar have improved over the last few years, and those between major towns are usually ok – although the Yangon-Naypyidaw-Mandalay expressway, which the team drive on, has serious safety concerns and smaller roads can indeed be very rough and sometimes impassable in the rainy season.

Accommodation, Top Gear-style

As portrayed, the small-town accommodation situation is utterly squalid; this is (unsurprisingly) an exaggeration, and you can find decent (if overpriced) hotels and guest houses in most places that tourists find themselves. However, facilities can be very simple in remote areas such as Chin and Kachin states.

The team are perhaps justified, however, in moaning about the noise they were subjected to during the night; after their first overnight stop, Clarkson, Hammond and May genuinely look as if they have had little sleep. In the very early morning, in particular, you are liable to be assaulted by any number of noises, whether it be machinery, howling dogs, or religious chanting (rarely as beautiful or melodic as you might hope).

Naypyidaw and eastwards – or is it northwards?

Carved out of the middle of Myanmar’s huge and empty ‘dry zone’ in 2005, the new capital Naypyidaw is a genuinely odd place. It is vast – all the government ministries are many kilometres apart from one another, with little but scrub in between. And, yes, all those massive multi-lane roads lie totally empty most of the time, just as you see in the show. But you cannot actually stay at a ‘hovel’ in Naypyidaw, as Top Gear purport to do; as a foreigner you are in fact only allowed to stay in the designated ‘hotel zones’, which are large and generally boring, but up to standard.

Heading north and east from Naypyidaw, the route they take becomes somewhat confused, having been edited purely for entertainment rather than in the interests of clarity for potential visitors to Myanmar. They visit a ‘strangely odd but comfortable Bournemouth hotel’, which is likely in the relaxing colonial-era hill station of Pyin U Lwin, which has many buildings of that style. And the beautiful lakeside spot at which they camp for the night is at Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist destinations. There are certainly no shortage of lovely hotels here, which is a good job as camping is in fact illegal in Myanmar.

The foreboding Shan State

A very big deal is made about the rebels in Shan State (or ‘The Shan’ as Clarkson calls it), and being the first tv crew to film there. But there are in fact many rebel ethnic armies in the border areas all around Myanmar, and Shan State is just one of them. As things currently stand, the only active fighting is in a small part of Kachin State, but there are also ethnic rebel factions in Karen and Mon states, amongst others. But Shan State is the largest (with many different rebel ethnic groups within it).

Many parts of Shan State are totally safe and accessible without a permit, including the aforementioned Inle Lake, as well as the picturesque trekking meccas of Kalaw, Pindaya and (in northern Shan State) Hsipaw. Clarkson announces that they are ‘entering The Shan’ when they arrive at Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, but this place is in fact already many kilometres inside Shan State and can be accessed freely (and is worth a visit, particularly during its spectacular hot air balloon festival in November).

The route Top Gear took from here, heading east to Kengtung and the Thai border point at Tachileik is, however, largely out of bounds, just as they claim – and its scenic beauty has rarely been filmed (it can be possible to get a permit to travel here, but it is certainly not straightforward). And when they assert that there is ‘no electricity, no mobile phone signal, no tv, no hotels’ in this part of Myanmar, it is not far from the truth – and that can be applied to many remote parts of the country.

They are also accurate in their portrayal of the a big army presence in these border areas and that most people building roads appear to be women and young children; child labour, including in the military, is a big issue that Myanmar faces as it opens up.

Coming to the end of the journey

After many years of only being able to travel to Myanmar by air, it is now possible for foreigners with a valid visa to travel to Myanmar over land at certain points, and one of those is the Tachileik-Mae Sai border point at which the Top Gear team leave to build their bridge in Thailand.

So, Top Gear came to Myanmar and in many ways produced a show that, in its sometimes crass and inaccurate but often amusing way, in some ways reflects the kind of experience that you can have as a traveller in Myanmar right now. It is a country of great scenic beauty where you can witness extraordinary cultural richness and a fair few absurdities. Despite the show’s faults (many of which were to be expected), it can be lauded for that.

A note on driving in Myanmar

If you like the idea of a Burmese road trip, bear in mind that self-drive car hire is not currently possible and permits to drive cars into the country (from Thailand, India or China) can be difficult to obtain and are expensive. However, self-drive motorbike hire is possible – check individual destinations for more details.

The Top Gear Burma Special can be found in two parts on BBC iPlayer (UK users only, for a limited period).

Marcus Allender – founder, Go-Myanmar.com. 20th March, 2014

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Feel the ‘shwe’ – Myanmar’s golden pagoda highlights

In Myanmar, “shwe” means gold and you don’t have to be here long to see that the country really lives up to its reputation as the “Golden Land”. The landscape of Myanmar is dotted with pagodas and stupas that are sure to dazzle you, but with so many around, choosing which ones to visit can be a challenge. To help you on your journey of discovery, here is a selection of a few that you should definitely take the time to see.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

You can’t visit Myanmar without going to its most sacred religious site, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Believed to be the oldest pagoda of its kind in the world, it measures a staggering 99 metres and can be seen from miles away. It’s not only these stats that make it important, but that it co . . . .

Read More
In Myanmar, “shwe” means gold and you don’t have to be here long to see that the country really lives up to its reputation as the “Golden Land”. The landscape of Myanmar is dotted with pagodas and stupas that are sure to dazzle you, but with so many around, choosing which ones to visit can be a challenge. To help you on your journey of discovery, here is a selection of a few that you should definitely take the time to see.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

You can’t visit Myanmar without going to its most sacred religious site, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Believed to be the oldest pagoda of its kind in the world, it measures a staggering 99 metres and can be seen from miles away. It’s not only these stats that make it important, but that it contains relics from four buddhas. As tourism has taken off in Myanmar, the number of visitors to the pagoda has dramatically increased and all through the day there’s a steady flow of pilgrims, monks and foreign tourists circling its base. However, the most popular time to visit is at sunset. As the sun dips the pagoda is illuminated, creating a stunning impact against the dark night sky.

Shwezigon Pagoda, Nyaung U (Bagan)

The archeological site of Bagan is literally flooded with stunning temples to visit. Many have become charming crumbling ruins after centuries of neglect. However, there is one that has managed to keep its gleam. The Shwezigon Pagoda, which overlooks the Ayeyarwaddy River, is the only pagoda in the Bagan area to be covered from top to bottom in gold leaf. Its location, on the edge of the Nyaung U township, makes it a great place to start your tour around Bagan. As you enter, you will find the covered walkway lined with stalls selling souvenirs and buddhist paraphernalia. Considered by many Buddhists as one of the most important temples in Bagan, its definitely worth a visit.

Shwesandaw Pagoda, Pyay

Pyay is a city that is not very well known as a tourist destination. However, located at the crossroads of two main highways, many travellers find themselves here mid-journey. If this happens to you, make sure you spare a few hours to visit the Shwesandaw Pagoda (not to be confused with the temple of the same name in Bagan).

Having taken the lift up to the top of the hill, you are greeted by one of the most majestic pagodas in the region. It also benefits from great views of the city and the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) river, enveloped in the lush green vegetation of the jungle-like surroundings. To one side there is an enormous and eye catching statue of a sitting Buddha, who appears to be watching over the temple. There is also a small, but interesting, collection of photos showing the pagoda through the years.

You’re sure to come across very many temples as you travel around Myanmar. Each has its own story and unique features. This is a selection of a few of the temples in Myanmar that stand out from the crowd, but there are many more that deserve a visit. So get ready to discover “The Golden Land”.

Carin Cowell – 18th February 2014

Carin Cowell is an independent online marketing and tourism consultant. Find out more here.

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Wednesday 30 July


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