Myanmar remains one of the least travelled countries in SE Asia and yet for us, it was the highlight of our whole trip. The most popular places to visit are the cities of Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay, and the historic cultural areas of Bagan and Lake Inle. Deciding on an itinerary and the logistics of how you get to these places can be a little tricky and will depend on how much time you have available and, of course, your budget.
When we were researching our trip to Myanmar, despite the fact that tourists have only been allowed in since around 2012, we found a fair number of blog posts and helpful advice that previous visitors had written online. Unfortunately, but inevitably given that we live in rapidly changing times, much of this advice was out dated. For example, it’s not necessary to bring pristine US dollar notes anymore since it’s straightforward to withdraw local currency (Kyats) from the widely available ATMs.
This blog post details how we got from Yangon to Inle lake on our visit in November 2018, which will hopefully help you planning your own trip to Myanmar.
Travel options in Myanmar
If you’re looking at doing a trip to Myanmar (Burma) then you will most likely be arriving by plane into either Yangon (Rangoon) airport in the south, or Mandalay to the north.
We flew into Yangon from Kuala Lumpur because it was cheaper than the flight to Manderlay, but either way, if you want to experience the highlights of Myanmar, you’re going to need to cover some serious ground with only a few options with how to do it.
Options for getting from Yangon to Inle Lake
If you are on a tight time table and/or can afford it, the fastest way to get between Yangon and Lake Inle is to fly. We looked at the price of these internal flights while we were there and they were approximately £80 per person. There are several internal airlines offering this service and daily flights. If you go for this option, remember to factor in that you need to get to Yangon airport, which is to the north of the city and can take over an hour to get to from down town with traffic. You’ll be flying into Heho airport which is also an hour away from lake Inle.
Whilst there are trains they are not recommended by locals or by any of the travel blogs we researched. They actually take longer than the buses!
The most common way to traverse Myanmar and the route we decided to go is by bus. There are many bus operators available and we found that all the hotels we stayed in were happy to help us arrange tickets and provide advice.
After weighing up the pros and cons, we booked the overnight VIP bus with JJ Express
JJ Express offer one of the best rated, safest and most comfortable bus options and the night bus meant that we could maximise our time in both Yangon and Inle Lake and save money on one nights accommodation.
We booked and paid for our tickets using their website which was easy to do and meant we could pay on credit card. The tickets were $19 USD each for the advertised 10 hour drive.
We took a Grab (Uber) from our hotel to Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station, which is close to the airport and NOT in the city centre. We were advised to arrive around 5pm ready for departure at 6pm.
The bus station is chaotic and not the most modern. It’s spread out over quite a large area so make sure to ask for the company you’re travelling with to get to the correct office. JJ Expresses was basically on a narrow street with huge coaches trying to get past street vendors, travellers, locals and staff.
We checked in at the desk and were given stickers to wear so the staff could make sure we got on the right bus. There are basic toilet facilities available at the station, important since the buses don’t have loos onboard.
The bus arrived on time and we were able to stow our 40 litre backpacks in the hold and keep our day bags with all valuables with us onboard. The VIP bus has a 1-2 layout inside, meaning that that one side has single seats and the other has two so there’s plenty of room, comparable to premium economy seats on a plane.
The seats recline, there’s screens in the head rests if you want to watch movies, blankets provided and air con (see below!) There are also UK plug sockets onboard for if you prefer to play on your laptop or charge your phone. There isn’t WIFI but we bought an inexpensive SIM card from the airport (£10 for 20GB) and hot-spotted off that no problem for most of the journey.
Reassuringly, there are two drivers and an English speaking hostess, who did a nice job of looking after us. She came round as soon as we departed with a small snack box (cake and a sandwich) bottle of water and generally made sure everyone was back on board after each stop.
In reality, the journey took 12 hours. We stopped 3 times at services, the first of which was modern and had decent toilets, a KFC and coffee shop. The second two services were more ‘rustic’ as we left the main road and headed into the Shan hills. By that I mean that there were only squat toilets and few food options.
While the bus itself was comfortable, the roads in Myanmar are really quite bad and the route to Lake Inle goes through the mountains, so expect a bumpy ride. If you suffer from travel sickness, dose up! Otherwise I wouldn’t recommend taking the bus.
Tips for surviving the overnight bus from Yangon to Inle Lake:
Take warm clothes. The air con is strong and the temperatures drop the further north you go, when we arrived in Lake Inle at 6am, we could see our breath.
Snacks and drinks. The snacks provided will not see you through the trip and you may not want to risk eating the local food at the services.
Bathroom essentials. Take loo roll, soap, hand sanitiser etc. We always travel with a little pack of bathroom essentials and on this trip most of the toilets had water and nothing else. Best to be prepared.
Ear plugs/eye masks etc if you need to for sleeping. You do get a blanket but I was glad I also had my wrap later on in the night.
A sense of humour and/or adventure!
Finally, something we weren’t expecting as we arrived into Lake Inle. A man came on board at 5am and demanded everyone pay the 15000 MMK (£7.50) park fee. So make sure you have enough cash on you to pay this and keep the ticket to be able to show if asked. We never were however.
I hope this helps you planning your own trip around Myanmar. We can’t recommend this country enough if you’re looking for an authentic and less tourist tired south east Asia experience. Seriously, book now and beat the crowds!
Do feel free to ask us any questions in the comments section and we’ll do our best to help.